A people’s tribunal puts Indonesia on trial

Fifty years after mass killings in Indonesia, victims hold a people’s tribunal at The Hague.

Indonesia - Photo 2
Martono was in his 30s when soldiers from a special force of the Indonesian army broke into his house in Solo and detained him without explanation [Benjamin Duerr/Al Jazeera]

The Hague, Netherlands Martono might not remember what he had for lunch a few days ago, but he can describe in detail the events of November 10, 1965.

He was in his 30s when soldiers from a special force of the Indonesian army invaded his house in Solo, a town at the centre of the Indonesian island of Java. The soldiers wore dark uniforms and masks over their faces, “like ninjas”, Martono remembers. 

In just a few minutes, they overpowered him, bound his hands together and dragged him to a waiting car. He had no idea where he was taken, he recalls.

“Nobody has ever told me why I was arrested or imprisoned,” Martono told Al Jazeera in The Hague.

Martono was thrown into a prison cell.

Indonesia’s killing fields

In the days and weeks that followed, four guards would regularly enter the cell, seize him by his hands and feet and throw him like a ball against the walls and the low ceiling. Cracks emerged in the walls and in Martono. He lost all of his teeth.

Hear the people’s voice

Martono is about 81 now. He doesn’t know his exact age since births were not recorded properly when he was born.

Half a century after he was arrested, Martono climbed up the lithic staircase to the entrance of a hall a renaissance-era church building that became a temporary court room in November.

For one week the building in the centre of the Dutch city of The Hague was the seat of the International People’s Tribunal for Indonesia.

The symbolic court is investigating and prosecuting a forgotten mass murder which left nearly 500,000 people dead in the 1960s.

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Lawyers and activists have set up the People’s Tribunal – a hybrid truth commission created to establish a historical record, collect evidence against the perpetrators and give victims a voice.

Organised by the community of survivors and Indonesians in exile with support from human rights activists, the tribunal seeks to “break down the vicious cycle of denial, distortion, taboo and secrecy”.  

Remembering 1965

Fifty years ago, six generals of the Indonesian army were killed by a group calling itself the 30 September Movement. The background to and motives for these killings are controversial, but research indicates that key figures of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) were involved.

David Henley, a professor of contemporary Indonesia studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands, explained that “their motive was to head off an anticipated coup by rightist generals, or at least to shift the balance of power in Jakarta to the left in the face of a perceived threat from the armed forces to the position of the PKI”.

General Suharto, who later ruled the country as president from 1967 to 1998, assumed command of the army and accused the “communists” of being behind the 30 September Movement. “Communists” became an umbrella term for members of the PKI, alleged communists and suspected sympathisers, but also for anybody else perceived as opposing Suharto.

The army used the events to justify a crackdown on rivals.


In October 1965, the military launched a campaign against all those it had branded “communists”.

In the weeks and months that followed, around half a million people were detained, tortured, killed or disappeared. Soldiers and other armed groups went after those, like Martono, whom they considered enemies of the state.

Martono was most likely targeted because he openly supported Marxist ideas.

“No one knows how many people have been brutally and inhumanely killed,” said Todung Mulya Lubis, an Indonesian lawyer at the tribunal. The most common estimate places the number of deaths at 500,000 but Amnesty International says the true count could be as high as one million. 

RELATED: Lasting legacy of Suharto

The events of 1965 remain a highly sensitive issue in the country. “Anti-communism, along with developmentalism, was an ideological pillar of Suharto’s authoritarian New Order regime, which saw and styled itself as having saved the country from the menace of the radical left,” Henley explained.

“The murderers were part of an establishment which did not decry violence as such, and indeed based its own legitimacy on the allegedly necessary and purifying violence of 1965.”

The People’s Tribunal

Today impunity surrounds the events of autumn 1965. The Indonesian government prosecuted 34 people for gross human rights violations, which included the 1965 mass murders. Only 18 of them were actually convicted, however, and of these all were acquitted on appeal, Indonesian human rights group Tapol reported in 2012. 

“A chilling culture of silence has prevailed in Indonesia, where even discussing the killings of 50 years ago has been largely impossible for victims,” Amnesty International stated in 2015.

Lawyers and activists want to change this fact through the People’s Tribunal. As the tribunal wasn’t set up by an international treaty or by the UN Security Council, its decisions are not legally binding. Its aim, instead, is to use the law to draw attention to a much-ignored part of Indonesian history.

And, instead of charging individuals, the tribunal has put the entire Indonesian state on trial.

The prosecutors allege that in the months after October 1965 crimes against humanity were committed, among them murder, torture and enslavement. Many were held for several years in camps where they were forced to work.

Censorship returns to Indonesia

Even though the crimes were committed by individuals, in accordance with International Law Commission case law a state can be held responsible under the principle of state responsibility for facilitating and aiding and abetting the commitment of an internationally wrongful act, such as those that constitute crimes against humanity. 

The United States, the United Kingdom and Australia have also been charged with complicity in these crimes in the People’s Tribunal. According to the indictment, “several Western countries … provided small arms, radio communications, money and even lists of people they would like to see eliminated”.

The Indonesian state, which is the main player accused before the tribunal, did not participate in the proceedings which ended in November, and the Indonesian embassy in The Hague did not react to a request for comment.

The panel of judges, made up of lawyers, political scientists and human rights experts from South Africa, Iran, the UK, France and other states, is currently deliberating on the case. They hope to present their final report and judgement to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva in 2016.

‘Five times I almost died’

The People’s Tribunal is filling the space where the Indonesian government has failed to act. The democratic transformation of 1998 left much of the old elite in place, Henley said. Hence there was a reluctance to talk about the events or to punish those responsible.

Censorship and crackdowns have continued through the years. Authorities have targeted activists daring to speak about the past by blocking eventspublications, and media covering these events.  

“The censorship … is part of a broader crackdown in recent months,” says film-maker Joshua Oppenheimer, whose documentary about the killings, “The Look of Silence”, was not shown at this year’s Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali following pressure from the Indonesian authorities.

OPINION: ‘The Act of Killing’ and the consequences of forgetting

Oppenheimer told Al Jazeera the crackdown was led by the army. He believes, some of the alleged perpetrators of 1965 still exert influence in the military, but that “many parliamentarians are business partners of military people, so nobody has an interest in investigations of the past or in prosecutions”.

The Indonesian lawyer who acted as a prosecutor in The Hague agrees with him. “We don’t know what will happen to us when we return home,” said Lubis. Communist sympathisers or those who speak openly about the killings are threatened and “regarded as traitors of the nation”, he added.

But Martono is not afraid. “Five times I have almost died,” he said of the torture he endured. What more should he be afraid of, he asked.

When Martono took the stand as a witness on the first day of the tribunal, he told the seven judges his story in detail and expressed his satisfaction with the opportunity to finally speak out.

Establishing the facts is a first step to acknowledging the past and honouring the victims, prosecutor Lubis said in court. “Only by knowing the truth we can start healing the wounds and the pain.”

Source: Al Jazeera