Roberval Tavares
Ashoka Fellow since 2003   |   Indonesia

Imam Aziz

Imam Aziz is spearheading a citizen-based reconciliation movement that will help Indonesia deal with its past by airing the facts of the 1965 massacres, events that created deep rifts that continue to…
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This description of Imam Aziz's work was prepared when Imam Aziz was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2003.


Imam Aziz is spearheading a citizen-based reconciliation movement that will help Indonesia deal with its past by airing the facts of the 1965 massacres, events that created deep rifts that continue to divide Indonesian society decades later.

The New Idea

Imam believes that democracy will never be able to take root in Indonesia as long as the sense of hatred and revenge continues to exist among its people and discrimination continues to be practiced on a structural level–both consequences of the 1965 massacres. He uses a citizen-to-citizen approach designed both to reveal the truth and to foster cooperation on restoring the full civil rights long denied to many. What makes Imam's work so remarkable is that he does it from within the modern Nahdulatul Ulama (NU), an organization with 40 million members across the country, and–paradoxically given its own involvement in the bloodshed–the only one with the breadth and credibility to help Indonesia overcome the legacy of 1965.
By retelling stories from both sides and reexamining the context together, the survivors are being given a means to negotiate a once untouchable past. Through the process they are coming to realize that both the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) and members of the NU were victims of a militarized state that survived by pitting citizen against citizen. After compiling local histories of the violent era, Imam and his group facilitate meetings between Islamic organizations that took part in the massacre and surviving victims and families of the deceased. Once reconciliation is underway, they look to the future and help set the stage for cooperative community activities. Advocating for the elimination of discriminatory policies is also an integral part of this movement, as is the rehabilitation of the civil, political, and economic rights of the victims.

The Problem

Modern Indonesia has been shaped by the events of September 30, 1965, when a round of political assassinations sparked months of communal violence, arrests, executions, and disappearances. Anyone suspected of belonging to or contacting the PKI was apt to be killed or to vanish in the night. While the army is widely considered to have been the provocateur, organizer, and enabler of the bloodshed, it is now acknowledged that members of NU, the largest grassroots Islamic organization in Indonesia, played an important role in forming the countrywide death squads.
Those affected were not only the 500,000 to one million people killed, but also the millions more imprisoned and abused as the Suharto regime quickly institutionalized equally criminal and destructive laws against victims. Suspected communists and their relatives were imprisoned for years without trial, had their names put on blacklists, and lost their land and jobs. Policies were established to continue this discrimination and to strip anyone with alleged involvement in party-related organizations of their civil and political rights. These people were banned not only from the civil service and army but also from all kinds of positions–from schoolteachers to plantation hands. Suspected enemies of the state had both their and their children's ID cards marked. To travel out of their district, to enroll in school, to apply for a job, they were required to obtain special letters from the police and neighborhood officials. These measures, both draconian and endlessly bureaucratic, opened up new fields for official corruption, abuse of power by the state, and exploitation. For example, as the military expanded its land holdings to run lucrative farms and timber concessions, it used accusations of Communism and the ready machinery of government to seize land from locals. Communal rivalries and even interpersonal conflicts were expressed through spurious accusations of sympathy with the PKI. This discrimination, when combined with efforts to block any investigations into the massacres themselves, has long precluded any hopes for transparency and reconciliation.
Today, with the departure of the Suharto regime, Indonesia's political reformation has removed some of the state's obstacles to a truthful accounting of the past. New leaders, structures, and policies are inching toward democracy and the rule of law. Yet there are still enormous social, economic, and cultural problems to overcome in order for neighbors who persecuted each other–and now two generations of their descendants–to admit, and thus resolve, a history of injustice.
Institutional discrimination has yet to be undone, leaving citizens unequal to one another in the eyes of the state and denying many due process. Smoldering divisions and resentments remain among neighbors, creating fuel for potentially explosive, widespread conflicts. Also, the NU has never come to terms with its role in the destruction of the PKI. Currently a moderate Islamic organization with some 40 million members, the structure of NU allows for autonomy of kyai (individual religious leaders), who operate pesantran (religious boarding schools) with students numbering in the thousands. While individual kyai can be quite powerful, with strong regional influence, these older leaders are not known for being democratic. However, there is interest among the younger generation within the NU to work for a process of democratization in the pesantren system, in the organization of NU, and in Indonesia. The process offers the potential to guide the NU and the country toward reconciliation.

