Lev, Daniel S., No concessions: The life of Yap Thiam Hien, Indonesian human rights lawyer.
Dan Lev's masterly biography of Yap Thiam Hien, No concessions, has the wrong title. Next to it on the cover is a photo of a solitary Yap standing tall and looking resolute, if slightly quizzical with his thick glasses and a sheaf of dog-eared court documents in one hand, a cigarette in the other. The title suggests a grimly inflexible personality. Or perhaps a politics of impossible demands, like Tan Malaka's that almost succeeded in sabotaging Republican negotiations with the Dutch in the late 1940s under the slogan '100% Independence'. Indonesia hears many ultimatums of unbending principle, not all equally worth dying for. The notorious moral permissiveness of the country's elites that preserves the peace by ignoring them has perhaps some justification here.
If only those elites had not been so oblivious to the rights of their non-elite fellow-citizens, Citizen Yap might have been a more accurate title for this book. Yap Thiam Hien (1913-1989) became a hero at the height of the New Order by his implacable courtroom appearances in defence of underdogs. He was the nation's most famous human rights lawyer. But where the general public traced the drama of these televised confrontations to what some called his 'quixotic' intransigence, for him they were not about some heroic refusal at all. He 'wanted to set an example of how an informed citizen should behave in the face of official malfeasance, abuse or corruption' (p. 318). In his courtroom battles he fought against official prerogative, taking no pity on the injured pride of bureaucrats whose corruption he had exposed. They experienced his ruthlessly logical tongue-lashings as a form of lese-majesty (p. 277). In 1968 some of them accused him of trying to make a laughing stock of the judiciary. After a blatantly unfair trial he was sentenced to a year in prison. It took an appeal to the Supreme Court before this was overturned. Yap was incorruptible.
The book was not quite finished in 2006 when its author died. On his deathbed his friend and colleague Ben Anderson promised he would finish it for him. He wrote a marvellous introduction, first reviewing Lev's long scholarly career. Lev belonged to that first post-war generation of foreign scholars for whom Indonesia was above all an inspiration to personal political engagement. Anderson then compared Lev and Yap, who had been close friends. Both were born members of minorities--Lev Jewish in small town America, Yap Chinese in Banda Aceh, in the far west of the archipelago. Yap later converted to a (rather liberal) form of Protestant Christianity. Yet both engaged in decidedly republican citizenship struggles rather than communitarian ones. The rule of law is the most fundamental right a citizen can expect. Today, nearly 70 years after independence, it remains a distant hope for Indonesia's citizens.
Yap came late to these struggles. For a long time he took no interest in the Republic of Indonesia, and his introduction to politics came in the late 1950s through an organization to protect Chinese interests, Baperki. But even there, instead of pleading for special cultural rights, he spoke out for the rights of all citizens regardless of their background. As Dan Lev wrote: 'Yap's religious and political convictions met and meshed in his focus on human suffering as the essential measure of public policy, requiring no sophisticated analysis but simply a recognition of pain. To ignore pain, like injustice of any kind, was outrageous and sinful' (p. 296).
The case that made him famous was his defence of former foreign minister Subandrio. In a special military tribunal established by President Soeharto, this unlikable loudmouth under Soekarno became a kind of scapegoat for his defeated political order. But Yap turned the trial into something far bigger than Subandrio. He argued against the death penalty on the grounds that what had happened under Soekarno had also been the responsibility of all those in the courtroom on that day. 'For Yap, redemption was a value far superior to revenge,' wrote Lev (p. 249). Ultimately, citizenship was for him not a question of winning court cases or promoting Pancasila ideology. It was civilized participation in a human community called Indonesia.
GERRY VAN KLINKEN
Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV)
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|Author:||Van Klinken, Gerry|
|Publication:||Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Southeast Asia and Oceania|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2012|
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