Don’t expect too much from Jokowi’s regrets over past atrocities

Within his almost 10-year tenure, Jokowi has managed to build his political empire, which now includes his former political enemies from the military.


Jokowi regrets over past human rights abuses (JP/Hengky Setiawan)

January 18, 2023

JAKARTA – Just less than two weeks after issuing a controversial regulation to enforce the problematic jobs law that was deemed unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo made yet another headline by acknowledging and regretting 12 serious human rights violations that occurred in the past. 

The atrocities include the 1965 anti-communist purge backed by the military, which killed 500,000 people, the killings and abductions of the 1998 student protests and riots and acts of violence in Papua and Aceh. 

Jokowi is not the first president to issue this kind of statement. In 2000, Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid publicly apologized to the victims and families of the 1965 killings and ordered the restoration of their rights. In this case, Jokowi seems to have backtracked from the late Gus Dur because the public did not hear a single word of apology in his Jan. 11 statement.

Many have criticized the absence of mea culpa, but the United Nations still considers Jokowi’s statement “an encouraging move” toward the reconciliation and resolution of human rights abuses in the country. Some have lauded it as a progressive step to restore the rights of the victims and their families. However, human rights activists are more skeptical, believing the President’s statement is just a lip service, and demand more actions from him to end the decades-long impunity. 

Looking back at Jokowi’s track record in politics, I can only argue that his latest twist is another testament to him being a typical Indonesian politician, whose maneuvers are unexpected and whose words are difficult to hold. 

When Jokowi first ran for president in 2014, he promised to resolve all past grave human rights abuses in the country, a big promise that was effective to lure in voters, including me. Jokowi won the race in a too-close-to-call result. His naive background as a local businessman hailing from a small city in Central Java was indeed an advantage compared with his competitor, Prabowo Subianto, a retired military general who was implicated in several human rights crimes

But like a true politician, Jokowi forgot his promises to address past human rights abuses and ended his first presidential term with no progress whatsoever. Fast forward to his second term, almost 10 years later, his pledge to resolve the atrocities never materialized. 

And last week, when I heard his statement, I realized how Jokowi has evolved from being a new kid in Indonesia’s political scene with no allies in politics and the military into a seasoned politician with tricks up his sleeve to protect his image.

Had Jokowi not issued the statement, the public would have been convinced that Jokowi was just another failed politician. 

That is probably why he made this latest maneuver just less than two years before he steps down to avoid public shaming. Lest we forget, the move was also taken just weeks after Indonesia issued two unpopular regulations – the revised Criminal Code and an emergency law on job creation, which are considered a threat to human rights. Is that a coincidence? I don’t think so. 

Leaving a legacy before ending his second term is something that Jokowi as a national leader aspires to.

After efforts to build the country’s economy and its new capital seem to hang in the balance under the threats of global recession and his failed attempts to enter the global political scene by becoming a peace broker between Ukraine and Russia ahead of the Group of 20 Summit in Bali, Jokowi has played another card to prove that he is a leader who delivers his promises.

Even though, if we look at the time frame, settling the nation’s dark past is a herculean task. Jokowi is scheduled to leave office in October 2024. It means that he will have less than two years to ensure the resolutions of the past human rights abuses in the country materialize. As a starter, he will tour the country to meet survivors and families of the victims of the human rights violations.

Jokowi insists that the atrocities be settled through a nonjudicial mechanism. Even so, the path to the goal will be long and winding.

The recommendations from the nonjudicial settlement team for serious past human rights abuses comprise 10 steps, including data updates on victims, rights restoration and police and military structural reform to prevent the atrocities from recurring in the future. It is almost impossible to cross off the list, especially when the political stake is too high for Jokowi.

Within his almost 10-year tenure, Jokowi has managed to build his political empire, which now includes his former political enemies from the military. Realizing how strategic it is to hobnob with military figures within Indonesia’s politics, Jokowi has built a close alliance with high-ranking military officers, some of them becoming his ministers. Apart from nemesis-turned-subordinate Defense Minister Prabowo and Coordinating Maritime and Investment Affairs Minister Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, former Indonesian Military chief Hadi Tjahjanto sits in the Cabinet as the Agrarian Reform and Spatial Planning Minister to help Jokowi secure the capital relocation project. 

Being surrounded by military generals, Jokowi is likely to tread this issue carefully to avoid putting his good relationship with the military at risk. This probably is the reason why Jokowi left out the 1999 East Timor (now Timor-Leste) massacre from the list. The case is believed to implicate Prabowo, who has hinted at running for president for the third time in 2024. 

Despite the risks and challenges, the optimist in me still wants to believe that Jokowi has good intentions to walk the talk. If you are looking for a legacy, Mr. President, I believe being a human rights champion for Indonesia would be the perfect one as no Indonesian leaders have had the guts to do it.

And, what distinguishes a good leader from a bad one is that the former delivers promises. So, would you do it, Mr. President?


The writer is editor-in-chief of The Conversation Indonesia and a cofounder of Ingat65.

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