Kamisan 500: Black Umbrella-Clad Protesters Demand Justice for Rights Abuse Victims


JULY 28, 2017

Jakarta. Every Thursday afternoon, they turn up in front of the State Palace in Central Jakarta: a group of elderly people carrying black umbrellas covered with protest statements. On Thursday (27/07), one placard read "Stop Impunity."

The protesters say the black umbrella protects them from rain and the harsh tropical sun but is also a symbol of their firm demand for the Indonesian government to solve past cases of human rights abuses, including the unsolved murders of student activists during violent street protests in 1998.


On Thursday, a crowd of around 300 mostly young people joined the silent protest called Kamisan – Kamis is the Indonesian word for Thursday  to celebrate the 500th week of uninterrupted protests in front of the capital's State Palace.

Some of the young protesters said they had supported President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo in the 2014 presidential election hoping he will settle human rights-related offenses in Indonesia. In January 2016, Jokowi made a promise to settle all cases of gross human rights violations that year, but the promise remains unfulfilled.

The protesters referred to the president's "Janji Manis" (Sweet Promises) to solve the cases in some of the posters they were carrying.

Protesters in front of the State Palace on Thursday (27/07) say President Joko Widodo's promise last year to solve all cases of gross human rights violations has remained unfulfilled. (Antara Photo/Fanny Octavianus)

The weekly Kamisan action takes its inspiration from the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, who marched in Buenos Aires for years to find out what happened to their "disappeared" children during the Argentine Dirty War from the late '70s to the early '80s.

The first Kamisan protest was held 10 years ago on Jan. 18, 2007. After marching for the 500th time, the protesters have no plan to end their action, at least not until the government solves past cases of human rights abuses in the country, including those that transpired during the military dictatorship of President Suharto.

The father of a student activist killed in the 1998 Semanggi Tragedy attends the 500th Kamisan protest in front of the State Palace in Jakarta on Thursday (27/07). (JG Photo/Yudha Baskoro)

Death Penalty Won't Break Chain of Violence

Among the regular Kamisan marchers is Maria Catarina Sumarsih, the mother of the late Bernardinus Realino Norma Irawan, or Wawan, a student of Atma Jaya University who was shot and killed by Indonesian Army (TNI) soldiers during the so-called Semanggi I incident on Nov. 13, 1998 – six months after Suharto’s downfall.

"According to the autopsy results, Wawan was shot with a sharp ABRI [now TNI]-grade bullet in the heart and in his left lung. The archbishop of Jakarta said in a sermon that Wawan was killed inside his campus, shot by the authorities while he was helping another victim, who had also been shot," Sumarsih told reporters on Thursday.

Maria Catarina Sumarsih, 65, the mother of the late Bernardinus Realino Norma Irawan, or Wawan, who was shot and killed by army soldiers during the Semanggi I incident in November 1998. Sumarsih has stood in front of the State Palace in Jakarta every Thursday afternoon for more than 10 years, demanding the government find her son's killers. (JG Photo/Yudha Baskoro)

A total of 17 people were killed during the Semanggi I incident, when students and soldiers clashed on the streets around the Semanggi flyover in Central Jakarta on Nov. 11-13, 1998. The shootings were never resolved and the perpetrators never brought to justice.

"Every time I'm asked, 'Would you forgive them [the perpetrators] or not? Do you still want revenge?' As if there has been a proper trial to find my son's killers," Sumarsih said.

"However, if the person who killed Wawan confessed and was sentenced to death, I would defend him. I do not believe in the death penalty, it will not break the chain of violence," she added.

Sumarsih and other regular Kamisan protesters, family members of people whose death or disappearance have never been resolved by the state, still call for a full resolution of the Semanggi incidents — the Semanggi II incident took place at the same spot in September 1999 — and other human rights abuses in the country. 

"What we want is for the government to enforce the law without discrimination. As they say, don't be harsh toward people beneath you, but cloy to people above you," Sumarsih said.

Fighting Stigma, Discrimination Against Victims of 1965 Anti-Communist Pogrom

Sri Sulistyowati, or Eyang (Grandma) Sri, a surviving victim of the 1965-1966 anti-communist pogrom who was imprisoned without trial for 11 years by Suharto’s New Order regime, said many human rights abuses, including the 1965–1966 mass killings of communists, still remain unsolved because the government seems to always skirt around crucial issues.

"We didn’t do anything wrong. But supporters of political parties who backed Sukarno [Indonesia's first president] were slaughtered when the New Order came to power," Sri told the Jakarta Globe on Thursday.

Sri Sulistyowati, 77, a surviving victim of the 1965-1966 anti-communist pogrom, speaks during the Kamisan protest on Thursday (27/07). (JG Photo/Yudha Baskoro)

"This country has gone through a genocide where millions died, but no one bat an eyelid. Everyone has remained silent. It's as if there in no humanity left in this world," Sri said.

Sri expressed anger that some political parties are being hypocritical by using anti-communist propaganda, blaming the disbanded Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) for the 1965-1966 upheaval, to gain votes.

"Do these people believe in God? Communists always get accused of being godless, atheists, misguided. But who slaughtered them? Who butchered them? They were religious people. But ones who were actually godless, not afraid of their God," Sri said.

Sri said the history of human rights abuses in the country has been manipulated and must be re-examined to show the public what really happened.

She also hopes that once justice is served, the reputation of PKI members or sympathizers who have been killed, exiled or imprisoned without trial can be restored.

"Years of protesting our innocence, no improvement. We still get accused as PKI," Sri said.

Despite pointing out that the religious right had a hand in the 1965-1966 mass killings, Sri said she opposes the government's recent move to disband Islamic group Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) for allegedly threatening national unity and the Pancasila ideology.

"[Disbanding an organization] has to be done through the court. We should be worried if the government starts disbanding political organizations like the HTI on its own," Sri said.