TAPOL: 25 years and still going strong

30 Oct 1998

TAPOL's 25th anniversary comes just months after the downfall of the Indonesian dictator, Suharto. A glance back at what we have tried to do provides an insight into the depth and persistence of gross human rights violations suffered by people living under Indonesian rule. It will help identify the tasks which lie ahead as Indonesia struggles to create a democratic country

It was in June 1973 that, for the first time, a small group of people demonstrated outside the Indonesian embassy in London's Grosvenor Square, to protest against the continued detention without trial of tens of thousands of Indonesian political prisoners held since Suharto seized power in 1965. In the late sixties, several MPs and left-wing activists, among them the late Arthur Clegg and Stan Newens MP (now a member of the European Parliament), had been to the embassy, spoken out in Parliament and written to the press condemning the massacres instigated by Suharto, which left up to a million people dead, but no one was listening. Eight years after Suharto came to power, a campaign to expose the brutalities of Indonesia's Orde Baru (New Order) rulers was clearly long overdue.

The occasion of our first demonstration was the meeting of the international aid consortium, the IGGI. We urged Indonesia's western financiers to stop propping up a regime whose hands were steeped in blood. They have been at it ever since, and so have we.

The action was supported by people from various political parties, from the trade unions, churches and the film world; it prompted a group of MPs to table a motion in the Commons. Encouraged by this and armed with a striking emblem designed by an Indonesian living in London, Taunus Kemasang, we decided to turn ourselves into a permanent campaigning body, then called the British Campaign for the Release of Indonesian Political Prisoners. The choice of 'tapol', a contraction of tahanan politik or 'political prisoner', as our name was intended to popularise a new word that entered the Indonesian vocabulary after 1965.

Under attack
Despite our modest beginnings and a scruffy-looking newsletter, it was not long before the Jakarta regime began to vilify us. In June 1974, the Indonesian Defence Department refuted TAPOL's condemnation of the use of tapols as forced labour, working for private companies and public works projects; they admitted that such practices had occurred but they had now been ended. In August 1974, the Department again held a press conference, this time to denounce TAPOL and one of its founders, Carmel Budiardjo, herself a recently released tapol, for 'creating misunderstandings' about the treatment of tapols and for seeking to discredit the Indonesian government. A month later they were at it again, to announce that the word tapol was now banned because Indonesia 'does not hold any political prisoners', only persons who have broken the law (even though there was not enough evidence to prove it!).

At the time, it was estimated that there were still 70,000 to 100,000 political prisoners in prisons, detention centres and labour camps across the length and breadth of the country. The vast majority were classified as 'B' category, who would not be brought to trial for lack of evidence but who could not be released because they were 'known to have been directly or indirectly involved' in the events of 30 September 1965. The armed forces were in charge, with special powers vested in KOPKAMTIB, the Operational Command for the Restoration of Security and Order headed by Suharto. There was no serious attempt by KOPKAMTIB or anyone else in the regime to quantify the number of prisoners. The facts were shrouded in cynicism and mystery. Attorney General Major-General Sugih Arto airily dismissed journalists' queries: 'The figure fluctuates like the rate of the yen against the dollar.'

Pressure begins to bear fruit
By late 1975 however, the pressure on Jakarta was beginning to bear fruit. For the first time, a release plan was announced. It was a slippery beast, changing shape and substance from day to day. However, after 'ten long years' - to borrow the title of a drama written and produced by Roger Hibbitt and others in the TAPOL collective and shown at a London theatre for three nights running to packed houses - the military now realised that Indonesia desperately needed financial support which could be jeopardised by its notoriety as the world's worst violator of human rights and identified as such by Amnesty International.

While TAPOL can claim part of the credit, there were many factors forcing the U-turn. The dictatorship was facing its first serious financial crisis when the state oil company, Pertamina, needed a bail-out for indebtedness resulting from corrupt deals amounting to $10 billion (in the middle of an oil boom!). Indonesia faced annual condemnation at the International Labour Organisation for its contravention of ILO Convention 29 on Forced Labour, in particular because of the horrific revelations about conditions at the forced-labour camp on Buru Island where tens of thousands of 'B' category tapols were now living and dying. The IGGI's bankrolling had by now reached $2,400 million a year and some member states, notably Holland which chaired the consortium, were under pressure from domestic public opinion. In London, TAPOL held a rally at St Martin's-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square to protest against the Queen's visit to Indonesia in March 1974.

