BUSINESSWEEK ONLINE : JUNE 14, 1999 ISSUE
INTERNATIONAL -- ASIAN COVER STORY

Father Sandyawan Sumardi, Jesuit, Investigator, Indonesia (int'l edition)


AFTER THE OUSTER OF INDONESIAN PRESIDENT SUHARTO LAST MAY, Sandyawan Sumardi found a way to help the cause of justice. The 40-year-old Jesuit priest led an independent investigation that documented 182 cases of gang rape committed by plainclothes Indonesian soldiers as part of a campaign to terrorize Indonesia's ethnic Chinese minority. The army and government tried to discredit and intimidate him but failed. Eventually they were forced to promise their own investigation. Without this frail-looking clergyman, who prefers not to wear a priestly frock, Indonesia might never have found the moral courage to face the truth.

Sumardi came reluctantly to his role as an advocate for the Chinese. The son of a police chief, he grew up in the province of South Sulawesi. And like many indigenous Indonesians, he thought the urban poor were the victims of greedy immigrant Chinese merchants. When he became a Jesuit priest, he devoted himself to alleviating poverty--mostly on behalf of indigenous Indonesians. After the May riots, 200 Chinese Indonesians began turning up homeless, half naked, bleeding, and hungry at his small Jakarta office every day for two weeks. ''Honestly, before I really felt that we were the victims of an economic system dominated by the Chinese,'' admits Sumardi. ''But at the time of the tragedy, they became the victims, so I stand for them.''

Sumardi did not find it easy to convince Indonesians of what happened. The evidence was difficult to substantiate because rape victims spoke only under condition of anonymity. To make matters worse, fake photos of Asian women being tortured were circulating on the Internet, making even some Chinese community leaders skeptical of the victims' claims. Even Indonesia's Minister of Social Affairs, a woman, initially dismissed Sumardi's findings as hearsay.

Despite threats against him and his associates, Sumardi pressed forward. Three weeks after the riots, he found a live grenade in front of his office. Last July, a military minivan rammed into the back of his car. And a female social worker who brought him to rape victims received a phone call from an unidentified man who recited her daily routine and the name of her children's school before hanging up.

As violence and poverty spread across the archipelago, Sumardi has even more work to do. In April, accompanied by an Indonesian social worker, he lived out of suitcases on the remote, riot-torn islands of Borneo and Timor, five hours by plane from Jakarta. There, he found evidence of yet more rapes committed by the military. Having seen what rape can do to women and the community, Sumardi is working hard to stop it.



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