Indonesia should admit and acknowledge the former comfort women as war-crime victims, not prostitutes, and put the history of Indonesian sex slaves into the school curriculum in both Indonesia and Japan, so that later generations will acknowledge the real
At the end of 2015, the long-standing issue of Asian “comfort women” emerged again during the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Japan, represented by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, finally agreed to express “his most sincere apologies and remorse to all the women who underwent immeasurable and painful experiences and suffered incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women.”
Japan pledged a state fund of US$8.3 million to settle the issue of South Korean comfort women who served as sex slaves for Japan’s imperial army. Although the agreement was a landmark to resolve postwar disputes on South Korea’s claims on Japan’s accountability in establishing systematic forced prostitution, the deal remains controversial as justice for the former comfort women and state accountability is now dubious.
By the agreement, in the formulation of which none of the survivors were involved, Japan has closed the chapter of the South Korean comfort women issue for the sake of future bilateral relations. South Korea’s government has also effectively agreed to no longer demand Japan’s accountability for sexual atrocities, chiefly through legal action in the courts and reparations.
Responding to the latest Japan-South Korea deal, which states the issue is resolved “finally and irreversibly”, Indonesia should also take a look at its previous agreements with Japan regarding Indonesia’s jugun ianfu.
In 1958, Indonesia concluded the Japanese and Indonesian Peace Treaty and Reparation agreement, which among other points asserted that Japan’s compensation for war reparation for Indonesians had been completed. Indonesia agreed not to demand further compensation, apparently expecting that Japan would make a great effort to seek the best solution for the comfort women as war-crime victims.
Later, on March 25, 1997, as a form of materialisation of Japan’s deep apology and the best solution for handling the comfort women issue, a memorandum of agreement was also signed between the Social Affairs Ministry and Japan’s government, represented by the Asian Women’s Fund (AWF).
The AWF implied that through the fund, the Japanese government had met its promise to compensate for the casualties caused by Japanese soldiers during the Japanese occupation.
Unlike South Korea, the Indonesian government has never demanded Japan’s accountability in establishing systematic forced prostitution. As scholars note, among about 50 military tribunals convened in Asia between 1945 and 1951, in Batavia (now Jakarta) just one tribunal held by the Dutch colonial government issued strict sentences to Japanese soldiers who forced 35 Dutch women into prostitution.
Like the Dutch women under Japanese rule in Indonesia, the Indonesian comfort women were evidently victims of war crimes. In the Geneva Convention, the rape and torture of women for enforced prostitution are included as war crimes. This was further made clear in the Tokyo People’s Tribunal in December 2000, formally the Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal on Japan’s Military Sexual Slavery, organised by activists of several countries, including Japan and Indonesia. Despite documentary evidence cited in the tribunal that the Japanese Imperial Army had deliberately organised and managed systematic forced prostitution, in Indonesia there has been no formal recognition of war crimes by Japanese soldiers against civilian women, who were stigmatised as prostitutes, not victims of war crimes. Few survivors have been willing to come forward because of the cultural shame attached to their experience in a society that prizes chastity.
Since the postwar period, Indonesia has apparently failed to reflect state accountability to protect human rights and justice for former comfort women by effectively giving impunity to perpetrators of war crimes, and concluding a peace treaty and agreements on war reparations with Japan without addressing the voice of the former comfort women. Japan has neither formally apologised nor personally compensated the former sex slaves beyond the funds given to the Indonesian government.
In the Social Affairs Ministry report to the AWF, the Indonesian government still referred to the comfort women as prostitutes (perempuan penghibur). Hence the survivors have never been considered war-crime victims to be protected.
Regrettably, Indonesia and Japan have agreed on “irrevocable” agreements that limit Indonesia’s claims on Japan’s accountability for establishing a comfort women system through legal action and reparations. However, those agreements are not absolutely final.
Some demands could be delivered to the current Japanese and Indonesian governments to frame the comfort women survivors as war-crime victims and adopt policies to restore their dignity. Indonesia should, in the first place, admit and acknowledge the former comfort women as war-crime victims, not prostitutes, and put the history of Indonesian sex slaves into the school curriculum in both countries, so that later generations will acknowledge the reality.
Also, Indonesia should demand that the Japanese government publicly admit that the comfort women system was in practice sexual slavery, deliberately implemented in Indonesia from 1942 to 1945 to support Japan’s war efforts in the Asia Pacific. Lastly, the comfort women survivors should be also treated and compensated as victims of war. In this way, the implementation of justice and state accountability for the women in Indonesia could be strengthened and enforced fairly.
The writer is a fellow at the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore.