SPEAKING FREELY Guatemalan path for Indonesian justice
By Andrew de Sousa
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
Over two months ago, a packed courtroom in Guatemala City appeared to be in chaos. Many were in tears as the room filled with cries of "justicia!". The former military dictator General Efrain Rios Montt, meanwhile, was surrounded to ensure he would not escape.
What many assumed to be impossible had happened: someone was being held responsible for some of the worst human rights abuses of the past century, the genocide of the indigenous Maya
of Guatemala. Despite its notoriously corrupt judicial system, Guatemala had become the first country in the world to convict a former president for genocide in its own territory. It was a legal victory for human rights everywhere and ideally will serve as precedent for holding other leaders accountable, including in Indonesia.
While separated by some 16,000 kilometers of Pacific Ocean, Guatemala and Indonesia have similar modern histories. At the beginning of the Cold War, the United States government felt threatened by progressive, leftist movements in both countries. A decade before the Central Intelligence Agency supported General Suharto's rise to power, the democratically-elected Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz was ousted in a CIA-backed coup d'etat, just two years after legalizing the communist party and 18 months into a modest land reform program perceived as a threat to US business interests.
Throughout the Cold War, the US provided support to both the Indonesian and Guatemalan militaries under the pretext of stopping the spread of Communism. Just as perceived links to the Communist Party of Indonesia, or Partai Komunis Indonesia (PKI), or Chinese ethnicity were used to justify the massacre of as many as one million Indonesians, the Guatemalan military killed an estimated 200,000 mostly unarmed indigenous Mayans who were assumed to be guerrilla sympathizers based solely on their ethnicity. Before the purge, the PKI was the world's largest non-ruling communist party.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, while the Indonesian military's atrocities extended to the annexed island of East Timor, now known as Timor-Leste, across the Pacific a succession of military regimes increased their repression of the Guatemalan people. While thousands of activists were disappeared in the cities, the military conducted a scorched earth campaign against the entire Maya population.
While then US president Ronald Reagan applauded the "wise and steadfast leadership" of General Suharto, his praise for Guatemalan General Rios Montt was even more effusive. According to Reagan, the military dictator who oversaw the 16 bloodiest months of the 36-year conflict in Guatemala was "a man of great personal integrity and commitment".
The conflict in Guatemala officially ended with the signing of the 1996 Peace Accords. The government agreed to uphold international human rights standards, end extra-judicial or clandestine security forces, stop extra-judicial executions and enforced disappearances, and create a United Nations-supported Historical Clarification Commission. The commission found that acts of genocide had occurred, with successive military governments responsible for 626 separate massacres and 93% of the deaths during the conflict, with 83% of the victims being indigenous Maya.
Still, for almost 15 years after the Peace Accords, Guatemalan courts refused to hold high-ranking officials responsible for the atrocities of the 1980s. A group of brave Maya survivors, organized as the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR), helped to change that.
In 2000 and 2001, AJR filed legal charges of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes against two former presidents, Romeo Lucas Garcia and Rios Montt, and their top military commands. The move appeared quixotic: Rios Montt enjoyed immunity as a sitting member of parliament, and his political ally, Alfonso Portillo, was president. With a lack of political will among judges and public prosecutors, the case stalled under the regularly filed appeals of defense lawyers.
In 2006, however, the system began to change. The UN created an International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, placing an international prosecutor in Guatemala to target organized crime. Then, in 2011, four low-level former soldiers were convicted and sentenced to 6,060 years in prison each for their role in the 1982 Dos Erres Massacre, the first time members of the military were found guilty for atrocities committed during the 1980s. A year later a fifth soldier was convicted and sentenced. When Rios Montt left parliament in 2012, he was placed under house arrest pending trial.
Within a year, Rios Montt was before a three-judge panel. Over six weeks, the court heard evidence of the military's systematic rape, torture and murder of rural subsistence farmers targeted merely for being from the Ixil Maya communities. Experts provided evidence that Rios Montt was fully aware and in command of these scorched earth operations, making him culpable of genocide. Rios Montt was sentenced to 80 years and immediately taken to prison.
On May 20, in an unprecedented ruling 10 days after the conviction, the Constitutional Court annulled the second half of the trial. Rios Montt was back under house arrest and many lamented a major defeat for the pursuit of justice. While the reversal was unwanted, for those most involved it was far from unexpected. From the beginning, the trial was not only about Rios Montt but also about to create a process of justice for Guatemala as a whole - and the elite in particular - to acknowledge that what had happened to the poor and indigenous Ixil Maya population was illegal and wrong.
The trial gave the people of Ixil a national stage to tell their story. Their testimony was broadcast and the public heard how children were forced to watch their parents being killed and fetuses ripped from their mothers' wombs. A former solider testified how the current president, Otto Perez Molina, ordered his troops at the time to burn villages and kill anyone who tried to escape. The most powerful message of all was "si hubo genocido!", or that genocide did occur. This motto was a rallying cry for an emboldened fight for justice - what was once only said in private or abroad was now in the open.
While impunity still reigns in Guatemala, it is only a momentary victory. The testimony of dozens of survivors, built upon decades of struggle and resistance, engendered hope more powerful than any court ruling. By refusing to let those in power silence them, some of the poorest and most oppressed people in the Western Hemisphere were able to accomplish the impossible. By holding Rios Montt accountable, if only temporarily, they have shown that it is possible for justice to prevail in even the most unlikely of circumstances.
Who is to say that the same cannot happen in the courts of Jakarta or the fledgling legal system in recently independent Timor-Leste? Certain prominent Indonesian politicians, including former military generals and at least one presidential hopeful, could easily be found culpable for human rights abuses if justice was legitimately pursued. While Guatemala's fight for justice has only now gained traction, 15 years after the initial calls of reformasi and Indonesia still has not come to terms with its genocidal past.
In the words of Guatemalan genocide survivor Edwin Canil, "This has got a long way to go yet. It's just a question of who gets tired first: them or us. But we're still here and staying firm."
Andrew de Sousa is with the Bangkok-based Focus on the Global South.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.