Relatability and strategic identity in campaigning for the 1965–1966 massacre

Nowadays, relatability is a term widely used by human rights activists and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to plan their advocacy and campaign strategies. Years of using jargon and legal terms within their work have proven ineffective in today’s world, where people are more attracted to personal human stories that are easily digestible and further ‘connect’ with them (Forbes, 2019).

For the people, even the term human rights is quite alien. A survey by the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) shows that although 42 percent of Indonesians understand that everyone is born with and possess the same rights, 36 percent others are still unfamiliar about such matters (Komnas HAM, 2020). Another survey by the Association for Democratic Education (P2D) records that despite NGOs earning support from 77 percent of the people, activism works are still viewed as unappealing (Hakasasi, 2020).

Activists and NGOs, thus, have been trying to reconfigure their approach in formulating campaign tactics so that the wider audience could easily accept them. We are now witnessing how human rights organizations such as Amnesty International Indonesia, the Commission for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence (KontraS), and the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation (YLBHI) start to use less technical terms in their daily written outputs. Furthermore, they collaborate with key opinion leaders from various backgrounds and disseminate their works through popular channels such as YouTube, Instagram Live, and podcasts. All of these to cater to the people’s cravings for more relatable contents.

Problematizing Relatability

Such efforts are not necessarily flawed. Indeed, activists and NGOs need to consolidate their mass to fight against injustice. To some extent, attempts to increase relatability with the people may contribute to the improved public’s trust toward NGOs. In 2017, 64 percent of Indonesians trusted the NGOs (Edelman, 2017). The figure increased in the subsequent year by one percent, and in 2019, 68 percent of the people trusted NGOs (Edelman 2018; Edelman 2019).

However, continuously over-prizing the importance of relatability might be paradoxical and problematic both for the activists and NGOs as well as for the general public. For activists and NGOs, the idea of respecting differences is fundamental. Their core values revolve around the duty to respect the different demands, interests, and expressions of their clients. Fulfilling such a task, hence, involves facilitating their clients’ needs, which sometimes includes producing outputs unfamiliar with the general knowledge. Therefore, if activists and NGOs keep making contents that merely serve the public’s yearn for relatability, the sense of variation and uniqueness could perish hence annulling their supposed value of respecting differences.

Furthermore, there is a tendency for NGOs to produce “bite-sized” contents: outputs that can be accessed, understood, and shared quickly by the audience such as infographics, posters, or short clips. Key elements of such contents include the use of arousing title or thumbnails, short content description, and compacted substance. Such content is indeed suitable for social media’s contemporary demand; however, it often sacrifices numerous aspects of a story or data. By doing so, activists and NGOs’ aim to give voice to the voiceless becomes irrelevant since no ample voice from the voiceless is included within such “snackable” contents.

As for the people, demanding activists and NGOs to keep formating contents to cater to the public’s interests is problematic because it assumes that the victims in which activists and NGOs represent are monolithic. Instead of flourishing one’s curiousness about the victims’ different identities, consuming similar contents over and over again may lead us to believe that they are all the same and further deepen the stigmatization problems faced by the victims. For example, when talking about the 1965–1966 massacre victims, the general public will label them as communists, infidels, separatists, and others. Such an understanding will be sustained if the general public is not introduced to the victims’ different identities, or shall they refuse to consume non-snackable contents deemed un-relatable.

Acknowledging Strategic Identities

As such, activists and NGOs must find a way to incorporate different strategic identity assertions of their clients when producing public outputs. In searching for solidarity, the marginalized uniquely identify themselves and strategically use it to demand justice (Alejo, 2018). They are not monolithic, never was, and never will be. In the context of the 1965–1966 massacre victims, the unique identity includes, but not limited to victims as affected community (‘We are the victims of past human rights abuses’), victims as organization (‘We are members of the Victims Solidarity Network for Justice (JSKK)’), victims as citizens (‘We are Indonesians’), victims as religious-affiliated (‘We are Muslims’), or victims as kin (‘We are the children of victims of violence’).


Each of the before mentioned identity has been used by the victims to express different demand. For instance, Gorma Hutajulu, one of the survivors of the 1965–1966 massacre, once identified himself as affected community in 2003 to ask for a Lifetime Identity Card to the government (Hukumonline, 2003). Another survivor, Deborah Oni Ponirah, identified herself as citizens in 2019 (BBC, 2019). In demanding the government to give remedy and rehabilitation, Oni said that she and her families could ‘be model citizens (BBC,2019).’

Gorma and Oni’s stories show that indeed victims and survivors of the 1965–1966 massacre give meaning and articulate their identities in a variety of manners. Henceforth, it is the responsibility of activists and NGOs to appreciate such uniqueness and include the stories within their advocacy and campaign plans.

Through acknowledging the different strategic identities, activists and NGOs can also prevent the further expansion of stigmatization of the victims and survivors. People will no longer see the 1965–1966 massacre survivors as communists, infidels, or separatists, rather as fellow citizens, parents, children, or Christians or Muslims, among others.

Reference List

Alejo, A. E. (2018). Strategic identity: Bridging self-determination and solidarity among the indigenous peoples of Mindanao, the Philippines. Thesis Eleven, 145(1), 38–57.

BBC. (2019). ‘Dosa turunan’ dicap PKI, keluarga penyintas 65 masih mengalami diskriminasi: ‘Jangan bedakan kami’. Retrieved from

Edelman. (2017). 2017 EDELMAN TRUST BAROMETER: Global Report. Retrieved from

Edelman. (2018). 2018 EDELMAN TRUST BAROMETER: Global Report. Retrieved from

Edelman. (2019). 2019 EDELMAN TRUST BAROMETER: Global Report. Retrieved from

Forbes. (2019). 3 Reasons Why Brand Storytelling Is The Future Of Marketing. Retrieved from

Hakasasi. (2019). Kultur HAM di Indonesia 2019 (Hasil Survei). Retrieved from

Hukumonline. (2003). Perjuangan Panjang Mencari Rehabilitasi Diri. Retrieved from


Student in the dual degree program Master in Transdisciplinary Development and International Law for Human Rights in AdMU and University for Peace.

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