Indonesia Remembers Human Rights Activist Munir Said Thalib

8 September, 2014 in the September/October issue of The Kashmir Walla Magazine

A portrait of Munir by an Indonesian Street Artist accompanied by the caption 'Menolak Lupa' (Resist Forgetting)
A portrait of Munir by an Indonesian Street Artist accompanied by the caption ‘Menolak Lupa’ (Resist Forgetting)

This week marked the ten year anniversary of the assassination of leading Indonesian human rights defender Munir Said Thalib, and activists as well as ordinary citizens commemorated his death at events across the country, renewing calls for the Indonesian government to hold those responsible for his death to account.

Munir was an outspoken critic of Indonesia’s armed forces during the authoritarian Suharto regime (1965-1998), bringing to light human rights violations committed across the Indonesian archipelago, including Papua, Aceh and East Timor. This was often at risk to his own personal safety.

After the fall of the Suharto government, Munir co-founded the Commission for “The Disappeared” and Victims of Violence (KONTRAS) to assist the families of democracy activists who were kidnapped and murdered during the Suharto regime. He also served as a member of IMPARSIAL, a commission created by the government to investigate the human rights violations in East Timor. It was during this period he was elected Chairperson of AFAD, a Federation of human rights organisations working directly on the issue of enforced disappearances in the Asia region.

Munir was a force to be reckoned with, however his refusal to stay silent on these cases sadly cost him his life. In 2004, whilst travelling to the Netherlands to pursue a masters degree in international law and human rights, Munir was poisoned with arsenic on a Garuda Airlines flight. He was 38 years old.

One Falls, a Thousand Others Grow (Gugur Satu, Tumbuh Seribu)

A “culture of forgetting” surrounds cases evoking past memories of injustice in Indonesia at times, but there has been a rising movement to remind Indonesians of the importance of Munir’s case called “Resist Forgetting” (or Menolak Lupa in Bahasa Indonesia), which has been driven by concerned citizens from across Indonesian society. The haunting image of Munir’s portrait with the words Menolak Lupa can be seen painted on the walls of almost every Indonesian city, either stencilled or on pasted-up posters, in an effort to remind Indonesians not to forget his remarkable legacy and his tragic death.

The slogan ‘one falls, a thousand others grows’ is a line from the mournful song “Fallen Flowers” written by Musician Ismail Marzuki in 1945 about Indonesia’s pro-independence heroes, but the phrase took on fresh significance in 1998 during pro-democracy protests in the capital Jakarta following the death of student protesters after the police opened fire on a crowd of pro democracy activists.

The phrase is as relevant today as it was at these significant junctures in Indonesia’s history in 1945, and 1998, as Munir’s pursuit for justice for the victims of 1998 alongside his tireless work for victims of human rights abuses across Indoensia has indeed inspired activists to continue his pursuit for justice for Indonesia’s “disappeared”.

On the tenth anniversary of Munir’s death on September 7, 2014, I spoke to Indonesian activists and artists involved in events commemorating the anniversary of Munir’s assassination, learning what the his struggle meant for them, and why the credible resolution of the Munir case is important not just for his family and those close to him, but for the Indonesian nation itself.

Novriantoni Kahar, an author and activist in his 30s told me that Indonesians remember “Munir as a symbol of fearlessness in a time of fear. In Arabic, his name means ‘shining’, a name that evokes a light which shone bravely in the years of darkness during the Suharto era. His legacy however, lives on in all of the bravest voices fighting for human rights in this country as his memory continues to inspire a new generation of Indonesian human rights defenders”.

Fahd Djibran, Indonesian author and poet joined others in Australia at a poetry event dedicated to the Munir case, which he described as “a wake up call for all human rights defenders in Indonesia that our country still has serious problem regarding its law systems and human rights protection.”

Ihsan Ali Fauzi, Director of the Centre for Religion and Democracy at the Paramadina Foundation in Jakarta reflected on the efforts of Munir, “it is remarkable how brave he was. But that ten years have passed shows us how difficult this journey is, not just for this case alone, but for Indonesia.

The commemoration activities in honour of his memory shows signalled hope to Fauzi, showing that “the struggle is ongoing, including all the public support. It gives us optimism that we should continue to push further for the public release of those implicated in his assassination at the top levels”.

