BBC 2024-02-10 06:01:29

Israeli soldier videos from Gaza could breach international law, experts say

Videos of Gazan detainees stripped, bound and blindfolded that were filmed and uploaded online by Israeli soldiers could breach international law, legal experts say.

International law says detainees must not be exposed to unnecessary humiliation or public curiosity.

BBC Verify looked at hundreds of videos openly shared by Israeli soldiers in Gaza since November 2023. We verified eight showing detainees.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) says it has terminated the service of one of the reservists we identified, and videos like these do not represent its values. It did not respond to any further request for comment.

Dr Mark Ellis, a leading UN advisor to international criminal tribunals, said the footage we showed him from Israeli soldiers might violate the recognised rules for treating prisoners of war.

Serving soldiers

Most of the videos we analysed show scenes of fighting and soldiers looking through homes abandoned by residents.

One video shows soldiers launching weapons dressed up as dinosaurs, and others show them setting up a pizza restaurant in an empty Palestinian home.

But we found eight, filmed and shared publicly, which legal experts say show the ill-treatment of Palestinian detainees.

They were all posted by men who are or were serving soldiers, who did not hide their identity.

We uncovered one account by analysing an image of a Palestinian detainee which was widely shared online earlier this week. Reverse image search tools show it came from the YouTube account of Israeli soldier Yossi Gamzoo Letova.

He has uploaded multiple videos from Gaza since early December, including shots of his troop, which he identifies as the Granite Battalion 932, which is part of the IDF’s Nahal Brigade.

In a video posted on 24 December 2023, the Palestinian detainee from the image is shown stripped and bleeding with his hands bound and sat on a chair while being interrogated.

We identified the location as Gaza College, a school in the north of the strip, from the distinctive decor as well as the institution’s logo which can be seen in the video and which we matched to its Facebook page.

Later in the same video, the detainee is seen being marched barefoot through the streets of Gaza.

In a statement, the IDF said: “The photo was taken during a field questioning. The suspect was not injured. A reservist photographed and published the picture contrary to IDF orders and values. It was recently decided to terminate his reserve service.”

Videos removed

On the same day, Mr Letova posted another YouTube video showing hundreds of Palestinian detainees gathered in a sports field, which we geolocated and verified as Gaza’s Yarmouk stadium.

Most of those in the video have been stripped to their underwear. Some are blindfolded and kneeling on the ground in ordered rows, while Israeli soldiers watch on.

At one point, a group including three women detainees appear kneeling and blindfolded behind a football goal with an Israeli flag hung above it.

An Israeli soldier appears in the video several times, and appears aware he is being filmed.

By comparing his uniform and insignia with other publicly available images of IDF uniform online, we identified him as lieutenant colonel, or battalion commander.

Both videos were taken down from Mr Letova’s public YouTube page soon after the BBC contacted the IDF.

Code of ethics

Two videos uploaded to Tiktok by another IDF soldier include pictures of blindfolded detainees, interspersed with images of soldiers posing with guns.

One posted on 14 December, set to an Israeli rap song, includes an image of blindfolded detainees packed into a pick-up truck with a soldier posing next to them with his thumbs up.

We identified the soldier from his other social media accounts as Ilya Blank.

He posted a second video that includes an image of a blindfolded man on the floor, surrounded by what appear to be three IDF soldiers.

We have located a number of the photos used in his videos to northern Gaza.

After we contacted the IDF and TikTok, the videos were taken down.

Article 13 of the Third Geneva Convention states they must be protected at all times, particularly against acts of violence or intimidation and against “insults and public curiosity”.

Dr Ellis says the key is “not creating a public curiosity” for prisoners of war and not “degrading them or humiliating them”.

He added: “The idea of walking people through in their underwear and filming that and sending it out certainly would violate that.

“The rules that are set down would not in any way allow this type of act.”

Prof Asa Kasher, an Israeli academic who helped write the IDF’s first code of conduct, said sharing the pictures of half-naked people was against the IDF’s code of ethics.

He said there could be a military need to briefly strip a detainee in order to check if they were armed, but that he could not see a reason for “taking such a picture and sharing it with the public”.

“The reason for holding them half-naked is to humiliate them,” he said.

