Thursday, August 15, 2013

Guatemalan path for Indonesian justice

Guatemalan path for Indonesian justice
By Andrew de Sousa*
Over two months ago, a packed courtroom in Guatemala City appeared to be in chaos. Many were in tears as the room filled with cries of "justicia!". The former military dictator General Efrain Rios Montt, meanwhile, was surrounded to ensure he would not escape.

What many assumed to be impossible had happened: someone was being held responsible for some of the worst human rights abuses of the past century, the genocide of the indigenous Maya of Guatemala. Despite its notoriously corrupt judicial system, Guatemala had become the first country in the world to convict a former president for genocide in its own territory. It was a legal victory for human rights everywhere and ideally will serve as precedent for holding other leaders accountable, including in Indonesia.

While separated by some 16,000 kilometers of Pacific Ocean, Guatemala and Indonesia have similar modern histories. At the beginning of the Cold War, the United States government felt threatened by progressive, leftist movements in both countries. A decade before the Central Intelligence Agency supported General Suharto's rise to power, the democratically-elected Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz was ousted in a CIA-backed coup d'etat, just two years after legalizing the communist party and 18 months into a modest land reform program perceived as a threat to US business interests.

Throughout the Cold War, the US provided support to both the Indonesian and Guatemalan militaries under the pretext of stopping the spread of Communism. Just as perceived links to the Communist Party of Indonesia, or Partai Komunis Indonesia (PKI), or Chinese ethnicity were used to justify the massacre of as many as one million Indonesians, the Guatemalan military killed an estimated 200,000 mostly unarmed indigenous Mayans who were assumed to be guerrilla sympathizers based solely on their ethnicity. Before the purge, the PKI was the world's largest non-ruling communist party.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, while the Indonesian military's atrocities extended to the annexed island of East Timor, now known as Timor-Leste, across the Pacific a succession of military regimes increased their repression of the Guatemalan people. While thousands of activists were disappeared in the cities, the military conducted a scorched earth campaign against the entire Maya population.

While then US president Ronald Reagan applauded the "wise and steadfast leadership" of General Suharto, his praise for Guatemalan General Rios Montt was even more effusive. According to Reagan, the military dictator who oversaw the 16 bloodiest months of the 36-year conflict in Guatemala was "a man of great personal integrity and commitment".

The conflict in Guatemala officially ended with the signing of the 1996 Peace Accords. The government agreed to uphold international human rights standards, end extra-judicial or clandestine security forces, stop extra-judicial executions and enforced disappearances, and create a United Nations-supported Historical Clarification Commission. The commission found that acts of genocide had occurred, with successive military governments responsible for 626 separate massacres and 93% of the deaths during the conflict, with 83% of the victims being indigenous Maya.

Still, for almost 15 years after the Peace Accords, Guatemalan courts refused to hold high-ranking officials responsible for the atrocities of the 1980s. A group of brave Maya survivors, organized as the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR), helped to change that.

In 2000 and 2001, AJR filed legal charges of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes against two former presidents, Romeo Lucas Garcia and Rios Montt, and their top military commands. The move appeared quixotic: Rios Montt enjoyed immunity as a sitting member of parliament, and his political ally, Alfonso Portillo, was president. With a lack of political will among judges and public prosecutors, the case stalled under the regularly filed appeals of defense lawyers.

In 2006, however, the system began to change. The UN created an International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, placing an international prosecutor in Guatemala to target organized crime. Then, in 2011, four low-level former soldiers were convicted and sentenced to 6,060 years in prison each for their role in the 1982 Dos Erres Massacre, the first time members of the military were found guilty for atrocities committed during the 1980s. A year later a fifth soldier was convicted and sentenced. When Rios Montt left parliament in 2012, he was placed under house arrest pending trial.

Within a year, Rios Montt was before a three-judge panel. Over six weeks, the court heard evidence of the military's systematic rape, torture and murder of rural subsistence farmers targeted merely for being from the Ixil Maya communities. Experts provided evidence that Rios Montt was fully aware and in command of these scorched earth operations, making him culpable of genocide. Rios Montt was sentenced to 80 years and immediately taken to prison.

On May 20, in an unprecedented ruling 10 days after the conviction, the Constitutional Court annulled the second half of the trial. Rios Montt was back under house arrest and many lamented a major defeat for the pursuit of justice. While the reversal was unwanted, for those most involved it was far from unexpected. From the beginning, the trial was not only about Rios Montt but also about to create a process of justice for Guatemala as a whole - and the elite in particular - to acknowledge that what had happened to the poor and indigenous Ixil Maya population was illegal and wrong.

The trial gave the people of Ixil a national stage to tell their story. Their testimony was broadcast and the public heard how children were forced to watch their parents being killed and fetuses ripped from their mothers' wombs. A former solider testified how the current president, Otto Perez Molina, ordered his troops at the time to burn villages and kill anyone who tried to escape. The most powerful message of all was "si hubo genocido!", or that genocide did occur. This motto was a rallying cry for an emboldened fight for justice - what was once only said in private or abroad was now in the open.

