Thursday, January 15, 2009

USMAN HAMID: GOING THE EXTRA MILE

Matheos V. Messakh , The Jakarta Post , Jakarta | Wed, 01/14/2009 9:27 AM | People

Even though he still strives to be a political activist, Usman said Munir was the one who “dragged” him into campaigning for human rights in the first place.

“He was and still is the flame of the movement. ... He acts as a light for me to see and understand complex problems. But now the fire is gone,” Usman told The Jakarta Post in an interview.

“We just try to keep the flame alive in our hearts. He was the one who took all the risks behind the scenes of the turbulent transitional politics at the time.”

Usman met Munir for the first time at a memorial service for those shot by the military in the May 1998 Trisakti tragedy.

In his final year at the Trisakti University School of Law, Usman began joining student demonstrations on campus at a time when political instability was reaching its zenith.

He was still not sure exactly what he was doing and was too frightened to wear his student jacket when participating in a protest.

But the military brutality on May 12, 1998, in which four Trisakti students were killed, removed all his doubts.

Usman began getting involved in many demonstrations and political discussions both at the campus and in public places, changing from a member of religious and cultural groups to an activist by May in what he called “a month of upheaval for my heart and mind”.

It was inevitable that he eventually came in contact with the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras) led by Munir. Today, Usman, now 32, runs the organization.

Usman said Munir opened his eyes to many things, especially the military politics and fragmentation that had capitalized on exploiting religious sentiments.

“The more I got to know Munir, the more I believed he was the right person [to lead Kontras], despite many people trying to mislead me about him.

“He was the brightest man around who saw the political problems facing Indonesian at the time, including within the military and student movements.”

This revelation led to Usman rejecting an offer to join the military to be an officer, a position offered to him through a special entry scheme devised by a high-ranking military figure.

He nearly changed the topic of his near-completed dissertation from agrarian reform to political reform, but the university prevented him.

He had chosen agrarian reform as his major because many of his relatives back home in Bogor, West Java, had been forced to become peasant workers on land they had once owned. “My family’s problem was part of the wider political problems in Indonesia. The profession I chose is more than a job, it is my whole life,” he said.

After Usman graduated in September 1999, Munir offered him a position in the public opinion division. Usman was unhappy there and asked to be moved to the legal division where his education could be more effective.

At this request, Munir took out his own legal practicing license and said it was useless in a country where the judicial system was run by the mafia.

“He said to me, ‘I need you as an activist not as a law scholar. The important thing is working out how to mobilize public opinion and attitudes. If the people are aware of militarism, the resistance will get stronger. It’s like opening the authoritarian seal to our eyes’.”

But Munir’s death in 2004 made everything much harder.

Threats, which had been part of his life since 1998, became worse. First, there were phone calls, then anonymous letters and people sideswiping his car. The constant state of anxiety took a toll on his health: “I have seven different cards from different hospitals,” he said.

The death of his mother, Halimatus Sa’diyah, in March 2007 was another big loss for him. Usman, the ninth of 10 children, had been taking care of his mother alone since his father passed away in 1990 at the age of 74.

“She was my power, she really gave me love,” he said.

His mother made many sacrifices for him, putting aside money she earned from running Koran recitals to pay for his tuition. Usman’s father, Abdul Hamid, had refused to pay because he wanted his son to attend an Islamic boarding school.

His parents’ different political backgrounds taught him that democracy begins in the home. His mother was an activist for the Golkar Party while his father rallied for the Development Unity Party.

It was their influence, Usman said, that led him to refuse many offers from political parties to join them following the 2004 election.

“My parents helped many people through their activities in political parties but they didn’t want to become politicians. We can do a lot without being a politician.”

The acquittal of Maj. Gen. (ret) Muchdi Purwopranjono of all charges relating to the murder, he said, demonstrated the judges’ narrow-mindedness and lack of professionalism.

“If the case involved intelligence, you had to have knowledge about that intelligence. This case was a judicial failure in overseeing intelligence.”

Although he lacks faith in the legal system, Usman said Kontras would use all legal means possible to put Muchdi back on trial.

Munir’s case, he said, was a symbol of the complexity of the nation’s structural problems. As with all cases of gross human rights violations, there will always be hurdles.

“Even if we solved Munir’s case, that doesn’t mean we can solve everything. There is still a long
way to go.”

What helps him is the ray of hope he finds among survivors and family members of victims in every case he and his colleagues deal with.

“... there is always hope. You should have courage to live just like you have courage to die.

“I believe what I’m doing is right and it will bear fruit in the future.”

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