The death of noted human rights activist Munir, on board a Garuda plane to Amsterdam on 7 September 2004 has not only shocked his family and friends. The outpouring of public grief in the days after he died indicated that Indonesia had lost one of its most important societal and political figures. At the age of 38, Munir was already the conscience of a nation that had passed four decades of authoritarian rule and was now hoping for a future without repression, state-sponsored violence and censorship.
Munir’s potential went well beyond his expertise in and commitment to human rights issues. In recent years, Munir had become an eminent authority on defence and security matters, enabling him to understand and criticise the structural causes of the violence that had confronted him since the early stages of his career as a legal aid worker.
Departing for the Netherlands on the evening of 6 September, Munir had planned to deepen his studies of international human rights law and the implications of armed conflict for democratic consolidation and individual freedoms. He had chosen Aceh as the topic of his Masters thesis at the University of Utrecht, and was determined to begin doctoral studies after that.
It is the thought of the Munir who could have returned to Indonesia in 2008 or 2009 that makes his death so extraordinarily tragic. The development of his already exceptional analytical skills would have allowed him to work even more intensively for the creation of the policies and institutions needed for a more democratic political system.
Born in 1965, the year of Suharto’s ascent to power, Munir was raised in a middle-class family of Arabic descent. After his entry into the Faculty of Law at Brawijaya University in Malang, he began researching labour issues. His studies provided him with first-hand experience of the economic difficulties and political constraints experienced by workers and farmers under Suharto’s New Order regime. He graduated in 1989 and began a career in the legal aid foundation YLBHI, which led him from Surabaya and Semarang to the organisation’s headquarters in Jakarta.
After having defended many of the New Order’s leading dissidents against the judicial apparatus of the regime, Munir founded the Commission for Disappeared Persons and Victims of Violence (KontraS) in early 1998, at the height of the political crisis that would eventually lead to Suharto’s fall. His organisation was able to shed light on the many kidnappings carried out by the military in the dying days of the regime. It continued its scrutiny of the security forces and other state institutions during the post-authoritarian transition.
Not surprisingy, these activities created enemies. Military officers felt cornered by Munir’s sharp and unrelenting criticism, precisely because they felt that he had unrivalled knowledge of their internal doctrine and procedures. Particularly in recent years, Munir had learned the military’s vocabulary and technical code language, making it easy for him to outplay senior officers in their own domain. Some military leaders admired him for his intellect, others didn’t.
His stressful agenda and the constant threats to his work and life began to undermine Munir’s health. In August 2001, a bomb was thrown at his house in Malang, followed by several attacks on his offices that destroyed computer files and injured his staff. Although he stood firm and even created a new organisation, IMPARSIAL, in June 2002, he began to realise that he owed his wife Suciwati and his two children a less demanding and risky existence.
Keen to recharge his batteries and expand his academic expertise, Munir considered offers for a scholarship that could both temporarily remove him from his hectic schedule and prepare him for even more intense societal and political engagement after his return. He finally chose to accept the offer by the Dutch government to continue his studies in Utrecht.
During a farewell party on 3 September, I had the last opportunity to chat with my friend of many years. His mind was focused on the task that lay ahead. His only concerns were that continued contact with colleagues at home and the temptations of European soccer might distract him from his studies. Only three days later, the news of Munir’s death robbed Indonesia not only of a unique intellectual and activist, but of one of its brightest hopes for the future.
Marcus Mietzner (email@example.com) lives in Jakarta where he is completing a PhD on military politics in the post-Suharto period.
Editor's note: As Inside Indonesia goes to press, it has been revealed that the autopsy on Munir's body carried out by the Dutch Forensic Institute discovered high levels of arsenic in his blood. The Dutch foreign ministry concluded that a criminal investigation was justified and conveyed this view to the Indonesian government.