Poisoning human rights with impunity
About 40,000 feet above Romania on Sept. 7, 2004, Indonesia’s leading human rights lawyer, Munir Said Thalib, was found dead in his seat aboard a Garuda Indonesia flight heading for Amsterdam.
The iconic human rights fighter, better known as Munir, had felt ill since the plane took off from Changi Airport in Singapore. He had complained to a flight attendant of diarrhea and a nagging stomach ache and received treatment from a cardiac surgeon who was on the same flight. An autopsy later determined the cause of Munir’s death was arsenic poisoning.
The murder case exposed serious flaws in Indonesia’s justice system. Pollycarpus Budihari Priyanto, an off-duty Garuda pilot who met and talked to Munir in Singapore, was later convicted and sentenced to 14 years in prison. In fact he only served eight years of his sentence and regained his freedom late in November 2014.
A senior State Intelligence Agency (BIN) official accused of plotting the murder, Muchdi Purwoprandjono, was acquitted after a trial that was marked by intimidation against witnesses. After more than 13 years, the mastermind(s) behind the assassination have never been found.
The most puzzling part of the game is the killing took place six years after the authoritarian regime of former president Soeharto ended and sweeping reforms toward democracy began.
The fact that a persistent government critic like Munir was intentionally killed overseas, not at home, was perhaps a way for the alleged perpetrators to save the image of the fledgling democracy.
Imagine how the world would have reacted if Munir was murdered in his own country that was transforming into a democracy.
The fact that whoever masterminded Munir’s murder has remained at large is a dark stain on Indonesia’s human rights record. Today, Munir would have turned 52 if he was still alive.
The state’s failure to bring people responsible for his death and many other perpetrators of human rights abuses to justice means that we do not have much to cheer about when commemorating International Human Rights Day, which falls on Dec. 10.
Since the fall of Soeharto, Indonesia has seen real progress in many fields: Unshackling the press, holding fair elections and curbing human rights violations.
But these positive developments have been held back by what Munir’s death has come to represent: An almost complete impunity for perpetrators of human rights violations, particularly those in the military.
Hopes were high in 2014 after a civilian with no ties to military, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, was elected the country’s seventh President. Sadly, three years later time has proven that Jokowi is no different from his predecessors.
He is apparently unwilling to bring to justice Munir’s real killers despite the fact that human rights were among the focal points of his presidential campaign in 2014.
In 2015, the President made headlines when he stated his commitment “to address past human rights violations so that future generations in Indonesia would not continue to bear the burden of history.” In 2016, he reiterated his promise, including resolving Munir’s mysterious assassination.
But Jokowi did not walk the walk when his government refused to make public an independent fact-finding report on Munir’s death that implicated a number of intelligence officials. His administration was also reluctant to open a new investigation into his death.
More controversially, he has given individuals implicated in past human rights violations strategic positions in his government.
They include AM Hendropriyono, who was the BIN chief when Munir was murdered and former armed forces chief Wiranto who is implicated in the shooting of students and forced disappearances of pro-democracy activists in 1998 and atrocities in East Timor in 1999.
Granting key posts to people implicated in crimes against humanity exemplifies the practice of impunity in Indonesia, an antithesis to people’s high expectations for Jokowi to improve democracy.
In his state of union address in the House of Representatives plenary on Aug. 16 the President failed to mention human rights in his speech. Instead, he boasted of achievements in infrastructure development across the nation, which in fact is his signature program.
In the last few months, the President has also reversed some of the fruits of hard-won reforms. Facing protests from hard-line Muslim groups that managed to push blasphemy charges against his close ally, former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahja Purnama, Jokowi signed a regulation in lieu of a law that authorizes the government to ban mass organizations without due process of law under the pretext of curbing intolerant and radical ideologies endangering the state.
Under his presidency, hardline groups could disband forums to discuss the mass killings of 1965 at will, without fearing enforcement of the law.
The communist phobia has been capitalized more than 50 years after the communist purge took place.
Meanwhile, attacks on religious and sexual minorities are rampant with little government response.
How can one explain these sad reversals?
One explanation is certainly a long chain of failures to rid some of Indonesia’s institutions from its past repressive tendencies and to prosecute perpetrators of human rights abuses.
The impunity for the masterminds of Munir’s murder and the failure to remove the alleged perpetrators from positions of authority has made it too easy for Jokowi to resuscitate old forms of repression and to appoint Soeharto-era generals to key positions.
To undo the deeply rooted harms caused by a repressive state takes more time and political will to cure. Indonesia, almost 20 years into its reforms, is a cautionary tale for states struggling to end repression.
This example is all the more urgent today when populist governments in counties like Poland, the Philippines, and even the United States, are seeking to undermine human rights almost every day.
Jokowi has disappointed those who believed he would help uncover Munir’s murder. He must stop pretending that the economy deserves higher priority than bringing to justice the masterminds of past atrocities.
He should wake up and take action before it is too late. He must prove his commitment to human rights was not just talk, in particular as his possible reelection campaign in 2019 is fast approaching.