The International People's Tribunal in the Hague finds Indonesia guilty for a wide range of rights abuses during a communist pogrom in 1965-1966. (Antara Photo/Dhoni Setiawan)

Johannes Nugroho: Knee-Jerk Reactions to IPT 1965 Will Not Help Indonesia One Bit


NOVEMBER 13, 2015

Seeking to redress the injustice of the 1965-66 Indonesian Communist Purge which saw the deaths of an estimated 500,000 to 1,000,000 individuals, the International People’s Tribunal 1965 is held in The Hague this week.

The non-binding court has evidently touched a raw nerve within the Indonesian establishment -- so much so that it drew fire from political grandees such as Vice President Jusuf Kalla and Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal, and Security Affairs Luhut Panjaitan. They lampooned the event and yet their arguments are clearly based on logical fallacies.

While dismissing it as “irrelevant,” the vice president displayed great ignorance when answering questions from journalists on the subject. In a major breach of logical coherence, he argued it was inappropriate for the Netherlands as Indonesia’s former colonial master to host the event. To begin with, the tribunal was never the initiative of the Dutch government, a fact that effectively invalidates his charge. The tribunal was a collective effort by both international and Indonesian civil society activists to stage a “mock” trial in lieu of a real one long overdue in Indonesia.

More disturbingly, Kalla’s take on the issue found resonance with at least one academic, Hikmahanto Juwana, an international law professor from the University of Indonesia (UI), who said: “The Dutch government shouldn't use double standards. When we're talking about atrocities committed by the Indonesian government it is willing to allow an event [like IPT 1965] to take place, but it's not ready [to do the same thing] when it was the [Dutch] state and its soldiers who committed the acts of cruelty.”

The surreal part of both men’s reasoning is the assumption that the Dutch state has both the legal and moral directive to prevent a civil society event from taking place. In a liberal democracy like the Netherlands, the state is legally and traditionally bound to respect the right of its citizenry to hold lawful gatherings, even if to dissent from official government policies. So expecting the Dutch government to break up the tribunal is nothing short of ludicrous.

Essentially, in blaming the Dutch government, both men clearly failed to differentiate between the Dutch state and its civil society, both of which are part of the democratic system but by necessity remain separate.

In yet another moment of great irony for a government that professes to be against communism and all its derivatives, Jakarta’s stance on the 1965-66 purge of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) is one that Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin would have approved of.

The Indonesian government doggedly insists on a sanitized version of events which demonizes the victims of the bloodbath, tolerating no independence of thought and conscience, nor freedom of expression on the matter, by Indonesians and foreigners alike.

Indonesian nationals courageous enough to take part in the tribunal are inevitably stigmatized as traitors. Luhut in a recent interview with a BBC reporter said, “ Those Indonesians [involved in] the tribunal probably have very little else to do. We Indonesians know how to solve Indonesian problems [ourselves]. They may be Indonesians whose way of thinking is no longer Indonesian.”

A driving force behind the proceedings, noted human rights lawyer and sociologist Nursyahbani Katjasungkana even admitted being counseled by friends and colleagues to take suitable precaution for her own safety. Acclaimed historian Asvi Warman Adam in his statement as an expert witness at the tribunal even had to stress that far from wanting to denigrate Indonesia, he only wanted to rectify the nation’s historical record.

People within the Indonesian government, like Kalla and Luhut, forget or perhaps choose to ignore the fact that the Dutch government has never actively tried to suppress information about its own past human rights abuses in Indonesia. As recent as Oct. 16, the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant published newly discovered photos detailing atrocities committed by Dutch military forces in 1946 during Indonesia's War of Independence.

By allowing such damaging material to come forth, the Dutch government, unlike its Indonesian counterpart, shows that it is not allergic to criticisms of its past mistakes. Thankfully, the majority of Dutch people today don’t believe that the editorial staff and writers at De Volkskrant are traitors for washing the nation’s dirty laundry in full public view. Unlike Luhut, neither do their politicians condemn them for it, nor try to nanny-state them into thinking along certain lines.

So irrational is Indonesia’s paranoia with communism that local authorities in Yogyakarta recently confiscated 27 toys imported from China bearing Soviet flags and hammer-and-sickle insignia. It’s doubtful that most Indonesian children would have known what the symbols meant, had it not been for the diligence of the officers behind the exposure. Yet such ironies are often lost in the illogical stampede based on inculcated fear.

It remains unclear what the Indonesian government tries to achieve through its anti-colonial nationalist posturing, internal scaremongering and profound denial of historical facts concerning the 1965-66 genocide of communists, their sympathizers and those unfortunate enough to be caught in the witch hunt. If it expects international accolades, then the efforts are already a failure. If it only wants to delay the tragedy’s resolution, it might just succeed, yet at a great cost to Indonesia’s own standing in the civilized world.

Johannes Nugroho is a writer from Surabaya. He can be contacted at and on Twitter: