Jul 22, 2024 Last Updated 5:22 AM, Jul 16, 2024

Obit: Bob Muntz, 1947-2024

Published: Jun 24, 2024

Helen Pausacker

Bob Muntz was a person of deep principle and profound moral values and he showed this not just in what he said, but, more importantly, in what he did. He spent much of his life fighting for social justice in Southeast Asia. His early life, however, seemed to be leading him in a very different direction.

Bob was born in 1947 in Geelong and grew up in Colac in West Victoria, where his father was a schoolteacher. In 1965 he commenced a science degree at Monash University and in 1968 began a Masters of Science degree at the University of Melbourne’s Florey Institute. By 1970 he was working at the Victorian Department of Agriculture, from which he was ultimately sacked following intervention by the Victorian Police Special Branch.

This was because, alongside his studies and work, and following a Teach-in about Vietnam on Monash University campus, Bob had become involved with protest activities against Australia’s involvement in the war in Vietnam. Bob was called up in 1967 and became a founding member of the Draft Resisters Union. As part of this group, he was involved in the 1971 Moratorium Committee. Bob then went underground from March to December 1972, staying at many safe houses for brief periods, sleeping by day, walking in the streets at night but also attending meetings. This eventually ended with the election of the Labor Party, and Australia’s withdrawal from the Vietnam War.

Following his activism about the Vietnam War, Bob was involved in a number of activist groups, such as the Philippine Action Support Group, for which Bob was a spokesperson in 1983, and the Australia Asia Worker Links (AAWL) from about 1981 to 1990. As part of his work with AAWL, Bob accompanied delegations of trade unionists to Southeast Asia. Bob also attended the first meeting to set up Inside Indonesia in October 1982 and that same year, was a member of the editorial group of the Friends of the Earth’s magazine, Chain Reaction.

Bob served as South East Asia Projects Officer at Community Aid Abroad (CAA, later renamed Oxfam Australia). It was this role that led him to be in Dili, Timor Leste on 12 November 1991, where he was witness to the Santa Cruz massacre, at which at least 100 people were massacred by the Indonesian military. The victims included Bob’s companion during his time in Dili, Kamal Bamadhaj, a member of Inside Indonesia’s Sydney committee.

Photo of Santa Cruz cemetery, Dili, taken by Bob on 12 November 1991, as printed in Inside Indonesia (No. 29, Dec 1991)

Bob himself was wounded, though not seriously. On his return he acted as a witness, giving press conferences and speaking at demonstrations, including in Melbourne on 16 November, four days after Santa Cruz, with his arm still in a sling. Bob’s eyewitness account was quoted in the Australian Parliament’s Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade’s Human Rights report in December 1992.

On hearing of Bob’s death, Timor Leste’s President Jose Ramos Horta stated, ‘His dedication and invaluable contribution to the Timorese cause will never be forgotten, and his memory will continue to inspire future generations of activists and defenders of freedom, peace and human rights.’

Bob Muntz and Max Sargeant at the Australian International Defence and Equipment Exhibition (AIDEX) test in Melbourne, 16 November 1991 / John B Ellis. Re-printed with permission of University of Melbourne Archives

Bob worked with Oxfam/CAA for 14 years, managing programmes in Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries. At Oxfam/CAA he was also one of the key workplace union organisers – his commitment to worker’s rights including those at home as well as abroad.

Bob was a member of the Board of Inside Indonesia from July 2005 to July 2007 and was guest editor for the October-December (No 84) special issue on International Aid. Bob was a deep thinker, who was not prone to slogans or towing the party line and was aware of, and willing to listen to, differing views. His two pieces in this issue show the dilemmas of working in the aid sector, to which he had devoted much of his life.

In the first article, Bob argues that large multinational programs, which have little contact with the communities they are affecting, can lead to disastrous social and environmental concerns. In the Indonesian context, he cites the examples of transmigration and family planning. He argues that advocacy programs need to run alongside financial aid. He concludes that following the fall of Suharto ‘at least Indonesian activists now have space to develop their vision of how the country might be changed for the better. And there are many more opportunities to use international aid to support their work.’

In the second article, Bob queries the use of the term ‘partners’ for the recipients of aid: ‘Is partnership possible when one party controls all the resources and the other desperately needs them to pursue its goals?’ He raises the dilemma of whose strategies are being followed and whether ‘Indonesian groups doing the actual work often tend to be seen as mere functionaries in the broader strategies of international development agencies’. Finally, he raises the issue of corruption, stating that fighting corruption is as important a social justice issue as opposing human rights abuses or environmental destruction.

After leaving Oxfam, Bob worked for a number of years as a tutor at Victorian tertiary institutions, tutoring migrants and asylum seekers.

A long-term Labor supporter, Bob then joined the Greens in 2002, standing in the 2007 Federal election. Always interested in international issues, Bob also served as the Greens’ International Co-Secretary from November 2004 to November 2007.

Bob (front LHS), with other members of the Inside Indonesia family celebrated the magazine's 40th anniversary in Melbourne, January 2024.

Bob was a person who was deeply committed to causes but this did not mean that he was always serious. He had a wry sense of humour and could find a funny side to life, even in the darkest times. His humour was often at his own expense. In the early 2000s, Bob related how his doctor had asked him about his exercise regime. Bob had replied, ‘I turn the key in the car’s ignition’. Bob did not, however, ignore his doctor’s advice and overnight became an avid cyclist, cycling the 15 kilometre commute to work and back. When Bob set his mind to something, he showed determination.

As a colleague and friend, Bob was never too busy to listen to a problem and offer empathy, sympathy or advice, or to rejoice in success, as required by the situation. He was also happy to share his own experiences, so it never felt like a one-way street. Bob will be much missed and as Jose Ramos-Horta says, he leaves ‘a huge gap in the global struggle for Justice and Human Rights’.

Helen Pausacker (h.pausacker@unimelb.edu.au) is Deputy Director of the Centre for Indonesian Law, Islam and Society at Melbourne Law School, the University of Melbourne.

Inside Indonesia 156: Apr-Jun 2024

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