Martyr who helped free his country

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The Independent Online
WHEN HERI Hartanto's parents went to vote yesterday they were just two people among a multitude. But in all of Indonesia there could have been few others with quite such intense feelings of pride mixed with wretchedness.

The reason is apparent as soon as you walk into the Hartanto's bungalow in eastern Jakarta. A framed black-and-white photograph of their son, taken when he was still at school, hangs on the wall. I looked at it with a jolt of recognition, although I had seen Heri Hartanto only once, and only for a few moments. It was in a strip-lit hospital room, on a humid night in May last year. Three other young men, fellow students at Jakarta's Trisakti University, lay alongside him. They had been dead for about three hours.

It is no exaggeration to say that this historic election, the first truly free vote in Indonesia for 44 years, might never have taken place if Heri Hartanto and his fellow students had not died that night. Last May, like several thousand others, they took part in a noisy but peaceful demonstration at Trisakti University to demand the resignation of President Suharto after 32 years in power. They paraded an effigy of the dictator as Hitler, and burned it on the campus.

Late in the afternoon, without warning or provocation, riot police and soldiers opened fire on the unarmed students.

A single 5.56mm bullet, fired from an Indonesian SS-1 rifle, struck Heri in the back as he was fleeing across the campus. He died before he got to hospital. He was 22 years old.

For the next two days, Jakarta was convulsed with massive riots and looting which left 1,200 people dead. On the following Monday, students occupied the Indonesian parliament building. By the end of the week, President Suharto had resigned.

"When Suharto was president we could never have imagined that there would be democratic elections," says Heri's father, Syahrir Mulyo Utomo. "The shooting of the students, the killing of my son, was what forced Suharto to step down. If there had been no shooting he would still be there - he would have served out his term until 2003."

Indonesia's election is rightly being acclaimed as a triumph of peaceful democratic transition. Two months ago, with bitter local conflicts seething in half a dozen corners of the archipelago, the country seemed to be on the verge of disintegration. A tumultuous election campaign, with massed crowds of party activists rampaging through the streets, appeared inevitable. But with isolated exceptions, the three-week campaign was conducted with good humour and dignity. The Hartantos'story is a reminder of the sacrifices that made it all possible.

Heri was a late convert to student politics. "When the student demonstrations began, he started talking about corruption and how dirty the government was," his mother, Lasmiati, remembers. "Before that he just liked to play football."

Heri's death was not the end of their suffering. Two weeks after his burial, military officers came to them and asked to exhume his body to remove the bullet from it for forensic testing. They refused; the exhumation went ahead anyway, and the bullet was sent to Canada for analysis.

But even now, no one has been brought to justice for the boy's murder. His parents believe this is due to the continuing secretive power of the armed forces.

"When Indonesia became independent, the armed forces fought for the people," Syahrir says. "Now they just fight for those in power, and those in power protect them."

When yesterday's votes are finally totted up, the moment will belong to politicians. Last May, though, they played no more than a supporting role to the true movers of the moment - university students like Heri.

At Trisakti University, the Faculty for Mechanical Engineering, Heri's subject, has been named after him. "Every struggle has to have victims," Lasmiati says. "It's just hard to accept that it had to be him."