Wednesday, September 08, 2004
In Defense of the Ill-fated
A people's lawyer by choice (in spite of the poor salary), she refuses to be called a fighter for basic human rights.
Like a leech, the horrible memory sticks to Ester Indahyani Jusuf's mind. She had been married only three months when Jakarta was ravaged by riots in May 1998. In her sleep, she was haunted by nightmares about what an eyewitness from North Jakarta had told her: "A long-haired man set fire to a tire shop. The sky turned black and the flames spread everywhere. Two people were locked in the building by the long-haired man. Their bodies were scorched." Ester felt depressed, knowing that the two unlucky people were Indonesian citizens of Chinese descent.
The May tragedy of six years ago triggered a new awareness for Ester. Born with the name Sim Ai Ling, she hated the perpetual policy of discrimination prevailing when the New Order regime was in power. But she also chided the reticence of the Chinese. To Ester, the root of the problem lies within. "The tendency of seeing the ethnic [Chinese] as being far superior must be abolished," she said. Ester has acted on her own words by embarking on a difficult road: unraveling history.
Ester was born in Malang, East Java, 33 years ago. A simple girl of Chinese descent, she was fortunate in that she had parents who were forward-looking. Her father, Immanuel Jusuf, was a teacher, her mother, Maria Tjandra, an ex-teacher. Since her childhood, this hoakiau (overseas Chinese) family was constantly on the move before ultimately settling down in Jakarta. Little Ester got along nicely with the neighbors when the family lived at Condet. "I even attended an Islamic kindergarten there," she recalled.
Upon graduation from the University of Indonesia School of Law, Ester entered the legal world. However, although she had the chance, she did not choose the road of the professional lawyer. Instead, she joined the Social and Political Rights Division of the Jakarta Legal Aid Institute (LBH). This was in line with the message that her father had handed down to her: she should work for the defense of the poor. Being a "people's lawyer" was a new experience for Ester. Previously, she engaged only in church activities. "My father used to say I was too much of a church bench eater," she recalled laughingly.
Work at LBH did not pay much. One afternoon, she had only a few hundred rupiah left. She had not eaten all day and did not have money left for transport home. When the day started to fade out, she prayed that somehow she could have a meal and go home. "Lo, I ran into Mas Teten Masduki (now chairman of Indonesia Corruption Watch-Ed.). He invited me to have dinner with him," she said. She was saved from starvation that day. To top her luck, the driver of the city transport vehicle she was riding home with was so happy about his exceedingly good earnings that day that he allowed her to travel without paying.
While working at LBH, Esther discovered corrupt practices at the court. She also repeatedly had occasion to rub against the powers that be. For instance, when she was legal counsel for the People's Democratic Party (PRD), who were charged with masterminding the July 27, 1996 riots. "She is serious and highly dedicated," observed Surya Tjandra, her colleague at Jakarta LBH. In Surya's eyes, Ester was one of the most vocal among the young lawyers during that difficult time.
After her marriage to Arnold Franciscus Purba, a student activist of the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB), Ester's struggle became even more focused. Arnold, who was affectionately called Ucok, was a "hard-line" activist. He was jailed for protesting a visit by Home Affairs Minister Rudini to the ITB campus in 1989. "Ucok has always given me inspiration," Ester said. Her husband died three years ago of a liver ailment, leaving her with their two sons.
Together with Ucok, Ester initiated the establishment of the Solidaritas Nusa Bangsa (Solidarity of Land and Nation), an institution that came into being shortly after the May 1998 riots. It fights racist policy practices, among other things by unraveling the May 1998 riots and defending the victims. The institution's activities have earned it various awards, including one from the Human Rights Forum, the Yap Thiam Hien Award, and one from the Asoka International Foundation. "But don't write that I am a human rights fighter," Ester said.
Life as a widow with two children to take care of does not dampen Ester's spirit. Just of late, she made a daring move by taking up the issue of the 1965 political tragedy. Millions of communists and Sukarno followers perished in that bloody stage of history. Two years ago, as part of a national reconciliation effort, Ester took part in the digging up of mass graves of former Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) members in Wonosobo, Central Java, and Blitar, East Java.
From the scattered bones, Ester seems to have deduced the crux of the problem. Said she: "The anti-discrimination resistance came to a complete halt in the aftermath of 1965."