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Review: The making of an Indonesian human rights lawyer

Review: The making of an Indonesian human rights lawyer

Dan Lev explains how an outsider became a national hero

Charles A. Coppel

Yap Thiam Hien (1913-1989) was an improbable candidate for an Indonesian national hero. He was a multiple outsider to the Indonesian mainstream, the ultimate marginal man. He had triple minority status: an ethnic Chinese, a committed Protestant, and he came from Aceh. Yap was principled to the point of stubbornness, courageous if not foolhardy. For a political actor he was remarkably averse to compromise. Yet he achieved such national prominence as a feisty advocate and battler for human rights that after his death the Yap Thiam Hien Award was established to honour achievement on behalf of human rights in Indonesia.

Dan Lev and Yap were close friends and comrades in arms in the struggle for legal and political reform in Indonesia. Lev worked on the biography for years, and it remained unfinished at his death in 2006. He saw it as the major work of his life. Fortunately his wife Arlene and colleagues Ben Anderson, Sebastiaan Pompe and Ibrahim Assegaf have seen it through to publication.

The book opens with an insightful introduction by Anderson, followed by 13 chapters by Lev tracing Yap’s life from his childhood in Kutaraja to his release on Christmas Eve 1974 after eleven months’ detention without trial. Lev had planned another chapter but his manuscript ended with the first weeks of 1975. The book concludes with a brief epilogue by Arlene Lev, and a postscript by Pompe and Assegaf discussing landmark cases in which Yap was involved during the New Order period. Those interested in the way in which the Indonesian legal system worked in practice will find this chapter (the longest in the book) illuminating, particularly as they are greatly enriched by notes and transcripts of Lev’s interviews with Yap which help to compensate for the patchiness of the case files.

Yap, the eldest of three children, was only nine when his mother died in 1922. The children were then cared for by Sato Nakashima, who had been brought from Saigon in 1909 as a concubine by their grandfather Yap Joen Khoy. This Japanese Omah (grandmother) was to be an important influence on their lives. Lev suggests that the samurai stories that she told them instilled values from the Bushido code that helped to shape Yap’s courage in standing up for what was right.

Yap’s family were part of the Chinese officer elite in Kutaraja. This wealthy and privileged family background did not outlast Yap’s childhood, however. As with many other officer families at that time, the Yap family became bankrupt, failing to diversify their business interests successfully after the abolition of the revenue farming system. Yap’s father fell on hard times but by taking on European legal status (gelijkstelling) he gave his children access to an excellent education.

For Yap and his siblings the decline in family fortunes meant seriously reduced circumstances, but not penury. Yap himself attended the Dutch primary school in Kutaraja, and secondary schools (MULO and AMS) in Java. These schools were not ethnically segregated and he acquired competence in four modern European languages (Dutch, English, German and French) and studied Latin as well.

In Batavia he lived with relatives and in Yogyakarta he boarded with a Protestant Eurasian family. This was his introduction to Protestantism, but it was some years before he converted and it was more than a decade later, in Holland, when he immersed himself in it. Lev’s account of Yap’s experience and struggle within the Protestant church is illuminating for what it has to say about the politics of Christianity under colonial rule and since independence.

After completing AMS in 1933, he gained teacher training qualifications at the Dutch Chinese Normal School (HCK) in Batavia and spent the next four years as a teacher in schools at Cirebon and Rembang. This gave him a lasting interest in education, and brought him more in touch with other ethnic Chinese including those from less privileged backgrounds.

Teaching made him a living in the depression years, but it was not to be his vocation. In 1938 he returned to Batavia and soon found himself a job selling telephone subscriptions on commission. This was lucrative enough to cover his expenses while studying law. Before Yap could complete his course, however, the law faculty was closed down by the Japanese.

In January 1946 he worked his way on a ship repatriating Dutch internees to Holland. He completed his law degree (Meester in de rechten) at Leiden while living in a student hostel of the Protestant Mission House at nearby Oegstgeest. During this time he steeped himself in reading about theology, the state and society, and after his graduation he became active in church youth work. It was during his stay in the Netherlands that he started to identify strongly with the Indonesian nationalist cause.

