Carmel Budiardjo was born in Britain in 1925 and gained a degree in economics from the London School of Economics in 1946. She went to Indonesia in 1952 after marrying an Indonesian government official, Suwondo Budiardjo, in Prague where she worked at the Secretariat of the International Union of Students. Between 1955 - 1965, Carmel Budiardjo worked as an economics researcher at the Indonesian department of Foreign Affairs in Jakarta and was active in a left-wing organisation of academics, the HSI, and in the Indonesian Communist Party.
In 1965, she was dismissed from the Foreign Ministry after the army took power under General Suharto. Her husband was imprisoned for ‘political offences’ in 1968 and she was also arrested and held without trial for three years until November 1971, when she was released and expelled from Indonesia. Her husband remained in prison for a further seven years until 1978.
In 1973, Carmel helped to found TAPOL, the British Campaign for the Release of Indonesian Political Prisoners. Its mission was to secure the freedom of the tens of thousands of political prisoners she left behind, almost all of whom were held without trial as communist suspects after the anti-communist crackdown in 1965 (the word tapol is a contraction of two Indonesian words tahanan politik meaning ‘political prisoner’). Carmel has since been the mainstay of TAPOL for over 35 years, with a small staff and dedicated volunteers.
Over the years, TAPOL has broadened its mandate to promote peace and democracy and highlight the plight of victims of all forms of oppression throughout Indonesia and East Timor, changing its name in the process to TAPOL, the British Campaign for the Defence of Political Prisoners and Human Rights in Indonesia (1980), to TAPOL, the Indonesia Human Rights Campaign (1987), and TAPOL (with the strap-line Promoting human rights peace and democracy in Indonesa) (2007).
Carmel Budiardjo and TAPOL were frequently vilified throughout the 1970s by Indonesian government officials for their consistent exposure of the harsh treatment of the political prisoners and the 1965/66 massacres that killed at least half-a-million people for their alleged support of, or association with, the leftwing movement. In 1975, Carmel was involved in the production of a documentary about the political prisoners called More Than a Million Years.
In August of the same year, TAPOL warned that an Indonesian invasion of the former Portuguese colony of East Timor would bring bloodshed and terror. The invasion occurred four months later with the predicted consequences.
Under Carmel’s leadership, TAPOL has campaigned against economic aid and arms exports to Indonesia, as well as all forms of human rights abuses, including media censorship, the abuse of labour rights and social and economic injustices. TAPOL has worked with a network of contacts in Indonesia and has made representations on a variety of issues to the British Government, the European Union and UN Human Rights bodies.
Carmel has been quoted and interviewed regularly by the media in Britain and internationally. She has written several books with co-author Liem Soei Liong, including: The War Against East Timor; West Papua: The Obliteration of a People; and Muslims on Trial. Her account of her experiences in prison in Indonesia, Surviving Indonesia’s Gulag, was published in January 1996.
The TAPOL Bulletin was published regularly between 1973 and 2008 when it was suspended in favour of the publication of online materials. It was recognised as the leading English-language authority on the human rights situation in Indonesia and Carmel’s contribution was praised by East Timor’s Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in its 2005 report: ‘Tapol campaigned primarily through the publication of its newsletter, whose regularity, longevity and professionalism was the envy of other activists, and whose distinctive contribution was its reportage based on Indonesian sources. Tapol and its newsletter owed much to the initiative of Carmel Budiardjo, herself a former political prisoner in Indonesia and Liem Soei Liong, an Indonesian living in exile in the Netherlands. They reached a wide international network through the newsletter and speaking tours abroad, including to the UN. They also built a solid support network in Britain comprising a cross section of distinguished patrons.’
In 1995, Carmel Budiardjo was awarded the Right Livelihood Award (unofficially known as the ‘alternative Nobel Peace Prize’), which was established in Stockholm and is presented in the Swedish Parliament ‘to honour and support those offering practical and exemplary answers to the most urgent challenges facing us today’. The Award Foundation citation stated:
‘Carmel Budiardjo has found in the repression suffered by her and her husband at the hands of the Indonesian Government the energy and dedication to campaign for over twenty years for Indonesian political prisoners and the oppressed and slaughtered people of East Timor. The jury honours her ‘for holding the Indonesian Government to account for its actions and upholding the universality of fundamental human rights.’
In the same year, Carmel received a certificate in acknowledgement of her activities from the Indonesian human rights organisation PIJAR and the following year was recognised by a coalition of Achenese NGOs: ‘Never in History So Many Owe So Much To So Few [sic] (Winston Chruchill): In the Intenationalization of the Acheh Conflict, Carmel Budiardjo of TAPOL is definitely an ace among these few.’
More recently, Carmel’s articles and advocacy have been largely devoted to drawing attention to the plight of the West Papuan people, whose territory formally became part of Indonesia following a fraudulent Act of Free Choice in 1969. In 2008, she was the first recipient of the John Rumbiak Human Rights Defenders Award, which honours a Papuan who, until suffering a debilitating stroke in 2005 was a leading voice in the defence of Papuan human rights: ‘Ms Budiardjo is a legendary defender of human rights for the people of the Indonesian archipelago, whose activism and advocacy extends back four decades. In particular, she has been a leading champion of rights for the Papuan people, working with great success to mobilize the international community in their defence.’
In August 2009, on the tenth anniversary of East Timor's vote for independence, Carmel was presented with the Order of Timor-Leste by the country's President, José Ramos-Horta, "For her Impressive Contribution to Peace, to the Timorese People and to Humanity."