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Indonesia: Suharto’s Death a Chance for Victims to Find Justice

Government Should Investigate Crimes of Former Dictator’s Regime

(New York) - The death of former president Suharto at age 86 provides an opportunity to commemorate the many victims of his oppressive regime, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch said the Indonesian government should make a serious commitment to hold accountable the perpetrators of human rights abuses during his rule.

Suharto presided over more than three decades of military dictatorship and systematic human rights abuses, including media censorship, tight restrictions on freedom of association and assembly, a highly politicized and controlled judiciary, widespread torture, attacks on the rights of minorities, massacres of alleged communists, and numerous war crimes committed in East Timor, Aceh, Papua and the Moluccan islands. He also presided over a famously corrupt regime in which he, his family, and his cronies amassed billions of dollars in illegal wealth – funds which could have addressed Indonesia’s widespread poverty and social problems.

“Suharto has gotten away with murder – another dictator who’s lived out his life in luxury and escaped justice,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “But many of Suharto’s cronies are still around, so the Indonesian government should take the chance to put his many partners in human rights abuse on trial.”

To date, there has been virtually no legal accounting for the widespread abuses committed during Suharto’s rule, or for the violence instigated by pro-Suharto forces in a failed attempt to stave off his 1998 fall from power. Suharto himself never faced trial for human rights abuses. The former dictator spent the last years of his life living in luxury. On account of Suharto’s alleged poor health, in May 2006, prosecutors dropped one case that alleged that he had stolen $600 million from the state’s coffers.

“Indonesia’s attorney general never issued an indictment against him for human rights violations,” said Adams. “While there has been a great deal of political reform, repeated failures to hold perpetrators of serious human rights crimes to account have meant that Indonesia still has not come to terms with the worst of Suharto’s legacy.”

Human Rights Watch said that the lack of justice for Suharto’s crimes is directly linked to the continuing impunity enjoyed by Indonesia’s security forces, despite many political reforms and promises to address past abuses. Since 1998, the legal and institutional bases of Suharto’s political repression have been largely removed, and there has been great progress on freedom of association and expression.

One important consequence of this failure is that, although the military no longer formally plays a political role (the military’s “Dwifungsi” or “dual function” ideology relied on by Suharto has been abandoned and is now discredited), the military continues to be territorially and economically entrenched. The military still is not fully answerable to the Ministry of Defense, and much-heralded reforms to end the armed forces’ involvement in business are stalled. The predictable result is conflicts of interest and abuses, as with the May 2007 killing of civilians in Pasuruan, East Java, by marines who had ousted farmers and planted commercial crops on the disputed land. Another consequence is that where there is conflict in Indonesia today, as in Papua, security forces – both military and special police units – still commit abuses and are almost never held accountable.

“Justice is a key missing piece in Indonesia’s reform story,” said Adams. “The failure to touch Suharto shows how far Indonesia still has to go if it is to establish strong, independent prosecutors and courts, and put an end to serious security-force abuses.”


Suharto’s sordid legacy dates to the army-backed massacres in 1965 that accompanied his rise to power. A failed coup against President Sukarno in September 1965 claimed the lives of six army generals, but it was the army, led by then-Major General Suharto, that emerged as the paramount power in the aftermath.

Although the events surrounding the coup attempt remain unclear and some participants themselves described it as an internal military affair, the government maintained that the Indonesian Communist Party was exclusively responsible for the coup attempt. From 1965 to 1967, Suharto presided over a bloodbath that destroyed the Indonesian Communist Party. Estimates of the number of people killed range from a quarter of a million to more than 1 million. Hundreds of thousands of citizens suspected of having leftist affiliations, including large numbers of teachers and student activists, were imprisoned. Most of them were never tried, let alone convicted of any offense. Suharto was officially proclaimed president in March 1967.

Under Suharto’s “New Order” regime, Indonesian society became progressively militarized, with the Indonesian armed forces playing an increasingly prominent role as a social and political force. Throughout his rule, Suharto viciously suppressed any sign of anti-government unrest or separatist ambition. Military operations, most notably in East Timor, Aceh, and Papua, were characterized by undisciplined and unaccountable troops committing widespread abuses against civilians, including extrajudicial executions, torture, forced disappearances, beatings, arbitrary arrests and detentions, and drastic limits on freedom of movement.

In 1975, just nine days after neighboring East Timor declared its independence from Portugal, Suharto ordered Indonesian forces to invade and annex the former colony. Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor was brutal, marked by atrocities such as the Santa Cruz massacre in 1991, when at least 270 pro-independence protesters were shot or beaten to death by the military.

“One of the enduring legacies of Suharto’s regime has been the culture that continues to block justice for victims of military abuses even today,” said Adams. “Maybe with Suharto’s passing, this legacy, too, can be brought to an end.”

A rare attempt at accountability for Suharto-era crimes occurred in trials held in 2004 against soldiers accused of participating in the “Tanjung Priok Massacre” in Jakarta two decades earlier. Yet the trials resulted in little justice for the families of the 33 or more civilians shot by government security forces during an anti-government demonstration. Two defendants were acquitted amid reports of political interference and witness intimidation. The remaining 12 defendants had their convictions overturned by an appeals court in June 2005.

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