2009 is Indonesia’s election year. Legislative elections are set for April 9 and presidential elections will take place on July 8. The winners will face the challenge of corruption, a slow economy and growing unemployment. There are also many who would like them to address human rights matters. Germany’s Human Rights Commissioner Günter Nooke just returned from a visit to the country. Although there has been much improvement, there is progress to be made, especially in Aceh and Papua, he concluded.
There has been a fragile peace in the province of Aceh since 2005
Indonesia is a country that has proven extremely difficult to govern because of its many islands, many cultures, religions, languages and traditions. The Suharto dictatorship, which lasted three decades, exploited this fact to rule with an iron fist and human rights were abused indiscriminately.
In the past ten years since Suharto’s demise, democracy has returned. German Human Rights Commissioner Günter Nooke was generally satisfied.
“Overall one has to say that Indonesia has made considerable progress since the Suharto era with regard to human rights abuses. And the elections this year will show that Indonesia, the country with the biggest Muslim population in the world, is stable and on the way to adhering to human rights standards and democratic basics,” he said.
Trouble brewing in Aceh
But this does not mean all is well. Tension has been mounting in Indonesia’s province of Aceh on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra. A fragile peace has survived since a historic deal was agreed between the Free Aceh Movement, or GAM, and the Indonesian government in 2005 after three decades of bitter fighting. However, there are fears the peace in this mineral-rich province could unravel very fast.
Many claim that Jakarta did not fulfil its part of the peace deal and that the province’s revenues have not been flowing to the people. Thousands of demobilised rebels are out of work and frustrated.
In the run-up to landmark elections in April, rival interests have resorted to threats, intimidation and even murder in their bid for power.
Nooke criticised what he saw there: “I observed that the military seems responsible for attempted attacks on former GAM rebels and people who are now in office, such as mayors or other officials, and even for their murder at times. I also saw that conflict was being stoked up. It is still very unclear how the elections will unfold.”
He added that it was very important that international election observers be sent to the province to ensure that the polls are conducted freely and fairly.
Free debate on human rights in public sphere
In another of Indonesia’s hotspots -- Papua, which comprises a majority part of the western half of the island of New Guinea and nearby islands, tension is also brewing.
Nooke, who was not allowed to travel there for safety reasons, so he was told, was very critical of conditions: “The way people in Papua are treated, that they can get sentences of 10 to 15 years just for talking about or calling for independence, is totally inacceptable.”
As Indonesia’s election campaign kicks off, Nooke insisted that there had to be free debate about human rights violations, both today’s and those of the past.
“I think it is important that the topic of overcoming the past be spoken about,” he said. “Especially as so many generals are standing in the elections, including even one of Suharto’s step-sons who ran a prison where torture took place in East Timor. If there are people responsible for human rights abuses standing in the presidential elections then there absolutely has to be debate about this in the Indonesian public sphere.”
He adds that the debate had to take place in the newspapers and in the media generally and that coverage of the election campaign had to be free and fair, as well as the elections, of course, themselves.