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The Legacy and Lessons of 1965

May 22, 2006

Bruce Van Voorhis - Hong Kong

Within a year, an estimated 500,000 to three million people lost their lives in Indonesia beginning in 1965. Thousands more were illegally detained and tortured. Few countries in Asia, and, indeed, the world, can claim such carnage in such a short period of time. The justification for this bloodshed and brutality was that the victims allegedly were Communists.

In the ensuring four decades, not one person has been brought to court for the death of any one of these hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people. Moreover, this crime against humanity has largely been forgotten. The failure to investigate, prosecute and try these cases in court in the mid-1960s when the atrocities happened provided the foundation for the impunity and widespread human rights abuses that this impunity engendered that have been a part of the national landscape of Indonesia ever since those violent days of 1965 and 1966.

The lack of justice in these cases has impacted the country in a variety of ways. First, while this yearlong incident took place long ago, for the families of those who died and the survivors of this turbulent era, its effects have resonated over time as they are continuously reminded, even today, of their inferior status in Indonesian society, discrimination that is described in the articles in this issue of Human Rights SOLIDARITY by Rossie Indira and Fabian Junge.

They were not the only victims though; for through this wave of death and devastation of lives, Gen. Suharto was catapulted to power and became President Suharto, inaugurating with violence a political and legal system that has been maintained with violence for the past four decades from which the whole nation has suffered and continues to suffer. Impunity, as noted earlier, corruption and the influence of the military in the political life of the country are the hallmarks of this system, a system that has been diluted since the downfall of Suharto in 1998 but not dismantled. The incomplete resolution of the fatal poisoning of human rights activist Munir Said Thalib in 2004 makes this clear as highlighted in the interview by Norman Voss with Munir’s wife Suciwati.

A political and legal system with a reputation for impunity and corruption that habitually assaults and detains its people unjustly is not unique to Indonesia though. Similar systems are found elsewhere in Asia. Laws, in fact, are enacted to make state-sponsored violence legal. While Asia’s people fought for their independence from European and American colonialism, they, in essence, oftentimes traded in oppression by foreign powers for oppression by national elites. Even colonial-era laws that nationalists railed against as being repressive, they then largely adopted when they came to power after independence. The Internal Security Act (ISA) in Malaysia and Singapore come quickly to mind in this regard.

The message for Asia’s human rights activists in the example provided by post-1965 Indonesia, and by far too many other countries in the region, is that people’s human rights must not only be defended but that systems that perpetuate their denial must be transformed. Without deconstructing the systems that have been constructed to subvert people’s rights, there is little hope for the improvement of human rights in the long term. The necessary appeal for urgent action today will endlessly need repeating in the future. Only the names and description of the incidents will change. The pattern of abuse and underlying reasons for it will remain the same.

It is for these reasons that the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) launched a process to draft the Asian Charter on the Rule of Law in October 2005. The first consultation dedicated to discussing the contents of the new charter was held in Hong Kong in mid-February 2006. It was decided by the 24 participants from nine Asian countries that this first exchange of views on the charter should focus on the corruption of the judiciary and its control by the executive branch of government that is too frequently found in the region. A summary of the deliberations has been produced in the booklet Asia: Towards the Elimination of Corruption and Executive Control of the Judiciary that readers can access on the internet at

The legacy of Indonesia’s contempt for people’s lives and their rights in 1965 thus provides painful, but valuable, lessons, not just for the people of Indonesia, but also for others in Asia who may share a similar tragic history and human rights record: the violation of rights today can lead to the violation of rights tomorrow; injustice today can lead to injustice tomorrow. Political and legal systems that promote impunity and protect those who shamelessly abuse people’s lives and rights must be corrected. If not, the legacy of abuse will continue, and the lessons that the legacy offers will not lead to change.

Bruce Van Voorhis serves as missionary with the Asian Human Rights Commission located in Hong Kong. He serves as a writer and editor with the Commission.

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