Tom Iljas visits his mother's grave in West Sumatra. He was stopped from visiting the grave of his father who was killed during the 1965 massacre of leftists. Photo: Yulia Evina Bhara.
Seventy-seven-year-old Tom Iljas and a small group of friends and relatives, most elderly, went to visit the graves of his mother and father in West Sumatra, Indonesia on October 10.
They travelled to a location believed by local villagers to be a mass grave of victims of the 1965 massacres of up to 1 million leftists and alleged leftists – in particular members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI, the world's third largest communist party before being all but eradicated by the slaughter).
The horrific four month-long bloodletting was part of a CIA-backed military coup to replace the nationalist, left-leaning President Sukarno and impose General Suharto.
Backed by the West – then Australian prime minister Harold Holt joked happily about “half a million communists knocked off” - the brutal Suharto dictatorship was finally overthrown by a mass democratic uprising in 1997.
One of the victims of the Suharto-led campaign of mass murder was the father of Tom Iljas, Ilyas Raja Bungsu.
When they arrived at the suspected mass grave site, the visitors asked the land owner for permission to say a few prayers at the site. The landowner said that they needed to get the permission of the village head.
The village head refused permission. They were then violently set upon by a group of men believed to be Indonesian intelligence agents.
A statement issued on October 16 by a friend of Iljas who was part of the visiting group, Yulia Evina Bhara, said: “Approximately 20 people, suspected to be Intel, suddenly appeared and roughly photographed [us] while repelling [us] from the location. [We] immediately decided to go home and cancel the trip.”
But as they drove back to the city of Padang, some three hours' drive away, they were stopped by police and taken to a police station for interrogation.
The police wanted to interrogate everyone detained, including an 81-year-old woman whose health began to decline as a result of fatigue. The interrogators finally excused this elderly woman from interrogation and after some pressure gave her a bed to lie on.
The rest of the group were then interrogated in turn from 4pm to 5am the next day. The police only provided the detainees with food at 2am after they complained.
“During the interrogation process, and in written documents, there was no mention of any law being broken, but the police continued to assert that the group were doing a documentary film in Padang and elsewhere about cruelty to the [PKI].
“During the interrogation, police were rotated, took pictures with a bright flash, and the Intel commander mocked the detained as 'artists'.”
Bhara's strenuous objections to the Intel commander that the group was being “treated like criminals” was met by laughter.
The group's car was searched, all items inside were confiscated and brought into the interrogation room where police were later joined by military personnel. The interrogators intimidated the detainees by yelling at them and slamming the table.
They tried – unsuccessfully - to search a laptop, seized two memory cards that had previously been copied by them, taking the cards out of the interrogation room. The detainees' identity cards and passports were taken.
When Rona Wendra Putra from the Legal Aid Foundation in Padang and some human rights advocates arrived at the police station at noon the next day, they found the detainees in a state of exhaustion.
Wendra was told by the Intel commander that the group was still being investigated and he refused to disclose their status. The commander said the status would be determined by superiors, who were upstairs discussing with immigration officials and the Pesisir Selatan Army Commander.
Representatives from National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) were later allowed to meet the group in the presence of the Intel commander.
At 3pm, the Intel commander finally stated they were all free and there no charges had been laid against them. However, Iljas was told he would have to attend an interview the next day with immigration officials because he was a “foreign national”.
Iljas became a Swedish citizen after he was stripped of his Indonesian citizenship after the 1965 coup while he was an agriculture student in China. He had been sent there by the Pesisir Selatan Regency of West Sumatra in 1960.
Finally, at 4pm, the group was escorted by police to a hotel in Padang to await questioning at the immigration office.
On October 13, Iljas was questioned by immigration officials in the presence of Wendra from the Legal Aid Institute. While that went on, the rest of the group learned that the family of one group had been visited by their local village head and told that Iljas was “involved in an activity harmful to the state”.
His parents, who live in Pesisir Selatan, were visited by the village head and threatened to be labelled as former political prisoners (ET) on their identity card.
“In the immigration questioning, Tom was very clear in his answers that the visit was of a personal nature, and his desire to visit his village (which could be the last time) was to document his hometown for his children in Sweden who have never been to his village.
“Immigration pressed on the question of the documentation tool used by another member of the group (not even held by Tom Iljas). Although when this camera was examined, only pictures of landscapes, culinary arts and 'selfies' were found. The immigration authorities stated that if for personal documentation, they should only use handphone cameras and, according to tourist visa conditions, he should not document (record) his tour.”
Iljas' interrogation by immigration officials lasted all day up to 6pm and even after that the immigration officials still did not make a decision on his fate, claiming they were awaiting instructions from the the Director General of Immigration.
As Iljas waited to hear from immigration officials, the homes of other members of the group were visited by people claiming to be from the State Intelligence Agency (BIN). Neighbours were questioned about their activities and some families were told they would face difficulties if any activity like the 1965 mass grave visit continued.
On October 15, Iljas was given the news that he was to be deported and placed on an immigration blacklist.
The group responded: “Tom Iljas was making a personal pilgrimage, possibly for the last time seeing the graves of his father and mother.
“His father's grave is one of the mass graves documented by Komnas HAM's investigations of the 1965 killings. But his desire has now been killed because his deportation was followed by being put on the blacklist, so Tom cannot return to Indonesia.
“Tom Iljas, from the Minang people, a youth who was sent to represent Salido, dispossessed of his citizenship in 1965 and now in the twilight of his life, has been expelled from the land of his birth. By his own community. For us it is a crime against humanity ...
“It has been more than 17 years of Reformasi [the reform process at the end of the Suharto dictatorship], but there are no signs of reform in the police relating to detention and investigation processes.
“There are no changes at all for events related to the rights of 1965 victims to obtain truth. Proven by what happened to us, just to look at the mass graves of family members we still get terror and intimidation.
“We recognise that what is happening is the result of efforts for reconciliation and the fulfilment of the rights of victims.
“Therefore we also hope that:
“1. The government through the relevant ministries (Coordinating Ministry for Political, Legal and Security Affairs - Menkopolhukam) lifts the ban on Tom Iljas.
“2. Provides justice for the 1965 victims and survivors, not intimidation and violence.
“3. The government earnestly conducts a disclosure of the truth so that the rights of victims can be met.
“We are issuing this open letter to call upon the government and law enforcement officials to ensure that similar incidents do not recur, and to demand protection for the local residents who helped us.
“Through this open letter we also express our gratitude to our friends at YLBHI, Komnas HAM and LBH Jakarta LBH Padang and Tim Kecil in Jakarta working in confidence, and swiftly responding to our requests for legal assistance.”