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Indonesia has to break with its brutal past

On September 21, 1999, Sander Thoenes, a Financial Times correspondent, was shot and killed by soldiers from the Indonesian army on the outskirts of Dili, the capital of East Timor, then under occupation.

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On September 21, 1999, Sander Thoenes, a Financial Times correspondent, was shot and killed by soldiers from the Indonesian army on the outskirts of Dili, the capital of East Timor, then under occupation.

Aged just 30 at the time of his murder, Thoenes is the most recent FT correspondent to die in the line of duty and he remains a strong presence, even for the majority of current reporters who never had a chance to meet him.

Recently, while going through old files in the FT’s Jakarta office, I came across his bulletproof vest — the one that would not have saved him from his execution-style killing even if he had been wearing it.

I also stumbled across his clippings book, containing hundreds of stories he wrote on the fall of president Suharto and the period of hope in the late 1990s as Indonesia groped its way towards democracy. Flipping through the dusty book I saw a page that made me catch my breath. On the left was Thoenes’ last story, published on the day of his death, while on the opposite page someone had pasted in his obituary. On the next page was a local media report with a picture of his lifeless, mutilated body.

In 2002, the government in East Timor indicted two serving officers from the Indonesian Army’s Battalion 745 for Thoenes’ murder, supported by evidence from investigations carried out by the UN and the Dutch authorities. To this day, neither of those officers nor anyone else has faced justice for his brutal and senseless death.

The same applies for most of the estimated 1,500 other people who were killed in the Indonesian army’s scorched-earth retreat from its decades-long occupation of East Timor.

This is just one example of Indonesia’s refusal to face its past. In 1965, at least 500,000 suspected Communists and sympathisers were massacred across the country after a failed coup that ushered in Suharto’s 31 years in power. Ethnic Chinese were particular targets because of their perceived sympathy for the Communist motherland.

Two astonishing recent films — The Act Of Killing and The Look Of Silence — by American film-maker Joshua Oppenheimer provide disturbing glimpses into the horrors of that time. But in the immediate aftermath of Suharto’s downfall in 1998, the political dealmaking deemed necessary to ensure a peaceful transition to democracy made it impossible to revisit the troubled past.

Of the five Indonesian presidents since then, one was Suharto’s vice-president; one was the daughter of former “president for life” Sukarno; one was leader of a religious organisation that played a large part in the 1965 massacres, and another was son-in-law of the commander of Suharto’s special forces, which were also allegedly deeply involved in those massacres.

In the presidential election of 2014, Mr Joko Widodo narrowly beat Prabowo Subianto, Suharto’s son-in-law, who is accused of numerous human rights atrocities from his time as a commander in East Timor and during the 1998 uprising that brought democracy to Indonesia. He denies the allegations.

Jokowi, as Mr Widodo is widely known, is the first Indonesian president to assume the office untainted by the stain of the anti-Communist and anti-Chinese pogroms of the 1960s, and he has thrown his support behind an official investigation into those events.

The still-powerful army has responded by setting up a “defend the nation” programme of military-style training for ordinary Indonesians and “gangsters” to prepare them to guard against “foreign influences” such as communism, drugs and homosexuality.

Many in the government are understandably uneasy about the prospect of the military providing weapons training to self-declared gangsters in a country where Islamist radicalisation and extremism are a constant threat.

As the world’s third-largest democracy and the largest Muslim-majority nation, Indonesia is a country that seems perpetually on the brink of fulfilling its potential or toppling back into the chaos of its past.

With an enormous and relatively young population, and a gross domestic product growth rate of about 5 per cent, the economy is already bigger than that of the United Kingdom or France in purchasing power terms. It should become the world’s fourth-largest economy by 2050, according to estimates from the Asian Development Bank.

But success will depend on how fully the country faces up to the atrocities of its past and how resolutely Mr Widodo faces down the recalcitrant military.

He would send a very powerful signal on both fronts by finally bringing the murderers of Thoenes to justice. The Financial Times

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