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The New Democracy

Learning about the past is difficult in Indonesia.

It wasn't until November 2000, two years after Suharto fell from power, that the film THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY was seen in Indonesia. The fictional film, made in 1980, had been banned for its depiction of the army's role in the massacre of some half a million members of the Communist Party that occurred in 1965 and 1966.

On January 5, 2002, the JAKARTA POST reported that the Indonesian government had drafted a bill creating a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The commission is intended to document human rights abuses committed under both the Sukarno and Suharto regimes, and to find a path toward national forgiveness and reconciliation.

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Video Clip

Communists are given no sympathy.

The model is the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated aparthied-era abuses and offered amnesty to those who confessed their crimes. The Indonesian commission will also offer amnesty, although a special set of courts will also be created to hear cases not addressed by the commission.

Groups like the Indonesian Institute for the Study of the 1965/1966 Massacre, recently founded by Ibu Sulami, have begun compiling information on the atrocities, interviewing witnesses and documenting the locations of mass graves.

In September 1998, Ibu Sulami traveled to central Java with an Australian TV crew to film the excavation of a mass burial. "We searched to a depth of one meter," she told Wiecher Hulst of Amnesty International. "Then we found the evidence: rubber sandals, utensils from the prison, cups. We dug further and we found skulls, broken teeth, feet, and hands. Out of fear of the police we stopped, but we took bones and utensils as evidence." When they later tried to rebury the victims in a public ceremony, they were stopped and threatened by local officials.

In November 2000, Sulami and the Indonesian Institute excavated another mass grave in Wonosobo in central Java, now uncovering 24 bodies. "The exhumation of these graves is the first step to provide legal proof that crimes against humanity were perpetuated in 1965 and 1966 by the Indonesian Military," Sulami explains on her group's Web site.

"Unlike Nazi Germany, Indonesia as a nation and as a people has not dealt with this wholesale state sanctioned slaughter. Our purpose in excavating these bodies is to facilitate a sense of justice among the victims' families. By facilitating this sense of justice through the restoration of historical truth we create the conditions necessary for national reconciliation. It may not be possible to determine how many millions were killed, but that's not necessary. A few thousand are enough."

Part of the difficulty in coming to terms with the past is that many of the political and military leaders who committed human rights abuses under Suharto's regime are still in positions of authority and power today. In August 2000, the parliament amended the constitution, adding a clause that elevates the principle of human rights, while also including language that absolves all past abusers from criminal prosecution.

"Unlike South Africa when apartheid ended," wrote Seth Mydans in THE NEW YORK TIMES on August 27, 2000, "Indonesia made no clean break with the past. There was no winning side in its struggle with history. Many of the abusers from the past are still powerful and many of the abuses continue today."

"When you open things up, what you get is only political revenge and political vendetta," Herman Sulistyo, the director of the Research Institute for Democracy and Peace, told Mydans. He doesn't believe that Indonesia is ready for reconciliation. "How can you reconcile with abusers," he asks, "when you still have the old machinery in power?"

Other human rights advocates argue that the commission should also look into human rights abuses that are taking place today in the communal fighting in Aceh, Sulawesi, and Irian Jaya, where separatist movements are active and thousands of people have been killed by government forces.


James Dunn, James. "Crimes Against Humanity Demand a Proper Airing." SYDNEY MORNING HERALD, August 13, 2001.

Indonesian Institute for the Study of the 1965/1966 Massacre. Press releases. December 13, 2000; March 4, 2001.

Mydans, Seth. "Indonesians Differ on Penalties for the Past." THE NEW YORK TIMES, August 27, 2000.

Nurbianto, Bambang. "Bill on Truth, Reconciliation Drafted." JAKARTA POST, January 5, 2002.

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Photo of exhumed remains

Exhuming the bones of those murdered by Suharto's death squads reveals details of their executions -- as evidenced by the bullet hole in the side of this skull.

Every scrap is examined for clues that might help identify the remains of the victims.
Photo of people examining remains
Photo of graves covered in flowers

The lucky few who are identified may later be properly buried by their family or friends, as depicted by the flower-covered grave, above.

"Then we found the evidence: rubber sandals, utensils from the prison, cups. We dug further and we found skulls, broken teeth, feet, and hands. Out of fear of the police we stopped, but we took bones and utensils as evidence."
Photo of a grave

Other graves poignantly reveal that many young lives were cut short by the events of September 30, 1965.

© 2002 Educational Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.

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