Human rights lawyer Michael Mansfield said the footage should be assessed by a UN court.

“There is a very severe restriction on on how you deal with people who are detained who are prisoners of war in a time of war or conflict, which this plainly is, and that provision is really one in which you are intended to treat prisoners with respect,” he said.

We sent six videos to TikTok, who confirmed that they were all in violation of their community guidelines. They said their guidelines were clear that content “that seeks to degrade victims of violent tragedies” was not tolerated. The videos have all since disappeared from the platform.

A spokesperson for YouTube said it had removed tens of thousands of harmful videos and terminated thousands of channels during the conflict between Israel and Gaza, and that it had teams are working around the clock to monitor for harmful footage content.

Additional reporting by: Paul Brown, Alex Murray, Paul Myers, Richard Irvine-Brown, and Daniele Palumbo.

Netanyahu orders military to plan Rafah evacuation

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered the military to prepare to evacuate civilians from the southern Gazan city of Rafah ahead of an expanded offensive against Hamas.

Some 1.5 million Palestinians are in Rafah to seek refuge from Israeli combat operations in the rest of Gaza.

The US has warned Israel an invasion of Rafah would be a “disaster”, while the EU and the UN both expressed concern.

Aid groups say it is not possible to evacuate everyone from the city.

Mr Netanyahu told military and security officials to “submit to the cabinet a combined plan for evacuating the population and destroying the battalions” of Hamas, his office said on Friday.

“It is impossible to achieve the goal of the war without eliminating Hamas, and by leaving four Hamas battalions in Rafah. On the contrary, it is clear that intense activity in Rafah requires that civilians evacuate the areas of combat,” the statement added.

Earlier this week, Mr Netanyahu said he had ordered troops to “prepare to operate” in Rafah and that “total victory” by Israel over Hamas was just months away.

He made the comments while rejecting Hamas’s latest proposed ceasefire terms. The BBC has been told that negotiators for Hamas are leaving the Egyptian capital Cairo, with talks between the two sides now on hold.

Most of the people in Rafah have been displaced by fighting in other parts of Gaza and are living in tents.

Rafah is the only crossing point between Gaza and Egypt.

On Friday, top EU diplomat Josep Borrell wrote in a post on social media: “Reports of an Israeli military offensive on Rafah are alarming. It would have catastrophic consequences worsening the already dire humanitarian situation & the unbearable civilian toll.”

Earlier in the week, UN Secretary General António Guterres warned of a “humanitarian nightmare” in the city. His spokesman Stéphane Dujarric later added: “We are extremely worried about the fate of civilians in Rafah… I think what is clear is that people need to be protected, but we also do not want to see any forced displacement, forced mass displacement of people”.

Meanwhile, the head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, said there was “a sense of growing anxiety and growing panic in Rafah”.

“People have absolutely no idea where to go after Rafah,” Philippe Lazzarini told reporters in Jerusalem.

“Any large-scale military operation among this population can only lead to an additional layer of endless tragedy that’s unfolding.”

Reported Israeli air strikes on Gaza on Friday killed at least 15 people including eight in Rafah, officials from the Hamas-run health ministry said. Israel did not immediately comment.

Garda al-Kourd, a mother-of-two who said she had been displaced six times during the war, said she was expecting an Israeli assault but hoped there would be a ceasefire agreement before it happened.

“If they come to Rafah, it will be the end for us, like we are waiting for death. We have no other place to go,” she told the BBC from a relative’s house in the city where she was living with 20 other people.

Speaking on Thursday, without directly referring to Rafah, US President Joe Biden said Israel’s actions in Gaza had been “over the top”. He used the same “over the top” phrase earlier in the week to refer the Hamas response to a plan for a truce in Gaza in exchange for the release of hostages.

US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the Israeli military had a “special obligation as they conduct operations there or anywhere else to make sure that they’re factoring in protection for innocent civilian life”.

“Military operations right now would be a disaster for those people and it’s not something that we would support,” he said.

More than 1,200 people were killed during the Hamas attacks on southern Israel on 7 October, according to Israeli officials.

More than 27,900 Palestinians have been killed and at least 67,000 injured by the war launched by Israel in response, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.

