Significant progress has been made in relation to Indonesia’s democratisation over the past 20 years.
Nonetheless, a culture of impunity regarding historical human rights abuses persists in Indonesia and human rights violations continue to be perpetrated by the Indonesian government and security forces.
Positive developments in post-Suharto Indonesia
During Suharto’s New Order regime, some political parties were banned by the government, in part to prevent them from participating in elections and during elections.
Voter intimidation was used by the Indonesian army (the TNI) to pressure Indonesians to vote for Golkar (Suharto’s political vehicle).
During this period, the Indonesian parliament, which was responsible for electing the Indonesian president, was largely stacked with Suharto’s supporters and unsurprisingly re-elected Suharto six times.
Post-Suharto era Indonesia has had regular, competitive, free and fair elections, including direct presidential and vice-presidential elections, the first of which occurred in 2004.
During the Suharto regime, the government closed down media outlets that were critical of it. In contrast, post-1998, Indonesian media reports that are critical of the Indonesian government are regularly published.
Moreover, in 2017, Freedom House, an American non-government organisation which monitors human rights globally rated the press in Indonesia, the Philippines and Timor-Leste as “partly free” and rated the media in all other Southeast Asian states as unfree in 2017.
Challenges remain on the human rights front
Despite these positive developments in relation to press freedom, foreign journalists’ access to the Indonesian province of West Papua, where a pro-independence movement exists, remains restricted by Indonesian authorities.
Furthermore, a BBC journalist was expelled from West Papua this year for criticising the Indonesian government’s response to the current malnutrition crisis in the province on Twitter.
Indonesian and Papuan journalists are also at times harassed, intimidated and assaulted by Indonesian security forces.
Since West Papua’s annexation by Indonesia in 1963, the TNI and Indonesian police have repeatedly used force against Papuans at protests, resulting in the killings of Papuans, and detained and imprisoned pro-independence Papuans who participate in protests.
Notably, in 2013, Papuan Oktovianus Warnares was arrested for raising the Morning Star flag (the banned flag of the Papuan independence movement) and remains imprisoned.
The Indonesian army has also not been prosecuted over an alleged massacre in Biak in 1998, when the TNI, led by General Wiranto, were accused of raping, torturing and killing Papuan civilians who raised and guarded the Morning Star flag in West Papua. Given that General Wiranto currently serves as Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs it is highly unlikely that the Indonesian government will seek to combat this culture of impunity in relation to the Biak massacre in the foreseeable future.
Similarly, the TNI, religious organisations and vigilante groups have not been held to account for their involvement in the 1965-66 mass killings, imprisonments and sexual violence in Indonesia
The pretext for these human rights violations was the killing of seven army officers by the 30th September Movement, which the TNI incorrectly blamed on the Indonesian Communist Party (the PKI).
During 1965-66, at the orders of the anti-communist TNI, led by Suharto, members of religious organisations and vigilante groups armed by the TNI killed approximately 500,000 members of the PKI, individuals formally and informally associated with the PKI and alleged communists.
The military also directly participated in these killings.
During this period, the army imprisoned many individuals without trial and perpetrated sexual violence, including rape, predominantly against female prisoners.
In 2015, Indonesian president Joko Widodo asserted that he had “no thoughts about apologising” about the 1965-66 events.
Bans on Marxism-Leninism, PKI remain
The bans on Marxism-Leninism and the PKI introduced by the anti-communist Suharto regime remain in place in Indonesia.
In post-Suharto Indonesia, atheism continues to be associated with communism and public expressions of atheism are illegal.
The ongoing persecution of atheists is illustrated by the fact that in 2012, Alexander An received a two-and-a-half-year jail sentence for posting on Facebook the statement, “God does not exist.”
Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese population is also subjected to ongoing discrimination as a Suharto-era ban on Chinese Indonesians participating in the armed forces remains in place.
The death penalty, introduced during Dutch colonial rule in Indonesia, also continues to be used against locals and foreigners, particularly drug offenders, despite condemnation from local anti-death penalty campaigners and multiple states and the fact that the death penalty violates the right to life enshrined in international human rights law.
At a time of rising authoritarianism in south-east Asia, Indonesia must continue to democratise by addressing historical and contemporary human rights abuses, rather than retaining vestiges of authoritarianism.