TAPOL''s 25th anniversary comes just months after the downfall of the Indonesian dictator, Suharto. A glance back at what we have tried to do provides an insight into the depth and persistence of gross human rights violations suffered by people living under Indonesian rule. It will help identify the tasks which lie ahead as Indonesia struggles to create a democratic country
It was in June 1973 that, for the first time, a small group of people demonstrated outside the Indonesian embassy in London''s Grosvenor Square, to protest against the continued detention without trial of tens of thousands of Indonesian political prisoners held since Suharto seized power in 1965. In the late sixties, several MPs and left-wing activists, among them the late Arthur Clegg and Stan Newens MP (now a member of the European Parliament), had been to the embassy, spoken out in Parliament and written to the press condemning the massacres instigated by Suharto, which left up to a million people dead, but no one was listening. Eight years after Suharto came to power, a campaign to expose the brutalities of Indonesia''s Orde Baru (New Order) rulers was clearly long overdue.
The occasion of our first demonstration was the meeting of the international aid consortium, the IGGI. We urged Indonesia''s western financiers to stop propping up a regime whose hands were steeped in blood. They have been at it ever since, and so have we.
The action was supported by people from various political parties, from the trade unions, churches and the film world; it prompted a group of MPs to table a motion in the Commons. Encouraged by this and armed with a striking emblem designed by an Indonesian living in London, Taunus Kemasang, we decided to turn ourselves into a permanent campaigning body, then called the British Campaign for the Release of Indonesian Political Prisoners. The choice of ''tapol'', a contraction of tahanan politik or ''political prisoner'', as our name was intended to popularise a new word that entered the Indonesian vocabulary after 1965.
Despite our modest beginnings and a scruffy-looking newsletter, it was not long before the Jakarta regime began to vilify us. In June 1974, the Indonesian Defence Department refuted TAPOL''s condemnation of the use of tapols as forced labour, working for private companies and public works projects; they admitted that such practices had occurred but they had now been ended. In August 1974, the Department again held a press conference, this time to denounce TAPOL and one of its founders, Carmel Budiardjo, herself a recently released tapol, for ''creating misunderstandings'' about the treatment of tapols and for seeking to discredit the Indonesian government. A month later they were at it again, to announce that the word tapol was now banned because Indonesia ''does not hold any political prisoners'', only persons who have broken the law (even though there was not enough evidence to prove it!).
At the time, it was estimated that there were still 70,000 to 100,000 political prisoners in prisons, detention centres and labour camps across the length and breadth of the country. The vast majority were classified as ''B'' category, who would not be brought to trial for lack of evidence but who could not be released because they were ''known to have been directly or indirectly involved'' in the events of 30 September 1965. The armed forces were in charge, with special powers vested in KOPKAMTIB, the Operational Command for the Restoration of Security and Order headed by Suharto. There was no serious attempt by KOPKAMTIB or anyone else in the regime to quantify the number of prisoners. The facts were shrouded in cynicism and mystery. Attorney General Major-General Sugih Arto airily dismissed journalists'' queries: ''The figure fluctuates like the rate of the yen against the dollar.''