After a slow start and much foot-dragging, the release of 'B' category prisoners was more or less completed by the end of 1979, though the conditions of release rendered the ex-tapols second-class citizens, with few civil rights to speak of, hostage to a regime which needed to keep alive the spectre of the 'communist menace'.

Broadening the campaign
But TAPOL had moved with the times. Already in 1974, it started campaigning on behalf of students arrested for demonstrating against the visiting Japanese Prime Minister. In June 1975, it turned its attention to massacres in West Papua, and in October that year, warned in its Bulletin of the impending aggression against East Timor and the bloodshed and terror this would entail.

While continuing to report the trials of dozens of 'A' category prisoners charged in connection with the 1965 events or for trying to re-establish the unlawfully banned communist party, there was also extensive coverage in our Bulletin of the student trials.

The campaign also turned its attention to atrocities in West Papua. The first report we published came from a Dutch newspaper account of massacres in Biak that had occurred in June 1970. Following the invasion of East Timor, TAPOL provided regular reports of news that managed to breach the almost total information blackout.

A constant theme was condemnation of British arms sales to Indonesia. In April 1978, British Aerospace announced its first contract to supply Indonesia with eight Hawk ground-attack aircraft. TAPOL launched a major campaign, writing to all Labour Party branches throughout the country - the contract had been licensed by the Labour Government then in power - and initiated questions and motions in both houses of Parliament. Since then, we have campaigned ceaselessly against British arms sales to Indonesia, building alliances with other UK organisations such as Campaign Against Arms Trade and the World Development Movement. In the past few years, with the help of documentation from activists in Indonesia, we have be the source for several major TV documentaries exposing Britain's arming of the Indonesian armed forces.

At the beginning of 1980 we decided to change the name of our campaign to the British Campaign for the Defence of Political Prisoners and Human Rights in Indonesia, to reflect the broader remit we had already assumed for several years.

TAPOL under attack from the FEER
While TAPOL saw itself as a small ginger-group working with limited resources and for the first five years with no full-time staff, the Indonesian regime clearly saw us as a dangerous menace. As the release programme gathered pace, there was pressure on us to abandon our campaign, the assertion being that since we had been set up to campaign for the release of the 1965 prisoners, there was no justification for us to continue. The pressure came from an unexpected quarter, the Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review, read widely throughout the region in business, academic and government circles.

During 1979, the weekly had published several letters from TAPOL but never without an editorial rejoinder or response from Yusuf Wanandi, Deputy-Director of Jakarta's Centre for Strategic and International Studies, the regime's think-tank. Then in April 1980, the editor, Derek Davies, wrote to all the sponsors whose names appeared on our letter-head, suggesting that, now that the mass release of prisoners had taken place, it was time 'for the Society to wind itself up' and asking whether they were willing to 'go on sponsoring the political activities of Mrs Budiardjo'.

This shameless attempt by an influential mainstream publication to shut us down had the finger-prints of Jakarta all over it. When, in response to defamatory articles published by the journal, two responses were sent, one a personal letter on plain paper from Carmel answering slurs on her and her husband and the other from TAPOL and signed by all the members of the collective, which dealt at length with the journal's charges against the organisation, Carmel's letter was published as if it had been written on our headed notepaper and TAPOL - whose letter was not published - was accused by the editor of failing to respond to the charges made! Since the editor reigns supreme in any publication, we were left with no way to expose this blatant deception. Many supporters wrote letters in our defence which were not published.

We could hardly have needed further evidence that our work was upsetting the regime, which gave us every encouragement to continue.

In November 1979, Suharto made a state visit to London. TAPOL mounted several protests, the largest being outside the Guildhall where the Indonesian dictator addressed a state banquet. A TAPOL poster produced for the occasion and pasted in many places throughout the capital showed Suharto, surrounded by skulls, wielding a knife. The text read:

The Butcher of Jakarta:

Suharto's Slaughterhouse,

Indonesia: One million dead, 600,000 arrested.

