On April 15 and 16, UCLA’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS) held Legacies of Violence, a special conference on human rights issues in Southeast Asia. Being one of my key interests, I went there to listen to the discussions that had an emphasis on Indonesia, Papua, Aceh, and Timor-Leste.
Without going into much detail that is already covered in the papers of the participants available here, as well as the blog summaries here, some panels that caught my attention the most were David Webster’s “Lost Causes and Non-State Actions Against Impunity” and Kimberly Twarog’s “Gendering Trauma Recovery in Aceh”.
Webster‘s message that stuck with me was that when East Timor was struggling for independence, it was a common attitude of Western officials to say “independence is not realistic and therefore it is useless and impractical for us to anything” while ridiculing the few people trying to make change. Now East Timor has been independent for over 10 years, and what does that say? That rhetoric is inherently dangerous, and it is a language that isolates and prevents action from being taken. The key he said was that there was a need to shift from a liberation struggle to a human rights concern, which is what was influential in its eventual independence.
This is not without problems, however, as my professor and the organizer of the conference, Geoffrey Robinson, pointed out that under Indonesian rule, the corruption and the violence to hold onto East Timor was justified in the words of the officials as “necessary, because stability comes before human rights”. This is frightening because the leaders of East Timor are using parallel language to justify their methods of control, because restorative justice is more important than punitive justice against those military officials who committed atrocities. Worse, people are tried in military courts with bias, as oppose to civilian courts. This also parallels Benjamin Franklin’s quote: “Any state that sacrifices a little liberty for security will have neither”. Scarier thought: this is what happened with the United States after 9/11 led to the birth of Homeland Security.
On a more positive note, Twarog‘s study on the social conflicts on top of existing violence and tragedies, including the tsunami of 2005, raised an interesting point on the emotional impact and recovery, with special regard to women. Women who were victims of sexual violence and torture had a harder time coping than men because they were less likely to speak out about it, and one woman, whose husband died during the violence, moved to a new community, only to lose her home in one month when the tsunami struck. When she spoke about it, she was not given any support, she was instead called crazy. This is akin to being ridiculed on the Internet for expressing your feelings, but far worse because there is no escape for her.
Twarog then discussed some programs which used the arts and traditional cultural dance and practices to recover, to use as a means to express the emotions that people were undergoing and could not describe with enough eloquence to vent and heal, much like one would do when getting psychotherapy in the west. Dance, music, and art therapy: when talking to others or verbalizing your emotions is not adequate enough to convey the complexity of the depth we have after experiencing great trauma. The only problems are the implementation: firstly, a lack of funding, as some programs ran out of money fast, secondly, the cultural problem: almost all males were there since women are more likely to stay at home to avoid being ostracized, which is not helped by a lack of female staff, which gives the message that it’s a men’s club rather than one that helps the entire community. Definitely something I’m going to incorporate into my organization further down the line, much like what Soka education does.
Lastly, the film 40 Years of Silence: An Indonesian Tragedy closed up the conference at the Melnitz Theatre, on the mass-killings of an estimated 500,000 to 1,000,000 suspected communists under Suharto. It’s a tragedy that even I did not know about, and am not ashamed of saying I don’t know everything, but am always eager to learn more and spread awareness of what goes on in this world, let alone the parallels all around us. The answers are right there, but it all depends on the questions we ask to get to them. So with these facts, what will we do? At the very least, speak out about it and spread awareness, is my goal, before moving on to find solutions. This is why these human rights conferences must continue, dialogue should be open, and information should flow freely, because apathy and ignorance are two great evils after the biggest culprit, fear. This is why I fight.