Rival parties each claim edge in Pakistan election

With most of the results now declared in Pakistan’s general elections, no political force has a clear majority.

Jailed former Prime Minister Imran Khan is claiming victory in Thursday’s poll, as independent candidates linked to him have won most seats so far.

But another ex-PM, Nawaz Sharif, says his party has emerged the largest and urges others to join him in coalition.

There are reports that coalition talks between Mr Sharif’s PML-N party and other groups are already under way.

The final official results are yet to be announced.

In a staunch video message posted on X that was generated using AI, a message credited to Mr Khan said his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party had won a landslide victory – defying what he has called a crackdown on his party.

“I congratulate each and everyone of you for winning the 2024 election… you have made history,” the message said.

Mr Khan is currently in jail having been convicted in cases he says are politically motivated.

The success of the PTI-linked candidates was unexpected, with most experts agreeing that Mr Sharif – believed to be backed by the country’s powerful military – was the clear favourite.

  • Against the odds, election shows Imran Khan’s support is solid

But the PTI is not a recognised party after being barred from running in the election, so technically Mr Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), or PML-N, is the largest official political group.

The political horse-trading has begun in earnest, which means it could still be a while before anyone is able to claim outright victory.

In a speech on Friday, Mr Sharif acknowledged that he did not have the numbers to form a government alone. But addressing supporters outside his party’s headquarters in the city of Lahore, he urged other candidates to join him in a coalition and said he could remove the country from difficult times.

Speaking to the BBC’s Newsnight programme on Friday, Mr Khan’s former special assistant Zulifkar Bukhari said: “Knowing Imran Khan and knowing the ethos of our political party PTI, I don’t think we’ll be making any coalition, forming a government with any of the main parties.

“However, we will be forming a coalition… to be in parliament – not as an independent but under one banner, one party”.

And asked about whether Mr Khan could potentially be released, Mr Bukhari said: “I think the minute we go to the high court and the supreme court we are extremely confident that he will be released, and a lot of the charges – if not all – will be thrown out on legal merit and procedural merit.”

The third biggest party appears to be the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) led by Bilawal Bhutto, the son of PM Benazir Bhutto who was assassinated in 2007.

Burzine Waghmar, a member of the Centre for the Study of Pakistan at SOAS University of London, told the BBC that the elections “may well prove to be one of the most divisive and dangerous this chronically unstable, episodic democracy has ever confronted”.

As results trickled in, the UK and US voiced concerns over restrictions on electoral freedoms during the vote.

British Foreign Secretary David Cameron said the UK urged authorities in Pakistan “to uphold fundamental human rights including free access to information, and the rule of law”.

In a statement, he went on to express “regret that not all parties were formally permitted to contest the elections”.

Meanwhile, US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller criticised what he described as “undue restrictions on freedoms of expression, association, and peaceful assembly” during Pakistan’s electoral process.

He also cited “attacks on media workers” and “restrictions on access to the internet and telecommunication services” as reasons to worry about “allegations of interference” in the process.

  • Who is really pulling the strings in a divided Pakistan?
  • How Imran Khan plans to win an election from jail

Many analysts have said this is among Pakistan’s least credible elections.

Voters in Lahore told the BBC that the internet blackout on polling day meant it was not possible to book taxis to go and vote, while others said they could not co-ordinate when to head to polling stations with their family members.

An interior ministry spokesman said the blackouts were necessary for security reasons.

Support from the military in Pakistan is seen as important to succeed politically, and analysts believe Mr Sharif and his party currently have their backing, despite their differences in the past.

Maya Tudor, associate professor at the University of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government, said the lead taken by Imran Khan’s PTI was “shocking” in the context of the country’s past.

“A win would be remarkable – in every single other election in Pakistan’s recent history, the military’s preferred candidate has won,” Dr Tudor explained.

As many as 128 million people were registered to cast their votes, almost half of whom were under the age of 35. More than 5,000 candidates – of whom just 313 are women – contested 266 directly-elected seats in the 336-member National Assembly.

Pakistan’s former ambassador to the United States, Maleeha Lodhi, said Pakistan “desperately” needs political stability to address what she described as “the worst economic crisis in its history”.

But, in a hopeful note, Ms Lodhi said Pakistan’s voter numbers show a “belief in the democratic process”.