East Timor, 100,000 dead

West Papua/New Guinea, 90,000 dead

No one in Indonesia was using such strong language in those days but today it is on many people's lips.

The 1980s nadir
Once the regime had extricated itself from the Pertamina crisis, Suharto set about consolidating his grip on Indonesian society. The students had been rendered voiceless with the banning of student councils and the 'normalisation of campus life' in 1978. In 1983 and 1984, army and police death-squads killed at least 5,000 'criminal suspects' and left most of the bodies lying in the streets. Although this became known at the time as petrus or 'mysterious killings', Suharto acknowledged some years later in his autobiography that he had personally given the order for the campaign as a 'shock therapy'. Our attempts to persuade the British government to condemn Indonesia's head of state for having ordered this bloodthirsty campaign were fobbed off with casuistic arguments about reading his words too literally.

By this time, Britain was so steeped in the business of selling arms to Indonesia that the Thatcher Government was not about to say anything that might upset the dictator. At a state banquet during a visit to Indonesia in April 1985, Margaret Thatcher enthused about her host, the dictator, whose troops had by then slaughtered 200,000 East Timorese: 'Our cultures are different but when it comes to defending independence and freedom, we are at one with you,' she said.

In 1985, the five political laws on political parties, the elections and social organisations were enacted, casting the New Order political system into a mould that was intended to keep Suharto in power for ever. The state dogma, Pancasila, was now enforced as the 'sole principle' for all organisations.

The most vociferous opposition to these laws came from Muslims who used the mosques to snipe at the policy. As a way of teaching them a lesson, an incident was provoked at a mosque in Jakarta's harbour district, Tanjung Priok, in September 1984 resulting in a mass demonstration calling for the release of four mosque officials who were being held by the police. Army units opened fire killing hundreds of people. Despite calls from the dissident group, Petisi 50, for an inquiry, the massacre was quickly swept under the carpet at home and by the international community.

There were scores of trials of Muslims during the following two years, many of whose victims are still in gaol today. Given the scale of these human rights violations, TAPOL undertook a major investigation of its own which was published by TAPOL in 1986 in a book titled: Indonesia: Muslims on Trial. Two years later, the book was banned from circulation in Indonesia by the Attorney General's office, by which time however, it had been translated into Indonesian and given much wider circulation. We recently decided to re-issue the Indonesian version, now that many human rights groups and Muslim groups in Indonesia are calling for a thorough investigation of the Tanjung Priok massacre and the release of all the Muslim political prisoners.

Executions resumed
Along with the many other issues it was dealing with, TAPOL continued to focus on the scores of tapols held for alleged involvement in the 1965 events. These were people who had been tried in kangaroo trials bent on reinforcing the Suharto version that those events were masterminded by the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). The January 1980 issue of TAPOL Bulletin was devoted to an analysis of the trials and the political background, the events of 1965 which had brought Suharto to power.

Analysing the 1965 affair has been a common theme in TAPOL Bulletins throughout the 25 years of our existence. In 1995, we published Tragedi Manusia dan Kemanusiaan (A Human Tragedy) by M.R. Siregar, a PKI functionary for many years in North Sumatra, on the 1965 events and the political events leading up to it.

Dozens of convicted tapols had been sentenced to death, but there had been no executions since around 1970, leading some to think that the regime had relented and would 'forgive and forget'. The Dutch Government had even been given an assurance that there would be no more executions, although human rights lawyer Buyung Nasution told TAPOL that as long as the sentences had not been commuted, such assurances were meaningless. In May 1985 he was proved correct when the trade union leader Munir was executed after being in prison for nearly 20 years. More executions followed during the remainder of the 1980s, despite worldwide condemnation, including a resolution adopted by the European Parliament, the first of many adopted by that body.

At the end of 1987, we decided to change our name once again to The Indonesia Human Rights Campaign. Although much of our energies were, and still are, spent campaigning in the UK, our contacts, the reach of our information and many of our campaigns had by then become much more worldwide.

