“Don’t vote for a kidnapper!”: Indonesians demand justice and an end to impunity

The legacy of the bloody Suharto dictatorship and its victims still marks political life in Indonesia, especially as the country gears up for elections in early 2024

October 31, 2023 by Peoples Dispatch
The Kamisan held outside Indonesia’s Presidential Palace in Jakarta. Photo: UNESCO

For more than two decades now, the mothers, family, and friends of 13 anti-dictatorship activists who were detained and then disappeared between 1997 and 1998, hold vigils known as the kamisan, every Thursday, outside Indonesia’s Presidential Palace in Jakarta.

In 2014, their hopes were raised when Presidential candidate Joko Widodo promised that the 13 disappeared would be found. 9 years and two presidential terms later, nothing has happened and the vigils continue until today.

In the period from 1997-1998, 23 activists were “detained”. Of the 23, only ten were released, with several being tortured, including by electric shock. The others are feared murdered. Among the disappeared was the ‘poet laureate” of the anti-dictatorship movement, Wiji Thukul, whose poetry gave the movement its spiritual slogan: “There is only one word! – Resist!” Wiji was a member of the People’s Democratic Party (PRD), a small youth-based party that was the vanguard of the activist movement against the Suharto dictatorship. Most of the 23 abducted activists were from the PRD.

The abductions were carried out by members of Army’s Special Forces (Kopassus) called the Rose Team. Lieutenant General Prabowo Subianto was commander of KOPASSUS at the time. He later confessed: “I carried out operations that were legal at the time,” but said he was doing it on orders from above. However, the Commander of the Armed Forces, General Wiranto stated: “I personally asked then Lt. Gen. Prabowo about who had given him the order [to abduct the activists], he admitted that it was not under the order of the armed forces commander but, rather, on his own initiative based on his analysis of the situation.”

Following an investigation by the Army, Prabowo Subianto was discharged from the Army. After that he spent time with the Jordanian military but returned to Indonesia to contest the Presidential elections in 2009, as the vice-presidential running mate, to Megawati Sukarnoputri, who had been Suharto’s main opponent from within Indonesia’s political elite between 1995 and 1998. He then ran for president in 2014 and 2019, losing to Joko Widodo, but gaining more than 40% of the vote. In 2019, President Widodo invited him to join the Cabinet as – of all things – Minister of Defense.

No kidnappers in politics

This year, alongside the Kamisan vigils, a new campaign is underway to bring justice for the 13 disappeared activists. The campaign was provoked by a maneuver by the former national spokesperson for the PRD during the 1990s, Budiman Sujatmiko. Sujatmiko, who himself had been imprisoned by Suharto between 1996 and 1998, had left the PRD in 2001 and then later joined Megawati Sukarnoputri’s PDIP. But in July this year, he jumped across to support Prabowo Subianto’s candidacy for President, betraying his membership to the PDIP who are nominating their own presidential candidate.

In the aftermath of this maneuver, former members of the PRD, those who have kept out of elite politics, formed a new organization Democratic People’s Front for Justice for the Victims of Forced Disappearances (FRD). The central figure in the FDR is a former Secretary-General of the PRD, Petrus Haryanto. Haryanto has been active since the early 2000s as a leader of the union of dialysis patients campaigning for better services and rights, despite his own serious illness. At a press conference in July this year, he lambasted Sujatmiko’s maneuver and called for a revived campaign to find the whereabouts of the disappeared and justice for them and their families.

“Budiman has not only betrayed the struggle of his friends, but also betrayed his own struggle having been detained and imprisoned along with his pro-democracy comrades all fighting to win democracy and end the Suharto dictatorship,” said Petrus at a July 2023 press conference. He continued: “We want to restore the values of activists who prioritize honesty, prioritize human rights and humanity. Without resolving past human rights cases, there is no substantial unity. Because of this, the nationalism that we put forward is the humanitarian nationalism as was put forward by [Indonesia’s founding president] Sukarno.”

Activist Petrus Haryanto at a Kamisan.

Since July there have been a series of events aimed at raising awareness of this issue, including a major event on the occasion of Wiji Thukul’s birthday. Other activist groups have also taken up the issue, though it has still not broken through as a central issue in mainstream politics.

On August 26, Prabowo Subianto again registered as a presidential candidate in the February, 2024 elections. His candidature is also being endorsed by the incumbent President Joko Widodo, especially after one of Widodo’s sons, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, was nominated as Prabowo’s Vice-Presidential running mate. Raka, who is 36, has almost no serious political experience. Widodo and Raka, both who have won electoral contests in the past as nominees of the PDIP, have followed in the footsteps of Sujatmiko and betrayed their original party. Widodo, who promised to uncover the fate of the 13 disappeared is now endorsing the man who admitted ordering their arrest.

In response, the FRD and Haryanto have launched a campaign “Don’t Vote for a Kidnapper” which is set to attract support from human rights and democratic activists. The problem people will face is that although parties such as the PDIP were not part of the kidnapping process, and indeed PDIP members were also kidnapped, they have played an important role in helping whitewash Prabowo. Prabowo was the Vice-Presidential running mate for PDIP’s Megawati in 2009, and as mentioned above, served as Widodo’s Minister of Defense, while Widodo was still associated with the PDIP.

The “Don’t Vote for a Kidnapper” campaign may strengthen the tendency for some people, particularly activist civil society, to boycott voting in the Presidential elections. This could be strengthened by Widodo’s opportunist maneuvers to get his son nominated as Prabowo’s Vice-Presidential running mate giving rise to all kinds of attacks on his building a political dynasty.


By Wiji Thukul

if the people leave
while rulers deliver speeches
we must watch out
perhaps they have lost hope

if the people hide away
and whisper
when discussing their problems
then rulers should beware and learn to listen

if the people don’t dare complain
then things are dangerous
and if the rulers’ talk
may not be rejected
truth must surely be under threat

and if suggestions are refused without consideration
voices silenced, criticisms banned without reason
accused of subversion and disturbing security
then there is only one word: resist!


Solo, 1986