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Indonesia has a problem with Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary “The Act of Killing.” The groundbreaking film, nominated for best documentary at this year’s Academy Awards, being handed out March 2, profiles anti-communist Indonesian paramilitary leaders who, along with the country’s military units, massacred up to 1 million of their fellow citizens in a nationwide slaughter of alleged communists — including ethnic Chinese, trade unionists and civil society activists — in 1965 and 1966. In the film some of the killers cheerfully boast about and even re-enact their murders, at times in the presence of current Indonesian government officials who express support for the bloodbath.
But the Indonesian government is clearly unsettled by the film’s depiction of its role in one of the most horrific incidents of state-sanctioned bloodletting in the 20th century. In a statement released on Jan. 24, presidential spokesman for foreign affairs Teuku Faizasyah slammed the film’s portrayal of Indonesia as “a cruel and lawless nation.” Faizasyah compared the killings of the 1960s to the “history of slavery in the United States” and suggested that the narrative in “The Act of Killing” was unfair to and did not fit with a contemporary Indonesia in which “many things have changed.”
Since emerging from Major Gen. Suharto’s three-decade authoritarian rule in 1998, Indonesia has undeniably changed a lot. The country has transitioned to a parliamentary democracy, and in July, Indonesians will go to the polls to elect the country’s fourth president since Suharto’s downfall. But the lack of accountability for the massacres remains unchanged, creating a toxic legacy of impunity that victimizes Indonesians to this day.
Increasing numbers of those victims are members of Indonesia’s religious minorities, including Christian Protestant groups, Shia Muslims and the Ahmadiyah Muslim sect. These groups are increasingly under threat from Sunni Islamist militant groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI). The FPI and its supporters mobilize gangs that swarm minority houses of worship. The groups’ leaders justify such thuggery as attacks against “infidels” and “blasphemers.”
The government’s response to these abuses? Weak at best and complicit at worst.
Indonesian officials and security forces frequently facilitate harassment of religious minorities, in some cases even blaming the victims for the attacks. Authorities have made blatant and discriminatory statements. In January 2012, Indonesia’s Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali publicly stated that Shia is “against Islam.” In September 2012 he proposed that Shia Muslims convert to Sunni.
In August he followed up those bigoted statements with a keynote speech at the FPI’s annual congress in Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital. Rather than denounce the FPI for its violence and intolerance, Ali praised the group for its “maturity” and as an organization “that loves … nationalism and Indonesia.” The audience, made up of the country’s most intolerant Islamist politicians and clerics, listened politely before turning to the meeting’s real focus: the FPI’s pursuit of a nation governed under Islamic law instead of the country’s secular constitution.
Police in Indonesia often side with Islamist militants at the expense of the rights of minorities, ostensibly to avoid violence. In all cases, the poor police response to violent crimes reflects institutional failure to uphold the law and hold perpetrators to account.
The attacks on religious minorities are becoming increasingly violent. On Aug. 20, 2012, hundreds of Sunni militants attacked the minority Shia community in Sampang in Indonesia’s East Java, torching some 50 homes, killing one man and seriously injuring another. The local police, warned ahead of time of the violence by the militants, stood by at the scene of the attack and refused to intervene. On Aug. 4, 2013, shortly after Islamist militants in Indonesia vowed vengeance against Buddhists for attacks in Burma by members of the Buddhist majority against the local Rohingya Muslim population, a bomb planted inside a Buddhist temple in downtown Jakarta exploded while congregants worshipped, injuring three men. A day later, unknown perpetrators tossed Molotov cocktails into the yard of a Catholic high school in Jakarta. The school staff scrambled to extinguish the flames and kept the devices from igniting by dousing them with water from a bathroom.
Moreover, members of Indonesia’s security forces continue to commit human rights abuses with relative impunity. Last March a dozen members of the Special Forces Command, known as Kopassus, launched an attack on the Cebongan prison in the city of Yogyakarta in central Java. Later, military prosecutors said that Kopassus personnel, disguised with ski masks and carrying AK-47 assault rifles, forced their way into the prison, threatened and beat 12 prisons guards, two of whom required hospitalization. The soldiers then executed four detainees who were facing charges for an attack on another member of the Kopassus unit.
If we are to transform Indonesia into the democracy it claims to be, citizens must recognize the terror and repression on which our contemporary history has been built.
The trial of the 12 Kopassus personnel was characterized by an atmosphere of intimidation familiar to anyone who has seen “The Act of Killing.” A coalition of local paramilitary groups, Sekber Keistimewaan, wore jungle camouflage and noisily protested outside the court building in support of the defendants.
Inside the courtroom, its members repeatedly disrupted the proceedings, loudly praising the Kopassus defendants as heroes and warriors and demanding their release. On several occasions, they locked the court compound gate while prosecutors were presenting their case and attempted to intimidate journalists, human rights monitors and academics in the spectators’ gallery. In early September the military court sentenced the defendants to prison terms ranging from 140 days to 11 years, but the sentences failed to match the gravity of the crimes.
Abuses by Indonesia’s security forces remain rife in the provinces of West Papua and Papua. Over the last three years, Human Rights Watch has documented dozens of cases in which police, military, intelligence officers and prison guards used excessive force when dealing with Papuans exercising their right to peaceful assembly. Papua is the site of a low-level insurgency by the Free Papua Movement, a small and poorly organized armed group seeking independence from Indonesia.
In April police fired on a group of Papuans in Aimas district, near Sorong in the province of West Papua, who were holding a prayer gathering to protest the 1963 handover of Papua to Indonesia after Dutch colonial rule. According to eyewitnesses, police opened fire when the protesters approached its vehicles. Two men were killed on the spot, and a third victim died six days later from gunshot wounds. Police detained at least 22 individuals and charged seven of them with treason. The other 15 were subsequently released.
A culture of impunity
These abuses are all examples of a culture of impunity spawned by the government’s failure to seek accountability for the massacres of the mid-1960s. Indonesia’s weak rule of law and history of impunity empowers contemporary human rights abusers, making accountability unlikely, especially for the powerful and well connected. In July 2012, Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) declared that the massacres constituted a “gross human rights violation” and called for the prosecution of military officials implicated in those murders. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono responded by instructing his attorney general to “study the findings and report back to me and other relevant parties.” His government has not taken any other substantive steps toward accountability to date.
Three months after Yudhoyono’s statements, Legal and Security Affairs Minister Djoko Suyanto dismissed the commission’s findings on the killings and stated that “this country would not be what it is today if it didn’t happen.”
“The Act of Killing” is challenging the government's assessment of the massacres and their malign impact on contemporary society. Komnas HAM has hailed the film as an invaluable tool for confronting the poisonous legacy of those murders and bolstering rule of law in Indonesia. “If we are to transform Indonesia into the democracy it claims to be, citizens must recognize the terror and repression on which our contemporary history has been built,” the commission said in praise of the film. “No film or any other work of art, for that matter, has done this more effectively than ‘The Act of Killing.’ (It) is essential viewing for us all.”
That’s an impact of far greater relevance than an Academy Award will ever have.
Phelim Kine is the deputy director of the Asia division at Human Rights Watch.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.