Home > South-East Asia >> Indonesia

World Report Indonesia 2004

Human Rights Watch - January 1, 2004

Events of 2004

Since the resignation of former President Soeharto in May 1998, political pluralism appears to have taken root and most Indonesians enjoy improved civil liberties, but significant barriers to rule of law and human rights remain in place. Pressing human rights concerns include the resurgent power of the military in social and political affairs, failure to bring to justice security force commanders responsible for atrocities, armed conflict in Aceh, repression in Papua, and disturbing signs of a return to intimidation of the press and criminalization of dissent. Indonesia also faces a domestic terrorist threat which it is increasingly addressing through a slowly improving police force.

Impunity and the TNI

The Indonesian armed forces (Tentara Nasional Indonesia, TNI) continue to violate international human rights and humanitarian law with almost complete impunity. Military operations in both Papua and Aceh have been characterized by undisciplined and unaccountable troops committing widespread abuses against civilians including extra-judicial executions, forced disappearances, beatings, arbitrary arrests and detentions, and drastic limits on freedom of movement. Torture of detainees in police and military custody is also widespread across the archipelago.

Indonesia's executive and judicial branches regularly fail to address systematic abuses by Indonesia's security apparatus. Indonesia's judiciary in particular is notoriously corrupt and subject to political interference. Little movement has been made on accountability for several high profile and longstanding cases, while half-hearted prosecutions of other abusers have only served to reinforce impunity, with a series of light sentences and acquittals for known human rights abusers.

To date there has been no legal accounting for the violence instigated by pro-Soeharto forces in a failed attempt to stave off his fall from power in 1998 or for the majority of atrocities committed during his more than three decades in office. Trials for the 1984 killing of civilians by Indonesian security forces at Tanjung Priok in Jakarta are ongoing, but remain plagued by reports of political interference and witness intimidation. The high profile East Timor trials have been the most striking demonstration of the impotence of the judiciary. Despite significant international pressure and interest, trials of senior Indonesian officers in Jakarta failed to give a credible judicial accounting for atrocities committed in East Timor in 1999. Twelve of the eighteen defendants were acquitted. The six defendants who were found guilty received nominal sentences and remain free pending appeal.


Decades of conflict and military operations in Aceh came to a temporary end in December 2002 with the signing of the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (COHA) between the Indonesian government and the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, GAM). The ensuing peace was short-lived. In May 2003 the Indonesian government withdrew from peace negotiations and launched full-scale military operations in Aceh. An estimated 30,000 new troops were sent to the province to crush GAM in Indonesia's largest military operation since the invasion of East Timor. Three consecutive post-Soeharto presidents have failed to address the economic, social, governance, and justice-related grievances underpinning the fighting. The new war, however, has led to widespread abuses against civilians with little prospect for a military solution.


The Indonesian military regularly responds to low level attacks by the Free Papua Movement (Organisasi Papua Merdeka, OPM) with disproportionate reprisals against civilians and suspected separatists. Arbitrary detention, torture, disappearances, and arson are widespread in this vast and isolated region of Indonesia. Jakarta's decision in 2003 to divide Papua into two or three provinces, was met by widespread local resistance, while substantive movement on economic, social, and justice-related concerns has not materialized. Papua has seen a swelling of its population in recent years due to the large influx of economic migrants and civilians fleeing conflict in other parts of Indonesia. Tension between these groups is likely to rise unless addressed.

Political Prisoners

Although political space for dissent increased enormously after the fall of President Soeharto, broadly worded laws limiting freedom of expression remain on the books and are being increasingly used by authorities to arbitrarily target individuals. Soeharto's first two successors, President B.J. Habibie and President Abdurrahman Wahid, issued a series of amnesties to release most political prisoners convicted during the Soeharto era, but by 2003 at least forty-six new prisoners of conscience had been imprisoned-thirty-nine of them since Megawati Sukarnoputri became president in July 2001. Judging from past experience, students and grassroots political and labor activists may be at risk of increased restrictions on freedom of expression and association in the run up to the 2004 parliamentary and presidential elections.

Press Freedom

After the fall of Soeharto, Indonesia was considered a center of media freedom in Southeast Asia. There remains a great deal of critical reporting and commentary on a scale unimaginable in the Soeharto era. However, the trend is toward a more restrictive environment. Indonesia's media is being increasingly subjected to lawsuits, legislative restrictions in Aceh, and physical assaults sponsored by powerful officials and businessmen with political backing. Private business interests and the military are increasingly using the judiciary as a tool to control press coverage, while the executive remains wary of full press freedom. Censored coverage of the current war in Aceh has exemplified re-emerging practices of political pressure on editors, intimidation of journalists, and self-censorship.

Key International Actors

Japan is Indonesia's largest aid donor, and in 2003 the Koizumi government played an increasingly important role in helping Indonesia address pressing problems, most noticeably the conflict in Aceh.

Indonesia's relationship with the United States continues to focus on joint efforts to fight terrorism. Bombs in Bali in October 2002 and at an international hotel in Jakarta in August 2003 emphasize the ongoing domestic terrorist threat that Indonesia faces. Although military assistance between the two countries, as well as U.S. government financing of military sales, officially remain conditioned on accountability for human rights abuses, the U.S administration has made it clear that co-operation in the war on terrorism is more critical than human rights to normalization of the relationship.

Indonesia withdrew from formal IMF supervision of monetary and fiscal policy at the end of 2003, but continues to require considerable external financial assistance. The Consultative Group on Indonesia (CGI) meeting, an annual conference of Indonesia's largest donors convened by the World Bank, continues to pledge significant sums, although donors increasingly are conditioning assistance on good governance and legal reform.