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

The Appointment of Hendropriyono as an Adviser in Jokowi’s Transition Team

Suciwati Munir, the wife of the late Indonesian activist Munir Said Thalib has criticised Jokowi's appointment of Hendropriyono to his transition team. Image tempo.com
Suciwati Munir, the wife of the late Indonesian activist Munir Said Thalib has criticised the appointment of Hendropriyono to Jokowi’s transition team and questioned Jokowi’s commitment to human rights issues in Indonesia. Image tempo.com

It was with such great elation that many journalists and other commentators announced the victory of Jokowi, the first truly post-Suharto figure elected to office in Indonesia. There was a lot at stake in the eyes observers in terms of the tone the next leader would set for the country for the next 5 years.

In the lead up to the election even The Jakarta “there-is-no-such-thing-as-being-neutral-when the stakes are so high” Post, openly declared their endorsement of Jokowi. Whilst other English-speaking media didn’t openly endorse the candidate, they did vigorously express their concerns about Prabowo, and for good reasons considering Prabowo’s alleged involvement in several controversial events in Indonesia.

Others like Tim Hanigan described the situation more sagely, in ways only long-time observers of Indonesia could, stating in an article during the campaign period that perhaps whoever was elected wouldn’t matter in the end, that “neither worst fears nor greatest hopes [would] ever seem really to come to pass”. That instead, varying constellations of the current powerful players would emerge in different alliances in years to come, including Praowo, Rais, Jokowi, Megawati, and Bakrie along with the other usual players in Indonesian politics. Several Indonesian political observers also made similar observations.

Many high profile Indonesian activists and artists stayed decidedly neutral, or even silent, throughout the period, and were questioned for it. But they put their silence down to letting their followers make their own, responsible electoral choices.

Those who spoke out in support of Jokowi were celebrated by expat coverage. It seemed to be a narrative of Jokowi as messiah for foreigners and the foreign press, the goodie versus baddie narrative Western media is such a fan of.

I too am probably guilty of that.

Now, however, there is a confounding silence coming from direction of the English-speaking world’s media commentators as to human rights implications for the appointment of Hendropriyono as an adviser three days ago to the transition team that will prepare Jokowi’s power-transfer from outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. (And I say the English speaking press, because in contrast it is a highly discussed matter in Indonesia right now).

Hendropriyono is suspected of being linked to the murder of human rights campaigner Munir Said Thalib in 2004. The former BIN chief, however, has denied the allegations and maintained that he had nothing to do with the case.

Jokowi has continued to play down the issue of appointing former intelligence chief Hendropriyono over the past few days.

“There are no problems. I can’t screen everybody that comes to me. Should I ask him if he was involved in this or in that, or in that abduction? It’s not like that. This is a legal issue and should be made clear. [Hendropriyono] should explain that,” Joko said on Sunday.

“I was appointed as an adviser,” Hendropriyono said of his appointment on Saturday. “I will prepare myself to give advice on intelligence.”

The wife of the late human rights activist (HAM) Munir, Mrs Suciwati, however criticised the appointment of Hendropriyono as an advisor to the Transition Team, claiming this is an indication that Jokowi will not, after all, “keep his promise that he would punish human rights violators”.

Harris Azhar, executive director of the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras), said that the appointment of Hendropriyono has raised concerns that human rights issues could take a backseat on the next government’s agenda.

The transition team was set up last week by Joko and is led by Rini M.S. Soewandi, a former minister of industry and trade, to help the incoming administration on budget matters and provide recommendations on cabinet appointments.

Hendropriyono’s involvement in the team prompted a warning from Haris Azhar, the coordinator of the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence, or Kontras, who pointed to the former intelligence chief’s role in a bloody military crackdown on civilians in Talangsari, Lampung, in 1989, as well as his alleged links to the murder of prominent rights activist Munir Said Thalib in 2004.

Hendropriyono was never charged over the death of Munir, who was poisoned on board a flight from Jakarta to Amsterdam, but his deputy at the BIN at the time, Muchdi Purwopranjono, was indicted and later acquitted in the case.

Munir Said Thalib, affectionately known simply as Munir, was a high profile Indonesian human rights and anti-corruption activist. He was the founder of the Kontras human rights organisation and laureate of the 2000 Right Livlihood Award. Munir was assassinated in 2004 while travelling to Utrecht University to pursue a master’s degree in international law and human rights. His last position was executive director of IMPARSIAL, another Indonesian human rights NGO.