Thursday, January 11, 2007


First published in The Jakarta Post, January 9, 2007


Alpha Amirrachman
, Contributor, Depok, West Java

One might never have imagined that one of the most critical and anti-New Order academic and social activists, George Junus Aditjondro, met with president Soeharto at the invitation of the latter at a solemn ceremony at Merdeka Palace in 1987.

"I was presented with the Kalpataru award for my efforts to encourage various environmental organizations to become an environmental watchdog," recalled George.

"At the time the tactical alliance between the government and non-governmental organizations, which were mostly environmentally oriented, was solid. This is because then state minister of the environment Emil Salim felt the need to strengthen the role of his ministry, and therefore it needed `legs' in society."

"So, we needed each other. We needed recognition so that we had room to move freely, and the minister needed us to expand its influence throughout the country."

However, the alliance began to crack when the three serious environmental cases of Kedungombo dam in Central Java, Indo Rayon (North Sumatra) and Scott Paper (Papua) appeared to have gone beyond certain limits, and George was increasingly sidelined as his criticism of the cases did not make everyone happy.

George was born on May 27, 1946, in Pekalongan to a Javanese father and Dutch mother. His father was educated in Holland for nine years and was also a student activist of the Indonesian Association (PI) as a secretary to Mohammad Hatta, the latter subsequently becoming the first vice president of Indonesia.

He said his father married a Dutch woman before coming home to Pekalongan to establish a law firm. But he didn't stay long as a lawyer and decided to work as a head of state court.

George said that at the time it was the peak of the fighting between the colonial Dutch and Indonesia, and their home was a place for secret meetings of independence fighters like Hoegeng and Ali Moertopo.

"My father was a head of state court and his wife was Dutch, so the Dutch never suspected our activities," recalled George. "Simultaneously, my mother also engaged in counterespionage to benefit the independence struggle."

Living in Holland when he was very young, George went to elementary school in three cities, Banyuwangi, Pontianak and Makassar, as he followed his father's tours of court duty. In Makassar his father was promoted to become a member of high state court and participated in the opening of the law and social sciences school at Hasanuddin University.

"Although I am biologically Javanese, I am culturally more eastern than western Indonesian because, during my formative years as a young man, I lived in Makasar from junior high until 1964 when I started college at the Hasanuddin engineering school."

"I experienced the tense situation when a war between DI/TII (Darul Islam/Islamic Indonesian Army) and the Indonesian Military took place until the rebel leader, Kahar Muzakar, was assassinated," he said.

George added that the situation was relatively normal until the alleged coup in 1965 by the communists, which forced his family to move back to Semarang. So he went to the state technical academy in the city and also studied electronic engineering at Satya Wacana Christian University in Salatiga. He never finished either.

"An IQ test later revealed that I'm more a socially oriented than a mathematical person; my sense of social justice was very much inherited from my father," George told The Jakarta Post during the launching of an edited book titled Revitalisasi Kearifan Lokal: Studi Resolusi Konflik di Kalimantan Barat, Maluku dan Poso (Revitalization of Local Wisdoms: Conflict Resolution Studies in West Kalimantan, Maluku and Poso) at Bumi Wiyata Hotel, Depok, West Java.

George, who contributes a chapter on the Poso conflict in the book, looked fresh and fit during an interview conducted early in the morning. He added his commitment to stand by the marginalized was bolstered by his father's principle that, despite his aristocratic blood, his father was very much against feudalism. His appreciation of culture was inherited from his mother.

George was fully active as a student journalist at Kami daily and at influential Indonesian Student Journalist Association (IPMI). He later became a journalist at Tempo news magazine from 1971 to 1979. He helped journalist Fikri Jufri at the business desk before becoming an editor for technology and the environment. Being a journalist, he was acquainted with many environmental and agricultural activists.

After 10 years at Tempo, George decided to dedicate himself to the empowerment of agricultural communities, so he helped establish the Rural Guidance Secretariat with Bambang Ismawan, Prof. Sayogo and Abdullah Sarwani. He also helped set up environmental watchdog WALHI and worked for the Societal Development Foundation of Irian Jaya (YPMD-Irja) from 1981 to 1989.

Because his father's specialization was in agricultural law, as an activist George benefited a lot from many of his father's books. His role in nurturing environmental awareness was considered so significant that then president Soeharto presented to him the Kalpataru environmental award in 1987.

George further won a scholarship to study for a Master of Science degree at Cornell University in the U.S. with a thesis on the educational process of the societal development in YPMD-Irja, which he completed in 1991. He later continued with research for a PhD and completed it in 1993 from the same university with a thesis on public education on the impact of the development of Kedungombo dam, Central Java.

Nonetheless, George's unremitting criticism of injustice in East Timor, his stand against the Army's dual function and the business interests of the Soeharto family were more than enough to cause severe deterioration of his relations with the New Order regime.

To protest what he considered intolerable injustice perpetrated by the state, he returned the Kalpataru award to the government.

After being interrogated by the authorities several times, George had a chance to escape the country in 1995 and taught at Murdoch University and the University of Newcastle in Australia and became a self-exiled person in the neighboring country.

He returned to Indonesia after the collapse of the New Order and now works as a research consultant at Yayasan Tanah Merdeka in Palu, Central Sulawesi, where he feels more at home, despite his Javanese origin.

Asked about the role of local wisdoms in mitigating conflict in Indonesia, particularly in Poso, he said that the way the government utilized traditional instruments could backfire if they were not conducted properly. He cited an example of the motambu tana tradition in Poso where the involved parties are required to eat the meat of a sacrificed buffalo, preceding the peace agreement.

"But President Abdurrahman Wahid missed that important element of the tradition as he, instead, left the ceremony without eating the meat," said George, who also teaches Marxism at Sanata Dharma University in Yogyakarta.

His Poso-born wife is currently studying for a doctorate in the city.

George warned that traditional instruments might likewise instead develop into authoritarian tools when local leaders are lured to manipulate them to impose their will on society, and to segregate societies by declaring that people who are not from their group are outsiders.

"So the best thing to deal with communal conflicts is to have a synthesis between traditional and contemporary approaches," George argued. He added that local wisdoms are further challenged by linguistic and religious transformation of society, and that identifying the most responsible culprits for the continuation and escalation of conflicts was something that should not be forgotten.

Therefore, exposing alliances between politically connected corporations and some elements of the military, which he said has marginalized and victimized local people in conflict areas, was also vital.

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