Subject: Ponke, a human rights hero, is dead

from Max White

Haji Johanes Cornelis Princen, “Ponke,” died in Jakarta last Thursday, (February 28, 2002). Ponke was an amazing and effective advocate for human rights. His story exceeds any fictional saga. I met him in 1996, as a member of a delegation investigating Suharto’s crackdown on the PRD political party. I visited Ponke again at his home in 1997. HJC Princen’s life spans, illustrates and ameliorates Indonesia’s dismal human rights history.

Princen arrived in the “Dutch East Indies” as a soldier in a “police action” against anti-colonial insurgency. After a short while -- I don’t remember how long -- he defected in 1948, “out of disgust with the Dutch killing people he admired.” He joined the rebels (a choice never forgiven by Holland veterans­ see below). After the Dutch withdrew, Ponke became a citizen of the new nation of Indonesian. He converted to Islam and remained, a hero of the Indonesian struggle. Sukarno awarded him Indonesia’s highest award, the Guerrilla Star. Yet he did not relax ­ he was imprisoned four times by Sukarno and Suharto -- eight years total -- for criticism of their human rights abuses. It was not his first time imprisoned; as young man in the Dutch resistance he was sent to a Nazi concentration camp.

From his imprisonment by Nazis to his last breath last Thursday, Ponke was an unflinching hero of opposition to suffering authored by governments, I do not say “hero” easily. Ponke was so revered by Indonesians that the Suharto government felt constrained against openly attacking him ­ though when I visited, his phone was tapped, his mail intercepted and so on.

Those of us engaged in East Timor especially loved Ponke Princen because of his early and continuous support of East Timor when, even for him, it might lead to imprisonment or death . After the 1991 “Santa Cruz Massacre” in Dili, five young East Timorese fled to Ponke’s house in Jakarta. Threatened by the military, Ponke saved their lives by negotiating with an Indonesian general, allowing the young men to leave for Portugal. (At least one will read this.)

Haji Princen wrote to Xanana Gusmao (likely to be the first President of East Timor) while Xanana still led the East Timor armed resistance. The two corresponded after Gusmao was captured and imprisoned in Java. After “reformasi” allowed it, Ponke visited Xanana in prison. Xanana later said, “It was a very emotional meeting, and I thanked him for the support he had given to our people. He then came frequently and we usually discussed the evolution of the democratic struggle in Indonesia. He encouraged us in our struggle. East Timor owes a lot to him."

In the 60s, Ponke formed and directed LPHAM (“Indonesian Institute for the Defense of Human Rights” ), which I believe is the first organization in Indonesia devoted specifically to human rights. When I met him thirty five years later, he was still vitally involved in Indonesian human rights and a source of accurate information about those who were attacked at PRD headquarters.

Those in labor struggles remind us that, “Labor rights are human rights.” Our friend Ponke saw no distinction. That seamless conscience was confirmed by Dita Indah Sari, (Indonesian labor activist and Amnesty International prisoner of conscience). Dita Sari led a memorial gathering with a brief biography of Poncke. Others then spoke. When I learned who was at the memorial service, and at the mosque and cemetery, I was struck by how wide a swath of Indonesia mourned him: former “tapols” to members of the government and military.

Once in Jakarta once, a Dutch TV journalist described an abortive 1993 attempt to take Ponke to Holland. They had broadcast a documentary on his life, then flew him to Amsterdam. Ponke’s visa was cancelled while the plane sat on the runway. The reason given was that Dutch war veterans threatened to kill him if he tried to enter Holland. This, 45 years after Ponke defected! (Think Israel/Palestine.) He flew back to Indonesia.

After Ponke’s death last week, a Dutch cabinet member hesitantly said that, “Poncke Princen was not a hero, not a martyr nor saint, but first and foremost a human rights activist.”

I am privileged to have known Ponke. He was indeed first a human rights activist. But I differ. I know personally that he was a great human being and a hero. I don’t know doodly about saints.

Max White 9275 SW Westhaven Portland OR 97225 USA

see also: Tribute to Poncke Princen from Jose Amorim Diaz

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