East Timor
From the start, East Timor's struggle for independence attracted support from pro-independence solidarity groups in many countries. But after what appeared at the time to be the virtual elimination of armed resistance in 1979, international solidarity waned and many groups disbanded. TAPOL continued to pursue the issue, and filled the pages of many issues of the Bulletin with information on the human rights situation in East Timor. It is no exaggeration to say that in those bleak years, TAPOL, along with dedicated activists in Australia, shouldered the burden of keeping the issue alive as far as international solidarity was concerned.

In 1979, we published An Act of Genocide: Indonesia's Invasion of East Timor by Arnie Kohen and John Taylor. A staff member went to Australia in 1982 to testify before Senate hearings on East Timor. We regularly testified at the UN Decolonisation Committee in New York and published a number of supplements to TAPOL Bulletin on human rights and the military operations in East Timor. It was then that we established our reputation for broadening our coverage on East Timor by analysing Indonesian military strategy in the illegally occupied territory.

In 1988, we supported the efforts of one of our most committed supporters, Eric Avebury, member of the House of Lords, to set up Parliamentarians for East Timor. The following year a Labour MP, Ann Clwyd, visited East Timor and became one of the most fervent advocates of the rights of the people of East Timor.

The Santa Cruz massacre in November 1991 and the dramatic footage taken by British cameraman Max Stahl, thrust East Timor onto TV screens around the world, making it for the first time a major issue which western powers could no longer afford to ignore. For months, we found ourselves in a swirl of activity, receiving, translating, analysing information on a scale that stretched our resources to the limits. We helped organise a very successful hearing in Parliament at which several foreign witnesses of the massacre testified. The massacre inspired groups in many countries to campaign for East Timor, joining ranks with groups in Canada, Japan and Australia that had emerged a few years earlier. The international solidarity movement for East Timor was now a living force.

During the Falklands (Malvinas) War in 1982 and the Gulf War in 1991, TAPOL argued repeatedly with the British Government about the hypocrisy of its response to these crises as compared to its muted concern about Indonesia's far graver act of aggression against East Timor, as compared with Argentina or Iraq.

West Papua and Aceh
Throughout its many years of campaigning, the massive abuses in these territories have always been uppermost in TAPOL's mind. To the regime these were 'zones of trouble' where 'security disrupter gangs' (GPK) operated, To us, they were regions with deep-rooted grievances against Indonesian rule and massive human rights violations. Given their different histories, their struggles against Indonesian rule have enjoyed very different levels of international solidarity.

In 1984, a flare-up of discontent in Jayapura led to thousands of West Papuans fleeing across the border to Papua New Guinea where many of them still live as refugees. The arrest and murder in custody of Arnold Ap, anthropologist and promoter of West Papuan culture, also drew attention to the simmering discontent in West Papua. TAPOL became a voice for the West Papuan refugees in PNG and lobbied hard for them with the UN High Commission for Refugees. A book published by TAPOL in May 1983, West Papua: The Obliteration of a People was so popular that it went into three editions. For a decade or more, information from West Papua was hard to find until the mid 1990s when resistance to the US-UK copper and gold mine, Freeport re-emerged and with it, massive abuses that were documented and disseminated in Indonesia and abroad by the Catholic Church and local NGOs.

When members of a scientific exhibition were kidnapped by the OPM (Organisasi Papua Merdeka) in Mapnduma, east of the Freeport mine, in 1996, TAPOL did what it could to persuade the OPM to release the hostages, whilst using the event to increase public awareness about the injustices of West Papua's annexation by Indonesia. Our contact with activists in Jayapura has grown by leaps and bounds since then. With the resurgence of demands for independence for West Papua since the downfall of Suharto, more and more people are being arrested and tried for rebellion. The number of tapols in West Papua is now increasing faster than anywhere excepting East Timor.