FA keen for England boss Southgate to stay after Euros

The Football Association are keen for Gareth Southgate to remain as England boss beyond this summer’s European Championships.

It was expected Southgate would stand down after the 2024 finals in Germany.

However, the 53-year-old has not discounted the possibility of remaining in the job until the 2026 World Cup.

“You’ve got to see how the summer goes. It’s as simple as that,” Southgate said at the Nations League draw in Paris on Thursday.

“In my view, I know what we’re capable of achieving in the summer, I know what my own benchmark of success would be, after that I’m not really thinking about anything else.

“In the end, we’ve got to deliver a performance and you’ve got to make the best decisions for everybody. I won’t be in a position to make that decision before the tournament.”

The FA has been impressed at the way Southgate has changed perceptions of the England team on and off the pitch since he took charge.

He replaced Sam Allardyce, initially on an interim basis, in 2016, and in 2021 he signed a contract to stay as England boss until December 2024.

Earlier that year, he led England to the final of the Euros – their best men’s performance in 55 years – where they lost to Italy on penalties at Wembley.

In 2018, he guided the team to their first World Cup semi-final in 28 years, while they reached the quarter-finals of the 2022 tournament in Qatar, losing 2-1 to eventual finalists France.

England have won 57 of their 91 matches under Southgate, with 14 defeats and 20 draws.

There is unlikely to be any significant talks on Southgate’s contract until after the Euros but if he does decide he wants to stay on, it appears the FA would be happy to accommodate that wish.

England’s Euros campaign starts against Serbia on 16 June, with Denmark and Slovenia the other teams in Group C.

If Southgate stays beyond his current contract’s expiry date in December, he will replace Sir Bobby Robson as England’s third-longest-serving manager behind only Sir Alf Ramsey and Sir Walter Winterbottom.

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Foes turn friends as an ‘impossible’ nation tests its democracy

Budiman Sujatmiko has lost none of the passion that he used to show as one of the boldest student opponents of Suharto, the soft-spoken but ruthless dictator who ruled Indonesia for 32 years.

“In the 1990s our challenge was authoritarianism. We needed democracy. Today our challenge is inequality and backwardness,” Budiman says in his campaign office, ahead of Indonesia’s presidential race on 14 February.

In a scarcely believable twist, Budiman is now a spokesman for Prabowo Subianto – the frontrunner in the race, Suharto’s son-in-law and the man who epitomises that authoritarian era. The former special forces commander has been accused of a string of human rights violations, and was sacked by the army in 1998.

“People change after 25 years, just like I have changed,” Budiman says. “We have both moved to the middle.”

It’s a stunning turn of events. The once-disgraced military strongman and the fiery activist now find themselves on the same side in a democratic election. As unlikely as that alliance may seem, it helps tell the story of Indonesia’s young, rowdy democracy.

As BBC correspondent in Jakarta in the late 1990s I reported on Budiman’s courageous opposition to Suharto, and on his trial, where he delivered an hours-long, stinging rebuke of the government’s repressive habits. I visited him in jail. I watched Prabowo manoeuvring in the power struggle that broke out amid the chaos of Suharto’s last days, then being out-manoeuvred and cast out. I watched the euphoria of student protesters ousting a ruler who had dominated their lives and the lives of their parents. Those were heady days.

Yet today Indonesian politics is dominated by the same powerful, wealthy figures who prospered under Suharto.

Some have called Indonesia an impossible country. It shouldn’t work, but it does – with its kaleidoscopic range of political parties representing one of the largest and most diverse populations on the planet. The 17,000 islands – and 700 languages – that make up the archipelago are spread over an area as large as the United States. It’s a fast-growing economy, but with millions of its people still living in poverty.

Yet it has proved remarkably stable. Defying predictions that it would implode, like Yugoslavia, Indonesia has had just two directly elected presidents over a 20-year period, both of whom have been moderate, effective and popular, delivering steady economic growth.

What worries many Indonesians now, though, is what will happen to their democracy if Prabowo wins?

Foes to friends

From the campaign trail, Indonesia’s democracy – the third largest in the world – appears to be in rude health.