M. Berkah Gamulya, musician From the Indonesian band Symphony and executive director of the Bung Hatta Anti-Corruption Award found the subject an emotional one as a young human rights activist. His band commemorated the anniversary at an event remembrance of Munir in Jakarta with a song written in honour of his memory which they recorded in the childhood home of Munir in Batu, East Java.

For Gamulya, one of the key messages Munir’s legacy shows young activists today is that one must not “not be afraid, and not remain silent on the issues that matter”.

The demand for justice continues as Indonesia “Refuses to Forget”

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) had promised to resolve this case during his first year in office office in 2004, the year of Munir’s assasination. Ten years later, the initial investigation results have not been publicly released. Although two low-level players have been convicted for their involvement in the crime, no high ranking government or state intelligence agency official has been held accountable for planning or ordering Munir’s assassination.  Despite years of stagnancy, the Indonesian government has rejected international involvement in the case, insisting domestic law enforcement agencies were up to the task.

Suciwati, wife of the late Munir recently petitioned president SBY on Change.org, urging action from the current President or the future President, Jokowi: “This [case] is not about opening wounds. This [case] is about healing a wound in our nation’s history. We need … a leader who can resolve [events in] our dark history so that they won’t happen again. History begins with the brave who make changes for the future. Pak Jokowi, Pak SBY, are you brave enough?”

In 2006, Human Rights First posthumously honoured Munir with the organisation’s Human Rights Defender Award. His work lives on through the organisations he helped create in Indonesia and throughout the region, and in a generation of activists, like those I spoke to this week, whom he inspired to fight for justice.

Munir is survived by his wife, Suciwati, and two children, Soultan Alif Allende, now 15 years old and Diva Suukyi Larashati, 12.

Amnesty International is currently running a campaign to call on President elect Jokowi commit to looking further into the Munir case. You can learn more about the campaign here https://campaigns.amnesty.org/actions/resolve-munir-killing-case. To learn more about KONTRAS (the Commission for “The Disappeared” and Victims of Violence), the organisation co-founded by Munir, you can visit their website here http://www.kontras.org/eng

Indonesia’s Presidential Election and the Battle Between Campaign Strategists

Joko Widodo greets supporters on Wednesday after an early vote count put him in the lead in Indonesia. Zuma Press
Joko Widodo greets supporters on Wednesday after an early vote count put him in the lead in Indonesia. Image Zuma Press

“I would not be willing to promote a win by making the culture of discrimination in Indonesia worse. That would be a poison that would continue to undermine the public even though the election is over. A mature political consultant should also concerned with the growth of democracy and the rights of the nation” – Denny JA


A Presidential election is not only a battle between two presidential candidates and two political machines, it is also a battle between strategists. This was also true in the case of the Indonesia’s 2014 Presidential campaign, where we saw the playing out of  a battle between campaign strategies prepared by an American PR consultant in camp Prabowo, and those of an Indonesian expert in public opinion and voting behavior in camp Jokowi.

Rob Allyn joined the Prabowo campaign team this year and is a political consultant who studied under Henry Kissinger at Georgetown, helped George W. Bush become governor of Texas in 1994 and consults for large corporations like Coca Cola. Denny JA at camp Jokowi is an anti-discrimination campaigner and also known as the founder of the tradition of political consultancy to Indonesia.

It has been widely reported in Indonesian media that Prabowo hired the American political consultant who is a well-known expert in negative and smear campaigning, with Tempo.com confirming the fact with Prabowo’s Gerindra Party on July 5, 2014.

Negative Vs Positive Campaign Tactics

The Prabowo versus Jokowi battle became increasingly colourful in it’s last weeks, as it also involved a battle between two political consultant types: between “black” or smear campaign tactics, and “positive grassroots and targeted” campaigning.

The most decisive part of the battle between Prabowo and Jokowi really happened in the last 20 days. Based on an LSI survey (Indonesian Survey Foundation) done in early June 2014, the margin to victory in the Jokowi camp was at 6.3%. But at the end of June 2014 it plunged again to only 0.5%, below the margin of error. Under these conditions, losing and winning became dependent on penetrating the intelligence of the voters until the final days before the election.

The Black Campaign

The alleged “Black Campaign” involved the spreading of lies about Jokowi’s ethnic and religious identity and, according to Denny JA, saw a marked drop in Jokowi’s popularity throughout the period in which they were employed.

