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Marking Wiji Thukul's 60th birthday, activists remind state to solve past abuses

Kompas.com - August 26, 2023

Dian Erika Nugraheny, Jakarta – Activists who are part of the Reject Forgetting Coalition commemorated what would have been the 60th birthday of missing poet and activist Wiji Thukul at the National Gallery in Gambir, Central Jakarta, on Saturday August 26.

During this year's commemoration, a number of activities were organised including a reading of Thukul's poems, a music performance and the screening of the film "Let the Words Rest" (Istirahatlah Kata-Kata).

The film tells the story of the period when Thukul was on the run from the authorities up until his disappearance.

Event moderator Wilson said that the commemoration of Thukul's 60th birthday is taking place during the momentum leading up to the 2024 legislative and presidential elections.

"This is like the right moment to again remind the state not to forget to fully resolve the cases of forced disappearances and other human rights violations in this country", Wilson told journalists following the event.

"Of course resolving these will become more difficult if the figure who was once involved in the forced disappearances becomes the leader of the country. Of course we don't want that to happen", he continued, referring to Defense Minister and Greater Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto.

Wilson also emphasised that the activists want to continue in the spirit which was initiated by Thukul. Therefore there is an important message that needs to be conveyed, namely not to give space to prospective leaders who were involved in the abduction of activists in the past.

"Continuing the fire of enthusiasm that was kindled by Wiji Thukul, on his birthday we want to emphasise: defeat the abducting presidential candidate", said Wilson. "Happy birthday Wiji Thukul. Look, we are still here and multiplying", he added.

Thukul's disappearance

Wiji Thukul was born on August 26, 1963 in the village of Sorogenen, Solo, Central Java. He grew up in an environment where the majority of the population were common people. Many were employed as ordinary workers, others as pedicab drivers.

Thukul started writing poetry since he was in primary school. When he was in junior high-school, he began to be interested in the world of theater.

As an adult, Thukul's poems became a symbol of the resistance of the students and people's movements against the New Order government led by former president Suharto.

His poems often echoed through the streets in mass actions. A line full of enthusiasm from his poem "A Warning" was taken up as a slogan by the pro-democracy movements, "There is only one word, resist!".

Thukul was aware of the importance of an organisation as a means for the movement to strengthen its ranks of resistance against the New Order dictatorship.

In 1994, Thukul along with other artists and populist intellectuals initiated the establishment of the People's Art Network (Jaringan Kerja Kesenian Rakyat, Jaker). Thukul was entrusted to become the chairperson of the organisation which brought together artists.

According to Thukul, artists must be actors, not objects. With this in mind, in 1994 Thukul was involved in the founding of an opposition organisation called the People's Democratic Union (Persatuan Rakyat Demokratik, PRD).

In July 1996, the organisation transformed into the People's Democratic Party (Partai Rakyat Demokratik, PRD).

In the lead up to the collapse of the New Order regime, Thukul read his last poem in public at the declaration of the PRD, which was held at the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation (YLBHI) offices in Central Jakarta on July 22, 1996.

Not long after, the July 27 incident occurred when the offices of the pro-Megawati Sukarnoputri camp of the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI) on Jalan Diponegoro in Central Jakarta were attacked by people with cropped hair (read military).

Many victims fell as a consequence of the bloody tragedy. Several days later, the New Order regime declared the PRD to be a banned organisation. From that point the PRD leadership and its supporting mass organisations became political fugitives of the state.

Thukul had to hide in various different places to avoid being caught by the authorities. This is the situation depicted in the movie "Let the Words Rest".

In January 1998, Thukul's wife Sipon said that she last saw her husband at the Balapan train station in Solo. Following this meeting, Thukul had to return to hiding in several different cities until in the end he disappeared without a trace.

In 1999, a year after Suharto stepped down, the PRD leadership formed an investigation team to ascertain Thukul's whereabouts. The team concluded that the poet was a victim of forced disappearance.

On March 20, 2000, the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras) obtained a report on Thukul's disappearance. According to Kontras, Thukul's disappearance was linked to the forced abduction of pro-democracy activists in the lead up to Suharto's overthrow in 1998.

Thukul's name was also included as a victim of forced disappearances when National Human Rights Commission (Komnas HAM) carried out an investigation in to the abduction of activists in 1997-98. Based on the investigation, Komnas HAM found that 13 of the abducted activists were still missing, including Thukul.

In 2007 the House of Representatives (DPR) formed the Special Committee on Dealing with the Incidents of Forced Disappearances. In September 2009 the special committee endorsed four recommendations.

That the president form an ad hoc human rights court, form of a team to search for the activists that are still missing, to provide reparation and compensation to the families of the victims, and to ratify the UN international convention on forced disappearances.

"To this day, these four recommendations have never been fulfilled by the state. President Joko (Jokowi) Widodo's pledge to find Wiji Thukul and his comrades, alive or dead, has never materialised", said Wilson.


Between 1997 and 1998 as many as 23 pro-democracy activists were abducted by members of the Army's Special Forces (Kopassus). After extended periods of detention – in many cases the victims were severely tortured – most were released although 13 remain missing and are presumed dead. Former Kopassus commander Lieutenant General Prabowo Subianto who was at the time President Suharto's son-in-law, has admitted to ordering the abductions but denies ordering their torture and claims they were all released alive and well. In April 1999, 11 low-ranking Kopassus officers were tried by a military court for the kidnappings and given sentences of between a year and 22 months in prison, although six of them were allowed to remain in the army. Prabowo himself was discharged from the military for ordering the abductions but has never been tried in court.

[Translated by James Balowski. The original title of the article was "60 Tahun Wiji Thukul, Momentum Mengingatkan Negara untuk Tuntaskan Kasus Pelanggaran HAM...".]

Source: https://nasional.kompas.com/read/2023/08/26/21093851/60-tahun-wiji-thukul-momentum-mengingatkan-negara-untuk-tuntaskan-kasu