Bereaved parents ask Widodo to resolve military crimes

Mother whose son disappeared 20 years ago begs Indonesian president for closure
Bereaved parents ask Widodo to resolve military crimes

Maria Katharina Sumarsih speaks out on behalf of those who died or disappeared during past military crackdowns on dissent. Her son was reportedly kidnapped by a Special Forces unit of the nation's army after he criticized the government in 1998. ( photo)

A Catholic mother whose son was killed during student protests in November 1998 has called on President Joko Widodo to solve past human rights abuses committed by the military, including her son's case.

Maria Katharina Sumarsih and victims or relatives of those who died or suffered under similar crackdowns on dissent in former years met with Widodo at the presidential palace on May 31.

They urged him to settle a number of as-yet unresolved cases committed during an anti-communist purge from 1965-66 and anti-Suharto protests in 1998.

Those episodes resulted in the death, forced disappearance or gross human rights violations of dozens of people.

Sumarsih's son, Bernardus Realino Norma Irmawan, was a student at Atma Jaya Catholic University at the time of his death.

During the meeting, Sumarsih, also the group's leader, handed over to Widodo a document containing the results of an investigation into abuses involving the military.

However the results are confidential and cannot be publicly disclosed yet as such a move could impede the president and his team from effectively tackling them, she said.

The group asked the president to recognize the results of the probe by the National Commission on Human Rights, also known as Komnas HAM, and order the attorney general to take action based on the commission's recommendations.

"The president said he would [first] study the document and then coordinate with the attorney general and the Coordinating Minister of Politics, Human Rights and Security to ensure that concrete measures are taken immediately," Sumarsih told

The president, she said, will consider resolving past human rights violations both judicially through the courts and non-judicially, which means through a process of mediation and reconciliation.

"But we want these resolved judicially so the perpetrators can be brought to justice," she said.

Two decades in the making

Sumarsih said the meeting was the first time that victims of such crimes, or the people representing them, had been in direct contact with the president.

She said she had been waiting 20 years for that day and described it as a positive breakthrough.

"But we are still waiting for real steps to be taken by the government to resolve these cases," said Sumarsih.

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The victims, their families and activists have been holding a silent protest every Thursday opposite the presidential palace since 2007.

Paian Siahaan said his son Ucok Munandar Siahaan was kidnapped in May 1998 along with 13 other students. At the time, the young man was studying at the Perbanas Institute in Jakarta.

Siahaan said he had asked the president to locate his son, who the bereaved father claimed was not affiliated with any group. His only "crime," Siahaan said, had been to criticize the government, after which he was kidnapped by Kopassus, the Indonesian Army's Special Forces unit.

"I want the president to help find out whether my son is still alive or has died, because he has been gone for 20 years now," Siahaan, 71, told

Bedjo Untung, a Catholic and victim of the 1965 communist purge, said he was disappointed that during the meeting the president did not talk about the purge, which killed about 500,000 people.

"But we appreciate the president wanting to meet us and showing a genuine intention to resolve these cases," said Untung, who heads the 1965 Murder Victims Research Foundation.

Usman Hamid, director of Amnesty International Indonesia, said he hoped Widodo would help lay these controversial chapters of history to rest.

It's good that he "has met with the victims and their families and listened to them speak to learn what has been going on," Hamid said.

"We hope he will follow up on this and provide closure," he said.

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