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Defending Human Rights
Indonesian human rights groups proved to be a critical force for political change, if only through their repeated demands for accountability. The efforts of a nongovernmental group called the Volunteer Team for Humanity to document rapes of ethnic Chinese women in May led directly to the creation of a Commission on Violence Against Women in October. Evidence compiled by Kontras, the coalition set up to investigate “disappearances” of activists, was directly responsible for the investigation of senior officers from the army special forces, Kopassus, which in turn fueled public debate about the role of the armed forces. Human rights defendersin Aceh and Irian Jaya used their evidence of abuses during counterinsurgency operations to help secure promises of troop withdrawals from both regions.

During the critical months of March, April, and May as student protests escalated, human rights defenders were on the front line, using cell phones to keep international human rights organizations and the media informed of day-to-day developments. Every time another protestor was arrested or a political meeting broken up, human rights lawyers would draw attention to the arbitrariness of state actions in a way that ratcheted up the demands for political reform. Their actions, together with the very powerful statements from the National Human Rights Commission on the need to check abuses of power, also helped ensure that human rights would have to be a high priority for any post-Soeharto government desirous of public support.

Human rights defenders were also crucial in securing a role for the nongovernmental community in the World Bank’s efforts to establish a social safety net for Indonesia but also in demanding that the bank be more accountable for past “slippage” in loans due to corruption.

Even after Soeharto’s resignation, some human rights defenders faced serious harassment. The head of Kontras, Munir, received almost constant threats as he was compiling information on the “disappeared.” Father Sandyawan Sumardi, head of the Volunteer Team for Humanity, and Ita Nadia of the women’s rights group Kalyanamitra were targeted in particular in July, August, and September for their work on behalf of ethnic Chinese rape victims. Some harassment came from the conservative Muslim organization, KISDI, which earlier in the year had been linked to Soeharto’s son-in-law, Prabowo.

Indonesians played an increasingly high-profile role in defending rights abuses abroad. In August, three Indonesians from Jakarta-based advocacy groups were arrested with eighteen others in Burma as they tried to distribute leaflets to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the crushing of the 1988 pro-democracy uprising. After Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim was arrested in Malaysia in September, Indonesian human rights lawyers organized a delegation to go to Kuala Lumpur to make representations on his behalf.





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