By the end of 1949 Yap was fully committed to two vocations: the church and the legal profession. Both took him well beyond the confines of the ethnic Chinese community. Remarkably, in the late 1960s he was on the boards of the World Council of Churches and the International Commission of Jurists, both with their headquarters in Geneva.

Yap became a professional advocate in July 1949 and was to become a leader in his profession. Lev skilfully weaves the story of Yap’s career into the larger history of the professional advocacy in Indonesia and its relationship to the judiciary, prosecutors and police. This was a period in which the independence and integrity of all branches of the legal profession were threatened and undermined by political interference and corruption. He also sensitively explores Yap’s position as an ethnic Chinese advocate within this dramatically changing postcolonial environment.

Yap was also active in Chinese communal politics. He poured his energy into the legal committee of the Sin Ming Hui and was a founding member and vice-chair of the ethnic Chinese mass organisation Baperki. The chapters on his conflict with Baperki chair Siauw Giok Tjhan and his followers make compelling reading.

As a minority member of the Constituent Assembly (Konstituante) Yap courageously opposed the proposal to return to the 1945 Constitution. Lev shows us that this was not only because two articles of that Constitution discriminated against Indonesian citizens who were not native (asli). Yap’s speech treated these questions as part of a broader and more important issue: the 1945 Constitution failed to provide the basic conditions for a democratic state based on law. He argued that in its denial of basic human rights it was far inferior to the 1950 Constitution that it was to replace. His analysis was accurate and prescient, as the later history of Sukarno’s Guided Democracy and Suharto’s New Order would prove.

Yap’s stance enraged his colleagues in the Baperki leadership who chose to ignore or explain away the deficiencies of the 1945 Constitution even with regard to discrimination against the ethnic Chinese. Yap was opposed to the dominant Baperki line which was to fall in behind Sukarno. This line was to drag Baperki increasingly to the left (congenial to Siauw and Go Gien Tjwan) but away from being an ideologically unaligned lobby group which Yap believed was its original purpose. Yap also bought into the 1960 debate between assimilationists and integrationists in the journal Star Weekly in which he idiosyncratically attacked both camps. His quarrels with the other Baperki leaders came to a head in December 1960 when he gave a detailed and blistering speech condemning them at the Baperki congress in Semarang. This took extraordinary courage. Nobody came to his defence. He was booed noisily by the audience and his character was vilified. Though remaining a member, Yap had nothing further to do with Baperki. The fate of the organisation, its leaders and many of its followers after the 1965 coup attempt proved a sad vindication of Yap’s critique.

Paradoxically, Yap’s exit from Baperki liberated him from the ghetto of peranakan politics. Now ‘out of the ethnic cage’, as Lev puts it, he was increasingly able to see the problems of the ethnic Chinese as shared with other Indonesians. He never tried to deny his Chineseness as advocated by the assimilationists, but in practice associated more with like-minded Indonesians regardless of their ethnicity. Initially with fellow advocates in Peradin, this extended in the New Order to campaigns for human rights and the rule of law. In professional practice, Yap was famous for taking on cases that other advocates were reluctant to touch, most notably in his defence in the political show trial of former foreign minister and first deputy prime minister Subandrio in 1966.

Yap’s courage and outspokenness brought him hardship as well as admirers. He was twice arrested and jailed. The first, in early 1968, was brief but followed by his prosecution for allegedly defaming a prominent prosecutor and policeman in a civil case. In 1974 he spent nearly a year in jail as result of the government crackdown after the Malari riots. Yap spent his time in jail debating with his interrogators, organising prayer sessions, giving lectures about the law, and protesting against mistreatment of other prisoners (especially the G30S detainees). Lev gives a very sympathetic account of the experience during this period of Yap’s wife Khing whose hardship was in many ways greater than his. 

This is a book to read and treasure.

Daniel S. Lev, No Concessions: The Life of Yap Thiam Hien, Indonesian Human Rights Lawyer, Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2011.

Charles A. Coppel (c.coppel@unimelb.edu.au) is a Principal Fellow in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies and an Associate in the Asian Law Centre at the University of Melbourne.

Inside Indonesia 111: Jan-Mar 2013{jcomments on}

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