The Strategy

Imam is helping Indonesia through this sensitive recuperation using four strategies. First, he is creating and maintaining support within NU for national reconciliation, as it alone has the size, reach, and authority to lead the effort. Second, he is focusing people on the "cultural" aspects of the reconciliation, rather than the divisive political history of who instigated and organized the violence. Third, he is channeling the energy of former adversaries toward constructive and cooperative activities. Fourth, he is lobbying for changes to the discriminatory laws that are still in effect.
To build and sustain support within the NU despite its own dark history, Imam founded Syarikat (Community of Santri for People's Democracy), a network of young people's organizations both within and close to the NU that have made a commitment to work toward reconciliation and restoration of the civil rights of the victims of 1965. Regular training sessions are held for members, currently spread throughout 18 cities in Java, to help them learn mapping, investigating, and interviewing skills, as well as capacity building for their organizations. Members then conduct investigations and fact-finding visits with victims, gathering and recording their stories and initiating direct contact through visits with various religious teachers in the NU. With their credibility established, they then initiate reconciliatory meetings, first between high-profile people and then slowly including others, from the village to the provincial levels. In April 2003, reconciliation meetings are scheduled in three provinces in Java.
Conscious that this is an extremely sensitive issue and that the political will of the country is not yet solidly behind them, Imam and the members of Syarikat have decided to implement their work with a cultural approach. With photos, personal histories, and testimonies of victims concerning how they survived being constricted both socially and politically, Syarikat publishes the attractive magazine RUAS. Those whose stories are told in the publication come from a wide variety of religious and social backgrounds, including men and women who were former artists, government, private employees, teachers, farmers, and religious leaders. The magazine is not only distributed to individuals and citizen organizations, but also to pesantren libraries–where one copy strategically placed can be read by 1,000 students. Besides RUAS and a regularly updated, lively Web site, Syarikat has published books including the autobiographies of several former political prisoners. Plans are also underway to make a documentary film to record testimonies and the reconciliation process.
Once truthful accounting of the past is underway, Imam begins setting the stage for interaction and collaboration between previously hostile groups. Nonthreatening events like music, puppet, and theater performances conducted jointly with and for members of both sides allow victims and others to meet and share stories. Because Imam involves a broad spectrum of groups in these activities–academics, members of LIPI (the national research institute), cultural and religious groups, citizen sector organizations, funding agencies, and the media–he ensures broad impact beyond the former adversaries.
Imam understands that there are aspects of the conditions and the historical background of each area that are unique, so he tailors his approach regionally. While some areas are at earlier stages than others, many are already demonstrating the success of the reconciliation process. Communities in some areas of the network have succeeded in passing local ordinances to overturn the policies forbidding former political prisoners from holding offices like village council member. Once a certain level of reconciliation has occurred, Syarikat also supports community development projects implemented by both sides, for example, one in the Blitar district in east Java where, following the reconciliation meeting, the community decided to work together to build a much-needed clean water system.
Since true reconciliation cannot be achieved while rights are still being denied, Syarikat is supporting victims of 1965 in their struggle to regain specific civil rights, like use of identity cards that are not only unmarked but also valid for the same period as those of all other citizens. Syarikat is lobbying members of the parliament, especially those from parties supported by NU such as PKB (Gus Dur's party) so that these will be incorporated in the new legislation on population currently being debated. In the case of the recently passed election bills that still contain material discriminating against alleged Communists and other former political prisoners, Syarikat is working for a judicial review; by supporting court cases, the group aims to put the Supreme Court in the position to determine the legality of this law. Land disputes and economic compensation for lost property are still in the documentation phase, and Imam plans for Syarikat to work together with other organizations like the National Commission on Human Rights and the Legal Aid Society, which are more qualified to tackle these issues.

The Person

Imam grew up in a village near Pati on the north coast of Java. Although he attended religious schools through high school–they were the only form of education available–he grew critical of the rigidity of the pesantren system. The differences between his grandfather and father also influenced him. Imam's grandfather, a traditionalist like many in his region, did not allow newspapers or radio in the home; still Imam remembers his father reading the tiny bits of newspaper used to wrap goods from the market. He also recalls that following 1965 his father was the only person in his village who invited a former Communist to pray with him daily in their home.
For university, Imam went to Yogyakarta, which, as a city rich in ethnic and religious diversity, was at first a source of culture shock. Although he studied at the Islamic university, he found that students were allowed to be much more independent and critical. He became involved in the campus press and student activism of the 1980s and early 1990s, including the movement opposing a giant dam project at Kedong Ombo in Central Java. Imam went to live in the region, doing first-hand research that was later used by some well-known activists as source material for their dissertations. Imam wrote an article, considered radical at the time, about the way that religious leaders from various backgrounds–a kyai from NU, Catholic priests, and ministers–worked together in defense of the poor farmers who were being evicted from their land. When government officials interrogated these religious leaders, the NU did not support the members of its community, a position Imam found extremely disappointing. From this incident, Imam began to recognize the importance of building an organization and a strong network to help increase the social awareness of the younger generation.
To begin this process, Imam started in the early 1990s to create an informal network of university students and young people with backgrounds in NU with whom he initiated discussions related to democracy, religion, and human rights. Aware of the need for a more organized effort, he and his colleagues then founded in 1993 the Organization for the Study of Islam and Social Issues (LkiS) that focused on stimulating discourse about topics ranging from "Islam and Liberation" to "Deconstruction of Syari'ah." Through forum discussions and publishing both original works and translations, LkiS has garnered a great deal of interest and support from the young generation and has developed into a group of respected thought leaders in the liberal Islam movement. Imam led LkiS to start one of the first, successful small-scale publishing houses in Yogyakarta as a means to help support their activities, a strategy now popular with other citizen sector organizations.
At the same time, Imam was also deeply involved in advocacy for civil and political rights from within the framework of NU suborganizations. He transformed one that had traditionally been focused on training small farmers into providing training on democracy and human rights. He began to realize that the root of many problems–and what was obstructing the development of democracy–was the existence of unresolved conflicts and the campaign of propaganda used for decades to obscure them. With the belief that there will be no democracy without reconciliation, Imam organized a movement of young people to focus on these issues. Syarikat is the network through which this movement is working, and Imam serves as its coordinator.

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