Fighting not to Forget the Past

THE sun was scorching as Maria Catarina Sumarsih opened a black umbrella across from the State Palace on Thursday last week. The mother of Bernardus Realino Norma Irmawan—who died during the 1998 Semanggi incident—along with 32 of her colleagues wore black shirts. There was no thundering of speeches as is usual at a demonstration. Their hopes were related through banners and umbrellas upon which were written a variety of demands calling for investigations in to past human rights violations.

Every Thursday, members of the Solidarity Network for Victims and Families of Victims (JSKKK) protest at the State Palace to demand the fulfillment of a promise by the President and to remind the public that cases of past human rights violations have not yet been resolved. “The Thursday Actions will stop when there are human rights trials,” said Sumarsih. In addition to bringing banners, they also display photographs of people who have disappeared and victims of the 1965 massacre.

The participants at the actions reflect the diversity of the JSKKK’s membership. On Thursday last week, there were 33 people at the protest. Aside from Sumarsih there was also Suciwati (the widow of the late Munir), Nurlaila (a victims of the Melawai 56 junior high school case), Darwin (a victim of the May 1998 riots), along with Bejo Untung, Tumiso and Susmadja (victims of the 1965 incident). Solidarity also came from the chair of the Humanitarian Volunteers Network, Romo Sandyawan and Christina Widiantarti from the Jakarta Residents Forum.

The action started at 4pm. After an hour, they closed their umbrellas and formed a circle. After a silent protest, there was a session for reflection in which several people were asked to speak on matters related to human rights. Romo Sandyawan was asked to give a speech. He spoke about the refusal of retired military officers to appear before the National Human Rights Commission (Komnas HAM) and touched on the recent price increase in basic commodities.

Nurlaila was also asked to offer a reflection, but did not move from where she was sitting. “I’m not ready yet,” she said. She came to the event in solidarity with victims of despotism. In fact she has come to the Thursday Actions on five occasions.

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THE Thursday Actions were inspired by movements of victims of human rights violations and their families in various parts of the world. According to Sumarsih, the idea to hold the actionsemerged over a period of several discussions. One of these was a meeting between JSKKK and the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras) in late 2006. At the time, Kontras Deputy Coordinator Haris Azhar gave examples of activities that could be held to support solidarity actions.

A Korean women’s movement for example, is demanding justice in the jugun ianfu case (sex slaves during the Japanese occupation). Wearing white clothing, every Wednesday, they hold a demonstration in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. Another example is the movement of Argentinian women whose children were abducted by the Argentine military junta led by Gen. Fidela.

In Indonesia, the peaceful action are held on Thursdays for practical considerations. According to Sumarsih, Monday was not chosen because JSKKK members are busy with personal matters. On Tuesday there are routine meetings on the Munir case. And on Wednesdays, Kontras has regular discussions. Friday was not chosen because there is not enough time. So they decided, “Let’s meet Thursdays.”

It was during a meeting on January 12, 2007 that it was agreed that the demonstrators would wear black clothing and carry black umbrellas. The color was chosen as a symbol of fortitude. “We agreed, even if there were only three participants, the action would still go on,” said Sumarsih. Generally however, the number of participants is between 20-80 people. So, “There haven’t ever been only three people.” The first Thursday Action was held on January 18, 2007 and as of last week they have organized a total of 65 Thursday Actions.

Not all of the Thursday Actions have proceeded smoothly. During the first action on January 18, 2007, they were blocked by police. But they refused to back down even though the police asked them to disband. On August 16, 2007, police asked them to cancel the action because a dress rehearsal for the August 17 Independence Day celebrations was being held.

On September 6 last year, a Thursday Action was held to coincide with a visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin at the State Palace. According to Kontras Impunity Division Head Yati Andriyani, police had in fact phoned them beforehand to ask that the action be cancelled. But the request was ignored. As a consequence, moments before Putin’s entourage approached the State Palace, there was a scuffle with police and protesters when they tried to confiscate their umbrellas. “At the time the victims linked arms so the police’s efforts were unsuccessful,” said Yati.

A very tense Thursday Action took place on April 17 this year. Prior to the action, police notified them of a new policy banning demonstrations being held too close to the State Palace. JSKKK paid no heed to the warning. As a result, when demonstrators arrived at the location, their usual spot was filled with 14 police cars. Undaunted, the protesters decided to sit in front of the cars. After negotiations, the police cars were moved off and the action went ahead as usual. “The constancy, seriousness and sincerity crushed the security personnel’s [resolve],” said Yati.

At almost every Thursday Action they never fail to send a letter to the President. Out of scores of such letters, State Secretary Hatta Rajasa has only responded once. In a letter dated September 28, 2007, Hatta Rajasa said that the letter had been sent to the Attorney General in order to respond to the issues conveyed by the demonstrators.

On March 26 this year, JSKKK was received by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. At the time the President promised to assist them in resolving cases of human rights violations. “but there has been no evidence of this,” said Sumarsih. Presidential Spokesperson Andi Mallarangeng says that the President’s commitment to human rights has already been made clear. “Everything has its procedures,” said Andi.

But instead of the government proving its commitment, on April 1 four human rights violation case dossiers resulting from an investigation by Komnas HAM were returned by the Attorney General. The four cases were the Trisakti, Semanggi I and Semanggi II shootings, the 1998 abduction of political activists, the May 1998 riots and the Wamena-Wasior in Papua.

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ACCORDING to the head of the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances, Mugiyanto, the Thursday Actions resemble those carried out by the group Las Madres Plaza de Mayo (the Mothers of the May Plaza), who hold weekly Thursday rallies in downtown Buenos Aires. In Argentina, the women, who wear white scarves walk around a monument in front of the Casa Rosando Presidential Palace. The participants are also not many, only around 50 people. Their numbers explode only at certain times, such as in the last week of May, which has been consecrated since the 1980 as Anti-Involuntary Disappearance Week.

Argentina’s political atmosphere at the time was extremely repressive—the press was gagged and the opposition muzzled. According to a report by the Argentina Commission for Missing Persons, over the period in when Gen. Fidel ruled (1976-1983), as many as 8,000 people fell victim to the dirty war. Reportedly, they were thrown into the Atlantic Ocean. “Actions held like these are very symbolic,” said Mugiyanto, who is also the head of the Indonesian Association of the Families of Missing Persons.

For Mugiyanto, what distinguishes the Las Madres Plaza de Mayo and the Thursday Actions is the political situation. The Las Madres movement was carried out as a creative way of overcoming repression, while the Thursday Actions in Indonesia are a form of symbolic action after other efforts to push for the resolution of human rights cases have met a dead end. “The Thursday Actions are an initiative to fight against forgetting the past,” said Mugiyanto.

The consistent determination of the Las Madres Plaza de Mayo had a huge impact on the struggle against involuntary disappearances around the world. The movement inspired other generations—not just in Latin America—but all over the world. The politics of the Argentinian mothers also encouraged the birth of the Convention Against Forced Disappearances, which was ratified by the United Nations General Assembly on December 19, 2006. Indonesia, says Mugiyanto, has yet to sign, let alone ratify this convention. “That is what we are pushing for,” he said.

Abdul Manan, Shinta Eka P.

Tempo Magazine, No. 37/VIII/May 13-19, 2008

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