Gone is the heated, sectarian divide of the last presidential contest in 2019, when President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, then seeking a second term, faced a determined rival in Prabowo who mobilised hard-line Muslim groups to contest the result. A week of rioting left at least 10 dead.

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This time Prabowo, in his third attempt at the presidency, has teamed up with the still-popular Jokowi, who cannot run again. He has taken Jokowi’s son as his running mate and stuck with his development-focussed policies. You will get more of the same, he is promising, and it seems to be working. The platforms of other two candidates, Anies Baswedan and Ganjar Pranowo, differ little in essentials.

The presidential debates have been largely calm and courteous. Rallies have been boisterous and full. Turnout on polling day will be high.

But Prabowo’s dark past still looms – despite Jokowi’s backing and a slick social media campaign that has transformed the image of the military hard man who dabbled with inflammatory populism into a cuddly grandfather figure.

“I want to ask Prabowo: ‘Where is my son? If he’s dead, tell me where his body is. If he’s still alive, where is he?'” says Paian Siahaan.

His son, Ucok, disappeared in the last months of the Suharto regime in 1998. The unit Prabowo commanded was held responsible for the kidnapping of 23 activists. One died and 13 have never been found.

Their families have gathered outside the presidential palace in Jakarta every Thursday for the past 17 years. Many are elderly. They want answers, and more than anyone else, they blame Prabowo.

Paian Siahaan, now 78 and a widower, makes the long journey every week from his home in Depok to join the protest. He showed me the back of his T-shirt, which read: “Bring back the disappeared. Don’t let him rule the country.”

“It is because he is a kidnapper,” Paian says. That isn’t the only accusation against Prabowo: an ambitious, intelligent and hot-tempered officer who, as Suharto’s son-in-law, was a fast-rising star in the military.

He has also been accused of involvement in serious human rights abuses during Indonesia’s 24-year occupation of Timor Leste. He had several tours of duty there, and was part of the military unit which killed the Timorese leader Nicolao Lobato at the end of 1978.

Many believe he was also responsible for instigating riots in Jakarta and other cities in May 1998, which targeted the ethnic Chinese minority, and ultimately forced Suharto to resign.

Prabowo has always denied involvement in that, arguing that he was a scapegoat. He has admitted only to ordering the kidnapping of the nine activists who survived.

But I recall a meeting with him in early 1998, when he was very angry with the Chinese business community, blaming them for the massive financial crisis which had engulfed Indonesia. He threatened to bring Muslim mobs onto the streets against them.

After Suharto stepped down, the army dismissed Prabowo over the kidnappings, and he spent more than a year living in exile in Jordan.

For Budiman, now Prabowo’s spokesman, these are matters of the past, just like his own resistance. He now believes his energy should be channelled in a different direction.

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“I am not idealistic. I am pragmatic but I am also ethical,” he says. “I should not be limited to fighting for freedom and justice. I also believe in Indonesia’s advancement.”

This is from a man who was sentenced to 13 years in jail for opposing Suharto. At his trial, he read aloud a manifesto for four hours, detailing the defects of Suharto’s regime. “It is to the people that every power must be devoted, and it is from the people that power comes,” he had declared.

You hear a fair amount of scorn for Budiman now. One of his former comrades told me he would punch him if he saw him.

But even as a young radical he was obviously smart and ambitious, a natural politician. He makes no effort to conceal his ambition – on the wall of the waiting room in his campaign office hang portraits of all seven of Indonesia’s presidents, followed by Prabowo, and then Budiman himself.

As a relatively new entity, compared to the other big parties in this election, Prabowo’s political machine offers more opportunities for a politician in a hurry.

And Budiman isn’t alone. Six out of the nine survivors of the 1998 kidnappings have either worked for Prabowo, or are backing him for president. Their reasons aren’t too different to Budiman’s.

Indonesia has changed and so must they, goes the argument. Even a strongman like Prabowo, whom they once opposed, is at the mercy of the ballot box now.

At a recent rally, Prabowo introduced Budiman by joking about the way activists were hounded by the security forces under Suharto. “Sorry man, I used to chase after you too – but hey, I apologised.”

