Sander Thoenes was 30 years old when he was murdered in East Timor, as Indonesia evacuated the former Portuguese colony in September 1999. The young Dutch journalist, correspondent for the Financial Times in Jakarta, was killed by members of a battalion of Indonesian soldiers, bent on wreaking revenge for their defeat.

Thirteen other innocent civilians died that day as Battalion 745 beat its retreat. Yet in spite of a thorough UN-led investigation, leading to the indictment of two named Indonesian officers, no one has been brought to justice in Jakarta for the crimes.

The election of Joko Widodo as Indonesia’s new president – the first time the voters have chosen a leader from outside the dominant clique of political and military families – has been hailed as a game-changer. His opponent Prabowo Subianto, a former special forces general and son-in-law of former president Suharto, was the archetypal representative of the old establishment. The victory for Jokowi, as he is popularly known, represents a clear endorsement for the democratic process.

It also provides an opportunity for the new president, who will take power in October, to underpin his democratic mandate by reinforcing the justice system, and strengthening the rule of law. That means taking bold steps to reverse the decades-long culture of denial – including impunity for the acts of the powerful military – and change the constant tendency to forget, if not forgive, the sins of the past.

It will be no easy task for Mr Widodo. His first hurdle is to survive a challenge in the constitutional court by Mr Prabowo, alleging widespread vast election fraud. Given the margin of 8m votes between the victor and the vanquished, the case looks unlikely to succeed.

Far harder for Mr Widodo, a former furniture manufacturer who became governor of Jakarta thanks to his reputation for honesty and effectiveness, will be to put human rights firmly on the political agenda.

He has promised to reopen investigations into the disappearance of anti-government activists in 1998, during the demonstrations that led to Suharto’s overthrow. Yet two larger human rights abuses remain to be clarified. Until they are, the culture of impunity will continue to undermine the rule of law.

War crimes perpetrated in East Timor during the Indonesian occupation resulted in more than 100,000 “conflict-related” deaths – culminating in the killings by Battalion 745, including the murder of Sander Thoenes. More complex still would be to reopen investigation into the massacre of at least 500,000 people in 1965-66, as President Sukarno, the country’s first president, struggled to maintain his authoritarian rule.

Mr Widodo’s election gives him a powerful mandate to act. There are clear reasons why he should bring murderers to justice, including the soldiers in Battalion 745 responsible for the killing of Sander Thoenes and the 13 others who died in 1999. That would clear the way for Indonesia to ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, something hitherto blocked by the powerful military establishment.

It would be an important signal of an end to the culture of impunity that has cast a shadow over Indonesia’s emergence as a vibrant democracy over the past decade and a half. It would correct an injustice that has been unpunished for too long, and it would allow the international community to engage on a different level with an Indonesia that for too long sought to deny the abuses of its past.

Indonesia is a proud and important nation, and should be a beacon of stability and prosperity in southeast Asia. It needs to shed the shame over the ugly incidents of the past. Only when it does that will it be able to take its rightful place in a world to which it has so much to offer.

Get alerts on Indonesian politics when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article