At the other end of the archipelago, Aceh on the northern tip of Sumatra (devoutly Muslim, unlike the Christian populations of East Timor and West Papua) was also an arena for resistance to rule from Jakarta. Whilst East Timor and West Papua have enjoyed varying degrees of attention from the international community, Aceh has been virtually ignored in spite of a veritable tidal wave of information about massive human rights abuses during the eighties and especially from 1989 until 1992. Much of what TAPOL reported in those years has come back to haunt us, now that the veil of silence and fear has been lifted with the downfall of Suharto, and the Acehnese are coming forward in their thousands to testify about what happened during those years of unmitigated terror.

While all these ghastly abuses were going on which TAPOL regularly reported to the Foreign Office, there was no let-up in British support for the Suharto regime, manifested first and foremost by the constant flow of military equipment - combat aircraft, naval vessels, rapier missiles, electronic - to bolster the Indonesian armed forces in the pursuit of its internal security operations.

TAPOL has campaigned hard to protect the many hundreds of Acehnese who fled to Malaysia to seek political asylum. The Mahathir government has remained deaf to pleas for the UN High Commission for Refugees to be allowed to assess their claims for political asylum. In violation of international law hundreds of been forcibly repatriated. We now work closely with Suaram in Kuala Lumpur, to publicise the plight of these refugees.

Offering a broader analysis
It was also during the 1980s that TAPOL began to provide a broader analysis of the political and economic situation in Indonesia, while maintaining its focus on human rights. We felt that the abuses of the regime could not be properly understood without an analysis of the workings of the Suharto regime, its shifts in political alliances, its economic policies and its burgeoning dependence on foreign aid. We have also published profiles of the figures who Suharto has relied on, and discarded, in pursuit of lasting power and to satisfy the greed of his coterie of offspring and cronies. Some of those we profiled are now yesterday's men, hardly worth a footnote in history, while others, notably B.J. Habibie, a Suharto protegé, now has the unenviable task of trying to extricate Indonesia from its ever-worsening economic crisis.

We also have devoted much space to interviewing East Timorese and West Papuans whose accounts have added flesh and blood to the reports that have filled the pages of our periodical publication.

In 1986, we produced jointly with Survival International a special issue of The Ecologist devoted to Indonesia's transmigration programme and it deleterious impact on the land rights and livelihoods of the native people at the receiving end of this programme. This led in the following year to the establishment of Down-to-Earth, a campaign to promote ecological justice in Indonesia. Down-to-Earth is now a flourishing campaign with a newsletter of its own focusing on tribal peoples, mining, pollution and forestry.

Since 1995, we have carried out research on key aspects of Britain's relationship with Indonesia. This resulted in a pamphlet, Partners in Repression: The Reality of British Aid to Indonesia. The next project focused on British investments in Indonesia which was published in a briefing titled: Ethics, Investments and Repression: Britain and Indonesia - the Test for Government and Business, at the time of the Second ASEM conference in London in April 1997. We have also worked closely with Ann Clwyd MP who has pursued British governments, Conservative and Labour, relentlessly on their aid programme, their training of the Indonesian police and the continuing flow of military equipment to the Indonesian armed forces. In alliance with academics and students at Kings College in London, we succeeded in preventing a training course for Kopassus officers from going ahead in 1996.

We have submitted comments to several parliamentary Select Committees and keep a number of MPs from all parties informed about developments in Indonesia.

Keeping going

As a campaign without a membership structure or local branches, TAPOL has depended primarily on networking with organisations and groups in Indonesia, with NGOs in the UK and with solidarity groups around the world.

For the first two decades, networking in Indonesia was virtually impossible because TAPOL was branded as 'PKI' and few groups wanted to risk being associated with us. While PKI prisoners and released prisoners were no doubt grateful for our efforts, few were prepared to say so, for fear of adding to their problems in a society where the 'communist menace' was (and still is) a constant theme of regime propaganda.

Since the mid the 1990s however, things have changed dramatically. During the past decade, our links with many groups in Indonesia have flourished as 'PKI' scare-mongering has ceased to impress a new generation of activists untrammelled by the fears that haunted their predecessors and who can see for themselves that TAPOL is not, and indeed never was, an offshoot of the PKI. Our links with the new generation of NGOs and political groupings have been enhanced by several visits to Indonesia by staff-member Liem Soei Liong, who managed to enter the country despite being blacklisted. (His most recent attempt was foiled by none other than the ABRI commander himself.)

