Indonesia at a threshold: reinventing the human rights movement

For much of the last century, Indonesia was considered a pariah state, isolated from the rest of the world due to its horrendous human rights track record. This changed in 1998, in great part thanks to the efforts of the Indonesian human rights movement, but now the country is at a threshold once again. Where many neighbouring countries are backsliding when it comes to human rights, Indonesia seems to be pulled into both directions. In a battle between fundamentalist and progressive groups amongst a population of over 250 million people, the country needs its human rights defenders to rise up, to maintain what has been gained over the last decades and to move forward in the process of democratisation. However, to have an impact the movement will need to reinvent itself once again.

After the attempted coup and the violent anti-communist cleanse in 1965-1966, which cost the lives of an estimated one million people, Indonesia was ruled for more than 30 years by General Suharto. His New Order regime was widely known for brutal human rights violations, including the deaths of 90,000 to 100,000 in Timor Leste during the Indonesian occupation. Even though the atrocities of Suharto were public knowledge, until the end of his rule he counted on the support of many in the international community. Many brave human rights activists who stood up against the regime paid for their defiance in the form of long-term imprisonment, torture, being disappeared or being killed.

Wikimedia Commons/Ministry of Defense of the Republic of Indonesia/(Some Rights Reserved).

Trisakti University students and police forces clash in May 1998.

All of this changed in 1998 due to a combination of factors, most notably: the rigged elections of 1997 catered to Suharto gaining his seventh five-year term as president; the 1997 financial crisis; and an increase in fuel prices—which proved to be the final straw. Led by students and human rights activists, thousands took to the streets. On 21 May 1998 General Suharto was forced to resign after over three decades in power.

The following Reformasi era has been hailed for its democratisation process and economic growth. Where many expected Indonesia to fall victim to ‘Balkanisation’, instead it became a reasonably functioning democracy and arguably the moral compass of the region. However, many challenges remain, such as the continuous influence of the military in the country, widespread corruption, and social and economic inequality. Current President Joko Widodo, also known as Jokowi, raised high expectations that he would address the human rights challenges, but not much has been done so far. Combined with growing fundamentalism and sectarianism, Indonesia once again is in dire need of a human rights movement for change.  

"The response to human rights issues in current day Indonesia is not the same as it was two decades ago."

However, the response to human rights issues in current day Indonesia is not the same as it was two decades ago. Some people in the human rights community, such as Novri Susan say, among other things, that the democratic gains acquired have made the movement less vigilant. Other colleagues, such as Willy Purna Samadhi, argue that the lack of a clear “enemy” or “oppressor”, has made it harder to reach the broad audiences needed to regain legitimacy. Whatever the cause, in order to reinvent itself and grow once more, the human rights movement needs new faces, new energy and new ideas.

In Indonesia different initiatives over recent years have tried to do just that. One of these is the annual campaign to commemorate and continue to call for justice for human rights and anti-corruption activist Munir Said Thalib. Munir was poisoned on a flight from Jakarta to Amsterdam in 2004. A yearly campaign on the anniversary of his death has grown and expanded to include cartoons, music and social media campaigns. This has not only ensured that the call for justice for Munir is kept alive, but it has also broadened the scope of people involved, including artists, musicians, and comedians, making it easier to bridge the gap between human rights activists and the general public.  

The establishment of Ingat65—an online storytelling platform about the 1965-66 killings in Indonesia—is another example of human rights innovation. The 1965-66 killings are still taboo in Indonesia, and until the end of the New Order regime, most people learned about what happened through school textbooks or the movie Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI, which justified and glorified the killings and were obligatory elements of the educational curriculum. While this has since changed, attempts at public discussions about 1965-66 are still met with great hostility from conservative elements in society. Younger generations in particular know little about what happened. What makes Ingat65 different is that it was established by and filled with stories from young people, many born a long time after the killings, sharing how 1965-66 affected their lives. While still small, this movement has added a new generation of activists questioning what happened and demanding justice.

A recent movie about Wiji Thukul—a poet and activist who disappeared in 1998—has been another attempt to bring the issue of past human rights violations on the radar of young Indonesians. Istirahatlah Kata Kata (‘Solo, Solitude’) was produced as a commercial movie and released in 2016, including in more than 20 cinemas in the country. Here again, the tackling of a subject which is still considered to be taboo, has been significant in itself.

However, not all efforts need to be innovative. In some cases, tried-and-tested methods need to be continued and promoted. Kamisan, for example, is a weekly protest held every Thursday in front of the Presidential Palace, instigated in 2007. Originally initiated by activists, victims of past human rights violations, and their families, the protests are known for their silence, black attire and black umbrellas. While not a new tactic, the consistency with which these protests have taken place over the last ten years has made them a staple of the human rights movement in Indonesia. The simplicity and repetitiveness make it easy for people to join, and more and more young people have been doing exactly that in recent years. More importantly, the opportunity to engage directly, and hear from victims of human rights violations and their loved ones in person, provides a human element for those that join for the first time. This activity has been amplified by social networking platforms, which make it easier to reach out to new supporters.

As forces are pulling the country into the direction of polarisation and radicalisation, we will need many more initiatives to be able to ensure Indonesia continues on the journey it started in 1998. A large component of that will need to be countering the narrative of hatred and polarisation, which is being propagated by some of the fundamentalist groups in the country. The human rights movement will need to find a way to reconnect with the broader society to raise knowledge about human rights, particularly the generation that was born after 1998. Part of the challenge will be to convince people of the importance of human rights before new human rights violations come to bear. It seems that the human rights movement will need to roll up its sleeves once again.