These stories described Jokowi as a non-indigenous Indonesian, from a religious minority (some described him as begin a “secret “Chinese Christian”), and later accused him of having a PKI (Indonesian Communist Party) background.

Stories about Jokowi were circulated to remote villages. Even small children in slum alleys  were heard shouting:” Jokowi hasn’t been circumcised yet.” And false news like this is enough to influence voters who come from conservative Muslim backgrounds, regional voters, and those from middle to lower socio-economic groups, according Denny JA and the LSI.

Based on the LSI survey between January – June 2014, support to Jokowi in the segment of voters was down from 50 percent to below 40%. Not surprisingly, there was a shift of support from Jokowi to Prabowo.

The black campaign against Jokowi was systematic, and could only be carried out by leaders who understand the behaviour of voters.

Denny JA Joins Team Jokowi

Denny JA spoke by phone with Jokowi on Saturday April 26 around 20:30, and it was at this time that Jokowi accepted his offer to join his team to prepare a strategy outside the official campaign team.

The next day, on Sunday, April 27, 2014, Denny JA met face with Jokowi in Luhut Pandjaitan. At that time they discussed how the Jokowi team would utilise the strength of civil society and volunteers, rather than relying on political parties and the media.

As support for Jokowi continued to decline, opinions had formed amongst Indonesia’s elite that Jokowi was going to lose the election. At this point, the team strategized a positive campaign against “black campaign” devised by Rob Allyn. This campaign was targeted at grassroots voters and the upper middle class.

The Strategy of Team jokowi

The strategy employed by Team Jokowi and Denny JA utilised networks in 11 provinces of Indonesia, more than 70% of the Indonesian population. Thousands of trained volunteers engaged voters in door-to-door campaigning. Through this strategy, Denny JA says millions were reached. Concentrated effort were also focussed on Indonesia’s 3 largest provinces: West Java, Central Java and East Java.

To program this strategy, Denny JA cooperated with Timses Volunteers under Eriko. Denny asked Eriko provide 30 volunteer groups in every province. Focus was also made on the campaign trail.

The first strategy was the Jokowi “First 100 Days” Promise. During this period Jokowi promised to focus on addressing three major issues: economic, political/legal and cultural.

These election promises were then advertised. First through Kompas Media and then extended to mainstream media advertising, including billboards, banners and flyers. The team also engaged social media.

Second,  Jokowi’s 5 point political contract with the “small folk” (orang kecil) was made concrete with the pledge of providing one million rupiah per month to poor families, increasing the salaries of civil servants, teachers, police and military, and the promise of creating 10 million new jobs. This contract was also widely advertised.

Black Campaigning “A Poison” in a Country with a History of  Ethnic and Religious Discrimination

Denny JA countered the Allyn orchestrated “black campaign” with positive campaign to attract grassroots and upper middle class engagement in the Jokowi campaign. As Denny JA explained, ” I could have also used a black campaign style to detract from Prabowo’s edge. However, I was not willing to do so. I have been a long time campaigner for an Indonesia Without Discrimination,” he said.

Denny JA denounced the use of religion and ethnicity in political campaigning, although these tactics can engage voters through the politics of fear. As he explained, “I would not be willing to promote a win by making the culture of discrimination in Indonesia worse. That would be a poison that would continue to undermine the public even though the election is over. A mature political consultant should also concerned with the growth of democracy and the rights of the nation,” he said.

Denny JA claims he joined the Jokowi camp “without any official request” but out of a personal wish “to help Jokowi. Willing to spend from his own pocket if needs be, this was a matter of ideals”, he said.

Exit Poll counts show Mr. Widodo with a lead of 3-6 percentage points.

More commentary on the Jokowi strategy, see Inspirasi.co

The Imagined Romance of Halima

A chat with Indonesian academic, writer & activist Novriantoni Kahar about his book ‘The Imagined Romance of Halima: Five Acts of Love in Religious Struggle’ – a collection of poetic essays which seeks to highlight the spiritual and emotional effects of discriminatory practices against Muslim Women

Novriantoni Kahar : Cinta Dalam Lima Tangkai Sastra AdvokasiNovri, author of Imaji Cinta Halima – image inspirasi.co 

Within Indonesia there are a number number of people, both male and female, working hard to reform misogynous discourse to make Islamic practices more woman-friendly. With many voices also in contradiction to such trends, never has the issue of women in Islam been so widely debated in Indonesian public life. Contradictions within the movements of contemporary Indonesian Islam indeed reflect the ferment of democratic transformations occurring in Indonesia.  From movements calling for the reinstatement of the Khilifa to genuine progressive reflections on problems within doctrinal approaches to Islam, these movements reflect the diversity that has unfolded since the collapse of since the New Order regime.

