TAPOL – 40 years of campaigning

A British-made Stormer APC in Aceh, Indonesia

A British-made Stormer APC in Aceh, Indonesia

TAPOL, the organisation that campaigns for human rights in Indonesia, celebrated its 40th birthday last week with a reception and film screening at the Ritzy cinema in Brixton. Staff from Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), which has worked with TAPOL for many years, were at the reception.

Celebration is probably not the right word for 40 years of hard slog – no doubt TAPOL would have liked to have achieved its aims and wound up its affairs long ago. However, the need for action and for restitution for the past still remains strong, and therefore TAPOL continues its work.

TAPOL was founded by Carmel Budiardjo, still very much a driving force in the campaign. She recounted how she knew little about Indonesia when she first went there with her Indonesian husband. Both were imprisoned without trial by the Suharto regime in the late 1960s. Carmel spent three years in prison before she was released, thanks to the sterling efforts of her British legal team and supporters. After her return to the UK she founded TAPOL in 1973.

The killings of 1965

General Suharto had come to power via a bloody coup against the government of charismatic nationalist leader Sukarno in 1965. At the time, President Sukarno was trying to balance demands from the more conservative and Islamist elements, including the military, and the leftists in the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) – then one of the world’s largest mass movements.

An estimated one million people were killed in the coup, principally supporters (or suspected supporters) of the PKI and minority groups, such as Chinese and Balinese. Huge numbers of activists were imprisoned and independent political activity banned.

Then and later, the truth about the massacres remained hidden. TAPOL campaigned for the rights of the thousands of political prisoners, many of whom remained in jail until the 1990s, for their families, who were discriminated against in law and employment, and for the minority and independence groups in East Timor, West Papua and Aceh, who faced the full brutality of military occupation.

In 1998, Suharto was finally forced to resign amid widespread financial crisis and mass protest, and democratic elections took place, A year later, after a last bloody battle, Indonesia forces left East Timor – it gained independence in 2002. Aceh, in northern Sumatra, gained a degree of autonomy in 2005, although it still faces problems. West Papua, however, remains under Indonesian control with regular reports of shootings and military repression. Indonesia has since had several elections, with governments of varying competency, and although living standards have risen, millions still live in poverty.

The legacy of 1965

The tragic legacy of 1965, remains. In July 2012, a landmark investigation by Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights found evidence of systematic and widespread crimes against humanity, including violence on a massive scale, extra judicial killings, arbitrary arrests, detentions, disappearances, torture and sexual assault. They recommended a follow-up criminal investigation, the establishment of a special court to try perpetuators and the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as had happened in South Africa. A year later, none of these recommendations has been implemented.

Nevertheless, TAPOL has reason to feel that there has been some progress. There is a new awareness in Indonesia about the events of 1965 and an eagerness to uncover the truth. This has been greatly assisted by a new film, The act of killing, a gruelling and often gruesome documentary in which perpetrators openly boost of their crimes – and, even more shockingly, reveal how they still wield influence and impunity even today.

TAPOL has launched an online petition – Say sorry for 65– urging the Indonesian government to uncover the truth and to apologise and make reparations to the surviving victims.


Founded in 1974, Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT)) is just one year younger than TAPOL. The organisations have collaborated together for many years. CAAT has long campaigned against UK arms exports to Indonesia, because of its poor human rights record and active repression of its own population and areas under Indonesian occupation. In addition, as a country with pressing social needs Indonesia should not be squandering valuable resources on expensive and unnecessary weaponry.

Our joint campaigns were most intense during the Suharto dictatorship when British Aerospace Hawk aircraft and Alvis Scorpion tanks and Stormer armoured personnel carriers (APCs) (both now part of BAE Systems) were exported to Indonesia. While the Hawk and Stormer deals were approved by then then Conservative government, shamefully the export licences were not revoked by the incoming 1997 Labour government, thus undermining its claims to put human rights at the heart of its foreign policy.

Hawk jets were used to bomb and intimidate communities in East Timor and West Papua and the APCs were used in Aceh, financed with British loans from the then UK Export Credits Guarantee Department, thus building up unsustainable debts for the Indonesians. Furthermore, Indonesia was rife with a culture of corruption right to the top. Documents published by the Guardian in 2004 revealed that Alvis had made payments of over £16 million to a company owned by Suharto’s daughter to land the APC contract.

The Jubilee Debt Campaign has dubbed these payments as “dictator debts” which are still being paid by the Indonesian people even though they benefited not all all. Indonesia still “owes” £400 million to the UK, paid in instalments every six months, and three-quarters of this amount is for arms.

Shamefully, today the UK government continues to promote arms sales to Indonesia. The value of approved arms export licences has risen dramatically under the Coalition government.In the two and a half years from June 2010 to December 2012 the UK licensed over £89 million worth of weapons for sale to Indonesia, with over £58 million of the total classified as “aircraft, helicopters, drones”.

In April 2012 David Cameron led an arms trade mission to the country, accompanied by arms company executives. In June 2013, the annual report from UK Export Finance (the new name for Export Credits Guaranteee Department) revealed that UK taxpayers had provided insurance cover for a £4.2 million worth of “intelligence equipment” to Indonesia – equipment which could be used to spy on democracy activists. CAAT, TAPOL and Jubilee Debt Campaign will continue to protest against such sales and to highlight the damage they do.

So happy birthday TAPOL and congratulations on your many years of committed campaigning for the people of Indonesia.

CAAT would not exist without its supporters. Each new supporter helps us strengthen our call for an end to the international arms trade.

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