Monday, November 03, 2008

Indonesian Legal Aids Foundation: Struggling for democracy and its sustainability

Describing experiences of our own organization probably will barely be a less objective article. In an effort to show objectivity, the writer cited some statements and articles to represent others’ opinion on the Legal Aids Institution (LBH). The brief article alone is intended to describe and analyze the roles of LBH in the New Order periods, its challenges now and in the future.

What have been deemed opponents of all legal aids workers since the establishment of LBH is ‘ism’ that antagonistically contradicts with the values of democracy, supremacy of just law and human rights, totalitarianism, authoritarianism, militarism and racism. For the reasons, many legal aids workers or activists should many often cope with agents or actors behind such “isms”. In this context, the LBH activists are struggling together with civilian community organization to fight against the New Order led by former President Soeharto who represented the authoritarianism leader in Indonesia.

The biggest legal aid organization in Indonesia, the Indonesian LBH Foundation, has entered into the third stage of historical development. The first stage was the preliminary stage of LBH start and establishment as it was founded on October 20, 1970. The former establishment of the Jakarta Legal Aids Institution as the pilot project of the Indonesian Advocates Association (Peradin) was followed by the founding of other LBH in the provinces’ major cities nationwide. The second phase was marked by the founding of association of the dozen of LBH into the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation (YLBHI) on March 13, 1980. Since then on, LBH turned to be independent non-governmental organization and no longer be affiliated to the Peradin. The third phase was marked by the revision of the organization statutes that were commonly considered as the ‘locomotive of democracy’(1) by national media based on the notary certificate No. 26 on September 26, 2002. Thus far YLBHI has offices in some 14 provinces. In addition, YLBHI has become known by the emergence of some noted and popular individuals in media as the human rights fighters who got domestic and international awards.

Implementing structural legal aid approaches, LBH has been long put into service not only litigation advocacy at court as the core competence but also done some activities outside court including organizing and educating clients and poor society. However, such approaches have run the risk of the institution given that, for instance, the technical and skill abilities of some legal aid workers at court has now relatively decreased in quality if they are compared with some senior advocates of the 1970s and 1980s.

In addition to the risk, the approach of BHS has surely made LBH workers the operation target of Soeharto regime. Many often a worker of LBH should support the other colleague when the iron-fist regime considered the worker here enemy for pleading farmers or poor labor interests. Physical and mental terrors or even the victims of the police and military’s tortures at the time was deemed daily hazard under Soeharto’s regime.

Graphic 1

Source: YLBHI doc. Data compilation. Human Rights Directorate

On the roles of LBH during the Soeharto’s era an article wrote, “… at the beginning of 1990s LBH was even named as the locomotive for democracy…. Almost every day many activists ranging from students, labors, urban poor society and the like thronged YLBHI office…”. (2) In this article, the writer said that LBH was the source of opposition to the ruling government. Here are the statements:

“Some Political Parties participating in the 1999 general election were declared in this place including the Democratic People Party (PRD) and Indonesian Democratic Union Party (PUDI). It implies that LBH at the beginning of 1990s was really the central place in which many groups met in their attempts to oppose openly against the Soeharto’s regime. The existing groups were still small in number… From the office here, the schemes of actions to counter the evictions nationwide were planned.

… in other words, YLBHI was no longer simple place to file a complaint from poor civilians but also place for pro democracy activists of various groups to gather… “(3)

In conjunction with the 25th anniversary of LBH in 1995, Professor Daniel S. Lev, a senior lecturer from Washington University, said that emergence of LBH in 1970s was a sort of experiment. But the experiment here worked out well. Lev even stated that the surviving existence of LBH has encouraged the movement of NGO in Indonesia. Lev said: “… when LBH was founded in 1970s, many predicted that LBH would only survive for five years at maximum. Thus, it is unpredictable thing to note that LBH has survived for 25 years.”(4)

In the new era, PBH LBH are facing more challenges. Soeharto’s downfall on May 21, 1998 has marked the new era. The event here opened new chances and hopes to all Indonesian nations. Formally the state has given new procedures and mechanism and new state-owned institutions. These brand new stuffs are considered the requirements of democracy system and structure including a direct presidential election, direct governor and regent election, establishment of Constitutional Court, Constitutional Commission, National Law Commission, Corruption Eradication Commission, and the like.

The formal development here has yet to guarantee the protection of poor peoples’ rights. Corruption goes rampantly in the era of regional autonomy. Worse still, following the former President Soeharto’s downfall, the intensity of communal conflict increased as it was the case of the violence against minor ethnicities, women and poor community.(5) With reference to the data on cases of the New Order and its transitional periods as depicted in Figure 1, the cases reported by public to LBH also heightened significantly. Worse, assault incidents committed by state apparatus and militias, or unidentified perpetrators against LBH offices were escalating in worse quality in the reform era.

