Jun 21, 2024 Last Updated 1:20 AM, Jun 20, 2024

The power of the disappeared

Published: Sep 29, 2007

JAMES GOODMAN tastes the raw courage that brought down Suharto.


A spate of kidnappings took place in Indonesia in February. Activists were taken to interrogation centres and tortured. Anger aroused over these disappearances, and over the testimonies of those released, precipitated the student protests which by 21 May had toppled President Suharto.

February and March were relatively quiet. The People's Assembly (MPR) met without incident to give Suharto another term of office. Though discredited, the regime was able to intimidate people into inaction.

But when some torture victims revealed their stories in April and May, the government was caught red-handed. It became more urgent to end the regime. All pro-democracy students were now at risk, and were willing to take action.


Some two months earlier, thirty young people are meeting in the backyard of a Jakarta household on a Monday night. They are members of Siaga, formed to support Megawati Sukarnoputri and Amien Rais for the presidency. They have been meeting for several weeks, and their numbers are swelling.

Siaga means Alert, and stands for Indonesian Solidarity for Amien and Mega. As the meeting opens, small strips of white cotton are handed out, a symbol of support for the democracy movement. White for solidarity.

The group draws support from the People's Democratic Alliance (Aldera), from the independent 'prosperity' trade union (SBSI), and from Megawati supporters formerly in the Indonesia Democratic Party (PDI).

A few days before, they had attempted to distribute leaflets in public. Four were arrested and later released. At the same time Pius Lustrilanang, Siaga's secretary-general, was abducted while visiting a relative in hospital. Siaga attempted to lodge a complaint with the Indonesian Human Rights Commission, but this was refused as there was no proof the military or police were involved.


They are uncertain how to proceed. Should they ignore the abduction, and concentrate on the campaign against Suharto? Or should they focus on the disappeared and use it to illustrate the arbitrary repression that democrats face under the New Order?

They decide on the latter. How can they ignore the plight of a fellow activist? They suspect he is being tortured and could be made to 'disappear' altogether if there is no public outcry. Another activist, who last year was abducted and tortured for two weeks, is present at the meeting. He offers to join in a press conference with Lustrilanang's family.

Meanwhile, they discuss how to demonstrate their opposition to Suharto despite the police crackdown during the MPR session. Could they create an outdoor, alternative People's Assembly? Safety concerns are uppermost - 25,000 riot troops are staging a show of strength in the city. Someone mentions Tiananmen Square. They opt for a less vulnerable indoors venue.

On 10 March the MPR rubber-stamps the Suharto presidency. At the same moment Siaga mounts its alternative 'Peoples Summit' at a Jakarta hotel. The speaker is playwright Ratna Sarumpaet. She is arrested with eight others. They join over 300 people officially detained as political prisoners.

These are the lucky ones. The Committee against Disappearance and Torture have details of a further fifty people who 'disappeared' in the first three months of 1998. Several surface in police custody. Others are released with warnings not to speak of their experiences on pain of death.

Andi Arief, head of Student Solidarity for Democracy (SMID), abducted on 28 March, is confirmed to be in police custody on 28 April. Haryanto Taslam, adviser to Magawati, disappeared on 2 March, reappears on 17 April, keeping silent about his experiences.

Several others remain untraceable. Early in March Pius Lustrilanang's mother, Fransiska Djamilus, visits the International Committee of the Red Cross in Jakarta. She has travelled from Sumatra to lodge a missing person's report for her son. His legal case notes, and those of others, hint at the widespread fears: 'His family and lawyer are still searching'; 'the victim is still missing, with his friend'; 'his family has yet to say where he is'; 'there has been no information from the authorities'.


Official attempts at discrediting the disappeared students fall on deaf ears. Denials of military involvement fail to re- establish credibility.

Lustrilanang is released early in April. On the 27th April, at the National Human Rights Commission, he reveals full details of his kidnapping. He tells how he was abducted by four armed men, taken to a secret location near Jakarta, and interrogated for two months. He was tortured with electricity and water, and severely beaten. His captors carefully concealed their identities, but he had no doubt they were soldiers. Every afternoon at 3pm he heard the trumpet reveille.

He had been questioned about his involvement in Siaga, about its members, its strategy and planned actions. After giving evidence to the Commission, Lustrilanang immediately goes into exile overseas.

Pius' story is widely reported. More press reports appear that directly challenge official denials. Desmond Mahesa, a legal aid lawyer, who disappeared and was released at the same time as Pius, gives similar evidence on 12 May. He says he was held in the same lock-up. Despite the personal risk, he decides to remain in Indonesia.

Student outrage at the kidnappings combines with worsening economic conditions as the government lifts controls on petrol and electricity prices. Demonstrations move off the campuses, and culminate in the fatal shooting of six Trisakti University students on 12 May. Several have already died elsewhere, in Medan for instance, but none so publicly and in such cold blood. The Legal Aid Institute reports that four were shot in the back, while two died from head wounds.

Student radicalism and violent repression precipitate mass uprisings. More students disappear - 27 from Trisakti alone - and fears grow.

But the issue of the disappeared unclothes the regime. Its brutality is on display. When challenged, its confidence is shattered. In a panic reversal, price controls are reintroduced, but Suharto's loss of support is already irreversible.

James Goodman, a researcher at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), recently visited Jakarta.

Inside Indonesia 55: Jul-Sep 1998

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