Markus Junianto Sihaloho & Ismira Lutfia
Every Thursday afternoon without fail, they turn up outside the front gates of the State Palace in Central Jakarta, a group of just over a dozen elderly people.
Among them is Maria Catarina Sumarsih, the mother of Benardinus Realino Norma Irawan, one of the university students shot and killed by the military in the Semanggi shooting in November 1998, during the heady days of transition in the months after Suharto’s downfall.
Seventeen civilians were killed during that three-day period, but the crime was never resolved and the perpetrators never brought to justice.
“After so many years the [police] dossier on the case was rejected by the Attorney General’s Office,” Sumarsih says. “At the House of Representatives too, our case has languished. But as the families of the victims, we demand that the third agenda of the reform era, which is supremacy of law, be upheld.”
So to press their case, Sumarsih and her group have for years gathered outside the palace once a week to call for a full resolution of the Semanggi incident as well as other human rights abuses committed under Suharto’s New Order regime.
Known as “Kamisan” (Kamis is Indonesian for Thursday), the group takes its inspiration from the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina who struggled to get to the truth of the forced abductions of their children.
For Sumarsih, the Kamisan movement is meant to keep the past violations in the national conscience in order to prevent a greater crime — that of forgetting.
Silence is tarnished
“If we stayed quiet, the government would also remain silent and there would be no attempt to bring these cases to justice,” she says.
Forgetting, she adds, is a typical Indonesian trait to bury the ghosts of the past rather than confront them.
“The slaughter of 1965 [of suspected communists] remains forgotten and unresolved. Sooner or later, so will the events of 1998,” Sumarsih says.
This is already happening, she argues. She cites the case of Prabowo Subianto, the commander of the Army’s notorious Kopassus special forces during the tumultuous early months of 1998 leading up to Suharto’s resignation.
Though tarred with allegations of human rights abuses, coupled with his family ties to the strongman, Prabowo has since reinvented himself as a populist politician.
He founded the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) in 2008, and a year later it won enough votes to join the House. A year later, Prabowo joined the presidential election as the running mate to Megawati Sukarnoputri. The pair finished second to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Boediono.
Sumarsih says that what really outraged the Kamisan participants was that some polls now name Prabowo as the favorite to win the 2014 presidential election.
“We asked the pollsters why this was, and they said that they didn’t take the candidates’ past human rights records into account when formulating the questions for the poll,” she says. “Imagine that. If researchers have already forgotten about it, what about ordinary people? Forgetfulness is how these people cover their crimes and stay in power.”
Price of freedom?
For Sumarsih and the other families, the true reform will come when those responsible for past atrocities are finally held accountable.
“A court trial will be the true measure of the country’s progress, proof that Indonesia upholds democracy, supremacy of law and human rights,” she says.
The rest of the world thinks, however, Indonesia has already made progress on that front. It is listed as a “free” country in the Freedom in the World 2012 report from US-based rights watch group Freedom House. The report defines a free country as one where there is open political competition, a climate of respect for civil liberties, significant independent civic life and independent media.
Human Rights Watch has also acknowledged the strides made since Suharto’s downfall, including greater protection for freedom of expression, the birth of a civil society and independent media.
“And obviously, no more atrocities, killings and disappearances,” says Elaine Pearson, HRW’s deputy director for Asia.
But democracy and freedom of expression have come at a cost, particularly in the rising tide of religious violence, which Pearson says has “actually gotten a lot worse than in the Suharto era.”
“I think under Suharto, everyone was suppressed equally, including the Islamists,” she says.
She says freedom of expression has emboldened Islamic hard-liners to push their own demands, including a crackdown on the Ahmadiyah sect they consider heretical.
In the past four years, at least 30 Ahmadiyah mosques have been forced to close while violence against religious minorities including the Ahmadis has increased dramatically, Pearson says.
A study by the Setara Institute showed the number of attacks almost doubled from 135 in 2007 to 244 in 2011.
The government claims it has addressed the problem of the anti-Ahmadiyah violence through a joint ministerial decree issued in 2008 that “regulates the proselytization of the Ahmadis as well as call on people to forbid any level of violence against religious groups.”
However, Pearson says the decree fails to address the fact, or the reality that the police are siding with the militants on the grounds of supporting harmony in the community.
“I was in Indonesia last November and visited an Ahmadiyah mosque in Bekasi. The imam told me that the mosque had been there for 30 years and prior to 2005, non-Ahmadiyah actually came to that mosque and prayed,” she says. “However, as a result of the decree, the militants started threatening members of the community and the mosque was forced to close.”
Banning these militants groups is not the solution, Pearson insists. She says watchdogs like HRW want better law enforcement to stop the militants from abusing their freedom of expression by threatening violence or inciting criminal action against all minority groups.
“It is problematic when a situation turns to violence and people start breaking down the door to interrupt, whether it is a press conference, a congregation of people praying, and they physically beat and assault people,” she says. “There should be repercussions for that but there aren’t any.”
Don’t be fooled
The government’s report for the Universal Periodic Review at the United Nations Human Rights Council on May 23 states that the promotion and protection of human rights is a “continuous process and that there are still challenges on issues like religious freedom.”
Mainstreaming human rights issues by improving coordination between all stakeholders including relevant ministries and agencies is among the challenges cited, as well as further harmonization of the inconsistencies between regional bylaws and the higher national laws.
But the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras) says that these are only “government claims” to protect religious harmony.
“[Other] countries should not be fooled when Christians and Ahmadis are under pressure every day to close their places of worship,” says Haris Azhar, the Kontras coordinator.
He also calls for the repeal of a decree on houses of worship, which largely makes it hard for Christians and other minority congregations to build churches.
“Revoking discriminatory laws and upholding basic rights would be the best way of ensuring religious harmony,” he says.
Fourteen years ago this week, Indonesia was besieged by riots that led to the fall of President Suharto. In this special five-day series, we take a look at the changes Indonesia has seen since then, and whether they were worth the price.