Novriantoni Kahar is writer and activist who explores problems of discrimination. In his book “The Imagined Romance of Halima: Five Acts of Love in Religious Struggle” (Imaji Cinta Halima: Lima Kisah Kasih dalam Pergumulan Agama), he hopes to highlight the spiritual and emotional effect of discriminatory practices against women in the Muslim world.

Novri is a santri Muslim who gained his primary Islamic education at Pondok Modern Gontor Ponorogo (one of the most well-respected Islamic boarding schools in Indonesia). He is also a graduate of al-Azhar University in Egypt. His’ academic approach to Islam is one of co-mingling Islamic knowledge with social sciences like sociology and political science. In this way, Novri “does not accept Islam as a das solen as such, but tries to study it as as a das sein, as a factual phenomenon”.

Novri was inspired to write The Imagined Romance of Halima by his work in anti-discrimination campaigning in Indonesia as well as by his experiences gained whilst living abroad in the Middle-East and Europe.. The stories are set in Indonesia as well as other Muslim-majority countries. All express different facets of the impact of religion on the major life choices of women.

The book’s title story, “Imaji Cinta Halima” tells of a love affair between an Indonesian driver and a Saudi woman. Their illicit engagement ironically being facilitated by the policy of gender segregation practiced in the Holy Land of Saudi Arabia. Another tale also set outside Indonesia tells of a love story between a Coptic Christian and a Muslim. Set in Egypt, the story comes to a sad end, with traditions and bigotries within the two communities deciding the young couple’s fate.

As a Muslim, Novri wonders how people can be “so incredibly sensitive in protecting ‘Islam’s reputation”, yet so completely desensitised to some of the discriminatory acts committed in the name of religion. In the post September 11 political landscape, we have become accustomed to seeing the image of  a middle-class Muslim woman, dressed in fashionable Islamic attire talking adamantly about how Islam has “liberated” her and how acts of violence and bigotry towards women could never happen in Islam’s true name, putting the causes down to being a product of “culture”. Simultaneously, there are Muslim women who are experiencing acts of abuse at the hands of men acting within their own religious rights through interpretations of particular Islamic discourses. The experience of both women is real.

Islam can indeed  ‘liberate’ a woman if she is empowered to interpret the practice of Islamic teachings through the works of progressive scholars. On the other hand, doctrinal interpretations within Islam can justify acts which destroy, even end, a woman’s life. This is the reason Muslim’s like Novri call for a “genuine recognition of the problems within Islam” when it comes to discrimination against women and other minorities.

As Novri explains, “if we really pay close attention to the issue of discrimination toward women in Islamic or Muslim-dominated countries, the fact is, it is happening. We must not be frightened to hold issues within the Muslim community to the light where they can be examined and aired. Denial only compounds these problems”.

Novri sees some of the reasons for such hypersensitivity at criticism in Muslim communities as being driven by certain political and psychological factors: “Politically, Islamic ideology affects many aspects of Muslim thoughts and practices, in every aspect of life, whilst psychologically, Muslim-majority societies find it difficult to accept the gulf between their imaginary ideal Islam and the actual manifestation of it in their daily life. Perhaps if we began to see the effects of the harsh treatment of women for how they are, we can begin to address some of the problems within our communities”.

Through the stories in Imaji Cinta Halima, Novri hopes to help promote an awareness of the ways in which religion and tradition is used to discriminate against women in both subtle and overt ways, and the ways in which this affects their daily lives. “Denial is a common defence mechanism in Muslim societies everywhere however we Muslims need genuine recognition that many of the problems rampant in our societies are coming from within. There are real problems within Muslim societies and we need to stop attributing our them to some outside force or conspiracy. Islam should not be exempt from being be examined and criticised honestly from within. It is as simple as that”.

‘Imaji Cinta Halima’ is published by Renebook, Novri tweets at @novri75