While impunity still reigns in Guatemala, it is only a momentary victory. The testimony of dozens of survivors, built upon decades of struggle and resistance, engendered hope more powerful than any court ruling. By refusing to let those in power silence them, some of the poorest and most oppressed people in the Western Hemisphere were able to accomplish the impossible. By holding Rios Montt accountable, if only temporarily, they have shown that it is possible for justice to prevail in even the most unlikely of circumstances.

Who is to say that the same cannot happen in the courts of Jakarta or the fledgling legal system in recently independent Timor-Leste? Certain prominent Indonesian politicians, including former military generals and at least one presidential hopeful, could easily be found culpable for human rights abuses if justice was legitimately pursued. While Guatemala's fight for justice has only now gained traction, 15 years after the initial calls ofreformasi and Indonesia still has not come to terms with its genocidal past.

In the words of Guatemalan genocide survivor Edwin Canil, "This has got a long way to go yet. It's just a question of who gets tired first: them or us. But we're still here and staying firm."

* Andrew de Sousa is with the Bangkok-based Focus on the Global South and a member of the board of the East Timor and Indonesia Action Network (ETAN),

also published in Speaking Freely at Asia Times Online 

(Copyright 2013 Andrew de Sousa) 

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Making a difference

Rev. Elice Higginbotham
East Timor and Indonesia Action Network (ETAN)
August  2013
Protester with signs outside ETAN's protest of the Appeal to Conscience award's ceremony in New York City. Photo by John M. Miller/ETAN.
Dear friend:

Do you ever wonder if signing a petition makes a difference?

Last spring, some shocked Indonesians informed ETAN that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was to be honored by the New York-based Appeal of Conscience Foundation, an organization dedicated (it said) to religious tolerance and human rights. Our immediate response was to organize protests against giving the "World Statesman Award" to SBY. Among other actions, we organized online petition that many of you signed.

I am writing to urge you to support ETAN by making a contribution today. Please go to to donate.

More than 2,000 of you spoke out against the award to SBY by signing ETAN’s petition. The petition motivated a spin-off in Indonesia, which gathered an additional 6,000 signatures, mostly from amazed, amused or outraged Indonesians. I was in Jakarta during this time and many Indonesians expressed their appreciation for ETAN's actions.

We weren’t surprised when SBY did, indeed come to New York to accept the “World Statesman Award.” Our old antagonist, Henry Kissinger, was on hand to present it at a big-ticket fundraising dinner. But so was ETAN’s “welcoming committee” of Indonesian, U.S. and other human rights advocates, who protested the award and spoke out about SBY’s real record on human rights, religious tolerance, and the rule of law in Indonesia.

Our actions helped to draw attention to Indonesia’s continued persecution of religious minorities and other human rights violations. For the first time the semi-weekly public protests by religious minorities in front of the National Palace in Jakarta drew regular media attention. Letters and other denunciations of the award from academics, rights activists, religious figures, and others generated news in Indonesia for weeks prior to the awards ceremony. Calls for SBY to make good on the promises he made in his acceptance speech continue to this day.

We were interested to learn just how “threatening” Indonesia’s diplomats find ETAN. We were told of a meeting among U.S.-based diplomats who blamed ETAN, among others, for the uproar about the award. We heard from Indonesians living in the New York area who had received offers of dollars and dinner to fill seats at the award presentation. Those bused in were forced to participate in a “counter-demonstration” aimed at covering up the truths that ETAN was exposing. We do not have access to the discretionary funds of the Indonesian Embassy; our protest was smaller, but all the more genuine.

Your signature made a difference. And so can your donation.

The “No Award for SBY” petition represents just one of ETAN’s deceptively modest efforts to keep Indonesia - and its continued military and economic support from the U.S. - in the public eye and before policymakers. These efforts have been making a difference for more than two decades and, with your support, will continue to do so.

Please contribute what you can. We depend on support from people like you. People who are dedicated to human and civil rights for the peoples of Indonesia.

Your financial contribution to ETAN will make a difference. With your help, ETAN can continue to:
  • Keep you and others informed about violations of human rights, the role of corporate interests and other developments in West Papua through our monthly report,
  • Respond to calls for action in response to reports of human rights violations,
  • Provide firsthand reports on elections, legislation, economic development in Indonesia, West Papua, and Timor-Leste,
  • Keep you aware of the influence of U.S. policy on events in Timor-Leste, Indonesia and West Papua – and keep U.S. and Indonesian policymakers aware that we are watching them.
Please see our website for information about our current campaigns.
Please give generously, so that together we can continue to make a difference. 
In solidarity,

Elice HigginbothamMember, Board of Directors, ETAN

P.S. Please consider becoming an ETAN sustainer by making a monthly donation by credit card. Help put ETAN on a firmer financial footing: information here.