Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Unsung Heroes

Few will have been familiar with Father Yohanes Jonga until he received today the prestigious Yap Thiam Hien Award, given to fearless human rights defenders in Indonesia.

Jonga is just an unheralded Catholic priest who serves in the Papuan regency of Keerom, but the award's jury considered his silent works spoke volumes about the option for the weak, neglected and marginalized. As a community figure, Jonga witnessed local people's fight against not only atrocities perpetrated by the military, but also a longstanding stigma associating them with the separatist Free Papua Organization (OPM). For his persistent siding with the people, he has been intimidated and threatened with death.

The award underlines the cruel facts of not only the presence everywhere of people deprived of their basic rights, but also the risks facing those who jump to the defense of the victims of rights abuses. Indeed, human rights defenders are risk takers who in extreme cases put their own lives on the line. The murders of rights defenders Marsinah 16 years ago and Munir in 2004 are two stark examples of the fatal consequences facing rights activists.

That the police have been unable to find the masterminds of the two high-profile killings only indicates, if not proves, the ongoing practice of impunity, albeit in disguise. As in the cases of Marsinah, Munir or the victims of so-called systematic acts of violence during the turn of the regime in 1998, the masterminds look to remain untouched as time passes by.

Indonesia has swept too many serious crimes against humanity under the carpet and tends to seek amicable settlements for the gross violations. An ad hoc human rights court was set up to try those held responsible for the East Timor, Tanjung Priok and Abepura atrocities,

but for many justice was far from delivered. The ghosts of past human rights abuses will continue plaguing the country over generations unless the government reopens the old wounds.

The Balibo movie, which recreates events surrounding the killings of five Australia - based journalists in 1975 allegedly by the Indonesian military, is part of the public's endeavors to find the answer to questions about past human rights cases. The Film Censorship Board's decision to ban the film, however, only confirms the state's ignorance of the public's curiosity and demand for the truth about the killings.

The more reluctant the government to reveal the truth of past human rights crimes, the more controversial films or books like Balibo are produced and the more vulnerable Indonesia becomes to international censure.

Much have been done by post-New Order governments, including President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's, to bring democracy and protection of human rights back on the right track. But much more remains to be done, as Father Jonga and other unsung human rights defenders have discovered.

The protection of human rights remains elusive for people who are geographically, economically and politically marginalized. Today's commemoration of International Human Rights Day should recall the state's accountability for those who are neglected.

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