Controversy over Indonesia’s past sparks protests against human rights groups

The information in this update was provided by CIVICUS Monitor research partner, the Asian Human Rights Commission.

Peaceful Assembly

On 16th and 17th September 2017, human rights groups, consisting of survivors, victims of past human rights abuses and human rights defenders, organised a seminar in the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation (YLBHI) office. While discussions mainly focused on addressing human rights atrocities committed during the 1965-1966 massacres, the meeting aroused suspicion regarding the political motivations for meeting. In particular, a mistrust of human rights groups seeking justice for the 1960's massacre has contributed to a misconception that the groups are falsely colluding in an effort to resurrect the Indonesian Communism Party. The resulting backlash prompted a wave of protests outside the meeting space as described below.

On 16th September, Indonesian police blocked the entrance to YLBHI's building as a demonstration organised by anti-Communist groups took place outside. The anti-Communist activists demanded the workshop be stopped and accused YLBHI and Jakarta Legal Aid (LBH Jakarta) of disseminating Communist ideology. 

For two days the protesters surrounded YLBHI’s building and called for an end to any discussion about the 1965-1966 tragedy. Over 50 years after the event, when between 500,000 and one million alleged communist sympathisers were slaughtered by the Suharto regime, questions still remain in Indonesia over the egregious human rights abuses committed during the purge. In particular, thousands of families still await justice for the perpetrators of the state-sponsored violence.  

On 17th September 2017 at around 9.30pm, the demonstrators surrounded and attacked the building. The mob destroyed the fence and also threw stones and smashed several windows. Finally at 3:30 am, Indonesian security forces intervened to secure the activists and victims who were hiding inside the building, while also forcibly dispersing the protesters. In the ensuing clashes, Indonesian security forces used a water cannon and tear gas to disrupt the mobilisation. In total, 22 protesters were arrested and five security personnel were injured in the clashes. 

In a statement following the confrontation, a representative of YLBHI clarified the nature of the meeting, saying that: 

"There was no discussion or congress on communism. The event that we held was purely an historical discussion and art performance".

After quelling the protest, Indonesian security forces then evacuated all activists and participants to safety at the National Commission on Human Rights. The attack epitomises how this bloody period in Indonesia's history continues to be controversial, and can impede the operation and activities of human rights groups in Indonesia.


On 1st August 2017, an association of victims and their families of the 1965-1966 massacre as well as human rights activists organised a workshop on the results of the International People’s Tribunal 1965 in Klender, East Jakarta city. The workshop was unexpectedly interrupted by the East Jakarta Police Resort (Polres Jakarta Timur), the military sub-district command (Koramil), a village leader and a mob of unidentified people. They demanded that the workshop be stopped immediately and accused participants of discussing Communist and Marxist ideology. The incident illustrates the Indonesian state's complicity in violating freedom of association. In response, multiple human rights groups have called upon the Indonesian authorities to end their campaign of harassment against human rights groups advocating on behalf of the victims of the 1965-1966 massacre. On 22nd September 2017, CIVICUS Monitor partner, the Asian Human Rights Commission, commented on the attacks against freedom of association, saying that: 

"The recent attack on the Jakarta Legal Aid Foundation, together with the various earlier cases of persecution, forced dissolution of meetings and attacks on human rights groups, are a clear indication that Indonesia’s democracy is under serious threat. The government must take serious note of this, particularly with the politicisation of human rights by groups affiliated to the former regime of Suharto".

During the raid on the meeting, Indonesian security forces allegedly intimidated participants. There were no reports of any arrests being made during the incident.