But then at the violent peak of their bitter rivalry in 2019 Jokowi and Prabowo also patched up their differences with minimal fuss. Jokowi offered Prabowo the job of defence minister, a powerful position which forced the US to drop the visa ban it had imposed over his human rights record.

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Jokowi was the first Indonesian leader with no links to the old political elite, whose humble origins drove his appeal. He had no party machinery of his own, and relied on his skill in co-opting his rivals to be able to govern and push through his signature development projects.

But he hobbled the once-independent anti-corruption commission. He ushered in a sweeping cyber-crime law that has been used to prosecute hundreds who have criticised the government. Then he got his son on the ticket as Prabowo’s running mate, through a controversial ruling at the constitutional court, on which his brother-in-law was a sitting judge.

All of this has uncomfortable echoes of the authoritarian Suharto era. The dictator, like Jokowi, was from the cultural heartland of central Java. He styled himself the “Father of Development” – and that has been at the heart of Jokowi’s legacy too, much of it funded by Chinese investment.

“He’s a brilliant politician, but not necessarily a good leader,” says Okky Madasari, a novelist and sociologist who has produced a series of video debates warning of the dangers of a Jokowi-Prabowo axis.

“That kind of person is a threat to Indonesian democracy. Why? Because he is not thinking about his country. He is only thinking about how to preserve his power, and to give it to his family, to his sons.”

What these political compromises have given Indonesia is stability – in his second term Jokowi had the support of parties holding more than 80% of the seats in parliament.

An ‘impossible’ country

“We are always worried about disintegration,” says Dewi Fortuna Anwar, an academic who has been adviser to one president and two vice-presidents.

Back in 1999, she was a close adviser to President Habibie, who had the unenviable job of holding Indonesia together in the post-Suharto turmoil. “He used to say he was the captain of an aircraft which was crashing, but everybody was attacking the captain.”

There was communal violence all over the country, some of it shockingly brutal. I watched Muslims and Christians tearing each other apart in the Moluccas. One month later I saw people in Kalimantan beheading and disembowelling their neighbours. In Aceh, the army was struggling to contain a strong and popular independence movement. And President Habibie had agreed to a referendum in East Timor, which would eventually declare its independence.

To my question then, that would Indonesia consider letting Aceh go as well, Dewi had retorted that Indonesia was either the former Dutch East Indies or it was nothing. Did the West really want to see it break up like an Asian Yugoslavia?

“You know being united is always a premium for us,” she says now. “And that means making big tent, rainbow coalitions in government, as Jokowi has done.”

But she adds: “If you go too far in that direction, it’s very difficult to build a strong democracy, because then you don’t have credible checks and balances, you don’t have a credible opposition.”

A last-minute campaign has got going online, using a four-fingered salute, to distinguish from those used by the three candidates to match their registered election number, to try to persuade voters to back “anyone but Prabowo”.

It is not clear yet how effective it has been. But the Prabowo campaign is pushing hard to win outright in the first round and avoid a runoff, where the four-finger campaign might pick up momentum.

A couple of students at a Prabowo youth rally told me they felt his message was more relevant to the young – around one-third of the electorate is 30 years old or younger with no memory of the Suharto era.

When I asked what policies appealed most, they were not sure. They just liked the tone and style of the messaging. And they felt anyone backed by Jokowi must be a good thing.

In 1998, an inflexible, 32-year-old regime struggling to cope with the new forces of globalisation was the obvious target for frustrated youth. They wanted freedom and prosperity as Indonesia was hammered by a massive economic meltdown.

Today, after decades of stability and some prosperity, young Indonesian voters seem more likely to respond to an entertaining message – such as Prabowo’s TikTok-fuelled campaign – than an inspiring one.

Can their democracy survive a Prabowo presidency?

The Indonesian state – built up methodically by Suharto – has survived much. The violent upheavals of the late 1990s, rising jihadist terrorism in the early 2000s that many thought would unravel it, the experiment with democracy – Indonesia has absorbed it all, mellowing it in the name of stability and peace.

There is a price to pay, in rights and freedoms no longer respected, and past abuses unacknowledged and unaccounted for.

Many Indonesians wish it were better. But they know it could be a lot worse. They only have to look across to Myanmar, in many ways a similar kind of impossible country, to know that.

Related Topics

  • Asia
  • Indonesia