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  • Defending Human Rights in Indonesia
  • Adnan Buyung Nasution (bio)

The Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation was founded in 1981 as an outgrowth of the Legal Aid Institute of Indonesia (LBH), an organization that I had started in the 1970s through the good offices of the Indonesian Bar Association (PERADIN). Although not myself a member of PERADIN, I was able to persuade my friends in that organization of the growing need for a legal-aid facility.

The Foundation's roots extend more than two decades farther back, to 1959, when I was a young assistant public prosecutor just back from an internship with the Supreme Court of Australia. The injustices that I saw as a prosecutor in Indonesia and my experience in Australia had shown me the value of free legal aid and a public defender's office, and I was resolved to introduce these institutions to the Indonesian justice system. Despite initial support from officials as highly placed as the attorney general, I was unable to realize my dream of starting a public legal-aid service for the poor until 1970, when PERADIN set up the Legal Aid Institute with myself as its first director.

The Legal Aid Institute became separate from PERADIN in 1981 for [End Page 114] protection from the encroachments of the government, which was then in the process of forcing the Bar Association to amalgamate with other professional legal groups under official sponsorship, a process that culminated with the absorption of PERADIN into the government-run Indonesian Legal Association in 1984. The LBH responded to these maneuvers not only by cutting itself loose from PERADIN, but also by forging active coalitions with other groups having similar interests.

The state's campaign to coopt the Bar Association was only one episode in the vast authoritarian shadow play that has for decades dominated the political life of our huge and ethnically, religiously, and linguistically diverse country.1 During the 1940s, the 13,500-island Indonesian archipelago underwent the ordeal of Japanese occupation, and then in 1949 celebrated the fulfillment of its hopes for independence from the Netherlands. A relatively democratic interlude followed, but the onetime anticolonialist leader, President Sukarno, put an end to it with his declaration of martial law and installation of "guided democracy" at the close of the 1950s. There then transpired a period of murderous internal strife, climaxing in 1965-66, which gave rise to the New Order regime of army-commander-turned-president General Suharto and the dominant Golongon Karya (Golkar) party. After the fall of Sukarno, whose system of "guided democracy" had stymied real democratic development for years, advocates of democracy and human rights hoped that the New Order would institute the rule of law, boost respect for human rights, and restore full electoral democracy. At first, not even the massive civil violence that immediately preceded and to some extent accompanied the transition (especially on Java and Bali) could dampen such aspirations, but they were soon to be dashed.

Far from restoring democracy or vindicating human rights, Suharto's New Order, now approaching its thirtieth year, has been characterized from the beginning by institutional paternalism, press censorship and other forms of social and political repression, and a ruthlessly authoritarian approach to development. Along with its tight grip on power, however, the Suharto regime likes to keep up an elaborate charade of democracy and free associational life, and remains anxious to blunt international criticism of its practices. Yet the regime has not been able to avoid worldwide opprobrium for its behavior in East Timor, the onetime Portuguese overseas territory that the Indonesian army invaded in December 1975 and has been occupying ever since. While atrocities like the army's shooting of peaceful Timorese marchers near the Santa Cruz Cemetery at Dili, East Timor, on 12 November 1991 have drawn worldwide condemnation, there has been relatively little international notice of the masses of other people throughout the Indonesian archipelago who suffer repression under the New Order state. It is these people who form the constituency of the LBH.

The current situation is grim, and is getting worse. Systematic state [End Page 115] harassment and persecution of community activists and the country's more than one thousand...


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