Indonesia

Indonesia: Echoes of Munir’s Unstoppable Soul

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This is a chilling work of true crime about the midair murder of a human rights activist, set against a riveting political drama in the world’s fourth-largest nation. Following excerpts adapted from We Have Tired of Violence: A True Story of Murder, Memory, and the Fight for Justice in Indonesia written by Matt Easton, published by The New Press. – Edts

Munir told a story. A few months before, an immigration officer had stopped him as he was trying to depart for Geneva. The man told him he was banned from leaving Indonesia. Unsure if the officer was following a genuine order or fishing for a bribe, Munir took out his phone. He called General Hendropriyono, the head of the State Intelligence Agency. Munir had recently asked a court to bar Hendropriyono from that job due to his role in a massacre years before. The effort had only succeeded in angering the general, but he answered when Munir called and assured him he was free to leave the country. As Munir described handing his phone to the wide-eyed immigration officer to hear for himself, the group burst out laughing around the box of donut holes. Suci smiled as her husband drained a threat of power, and made it, somehow, seem funny.

***

Soon after midday prayers the next day, Suci answered her home phone. It was Usman Hamid, Munir’s friend and successor at the human rights group KontraS.

“Suci, where are you now?” he asked.

“I’m at home. Don’t you know you called my home?” Her voice rose: “What is it, Usman?”

“Suci, have you heard the news about Munir?” Usman stammered. His voice was shaky and hoarse.

She hadn’t, and Munir really should have texted or called her by now from Amsterdam.

Usman told her, simply, “Munir has died.”

Suci felt as if she’d fallen from high up in the clouds onto hard earth. A darkness choked her, and her legs felt weak. Suci struggled to think. She needed to know what happened. She needed to prove it wasn’t true. Decades of censorship and lies, followed by years of political turmoil, had created an environment ripe for rumors in a village of 10 million like Jakarta. Many arose spontaneously, sometimes compared to mushrooms in the rainy season. More often, rumors were crafted to threaten and frighten.

Suci would not believe Munir was dead until she saw his body herself or spoke to someone who had. Her disbelief came not just from years of rumor and threat. She could not accept that someone she felt to be a part of her soul could be gone in an instant. Her suspicion and denial grew as Suci called the airports, the airline, and friends in the Netherlands. No one would confirm the rumor. No one would tell her anything at all. On her fourth call to Amsterdam, she erupted at a Garuda employee, “I have a right to information about my husband!”

There was a long pause, before the man whispered, “Yes. Yes, he’s dead.”

Had he seen the body, seen it with his own eyes? He had.

“Please,” he said. “Don’t tell anyone I told you.”

***

Photo: Munir sits with Suciwati and his former driver Sugiarto at Jakarta’s airport shortly before his departure. (Poengky Indarti)

Suci told co-workers they should join her at LBH on Sunday, their one day off. They’d been looking for a safer spot to meet, though no place was totally secure. The authorities could raid any meeting they considered political if held without a permit. Suci explained that LBH offered more than they’d hoped for. It had space to meet in private, with lawyers to train them and to help if they got arrested. It was like a ripe durian falling from the tree and coming to rest right at your feet.

Before long, Munir asked Suci for help at the office, and then with a research project on Malang’s northern fringe. She liked being part of the research team, until she heard that Munir was telling people she was interested in him. Suci confronted Munir, telling him that she took her work seriously and didn’t want it mixed up with emotions. She had no choice but to resign. As she walked out the door, some visitors arrived, and Munir could only watch her go. He came to her house that evening to apologize, but she wasn’t there. He returned the next day, and she accepted his apology, but did not return to the research team or the office work. She liked to be with the workers where the action was, and in June she took another factory job, though she kept volunteering at LBH as well.

In fact, Suci was finding herself drawn to Munir. She liked his passion for his work and the way he combined this serious commitment with humor. Once, he took her to a political discussion at his old campus. Afterward, she revealed her fear that his bold words there would get him shot by an intel agent concealed in the crowd. At the sound of his warm laughter, her fear evaporated. In fact, outside of conflict zones, overt state violence was rare. For many Indonesians who were not especially political, the late New Order was a time of increasing prosperity and religious tolerance. By the 1990s, Suharto could assert control mostly through a vast bureaucracy governing all organizations, discussions, and Suci told co-workers they should join her at LBH on Sunday, their one day off. They’d been looking for a safer spot to meet, though no place was totally secure. The authorities could raid any meeting they considered political if held without a permit. Suci explained that LBH offered more than they’d hoped for. It had space to meet in private, with lawyers to train them and to help if they got arrested. It was like a ripe durian falling from the tree and coming to rest right at your feet.

Before long, Munir asked Suci for help at the office, and then with a research project on Malang’s northern fringe. She liked being part of the research team, until she heard that Munir was telling people she was interested in him. Suci confronted Munir, telling him that she took her work seriously and didn’t want it mixed up with emotions. She had no choice but to resign. As she walked out the door, some visitors arrived, and Munir could only watch her go. He came to her house that evening to apologize, but she wasn’t there. He returned the next day, and she accepted his apology, but did not return to the research team or the office work. She liked to be with the workers where the action was, and in June she took another factory job, though she kept volunteering at LBH as well.

In fact, Suci was finding herself drawn to Munir. She liked his passion for his work and the way he combined this serious commitment with humor. Once, he took her to a political discussion at his old campus. Afterward, she revealed her fear that his bold words there would get him shot by an intel agent concealed in the crowd. At the sound of his warm laughter, her fear evaporated. In fact, outside of conflict zones, overt state violence was rare. For many Indonesians who were not especially political, the late New Order was a time of increasing prosperity and religious tolerance. By the 1990s, Suharto could assert control mostly through a vast bureaucracy governing all organizations, discussions, and Students’ Association (Himpunan Mahasiswa Islam, or HMI). HMI had recently split, and Munir joined the more pro-Suharto faction. He was not just a supporter of the president, but a militant one, often clashing with street activists demanding democracy or human rights. They generally fought through public debates, wherein Munir earned a fearsome reputation, and student government races, but the competition grew tense. Munir considered himself a soldier in a religious war, and by his own account carried a knife in his bag in these years, ready to fight. Munir might have developed into a lifelong pro-Suharto ideologue or a religious hard-liner.

But not long after arriving at college, friends, books, teachers, and his own curious mind began challenging his constricted views. He enjoyed taking the pro-government side when arguing with the radical street activists, but some of their arguments were persuasive. Munir also began excavating the history of HMI. He was surprised to discover its founding documents were almost radical in their challenge to state authority and capitalism. Drafted in 1960 by an influential and progressive Muslim intellectual named Nurcholish Majid, they used the Quran and the Hadiths to argue that Muslims should side with the oppressed.

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