Candidates make unconvincing commitments to human rights in first debate

By Ken Setiawan
McKenzie Postdoctoral fellow, Asia Institute, University of Melbourne

On 17 January, Indonesia’s presidential candidates faced each other in the first of five televised debates as the country heads toward elections in April.

The debate featured some of the country’s biggest challenges – law, corruption, terrorism and human rights – so expectations were high, not least because of the candidates’ respective human rights records.

Prabowo Subianto, a former general, has been implicated in human rights violations in Indonesian-occupied East Timor, the abductions of pro-democracy activists in 1997 and 1998, as well as orchestrating violence in May 1998, which resulted in the mass rapes of ethnic Chinese women.

While the National Human Rights Commission (Komnas HAM) has called on several occasions for Prabowo to be held to account in a court of law and leaked documents from the Indonesian Military (TNI) prove that he was discharged because of his involvement in the disappearances, Prabowo has always denied his involvement.

In any case, Prabowo’s human rights record appears unlikely to affect the decisions of most voters. A recent survey by polling organisation Indikator found that 70 per cent of respondents had not heard about Prabowo’s human rights record.

While incumbent Joko “Jokowi” Widodo does not share a similar history of rights abuses, many observers of human rights in Indonesia have been disappointed with his presidency. Five years ago, Jokowi was the only candidate with an explicit human rights agenda, promising to resolve past human rights violations.

During his tenure, however, impunity has continued: cases of past violations have not been resolved, and human rights violations by security forces in Papua persist. There has also been increasing pressure on minority groups in Indonesia, with the Ahmadiyah, Shi’a and Gafatar religious communities experiencing discrimination, and repeated incidents of persecution and violence against LGBTIQ+ people.

Ahead of the debate, the candidates released their respective programs with regard to human rights. This included, for Jokowi and running mate Ma’ruf Amin, a continued commitment to resolving past human rights abuses, guarantees for religious freedom, as well as better coordination between organisations involved in the promotion and implementation of human rights.

Prabowo and Sandiaga Uno, meanwhile, emphasised economic and social rights, for example, the rights of the poor, elderly and disabled, and the right to association for workers of online ride-hailing services, such as Gojek and Grab.

The candidates’ respective programs remained largely undiscussed during the debate. In his opening address, Jokowi referenced challenges in finalising past atrocities but also reiterated his commitment to resolving the cases.

The segment on human rights in the debate itself focused primarily on discrimination and disability. In their answers, both pairs expressed support for religious and ethnic minority groups, as well as people with disability. Jokowi described Indonesia’s diversity as an “asset” and called for the law to prevail where cases of discrimination occurred.

Prabowo simply remarked that if elected he would “prohibit discrimination”. Meanwhile, Sandiaga, seemingly aware of his and Prabowo’s perceived weaknesses in relation to the rights of religious minorities, said of greater concern was discrimination against the poor, and concluded that they would respect human rights at all costs (“HAM harga mati”).

Some human rights issues were also raised in the portion of the debate on terrorism, where Jokowi stressed that counter-terrorism efforts should include human rights protections. Prabowo drew on his image as a strongman, stating that he was a “specialist in combatting terrorism” and called for the security forces to be strengthened.

Ma’ruf, who was largely silent during the debate, provided a carefully scripted contribution on combating terrorism. Terrorism was forbidden by Islam, he said, and required re-education if based on misunderstanding of religion, or job-creation if terrorist acts were caused by economic disadvantage.

These remarks were received well, yet also diverted attention from the fact that Ma’ruf, as head of Indonesia’s most prominent clerical body, the Indonesian Council of Ulama (MUI), had supported discriminatory policies against the Ahmadiyah and the prosecution of former Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama. During his time at MUI, Ma’ruf has also expressed support for female genital mutilation, as well as the criminalisation of “LGBT activities and other deviant sexual activities”.

The sharpest comments on human rights came at the end of the debate, when the candidates were given the opportunity to ask each other questions that had not been shared prior to the debate.

Jokowi questioned his rival’s commitment to women’s empowerment, given the small number of women involved in Prabowo’s party, Gerindra. By contrast, Jokowi’s cabinet includes nine female ministers. In response, Prabowo argued that Jokowi’s female ministers had made poor decisions, and hastily added that because his party was relatively new, few women had come forward.

Even less convincing was Prabowo’s reply to Jokowi’s question about why he had endorsed candidates convicted of corruption, with Prabowo responding that the data from Indonesia Corruption Watch (ICW) was “subjective” and adding that “perhaps the corruption they [the Gerindra candidates] were involved in was not huge”.

In his closing statement, Jokowi took another swipe at Prabowo’s human rights record, declaring that he and Ma’ruf were “no dictators or authoritarians. We do not have a track record of human rights violations, violence or corruption”. While this left Prabowo without a chance to respond, the debate would have left Indonesian voters little wiser on the human rights policies of both candidates.

This article was co-published with Indonesia at Melbourne.

Banner image: Incumbent presidential candidate Joko Widodo (right) shakes hand with his rival Prabowo Subianto prior to the first presidential debate at the Bidakara Hotel in Jakarta on 17 January, 2019. Courtesy of Antara.


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