by Hannah Angus, SCM Australia
The WSCF AP Human Rights Workshop was held from 3 to 10 September in Parapat, North Sumatra, Indonesia. It brought together participants from across the region, to discuss issues of human rights, the way they affect our individual countries and ways in which participants could be, or already are, involved in our work as part of WSCF or as ASCM.
How can I begin to describe such a tumultuous experience? The workshop itself began with a day of Indonesian presentations, and I am sorry to say that unfortunately my ‘aduh! Makan ini pedas sekali’ (wow, this food is hot) speaking level was not up to a discussion about the effect of neo-liberal policy on the Asia-Pacific region. However, despite this incomprehensible beginning, the workshop was profoundly educative, challenging, and change making.
The first (‘ecumenical English’) conversation I had began deceptively with ‘hello, how did you sleep?’ but was quickly followed by ‘Do you think Australia really has a place in the Asia-Pacific?’ Well that was a wake-up question, but what followed was an amazing sharing of national identities, and an understanding of how all our identities are manifold, complex and flexible.
However, the experience that left the deepest impression on me was during exposure. We stayed with a community who has been severely environmentally and socially affected by a local pulp plant (for a summary of their situation see the article by Jasmine and I, pp. 14-15). We listened to the local people share their experiences, hopes and sorrows. The local pastor with whom we were staying showed a small film he made about the protests and people who had died. The desolation and powerlessness I felt were overwhelming, and I could not stop tears from falling.
One of the older women said to me, ‘Why are you crying? Don’t cry. This is old history, it happened long ago.’ My tears were not for the past, but rather for the injustices of the past that carry into our present, for the futility and the ugliness of the world, for the change we so desperately seek which can seem so out of reach.
The morning after this intense experience, our host sat down in front of me and began, emotionally, to speak. She said that my tears had made her realise that she is not alone in her fight; that all around the world perhaps, people felt their pain and upheld them, directly and indirectly, through similar struggles. (She began to cry). And that perhaps what they had was still worth fighting for, not giving up their struggle, not losing hope.
I was overwhelmed by her strength, compassion and commitment. A mother of two, she spent approximately two years in jail at the time as her husband as a result of protesting, whilst her children lived with family. She has seen friends from the protests brutally injured, others killed, been trampled on and then ignored by the government, and yet has the strength to say they will continue the fight. She was an inspiration.
These experiences brought so many emotions: joy and amazement at the strength and beauty in our region; guilt for the blind complacency that our life can sometimes bring; inspiration, with the means to change and the dreams or an existence we can aspire to; but most of all, love.
Love of friends, known and unknown, understood and confused, with our diverse backgrounds that collided for a moment in space to share a dream of betterment, a cry for change, a passion for freedoms. Love of difference, the diverse realities that are the potential of the human race, so many families, languages, dreams, sorrows, struggles, songs, frowns and smiles...
One of the memories that will continue to inspire me is of our ‘every-night solidarity night’. After the first day of information overload, discussion, sharing, coffee and rice, people gravitated to a common area to sit and chat. The chat soon of people; despair at the overwhelming facts of life, so horrific, unstable, fear-inducing for so many became song requests, and then a festival of singing and (occasionally) dancing. I remember listening to Myo Tun, a representative of Myanmar who did not speak much during the day, but when pressed sang us a song in his own language. He said, ‘This song is called Broken Heart’, and then began to sing. Everyone in the room sat silent and transfixed by the sound of his voice and the guitar. Not understanding what he sang, we nonetheless shared a moment of unity in appreciation of the beauty in another. The motivation for human rights begins when we see all people as equal in dignity, as from that stems our desire for equality and justice.
Throughout the workshop, I was increasingly made aware of the blessings we have in our Australian life. Criticisms of government, law and law enforcement can be made. We can act. We can speak out. We have these freedoms, these choices and this life. Therefore examine the impact your actions have, speak up about injustice and call for change.
About the author:
Hannah Angus is a member of Australian SCM and their current Human Rights Coordinator. She is studying Arts at both University of Sydney and UTS, majoring in International Studies.