Indonesian President-elect Joko Widodo with members of his campaign team, including former general and spy chief Hendropriyono, far right. Pic: AP.

During this year’s presidential contest, the electability of Indonesia’s Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo hinged on a promise of hope and change; a promise to deliver a new kind of politics based on ideals of openness and accountability. Jokowi’s supporters looked to him as an exemplary leader; an upright reformer who could help put an end to corruption and elite impunity. But was it all just wishful thinking?

The recent appointment of former general Hendropriyono to Jokowi’s ‘transition team’ suggests that the “squeaky clean” president-elect is already yielding to the dark forces of Indonesia’s ‘old guard’, and might not be so immune to the muckraking of national-level politics after all.

True to his nickname – ‘The Butcher of Lampung’ – Hendropriyono is thought to have partaken in some of Indonesia’s most egregious human rights violations of recent times, but has never been formally indicted or tried in a court of law. Jokowi’s partnership with Hendropriyono is a serious affront to Indonesia’s victims, and a clear breach of his campaign pledge to “respect human rights” and ensure a “just resolution of outstanding human rights violations.”

Hendropriyono’s most notorious crime dates back to the late New Order period, when he was a favoured general of former dictator President Suharto. In 1989, as ‘Black Garuda’ regional commander, Hendropriyono is believed to have authorised an attack on Talangsari village in Lampung province – an operation which led to at least 94 deaths and the razing of an entire village. Hendropriyono maintains that such bloodshed was necessary to quash a religious uprising bent on establishing an Islamic state, but others believe that the massacre was perpetrated against innocent villagers in response to a land dispute.

Following the downfall of Suharto in 1998, Indonesia’s National Human Rights Commission (Komnas HAM) has worked tirelessly to establish what happened at Talangsari and bring the perpetrators to justice. Hendropriyono is clearly implicated as acting commander at the time of the massacre, but has consistently ignored requests to co-operate with Komnas HAM as a witness to the crime.

Hendropriyono’s second most infamous offense is – incidentally – also an early source of his entanglement with Jokowi’s PDI-P. In 2001 Hendropriyono was appointed head of Indonesia’s National Intelligence Agency (BIN), a position which he procured through his close friendship with PDI-P leader, Megawati Soekarnoputri, who was then the incumbent president. Hendropriyono’s appointment to BIN was bitterly condemned by Indonesia’s human rights activists, most notably Munir Said Thalib – a prominent lawyer and founder of the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras). Under Munir’s guidance, Kontras was conducting its own investigation into the violence at Talangsari, and gathering evidence for Hendropriyono’s prosecution.

Three years later, however, in September 2004, Munir mysteriously passed away after boarding a Garuda Airlines flight from Jakarta to Amsterdam. A post-mortem examination revealed that Munir had ingested arsenic poison during his journey, and an off-duty Garuda Airlines pilot, Pollycarpus Priyanto, was later found guilty of administering the dose. Priyanto’s conviction was merely the tip of the iceberg, however, as he appeared to be working in collusion with BIN agents under Hendropriyono’s command.

A presidential Fact-Finding Team established by current President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono discovered that, prior to the murder, Priyanto had made at least 26 phone calls to Hendropriyono’s deputy, Muchdi Purwoprajoyo, and also a number of calls to a confidential BIN line. Both Muchdi and Hendropriyono were summoned for questioning, but refused to comply with any further investigation. Hendropriyono was particularly recalcitrant in his handling of the case. He filed criminal defamation charges against two members of the Fact-Finding Team, and denounced the investigation as an attempted “character assassination.” Recommendations for Hendropriyono’s prosecution were completely ignored by Indonesia’s police and the attorney general’s office, and the case ended with only token convictions of two Garuda Airlines employees. Munir’s widow, Suciwati, is still fighting for the cover-up to be unravelled, and justice to be done.

Via his association with disgraced figures like Hendropriyono, Jokowi has done serious damage to his reputation as a reformer and an ethical leader. Hendropriyono has been a behind-the-scenes mover in Jokowi’s PDI-P for quite some time, and was also involved in Jokowi’s election campaign; but his appointment to the transition team carries the implication of a public and personal endorsement, which was always bound to backfire on Jokowi as president-elect.

Hasto Kristiyanto, a deputy of the transition team, has argued that Hendropriyono – with his background in the intelligence services – can offer vital expertise in the fight against terror and radical Islam. This may be so. But if the transition team is only a temporary measure, and of such minor importance in practice, then why would Jokowi want to let its members tarnish his character before his presidency has even begun? Was this not all a plainly foreseeable controversy?

There can be little doubt that the real driving force behind Hendropriyono’s appointment is the invisible hand of Megawati Soekarnoputri, the imperious PDI-P chairlady to whom Jokowi is still strangely subordinate. Despite having acquiesced to Jokowi’s superior popularity and allowing him to compete in this year’s election on the PDI-P ticket, Megawati is still hungry for power. She now appears to be pulling Jokowi’s strings from somewhere on the sidelines and attempting to give priority to her own cronies in the distribution of presidential power. Hendropriyono is a long-standing ally of Megawati, and his loyalty is now being rewarded with an invitation to meddle in the affairs of the incoming administration. The transition team may only have an advisory role at present, but Jokowi’s lack of control over its membership criteria sets an ominous precedent for his future leadership.

Jokowi’s perceived impotence viz-a-viz Megawati was one of the most frequent criticisms he endured during the campaign period, and he must now act decisively to avoid being sidelined and exploited by self-serving monoliths at the PDI-P. If Jokowi fails to perform autonomously as president, then he will inevitably find himself stifled by elite interests and unable to deliver on many of his campaign pledges – particularly that one about ‘respecting’ human rights and bringing historic human rights violations to trial. Hendropriyono is a particularly burdensome figure in this regard, as he – apart form being a prime suspect in several human rights cases – has already voiced his primary allegiance to Megawati regardless of Jokowi’s superior rank. Speaking at a conference in May, shortly before Jokowi secured Megawati’s “blessing” as this year’s PDI-P presidential candidate, Hendropriyono declared that, “For me, Megawati will always be the president. [And] up until now [all we've had] are substitutes.”

Last week Jokowi finally yielded to the backlash caused by Hendropriyono’s inclusion in the transition team, and is now advocating for greater presidential powers to address previous human rights violations. However, Hendropriyono is unlikely to become a target of this campaign, given his ingratiation with the PDI-P and his proximity to Megawati.

Speaking of the Munir case last month, Jokowi admitted that he is uncertain as to whether Hendropriyono is guilty of any crime, but made no attempt to advocate for a further investigation. As quoted by Liputan6.com, Jokowi seemingly went on the defensive, making this bumbling effort to cover Hendropriyono’s back:

Is that [accusation] true? You can’t just point your finger at someone and accuse them of involvement [in human rights abuses]. You can’t do that. And I don’t really understand if the accusation is true or not. If you want to prove [Hendropriyono guilty], then prove it.

Jokowi’s approach to human rights crimes will determine whether he can truly offer a break from the impunity of the Megawati and SBY presidencies, or simply usher in another five years of watered-down reformasi dominated by old guard forces and established elites. If Jokowi is to bring back the original zeal of the reformasi movement, then he must ensure that the rule of law is applied equally to all offenders, regardless of elite status or party ties. This is the challenge of Indonesia’s “everyman” president: an end to impunity or same old injustices?

This article is the third in a three-part series. Please also:

* Jokowi’s Challenge – Part 1: The timely rise of a furniture salesman?

* Jokowi’s Challenge – Part 2: High hopes and harsh realities