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‘I learned to refuse to surrender’ – An Interview with Yati Andriyani, Coordinator of KontraS

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For this month’s e-newsletter, FORUM-ASIA talked to Yati Andriyani, who was elected as Coordinator of the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (KontraS), one of FORUM-ASIA’s members from Indonesia, early last year. Before taking on this position, she has had a long career fighting for human rights, particularly in Indonesia.

In this interview we asked her about her background, motivation, inspiring moments and challenges. And had the opportunity to learn more about her beliefs as a human rights defender.

How did you become involved with human rights? And how did you become involved with FORUM-ASIA?

It is a long story. My journey with the human rights movement started when I was studying at the Law School of the State Islamic University Syarif Hidayatullah in Jakarta. My interaction with other student activists in 1997 changed my perception of the State.

At that time, I remember, I attended a discussion where Munir Said Thalib[1], the founder of KontraS, spoke about cases of enforced disappearances and other human rights violations. That is when I joined the student movement and got involved in many student demonstrations against the Suharto regime.

I faced a lot of violence during those demonstrations, which made me feel something was wrong. My mind told me that ‘violence does not provide solutions and only creates more violence.’ This reflection led me to join the Komite Mahasiswa dan Pemuda Anti Kekerasan (KOMPAK), a student organisation that focuses on socio-political change and campaigning through non-violent action. At the same time, I also joined SEROJA, a women student organisation that focuses on research and advocacy.

My activism in University finally brought me to interact closely with KontraS, and in 2002, I started my work at KontraS as a volunteer doing monitoring on the trial of the Timor-Leste massacre.

The first challenge I faced was the intimidation from so many military forces that attended the trial. One day, when I went back to my office from the court, I saw KontraS’s office being destroyed by attackers organised with the support of the Indonesian military. This event, an act of terror and intimidation, is still fresh in my mind, because it made my belief that we are standing on the right side of history more firm.

Along with KontraS, I deal with various human rights cases. I have also joined coalitions and initiatives, both nationally and internationally, and now this includes FORUM-ASIA, which KontraS is a member of. KontraS and FORUM-ASIA share similar concerns and interests when it comes to human rights in the region.

What motivated you to become involved? And has that motivation changed over the years?

In 2004, when I came to the KontraS office, I saw everybody was silent. Soon I learned that all people were waiting for the confirmation about the death of Munir. It was a moment that motivated me to join KontraS.

Along with KontraS, I met with victims groups across Indonesia. I saw the spirit and persistence of the victims groups to fight for their rights. Many of them already passed away, while the struggle to claim their rights continues to face many challenges.

Inspired by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, together with Jaringan Solidaritas Keluarga Korban (JSKK), we initiated the AksiKamisan, a weekly silent standing protest in front of the Presidential Palace, where people dressed in black stood against impunity. This action continues till now. Their persistence and struggle is my motivation to keep going.

Please tell us one of the most inspiring moments for you in your work in the past?

This is a difficult question. There are many moments in my relationships with cases and victims groups. There are little victories or gains that always give you new energy.

But there are also many disappointments. But, I remember one moment, I felt so sad and guilty because I think that I failed to advocate for the victims. So I decided to leave my work and prepared to stay in a village in a remote area far from Jakarta.

But, then many supports came to me, especially from victim’s families and close friends, they tried to ensure me that there is always a little win and all efforts to advocate for human rights is always valuable. I think I was inspired and learned a lot from that moment, I learned to refuse to surrender, no matter how difficult situations might get when advocating for human rights.

What do you experience as the main challenges as someone working on human rights? And how do you deal with such obstacles in your work?  

It is true that working on human rights is risky. Threats, terrorisation, criminalisation, harassment and death are evidence of that everywhere human rights activists and victims demand justice.

But, in my opinion, the biggest challenge for someone working on human rights is to keep your motivation and hope for justice alive. You need passion to give all your energy to continue your work and avoid getting demoralised. Working on human rights issues is also stressful, so in my case, I need and I do healing by focussing on positive activities. I am lucky to have a good partner in my family that fully understands and is supportive of my work.

If you could give a message to the new generation of people working on human rights or development, what would it be?

Human right is a way of life. Human rights mean truly caring for and loving humanity. The way you think and give value to yourself, and the way you interact with others. It is not just only about work, it is what gives meaning to the journey of life.


[1]Munir Said Thalib was a well-known Indonesian human rights defender. In addition to being the founder of KontraS, he also worked for FORUM-ASIA member the Legal Aid Foundation (YLBHI), and served as the Director of Imparsial, also a member of FORUM-ASIA. He was murdered on a flight from Jakarta to Amsterdam on 7 September 2004 by arsenic poisoning.