Skip to main content

(New York)—Human Rights Watch today welcomed the election of Abdurrahman Wahid, known as Gus Dur, and urged him to make pressing human rights issues a priority from the outset of his administration.

"Gus Dur personally has been a staunch defender of human rights, but he owes his election to political blocs with many ties to the Soeharto past," said Sidney Jones, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. "We'll be waiting to see who he appoints to key posts—particularly to head the armed forces and the ministries of defense, home affairs, and justice."

Human Rights Watch said President Wahid would be facing several key challenges immediately that will test both his political skills and his commitment to protecting human rights. These include:

  • social unrest, from violent demonstrations on the part of disappointed supporters of Megawati Soekarnoputri to communal clashes in the outer islands such as Ambon. President Wahid will need to move quickly away from the old pattern of responding almost exclusively with force and focus instead on addressing the underlying political and economic problems.
  • continuing military abuses in response to armed and unarmed independence movements in Aceh and Irian Jaya. President Wahid will need urgently to address deep-seated grievances in both places, and one of those grievances is the failure of the Indonesian government to prosecute military officers responsible for human rights abuses. As a candidate, Gus Dur promised that he would support a referendum in Aceh, a promise likely to encounter strong military resistance, particularly after the experience in East Timor. Community leaders in both Aceh and Irian Jaya are demanding a substantial reduction in troop strength, because "non-organic" troops —soldiers brought in from outside the region—have tended to commit more abuses.
  • corruption, particularly on the part of the Soeharto family and its cronies, including former President Habibie. Unless President Wahid reopens the investigation into Soeharto's wealth that Habibie shut down last week and makes a serious effort to prosecute corruption from this point on, he will risk leaving the impression, as his predecessors did, that those close to political power are above the law.
  • quick resolution of remaining problems in East Timor. President Wahid in the 1980s and early 90s was outspoken in his condemnation of abuses in East Timor and his support of a referendum, at a time when it was politically dangerous to criticize government policy. He made a point of going to Cipinang Prison to meet with Xanana Gusmao in May 1999 and to Dili in July, but, uncharacteristically, he joined the nationalist chorus of criticism against the U.N. Mission in East Timor (UNAMET) and the backlash against Australia in the weeks after the referendum. It will be a test of his human rights policy to see how quickly he ensures the protection and return of refugees from West Timor, gives full support to both the domestic and international inquiry into abuses in East Timor, and cooperates with the new U.N. Transitional Administration in East Timor.
  • discrimination against the ethnic Chinese. President Wahid himself has been a friend to the ethnic Chinese, and he has repeatedly espoused a pluralist vision for Indonesia that embraces both religious and ethnic minorities. But he came to power with the support of many Muslim parties, some members of which have not shown such tolerance, and Chinese-Indonesians are likely to be nervous. Wahid could assuage their fears by moving quickly to ensure that no discriminatory laws or practices left over from previous administrations remain.
  • the dark shadows of Indonesia's past. One of the darkest periods in modern Indonesian history, the massacres of 1965-67, remains largely unexplored. Little by little, new information has begun to emerge as Indonesia moves out of Soeharto's authoritarian shadow, but President Wahid could substantially advance the process by giving a presidential imprimatur to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission he set up as a private initiative after the May 1998 riots. If the work of the commission could be extended backward to 1965-67, he could truly set a precedent for open, comprehensive investigation of the large-scale abuses that have sullied Indonesian politics for over three decades. It would be particularly appropriate for Gus Dur to initiate this process because a youth group affiliated with his organization, Nahdlatul Ulama, played a major role in the killings of suspected Communist Party members in East Java in 1965-66.

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country