Indonesia urged to back war crimes probe

The Indonesian government must add its voice to growing calls for a UN probe into possible war crimes and crimes against humanity in Burma, Human Rights Watch has said.

“Indonesia should show leadership among Asian nations in supporting accountability efforts for serious human rights abuses committed by all parties in Burma,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director of HRW.

Thirteen countries now support the establishment of the commission of inquiry. They include Lithuania, Czech Republic, UK, Slovakia, Hungary, Netherlands, Ireland, France, Australia, USA, Canada and New Zealand. In early October, Estonia became the latest country to support the move, which was first proposed officially in March by UN special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Tomás Ojea Quintana.

In a letter to Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, Pearson noted Indonesia had been vocal in calling for an investigation into an alleged Israeli attack on an aid flotilla to Gaza in May that killed 10 activists. She urged the country to take a “similarly proactive position” on rights violations in Burma.

She wrote: “For years UN special mechanisms, Human Rights Watch, and others have documented and publicly reported on serious, widespread, and systemic violations of international human rights and humanitarian law in Burma; violations that in some cases amount to war crimes and possible crimes against humanity. It is time for Indonesia and other like-minded states to ensure that these crimes will be subject to greater international scrutiny and take steps to halt the cycle of impunity in Burma.”

Indonesia’s successful transition from authoritarian rule to democracy has been hailed as a model for Burma. Following the resignation of military dictator General Suharto in 1998, the country made a number of democratic reforms and is now seen as having one of the better human rights records within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc.

Jakarta has made a number of offers of assistance to Burma in transitioning to democracy – moves which have been rebuffed by the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). In a statement in March, Indonesia urged Burma to hold democratic, free and multi-party elections. “We hope Aung San Suu Kyi can participate in the election. She will contribute to the democratization process in Myanmar [Burma],” it said.

As the largest member of ASEAN, Indonesia is also regionally influential. “I think if Indonesia were to support a commission of inquiry into serious international crimes in Burma then most ASEAN countries would either support it, or at least not oppose it,” said Debbie Stothard of the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma (ALTSEAN), a regional network of human rights groups.

“ASEAN bears some of the worst consequences of the SPDC’s crimes against humanity and war crimes,” she said. “Since Burma joined ASEAN, we’ve seen a huge increase in the number of refugees and displaced people seeking asylum in ASEAN countries, and we’ve also seen a huge increase in migrant workers being forced to leave Burma to seek jobs and livelihoods elsewhere.”

Nevertheless, the bloc’s policy of non-interference in member states’ internal affairs means human rights violations in Burma have received scant mention. It remains unlikely that Indonesia would unilaterally support a UN investigation into human rights violations in a fellow ASEAN nation – particularly when its own record is not unblemished.

Although Indonesia led the move to establish ASEAN’s own human rights watchdog, both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch continue to report human rights violations in Indonesia. The country’s past dealings in Aceh, East Timor and West Papua may also leave its leaders reluctant to press Burma on its own record. “There might be people in the government who are allergic to the idea because they are afraid that they themselves may be open to prosecution for how Indonesia may have handled its local situation in the past,” said Stothard.

Rights activists nevertheless stand by their call for Indonesia to support the commission of inquiry. “If you had asked ten years go whether Burma would have an election, people would have said that was impossible. If you had asked ten years ago whether a commission of inquiry into war crimes and crimes against humanity in Burma would even be discussed, that would have been considered unlikely,” said Stothard.

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