The Indonesian flag flew at half mast outside the Presidential Palace in Jakarta this week, but no apology came from President Jokowi on the 50th anniversary of the anti-communist purges that killed at least 500,000 people. Meanwhile, Australia and Indonesia prepared for the release of hundreds of convicted terrorists from Indonesian prisons in the coming years.


The Pancasila Sakti monument in Jakarta. (Flickr/Chez Julius Livre 1.)

Elected last year on a platform that included resolving past human rights abuses, Jokowi disappointed supporters on Wednesday by refusing to issue a state apology for the atrocities of the 1965-66 killings in Indonesia. An investigation by the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) in 2012 found that the killings were the result of a state policy to eradicate the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) and its sympathisers.

At the time, the report was rejected by the Attorney General's Office on grounds of insufficient evidence, and was not followed up during Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's term. With Jokowi as president, advocates again hoped for a state apology. Instead, local media spun the issue as a question of whether or not Jokowi should apologise directly to the now-defunct PKI, which would be an unpopular move considering the stigma still attached to communism in Indonesia. Rumours circulating this week that the President had already issued an apology to the party were denounced by Jokowi's cabinet as 'slander', and even drew a response from the National Police.

Clearly, the matter of a state apology and how it should be formulated is still a matter for public debate. This is not surprising considering that even historians have not reached consensus on the events of 30 September 1965. Various accounts blame the PKI, the leader of the PKI, the military, the CIA, China, Sukarno, or Suharto for orchestrating the assassination of six army generals that sparked the nationwide killings. Numbers on how many people were killed in the years that followed range in the Komnas HAM report from 500,000 to one million. The national memory is further distorted by decades of propaganda under Suharto, who claimed the presidency amid the chaos of 1965.

Rather than issuing a state apology or pursuing the judicial process that human rights activists continue to lobby for, Jokowi's government has vowed to work towards establishing truth and reconciliation. Considering this commitment to uncovering the truth, it is even more disappointing that Jokowi chose to mark the 50th anniversary at the Pancasila Sakti memorial complex in Lubang Buaya, East Jakarta, which unquestioningly adheres to the New Order propaganda version of the events of 1965.

While Jokowi attended the anniversary in Jakarta, his vice president Jusuf Kalla was in New York for the UN General Assembly. The decision to send the vice president rather than the president is seen to signal Jokowi's lack of confidence in handling international affairs. By contrast, Yudhoyono attended every UN General Assembly during his 10 years in office. On Tuesday, Kalla attended a leaders' meeting on the sidelines of the assembly on countering ISIS and violent extremism. He spoke about Indonesia's success in tackling terrorism through dialogue, community engagement and challenging terrorist ideology (though he didn't mention Indonesia's controversial shoot-on-sight policy for suspected terrorists).

Also in New York, Julie Bishop pledged Australia's continued support for Indonesia's counter-terrorism efforts, including plans to rehabilitate the hundreds of convicted terrorists who are due to be released from this year on. As convicted terrorists of the early 2000s now come up for parole, Bishop expressed concern that those who have not been rehabilitated may pose a risk for Indonesia, Australia and the region.

Concerns have been raised about figures such as Abu Dujana, one of the leaders of the Bali bombings who is due to be released this year. However, there is some hope that those committed to violent ideology can change. For example, another Bali bombing convict, Ali Imron, says that he now actively cooperates with authorities to educate peers about the false basis of their ideology and to stop them from committing violent acts. Bishop's Indonesian counterpart, Retno Marsudi, confirmed this week that Indonesia would be working not only on rehabilitation but on prevention, early detection and legal action against terrorism, and as a leader for interfaith dialogue.