Europe South Asia Asia Pacific Americas Middle East Africa BBC Homepage World Service Education

Front Page



UK Politics







Talking Point
On Air
Low Graphics

Thursday, December 10, 1998 Published at 14:09 GMT

Human rights in Indonesia: Exorcising the past

The military remain a firm and often violence influence

By Jakarta Correspondent Jonathan Head

Jonathan Head reports from Jakarta
Few countries are so closely associated with human rights abuses as Indonesia. For the past three decades the country has been ruled by a man who suppressed all opposition by force. Thousands were killed imprisoned, and tortured.

But Suharto's fall from power this year raised hopes for a more tolerant kind of government. For a while, it looked as though they had got one.

Within days of his appointment, Indonesia's new President, BJ Habibie, opened up the country's top security prison to journalists. For the first time we could meet the Suharto regime's most hardened opponents - men serving long sentences.

Digging up the past

[ image: Remains of Aceh's secret war]
Remains of Aceh's secret war
This was a powerful gesture by the government. Some prisoners were later freed - but others like East Timorese resistance leader Xanana Gusmao remain behind bars and that is a source of continued criticism by human rights groups.

The new openness also allowed Indonesians to dig into their past, with often grisly results. In the north Sumatran province of Aceh, for the first time we could witness the remains of those killed during the military's campaign against separatism being disinterred for proper burial.

Veil of fear

[ image: Jakarta's Black Friday]
Jakarta's Black Friday
Under Suharto, Aceh had been hidden behind a veil of fear and silence.

Even the army - once Suharto's instrument of repression - was showing a new face. Troops were pulled out of the disputed territory of East Timor to encourage a peaceful settlement there.

Indonesia still keeps a heavy military presence in the province, but it is giving the Timorese more freedom to express their views than at any time in the Suharto era.

Hopes dashed

[ image: Hopes for change dashed by a new crackdown]
Hopes for change dashed by a new crackdown
But last month any hopes that Indonesia's path to a more democratic future would be a peaceful one were dashed. The shaky coalition of soldiers, students and politicians that had helped sweep Mr Suharto from power in May broke down with tragic results.

It has been called Black Friday - the centre of Jakarta became a battlefield as the armed forces blocked students from marching to parliament. Suddenly it seemed that the old Indonesia was back again. Soldiers showed little restraint in dealing with their young adversaries.

Ten students died and hundreds were injured.

Mob violence

[ image: Ethnic Chinese targetted by mob violence]
Ethnic Chinese targetted by mob violence
The next day the wave of public anger over the violence erupted into mass rioting. Crowds targeted their favourite scapegoat, the ethnic Chinese. This time the troops stood back and did nothing as a lone Chinese shop owner was beaten and robbed.

With the security forces in disarray, further outbreaks of unrest seem unavoidable.

There is an undeniable sense of new freedom in Indonesia, which should have made the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights an occasion for rejoicing - but it has not.

The fear is still here - it is a fear of social disintegration and random violence that could prove every bit as destructive to the lives of ordinary people as the more organised repression that marked the Suharto regime.

Advanced options | Search tips

Back to top | BBC News Home | BBC Homepage |

Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia

Internet Links

KOMNAS - Indonesian National Committee on Human Rights

BBC News Online: Indonesia Special Report

BBC Indonesian Service

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites.

In this section

Violent century spurs debate on human rights

Our century's greatest achievement

Not without difficulties

Fast facts: The Declaration of Human Rights

Human rights in Indonesia: Exorcising the past