I'll campaign for Timor until I die

At 73, Carmel Budiardjo is marking 30 years of struggle against dictatorship, writes Andrew Buncombe
Click to follow
The Independent Online
CARMEL BUDIARDJO was at home the morning the police came to take her and her husband away. There was an officer in plain clothes who came to the door and demanded they go with him. A soldier carrying a rifle stepped into the house behind him.

"I felt insecure, rather than frightened," she says. "Obviously I knew what was going on but I didn't really get frightened until much later."

In fact, British-born Mrs Budiardjo was tortured, interrogated then held in a Jakarta prison without trial for three years. Her husband, Suwondo, was jailed for a decade. Their offence was membership of the Indonesian Communist Party and to be government employees of the previous and discredited regime. It was enough, in 1968, for President Suharto, the despotic leader of Indonesia, to detain them indefinitely.

Mrs Budiardjo was eventually released in 1971 and forced to return to Britain with her children, who had been cared for by a sister-in-law.

After waiting helplessly and in vain for the release of the Indonesian husband she had met and married while working in Prague in the Fifties, she decided it was time to take action. As a result Tapol, the Indonesian Human Rights organisation, was born.

Last week Mrs Budiardjo, now aged 73, played host to MPs, officials and activists when Tapol - Indonesian for "political prisoner" - celebrated its 25th anniversary. Among speakers at the party in London was the Nobel laureate Jose Ramos Horta, spokesman for the East Timorese independence movement.

That has been a quarter-century of persistent struggle for Mrs Budiardjo. It has been a struggle not only to secure the release of her husband (something eventually achieved in 1978), but to try to promote the cause of a people living more than 10,000 miles away. In this battle she has harangued, pestered and charmed foreign politicians, government officials, arms dealers and newspaper editors.

"It is hard to explain exactly what drives me," says Mrs Budiardjo, who moved to Indonesia with her husband in 1952.

"I was released from prison relatively soon because I was British but there were a lot of people who were not so fortunate. I had friends and I knew many people in Indonesia. I have felt it is my duty to keep campaigning - I have never considered stopping."

It has been another struggle to raise sufficient funds. Tapol is considered too political to qualify for charitable status in Britain and, as a result, the organisation raises more than 95 per cent of its funds overseas. "Ireland, Denmark, Holland and Germany are the main providers of income," she says.

The campaign has had its high and low points. One low point was the Santa Cruz massacre of 1991 when 273 students and independence demonstrators were murdered in a cemetery by Indonesian soldiers in Dili, capital of East Timor. (With the tacit approval of the British, Australian and US governments, Suharto invaded the former Portuguese colony in 1975. An estimated 200,000 East Timorese have died since then.) But the 1996 decision of a jury in Liverpool to acquit four women who had smashed a British- made Hawk jet sold to Indonesia, was something to celebrate.

The women, members of the pacifist group Seeds of Hope, claimed that because Indonesia used the Hawks to bomb the East Timorese, their action had actually prevented a more serious crime. Mrs Budiardjo was a defence witness.

Her campaign has taken a heavy personal toll. For the 10 years her husband was held they kept in contact only through occasional Red Cross letters. Their relationship was affected and the couple divorced. Her husband died two years ago. He was buried in Indonesia by Mrs Budiardjo's two children.

Last week Indonesia was again in the news. B J Habibie, the country's new President, and Alexander Downer, Australia's Foreign Minister, have announced separate inquiries into the deaths of five journalists allegedly murdered by Indonesian soldiers in East Timor in 1975.

They included Brian Peters, 26, of Bristol, and Malcolm Rennie, 29, of Scotland. Mrs Budiardjo has once again been busy with press statements, letters to governments and phone calls to contacts in Indonesia.

"It is the campaigning that keeps me going," she says. "I don't know how much longer I will be able to keep it up. People say I should be taking things easier, but retirement is not on my agenda."

Comments