Posted by: mel | April 27, 2009

A Call to Arms Against Bigotry And the Politics of Amnesia

As part of international efforts to commemorate the Rwandan genocide, a New York-based group is calling for the United Nations to declare April as Genocide Prevention Month. Here at home, next month will bring the 11th anniversary of the Jakarta Riots in May 1998. Crimes against humanity occur every day around the world, and we need to remind ourselves of the root causes of such problems and consider ways to work on solutions.

Let me begin with myself. Being born a female of a minority ethnic group and a member of a minority religious group in Indonesia has put me in the “triple minority” category. While Indonesia’s population has almost equal numbers of males and females, the latter are still considered to be a minority due to their marginalization in civic and political spheres despite some recent symbolic advancements, such as a quota in the legislature.

In May 1998, at least 93 Chinese-Indonesian girls and women of various ages were sexually harassed, raped, mutilated or killed. I lost my innocence at that time, as I was harassed politically and spiritually. I owe my current sense of self, sense of community, increased humanity and heightened compassion to that incident. After all, as human beings, we are one. Any violation against humanity is a violation against all of us.

According to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, crimes against humanity are offenses that constitute a serious attack on human dignity, grave humiliation or a degradation of one or more human beings. They are not isolated or sporadic events, but are part of either a government policy, though the perpetrators need not identify themselves with this policy, or of a wide practice of atrocities tolerated or condoned by a government or a de facto authority. Murder, extermination, torture, rape or political, racial or religious persecution or other inhumane acts meet the criteria for crimes against humanity only if they are part of a widespread or systematic practice.

Indonesia has been suffering from the politics of amnesia for far too long. Political messages against minorities, such as the use of certain expressions that perpetuate stereotypes, have continued from when they first started being used in the 1960s under Suharto’s regime until this very day. The failure of the legal system to bring to justice perpetrators of crimes against humanity, such as Pollycarpus Priyanto, who was convicted for murdering human rights activist Munir Said Thalib and subsequently released by the Supreme Court due to insufficient evidence, is another punch in the face.

The law has even been used to justify persecution against minorities, such as Chinese-Indonesians during the New Order and the Ahmadiyah Islamic minority sect more recently.

With the approval of the citizenship law in 2006, in which the term “non-native” was rendered obsolete, the argument that Indonesian law should be discriminatory is no longer germane. However, as new laws need time to take hold in society, discrimination is still alive and kicking. After all, one can be discriminatory without being a racist.

Institutionalized discrimination and patriarchy tend to overlap, which gives rise to various discriminatory laws against female citizens. Assumptions about the role of women as serving largely as housewives, for instance, is defined clearly in the matrimony law of 1974. And according to the 2000 tax law, a woman must pay the undeducted tax rate as “single” unless she can produce proof, which must be signed and approved by her husband and subdistrict authorities, that she indeed carries the financial burden of the family.

Now let’s discuss internal factors that may lead to crimes against humanity.

Erroneous thinking occurs when components of oppression become accepted as normal. The oppressors’ ideology takes hold when the oppressed become desensitized, and the harmful policies are allowed to continue without being challenged.

The author Hannah Arendt has written that “great evil doings in history were not executed by fanatics or sociopaths but by ordinary people who accepted the premises of their state and participated with the view that their actions were normal.”

As individuals, our duty is to stop perpetuating the notion that crimes against humanity are beyond our control. The key is to empower ourselves by nurturing the notion that if we simply embrace other human beings, our compassion would create a ripple effect in society. We should increase our awareness of different cultural identities, strive to use gender-conscious language and show empathy in everyday activities.

One violation against humanity is a violation against all of us. Be an agent of change.

Jennie S. Bev is an Indonesian-born author and writer based in Northern California.

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