Our links with pro-democracy NGOs and political groups which had been well established in the final years of the New Order have flourished in the post-Suharto period. We are working with them on activities to broaden understanding in Indonesia about the situation in occupied East Timor, on pressing for the re-writing of the history (pelurusan sejarah) of 1965 and Suharto's seizure of power as well as campaigns to press for the release of all political prisoners, without discrimination.

In the UK, we have for many years worked closely with a number of organisations such as Campaign Against Arms Trade, the Parliamentary Human Rights Group, World Development Movement, Survival International, Partizans, to mention but a few. This has been the most effective way of reaching out to the British public.

Internationally, we are part of the worldwide solidarity movement for East Timor, with groups supporting the struggle of the people of West Papua and, most recently, with groups supporting the democracy struggle in Indonesia.

Finally, a word about funding. In the early days, our founding member had to make do with a kitchen table and support from her late sister, Miriam, and other members of her family. In 1977, the organisation received a handsome shot-in-the-arm when an anonymous supporter, whose identity we have never been able to discover, made over to us $15,000 from a legacy. Able at last to employ a part-time worker supported by several volunteers, the organisation turned to overseas funding agencies in Denmark, Ireland and The Netherlands. Its chances of raising cash in the UK have always been circumscribed by the Charities' Law which prohibits British funding agencies with charitable status from supporting organisations whose activities are deemed to be 'political'.

We were also helped by the sizeable award to our founding member when she received the Right Livelihood Award in 1995.

We have gone through difficult times but in the end, with the support of agencies in a number of countries, we have always managed to pull through. Even in our darkest days, there has always been a fund of goodwill for our work and an appreciation of the need to campaign worldwide to expose the human rights violations perpetrated by Indonesia's rulers against their own people and against those living under its rule in East Timor, West Papua and Aceh.

The downfall of Suharto has left the country in a state of great confusion. The country is mired in a grave economic crisis as a result of the cronyism fostered under Suharto. Tens of millions have lost their jobs and been pauperised, with the result that social unrest is rife.

While some democratic rights have been restored, the Habibie Government still retains many of the trappings of Suharto's New Order regime. The armed forces have been comprehensively exposed and condemned in Indonesia for their many atrocities and are on the defensive. Their reputation has never fallen so low as it is today, yet they clearly have no intention of relinquishing their 'special role' in political and social affairs, known as the dwifungsi, or dual function.

Hundreds of political prisoners are still being held. The releases so far have been aimed more at impressing the country's foreign financiers than ending the blight of political imprisonment once and for all. The East Timorese people are still far from their aspiration for an act of self-determination. The people of West Papua are raising their voices in favour of independence, and are being treated like traitors for daring to do so.

The truth about the many atrocities perpetrated during the 32 years of Suharto rule is now coming to light, in Aceh, West Papua, East Timor and in Indonesia, going back to the massacres of 1965/65 and the massacre of Muslims in 1984. For far too long, members of the armed forces have acted with impunity and demands for the killers to be called to account are growing.

The truth about how Suharto came to power in 1965 is now under public scrutiny, the focus of attention for historians and activists, and is being discussed in the press almost daily and at public meetings in Jakarta. Hundreds of thousands were killed and hundreds of thousands more were imprisoned and are still being stigmatised for 'crimes' they never committed and should have their names rehabilitated. All these are issues that will occupy TAPOL in the months and years to come.

TAPOL's anniversary celebrated in Jakarta
A public meeting was held in Jakarta on 20 October to celebrate TAPOL's 25th anniversary. The meeting, which was convened by MIK, the Indonesian Society for Humanitarianism, was addressed among others by Poncke Princen, a leading human rights activist, and Joesoef Ishak, a long-term, untried political prisoner during the early years of the New Order regime. Helmy Fauzi, a leading human rights activist, gave an account on TAPOL's work based on his own experience when he visited London last year. The event was reported in the Indonesian press, including the leading daily Merdeka, that also made a long report about TAPOL's activities over the past 25 years.