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Jakarta Post

Mohammad Imam Aziz: Compassionate advocate for 1965 victims

  • Novia D. Rulistia

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Tue, April 28, 2015   /  09:32 am
Mohammad Imam Aziz: Compassionate advocate for 1965 victims

Mohammad Imam Aziz - JP/Novia D. Rulistia

For human rights activist and religious leader Mohammad Imam Aziz, humanity is the priority when dealing with human rights issues.

Relentlessly, he advocates for the restoration of the civil rights of victims of the 1965 failed coup through an organization that he founded, Masyarakat Santri Untuk Advokasi Rakyat (Muslim Community for Social Advocacy), or Syarikat.

'€œThe 1965 violence was a huge tragedy. And the most urgent thing to do is, I think, to restore the humanity that was lost along with this tragedy,'€ said the chairman of Nahdlatul Ulama central board (PBNU), the country'€™s biggest Muslim organization.

His efforts in advocating for the victims have recently been honored with the Jeju 4.3 Peace Award Special Prize by the Jeju 4.3 Peace Foundation.

The award, consisting of the Jeju 4.3 Peace Prize and the Jeju 4.3 Peace Award Special Prize, is awarded every two years, recognizing figures who have made a significant contribution to the resolution of the Jeju 4.3 Incident or the achievement of world peace, human rights improvement, democratic advancement and social cohesion.

Peace prize: Mohammad Imam Aziz receives the Jeju 4.3 Peace Award Special Prize by the Jeju 4.3 Peace Foundation in Jeju, South Korea.Courtesy of Mohammad Imam AzizPeace prize: Mohammad Imam Aziz receives the Jeju 4.3 Peace Award Special Prize by the Jeju 4.3 Peace Foundation in Jeju, South Korea. Courtesy of Mohammad Imam Aziz

The Jeju 4.3 Incident is the most brutal and largest-scale genocide ever committed in the history of modern Korea, where thousands of individuals were killed in fighting between various factions on the island of Jeju or were executed by the South Korean army, from April 3, 1948 until May 1949.

'€œThe Jeju Incident and the 1965 tragedy are similar, the difference is that the Korean government has apologized to the people, even building a memorial park to honor the victims and their families,'€ he said.

'€œThat way, the dignity of the Jeju people has been raised. But we haven'€™t seen such a thing here yet.'€

The Jeju Prize is not Imam'€™s first international recognition. In 2003, he was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship and in 2010, he was chosen as a council member for dignity, forgiveness, justice and reconciliation of the Ara Pacis Initiative in Rome.

His interest in human rights was sparked when he witnessed discrimination that persisted against the victims of 1965 in his hometown of Pati, Central Java.

'€œI was only three years old in 1965, but in my teenage years I could still feel the hatred in society, calling someone on the street '€˜PKI'€™ [Indonesian Communist Party], discriminating against and alienating them without knowing the real truth,'€ the 52-year-old said.

He then went to Yogyakarta to study history and Islamic culture at the Sunan Kalijaga State Islamic University (UIN) in Yogyakarta, joining NU'€™s youth wing the Ansor Youth Movement (GP Ansor).

His curiosity about the 1965 victims became stronger, but he could not find the answers to all of his questions.

'€œI later found out that the problem that caused the conflicts during 1965-1966 was not really there. Then why did the conflicts still happen anyway?'€ he said.

When Imam headed the NU Institute for Research and Human Resources Development (Lakpesdam) in Yogyakarta, he initiated a training program for the grass roots through its Islamic boarding school (pesantren) network.

Each pesantren has its own committee to run the activities, one of which was tasked to delve into the 1965 incident and later became the foundation of Syarikat.

Syarikat was officially established in 2000, but before starting his mission, Imam said he met NU supreme leader Muhammad Ahmad Sahal Mahfudz to ask for his permission.

'€œHe gave me the green light and said he would help me with this mission,'€ Imam said.

Syarikat'€™s investigation team began its fact-finding operations in 2001 until 2003, going to 35 regencies across Java and Bali.

They interviewed people and found that there was a certain pattern used by the military to provoke anger in society by using the potential local conflict.

'€œWe were shocked when we knew all that; many in our team passed out when we gathered to discuss the findings,'€ Imam recalled with tear-filled eyes.

In 2003, Syarikat started to organize meetings between the victims and those involved in the bloodshed '€” including NU members '€” to clarify the stories from both sides.

The first big gathering was held in Yogyakarta.

'€œThe meeting was not just a meeting, we wanted to help lift the burden of the victims as the perpetrators admitted what they did, restoring our humanity through reconciliation,'€ Imam said.

The results of the meetings, he added, eliminated barriers between them, allowing the victims to participate in many kinds of activities in society.

In 2004, Syarikat started to also focus on providing assistance for the female victims of 1965.

'€œWhen we listened to the stories of the women who were kidnapped and put in camps, we were like entering an unexpected new era,'€ Imam said.

Apart from meetings with the female victims, Syarikat also organized an exhibition in Yogyakarta that showcased their memorabilia '€” including photos, postcards and letters '€” during their time in the camps.

The meetings produced recommendations that were read in front of lawmakers at the House of Representatives'€™ Commission III, overseeing legal affairs in 2007.

'€œBasically they called for the government to admit the tragedy, creating some kind of national reconciliation for their dignity,'€ Imam said.

Imam added that despite the calls from the victims, the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) and other human rights organizations, the government remained silent.

'€œThe most difficult challenge in this work is facing the government, society has, I think, become smarter and more aware of what really happened during 1965,'€ he said.

'€œBut we will keep working; now I feel like we have a debt to the victims and the families.'€

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