Two people pray at the grave of a loved one in Jakarta, Indonesia, June 26, 2017.

© 2017 Agoes Rudianto/Reuters

An Indonesian organization representing victims of the mass killings of 1965-66 has located 16 suspected mass graves in central Java that may contain the remains of up to 5,000 victims.  

The 1965 Murder Victims Research Foundation, a nongovernmental advocacy group that has already located 122 other suspected mass graves, on Wednesday provided the coordinates of sites near the central Java  town of Purwodadi to Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) and asked it to investigate.

In 1965-66, the Indonesian military, paramilitary groups, and Muslim militias were given free rein to kill “communists.” Over several months, at least 500,000 people – possibly as many as one million – were slaughtered. Victims included members of the Communist Party of Indonesia, ethnic Chinese, trade unionists, teachers, activists, and artists. Last month the US government released declassified documents on the mass killings, showing that US diplomatic personnel were fully aware of the scale and savagery of the killings.

in April 2016, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo ordered government officials to document the location of suspected mass graves. The Indonesian government announced one month later that it would form a team to investigate a list of 122 alleged mass grave sites of 1965-1966 massacres compiled by victims’ advocacy groups. However, the government has so far failed to do so.

While official accountability efforts have stalled, there has been increasing efforts by the Indonesian military,  paramilitary groups and Islamist militants to stoke “anti-communist” paranoia in response to calls for accountability for the mass killings. Elements of those groups led a violent “anti-communist” demonstration in Jakarta in September while the Indonesian military launched a propaganda offensive aimed at reinforcing the official narrative that the killings were a justified response to an attempted communist coup.

President Jokowi can defy these intimidation tactics and support efforts toward accountability for the killings. He can do that by ordering a careful exhumation of suspected mass grave sites by forensic experts with the skills and experience to ensure that exhumation is done in a way that preserves crucial evidence and allows for identification of bodies. By starting the process of identifying the victims of the 1965-66 massacres, Jokowi can take a meaningful first step toward addressing the toxic legacy of those killings.