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Indonesia: Activist Dies After Self-Immolation in Front of Palace

Sondang Hutagalung, a human rights activist and law school student, died after suffering from first degree burn injury after setting himself on fire in front of the state palace in Jakarta, Indonesia

Sondang Hutagalung at a protest commemorating the death of rights activist Munir Said Thalib. Photo by Dina Savaluna, used with permission.

Sondang Hutagalung at a protest commemorating the death of rights activist Munir Said Thalib. Photo by Dina Savaluna, used with permission.

Moch Najib Yuliantoro wrote [id] on his blog:

Ia lakukan itu dengan sadar, terencana, dengan satu tekad: perubahan. Tetapi apa setelah Sondang tak ada? Mereka yang berkuasa tetap bertahta sebagai pengusa. Secara kolektif, setelah 10 hari kepergiannya, kita pun tak bergerak. Perubahan yang diimpikan Sondang tak kunjung datang.

He did it consciously, planned, with one determination: change. But what happened after Sondang is gone? Those with power continue to rule on their thrones. Collectively, 10 days after his passing, we stay where we are.

Najib fears that Sondang's dream of a better Indonesia may fell on deaf ears:

Kesadaran kolektif sebagai “Indonesia” sudah hangus terbakar menjadi abu. Jika dengan bakar diri yang dikehendaki Sondang adalah perubahan drastis, seperti di Tunisia, misalnya, tampaknya ia salah cara. Bangsa ini tak seperti Tunisia. Bangsa ini sudah “mati”. Tak lagi berhasrat untuk melakukan “revolusi”.

(Our) Collective consciousness as “Indonesia” was incinerated into ashes. If  by self immolation, Sondang is wrong to think that drastic changes like in Tunisia will happen. This nation is different from Tunisia. This nation is “dead”. We no longer has the wish for revolution.

Sella Wahyu said [id] on her blog:

[…] peristiwa ini menimbulkan reaksi beragam dari masyarakat. Kebanyakan menyayangkan aksi ini mengingat Sondang masih muda dan masih panjang jalan hidupnya, sebagian menganggap Sondang adalah seorang yang “berani mati tapi tak berani hidup” dan sebagian lagi menganggap Sondang adalah seorang martir demokrasi.

Kita terperosok untuk menghujat dan menghina Sondang sehingga alpa bahwa ada masalah yang sangat pelik di negeri ini yang mungkin menjadi dasar dan alasan dia memilih bakar diri sebagai ekspressi pribadinya.

This incident has triggered different reactions from the people. Most of them regret it, considering how young Sondang is and that he had a long life path ahead of him, some considered Sondang as someone who “dared to die but didn't dare to live” and some considered him as a martyr of democracy.

We're trapped in the puddle of insults for Sondang, we failed to see that the crucial problems of this country were the reasons why he set himself on fire, as a way to speak up his mind.

Arman Dhani Bustomi wrote a blog post tribute [id] for Sondang with an opening that says, “the revolution devours its own children”:

Kukira Sondang menyadari bahwa dalam sebuah perjuangan akan selalu ada tumbal. Ia juga menyadari, bahwa hanya sedikit perbedaan antara menjadi idealis atau melakukan kebodohan. Bahwa perihal kurban itu adalah permasalahan sudut pandang. Tak ada satupun manusia di bawah kolong langit yang berhak memberikan nilai atau kuasa hukum dalam sebuah perjuangan. Perjuangan adalah perkara keyakinan diri.

[…]

Kukira Sondang saat itu mengingat mama. Mengingat bagaimana dengan mesra dan patuh ia memeluknya di gereja. Mendengar kidung puji. Doa tuhan bapa kami dengan khusyuk. Mengingat betapa natal dan keriuhan bersama keluarga adalah kenangan yang sangat indah. Dan perlahan merapal doa-doa minta maaf. Kalut ia bertanya. “apakah aku akan diampuni bapa?”

[…]

Kukira Sondang terbakar amarah. Tapi ia tak sendirian. Karena aku kini juga terbakar amarah. Atas kebodohanku. Kelemahanku. Dan ketakpedulianku pada masalah bangsa ini.

I think Sondang realized that there'll be sacrifice on every struggle. He also realized that there's a fine line between being an idealist and making a stupidity. That a sacrifice is only a matter of point of view. That no one under the sky has the right to judge or authorize a struggle. A struggle is a matter of self belief.

[…]

I think Sondang remembered his mother at that time. Remembered how loving and obedient he held her at the church. Listening to the hymns of worship. The solemn Lord's Prayer. Remembered how Christmas and his family's glee, the wonderful memory. And he slowly recite prayers, asking for forgiveness . In his darkest hour he asked, “Father, will I be forgiven?”

[…]

I think Sondang was angered. But he wasn't alone. I, too, now am angered. By my stupidity. My weakness. My ignorance towards the problems of this country.

A local newspaper in North Sumatra, Harian Orbit, quoted Sondang's fellow human rights activists saying that Sondang has sent some 1,400 letters regarding human rights violations to President Susilo Bambang, but none of them has actually reached the president due to the state palace protocols.

Sondang's alma mater, Bung Karno University, gave him an Honoris Causa title and renamed the Faculty of Law's courtroom, Sondang Hutagalung room.

Regarding Sondang's honorary title, blogger Yusuf Harfi asked [id], “how come a self immolator received an honorary degree?”

He continues:

Saya sendiri tidak memandang Sondang ialah pahlawan perubahan ataupun patriot pembaharuan seperti yang banyak orang amini.

[…]

Ya, saya juga sama dengan Sondang, saya juga prihatin kepada kondisi Indonesia saat ini. Tapi, hal ini bukan berarti kita sebagai warga negara untuk menempuh aksi nekat seperti bakar diri. Agama apapun pasti mengajarkan untuk terus berusaha, gigih, pantang menyerah, dan tidak putus asa.

I personally don't see Sondang as a hero of change or a patriot of revival like many people thought he is.

[…]

Yes, I also share Sondang's concerns, I'm also concerned about Indonesia's current condition. But, this doesn't mean that as citizens we should do a reckless act like self immolation. Any religion taught us to continue trying, determined, adamant, and never put up hope.

A day after Sondang's self immolation incident, the head of the central Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), Amidhan, said [id] that self immolation is “haram” (forbidden by Islam), and considered self immolators people in despair and depressed.

Special thanks for Dina Savaluna for the photo.

3 comments

  • RIP Sondang. It is always so sad when people feel that there is no other recourse except to take their own lives to draw attention to problems in their country.

    It seems unlikely that Sondang’s death will spark off huge changes like Bouazizi’s death did in Tunisia, but I do hope that the change he sought will come to Indonesia soon.

  • Indeed, while it may seem that Sondang’s ultimate act of sacrifice may not immediately spark the massive changes that he may have dreamed for his people, I do hope that many more young people will take up his cause for human rights and social justice in his country.

  • Hope his death will not be in vain. Future events will prove that

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