Indonesia’s political exiles demand government set record straight

The mass killings in 1965 affected many Indonesians living overseas, but primarily those who received scholarships to study abroad from the then-Sukarno administration.

Nur Janti

Nur Janti

The Jakarta Post


President Joko Widodo, accompanied by members of the Nonjudicial Resolution Team for Past Serious Human Rights Violations (PPHAM), expresses his regret over 12 gross human rights violations in the past in his speech at the Presidential Palace on Jan. 11, 2023.(Press and media bureau of the Presidential Secretariat/Mukhlis)

January 27, 2023

JAKARTA – All of a sudden, her potent activist voice, which she had used to defend those without one for nearly a decade, gave way to sobbed silence.

Sri Ningsih, 77, seemed to struggle when asked how she ended up living abroad so many years ago.

After a few minutes of slowly regaining her composure, she recounted how her peers had pulled away after learning that the government revoked her passport as she was studying in Eastern Europe.

Keeping the details of the incident close to her chest, the ex-Indonesian citizen only dared to mention that her life took a turn for the worst until arriving in Germany in 1973.

Ningsih was one among countless Indonesians overseas who became stateless due to their links, or alleged links, to the putsch of the Sept. 30, 1965 movement, which the state used as a pretext for a bloody communist purge.

“In the past, we were called traitors to the nation, people who did not love their homeland and rebels,” Ningsih told The Jakarta Post in a phone interview on Monday.

Without any formal recognition from her homeland, she made her way through Europe and eventually settled in the small town of Aachen to raise her family.

Germany granted her citizenship in 1991. She joined the International People’s Tribunal 1965 (IPT 65) group that advocates for the rights of the 1965 victims in 2014.

More than 50 years after the fact, she had firm words for the government, even after President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo acknowledged the gross human rights violations that had occurred throughout the nation’s history, including the 1965 massacre and exile of people like her.

“There is a gap between acknowledging and expressing regret. The truth must be set straight, which is important in resolving any gross human rights violations. And this is a must,” she said.

Tante Ning, as she is widely known in the Indonesian diaspora in Germany, appealed that the government reveal the truth before taking the non-judicial route.

Fortunate were the ones granted citizenship in the country they resided after the Indonesian government stripped their rights, she underlined. “Many are still stateless and can’t go anywhere,” she said.

Her list of demands extended to having the government clear the names of those it disenfranchised, while also stressing the importance of registering exiles, if only because many had died or were scattered around the globe after 1965.

The mass killings in 1965 affected many Indonesians living overseas, but primarily those who received scholarships to study abroad from the then-Sukarno administration.

They were unable to return to Indonesia and became effectively stateless after officials in embassies globally confiscated and ripped apart the passports of those who refused to acknowledge Soeharto’s New Order regime.

The power grab led to the collapse of the now-banned Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), once among the biggest in the world behind those of China and the Soviet Union.

There is no precise number of Indonesian political exiles overseas. Many of them may have died, while those still alive may have adopted foreign nationalities. As Indonesia does not recognize dual citizenship, many may have also voluntarily exiled themselves.

Truth over redress

The government now wants to meet political exiles, such as Java-born Ningsih, and offer to restore their citizenship rights.

Initial plans include setting up a multi-city trip for members of the Jokowi administration, so that ex-citizens could choose which places are most accessible to them. In Europe, for instance, the options are Geneva, Switzerland, the German capital of Berlin or Moscow, Russia.

“We will come to them and ensure their rights as citizens are still protected. If they want to go [back to Indonesia], we will accommodate them. If there are ‘material rights’ left unresolved, such as inheritance, we will help process it,” Coordinating Political, Legal and Security Affairs Minister Mahfud MD told the Post on Sunday.

Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi and Law and Human Rights Minister Yasonna Laoly would fly abroad to attend the meetings, Mahfud said, but he himself had not decided whether to join the trip.

The plan has raised valid questions among the intended audience, as many had hoped the government would disclose the truth before entering a nonjudicial settlement.

Nonjudicial measures entail rehabilitating the rights of the victims, while judicial means are meant to bring the perpetrators to court and allow the victim’s wounds and trauma to heal.

Sungkono, 84, who currently resides in the Dutch town of Amstelveen, questioned the government’s move because no perpetrators have been held accountable for the forced termination of his citizenship.

Sungkono was an awardee for a scholarship to study mechanical engineering in Moscow, then part of the Soviet Union, in 1962. “In the middle of 1966, our passports and citizenship were revoked,” he recounted.

Although he became stateless, Sungkono finished his studies at the end of 1967 and lived on the move until he went to the Netherlands in 1981 along with other students. Some of his friends moved to Cuba, Germany or other countries.

He too demanded that the state reveal the truth before taking the non-judicial route.

“My hope is that human rights violations must be resolved honestly and sincerely. [Any settlement] must hold humanity in esteem and not merely be a political solution. We will not accept it otherwise,” he told the Post.

Meanwhile, others like Ningsih questioned the relevance of restoring citizenship because many of the exiles were old or had passed away.

Bivitri Susanti, a constitutional law expert from the Jentera School of Law, said it was just as important for the government to clear the political exiles of any wrongdoing.

“So even if there is an effort [to meet with the exiled community], the government must not only guarantee their rights, but clearly state that they had never made any mistake,” Bivitri told the Post.

The decision to offer restored citizenship rights to the disenfranchised members of the Indonesian diaspora came about as a recommendation from a commission Jokowi ordered to investigate the violations last year.

On Jan. 11, the President made public acknowledgements and expressed regret on behalf of the state for a dozen instances of past human rights violations and pledged to provide restitution for victims and their families “without negating the judicial resolution.”

He has instructed members of his Cabinet to carry out the recommendations and have an oversight mechanism set up to ensure they are implemented properly. (tjs)

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