For instances, in 2001 a number of violence cases reportedly happened to some LBH activists.(6) In Medan, LBH director Irham Buana Nasution should be hospitalized as unknown perpetrators shot him with bow and arrow on April 11, 2001. He got the attack at his office at LBH Medan. The poisonous arrow was lifted up by an hour surgery at the hospital. On April 1996, LBH Medan office was burned out by unidentified people a day after pro democracy activists staged rallies in response to the general election.

On April 12, 2001, a number of unknown people attacked Toyota van of LBH Bandung director Haneda Lastoto. The incident happened at the LBH Bandung office. In addition to the attack, the perpetrators also stole the documents on Lastoto’s clients dealing with the 13 suspects of bombing case.

On April 13, 2001, a number of Jakarta Police apparatus attacked YLBHI office in Jakarta. At the time, police hurled stones and batons to destroy four glass windows. Five police even intruded Adam Malik room in which Legal Aids Training session (Kalabahu) - a training for caderes at LBH Jakarta - was given. The assault occurred following the police attempts to sweep the demonstrators staging anti military rallies nearby the YLBHI. In response to the police hunt, some demonstrators escaped the incidents for safe shelter at YLBHI. Worse, police even beat some 10 student activists at Adam Malik room. An eyewitness was even collapsed noting the shocking real tortures there. It is very common for any demonstrator to keep cover at YLBHI when they put up with clashes with police and military apparatus.

On July 20 2001, joint team of Aceh Police and Aceh Besar Police Precinct carried by a truck and three cars attacked LBH Banda Aceh. Police forcibly arrested LBH Banda Aceh director Rufriadi and his staff Arie Maulana and Banta who was student activist. Police even ordered them to put off their clothes and lay facing downwards at yard of LBH Banda Aceh. The assault occurred when some human rights activists staged rallies on human rights violation in Aceh. The security apparatus confiscated computer, banner and pictures of the violence victims exhibited at the venue.

The above examples are just partial cases of the reported violent cases happened to the LBH workers. Ironically, the recent political party elites and high-ranking state officials could claim the prior prominent roles of LBH to struggle hard for truthfulness, justice and human rights. It was unlike the era of former President Soeharto.

The supports given by funding agencies have plunged. The traditional donor institutions for LBH including Novib and USAID have no longer extended their supportive contracts. There is no more block grant for the NGOs that once become a symbol opposing New Order regime. This was because all progressive and Soeharto’s opposed elements have gathered, declared or had discussion at ‘Adam Malik’ conference room at YLBHI. It looks ironical as many doctorates and masters for LBH activists and intellectuals conducting researches for their thesis and dissertation were born from LBH. But on the other side, they did not prepare themselves to explore more domestic financial supports.

A number of staffers who have worked there for years should put up with dismissal with improper severance payment. The staffers who keep on working there did not get regular monthly salary. The real challenges at present are on the matters of how to survive the organization and at the same time, it undertakes advocacy for poor people and justice seekers free of charge.

Since October 2002, the structure of Indonesian Legal Aids Foundation has been set up in line with the above challenges. The arranged work plans either adopted the dynamics of external organizations. The national workshop of YLBHI on July 2004 asserted that the primary program of all LBH now was to encourage the fulfillment and protection of economy, social and cultural rights. Of course, this does not put aside the protection of civilian and political rights. Modifying Professor Lev’s question, it was really incredible fact that LBH could survive up through to 33 years and now almost on the 34th anniversary.

*Article for Hurights Osaka.

End Note

(1) See Kompas October 12, 1995. “Refleksi 25 Tahun YLBHI. Harus Bisa Jawab Tuntutan Masyarakat” ( “YLBHI 25 Year Reflection. It Must Be Able to Respond to Public Demands”), Kompas August 17, 2003. “Menemukan Sosok Masyarakat Madani” (“Finding an Indonesian Civil Society”), Tri Agung Kristianto. “Ornop, Sebuah Citra Ketergantungan” (“NGO, an Image of Dependency”), Kompas January 22, 2003. “LBH dan Demokarasi” (“LBH and Democracy”), GATRA weekly magazine, March 16, 1996 (No. 18/II)
(2) Sharir, Bari Muchtar and Junito Drias, “Perahu Retak Kelompok Pro –Demokrasi” (“Cracking Boat for Pro Democracy Group”), September 25, 2002. Text could be read at
(3) Ibid.
(4) Kompas October 12, 1995, “Refleksi 25 Tahun YLBHI. Harus Bisa Jawab Tuntutan Masyarakat” (“YLBHI 25 Year Reflection. It Must Be Able to Respond to Public Demands”)
(5) On the violence escalating tension at the post Soeharto’s era, for instance figure out Elizabeth Fuller Collins “Indonesia: A Violent Culture?” Text can be read at
(6) See Ucok Ritonga’s “Sejumlah Kasus Menimpa Aktivis LBH dan Kontras” (“Some Cases for LBH and Kontras Activitsts”), Tempo weekly magazine, August 21, 2001.
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