President Joko Widodo meets with Kamisan protesters on 31 May. Photo by Wahyu Putro A for Antara.


Last Thursday, participants in Indonesia’s longest running human rights protest, Kamisan (“Thursdays”), met with President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo. This was the first time that Jokowi met directly with survivors and families of victims of human rights abuses that participate in the protest.


Kamisan has now run for more than 11 years. It is supported by well known human rights organisations, such as the Commission for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence (KontraS). Every Thursday afternoon, the protest is held in front of the Presidential Palace and every week, the participants hand a letter addressed to the president to the officers guarding the palace. This location is significant as it symbolises both political power and the need for the state to be take responsibility for human rights crimes.


While initially focused on human rights crimes committed under Soeharto’s New Order, over time the protest has also focused on other human rights cases. This includes the 2004 murder of human rights activist Munir Said Thalib, and the persecution of minority Muslim groups like Ahmadiyah and Shi’a. In late 2017, one Kamisan protest focused on the resistance of farmers against eviction for the creation of a new airport near Yogyakarta.


Based on the protest of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, Kamisan was initially conceived as a silent protest. However, over time Kamisan has included the reading of statements by participants, as well as poetry, songs and music. Unlike its Argentinean counterpart, which uses white as a colour of protest, Kamisan uses black. Participants wear black clothing and carry black banners, often with the names and photographs of victims. They sometimes bring flower petals that are commonly used on graves. Kamisan in many ways represents mourning.


In an earlier piece on Kamisan, I argued that the protest is significant because of the political claims it puts forward. The protest brings together various cases of human rights violations in past and present. Kamisan therefore tells individual stories of loss and suffering as a shared experience of resistance, and in the context of the broader objective of the pursuit of justice for human rights crimes in Indonesia.


The protest is a reminder that 20 years after the fall of authoritarianism, justice remains elusive. Despite the development of new legal norms and institutions, the implementation of human rights leaves much to be desired. The Human Rights Courts, which have the authority to rule on gross human rights violations both in past and present, have prosecuted very few cases and secured even fewer convictions.


Kamisan’s black umbrellas illustrate this. They carry the names of unresolved cases and slogans such as melawan lupa (“resist forgetting”). Since Jokowi has taken office, another motto has been added to these umbrellas: Jokowi Utang Janji: “Jokowi, Deliver on Your Promises”.


When Jokowi was elected, there were hopes that a civilian president would be able to break the justice impasse. These hopes were based on Jokowi’s inclusion of a human rights agenda – including justice for past crimes – in his Nawa Cita, his priority action plan. For this reason, as well as the dark human rights record of his opponent, Prabowo Subianto, many rights activists backed Jokowi.


However, hopes of change were dashed early on in the Jokowi presidency, when a now defunct Reconciliation Committee was established to resolve past human rights crimes. The most recent development, in 2017, was the establishment of a National Harmony Council to settle so-called horizontal conflicts – with the possibility that it would also hear past human rights abuses. Minister for Law and Human Rights Yassona Laoly has argued that non-judicial bodies such as these will ensure a lasting resolution. As such, addressing human rights crimes through judicial means seems to be firmly off the table.


Does Jokowi’s meeting with the Kamisan protesters signal a change of heart?


The Office of Presidential Staff revealed little about the 45-minute meeting, which was conducted at Merdeka Palace behind closed doors, aside from a few publicity photos. Suciwati, wife of murdered activist Munir, commented that meeting at the location of the protest would have been more appropriate.


According to Presidential spokesperson Johan Budi, the president “mainly wanted to listen” to the Kamisan participants. They handed over documents related to a number of unresolved cases recommended for prosecution by the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM). Jokowi asked for time to study the documents, even though the findings were made public long ago. In addition, the Kamisan participants also asked Jokowi to sign a so-called “Letter of Acknowledgment”. This document identifies six past human rights cases as crimes against humanity that must be followed up by the Attorney General’s Office with a view of bringing these to the Human Rights Courts. Jokowi did not sign the document.


Jokowi’s meeting with the Kamisan protesters was nothing but a deeply cynical attempt to give the impression of some interest in the human rights agenda. This has more to do with Jokowi’s own interests. Ahead of the 2019 presidential race, he will be keen to get rights activists onside again to support his bid for re-election.


During Jokowi’s presidential term, it has become evident that his government has little interest in pursuing justice for past crimes. The establishment of non-judicial bodies like the National Harmony Council that serve to shield perpetrators from being held accountable illustrates this. In addition, Jokowi appointed former Commander of the Armed Forces Wiranto as coordinating minister of politics, law and security, whose portfolio includes gross human rights violations. It is hard to believe Wiranto will tackle past abuses given that he was involved in numerous violations under the Soeharto regime and has been indicted for human rights crimes in Indonesia-occupied East Timor.


That there is little prospect that the meeting will generate change was made evident the next day, when Attorney General Muhammad Prasetyo commented on the likelihood of cases being heard by the Human Rights Courts, as demanded by Kamisan participants. Prasetyo stated that “we need to be honest in realising that whoever is the leader of this country, whoever is its Attorney General, whoever sits in Komnas HAM, it will be difficult to bring these cases to court. This must be understood. It is not that we do not want to finalise these cases, but it is a legal problem”.


The Kamisan fight is far from over.



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