Friday, September 11, 2009

The real murderers of Indonesian activist Munir Said Thalib go unpunished

Five Years On, Impunity Reigns in Indonesia

On September 7, 2004 human rights defender, reformer and leading civil society activist Munir Said Thalib was murdered with a poisoned dinner aboard a Garuda Indonesia flight to Amsterdam for his critical views of the government and military in Indonesia.

One of Munir's main achievements was the elucidation of crimes committed by the military in both Indonesia and East Timor. More than 10 years after Suharto's regime came down and five years after Munir's murder none of the reforms in Indonesia have made it possible to hold military officials accountable. Instead, the re-elected President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono recently called for an increased territorial command structure in the military to address the problem of terrorism. Was Munir's lifework in vain?

Before and after the end of Suharto's rule in 1998 the military was notorious for human rights atrocities such as killings and disappearances. It was only in 2002 that the police became a separate body, independent of the military as part of the country's security sector reform. In some areas of Indonesia, this separation has not yet resulted in a stabilized co-existence of the two bodies, the police and the military. In Papua, for example, confrontations and even shootings between the police and the army have been reported. The military, which is strongly affected by corruption, especially in the outlying regions, often protects private mining companies or even run their own mining businesses.

Killings of civilians by the army, as happens repeatedly, cannot be brought to a justice process that would hold the perpetrators adequately accountable. This immunity of the military has seriously damaged the image of the Indonesian military forces (TNI) as a whole.

When the founder of the Indonesian Commission for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence (KontraS) helped in making military crimes public and called for reforms, the National Intelligence Agency (BIN) sent Pollycarpus Budihari Priyanto, then a Garuda captain, to poison Munir by lacing his dinner with arsenic. While Pollycarpus has been sentenced for the murder, the instigators of the killing have not yet been brought to justice.

The evidence points at Major General Muchdi Purwoprandjono, deputy director at the National Intelligence Agency at that time. However, the Supreme Court acquitted him in June, neglecting vital evidence. The trial has been criticised for being flawed. This acquittal is of course a slap in the face for all victims who Munir was supporting and for his family and friends. Indonesia has a National Human Rights Commission, a Human Rights Court Law, an Anti-Corruption Commission and has undergone many other political reforms, but none of them has led to accountability of the military criminals of the past. In fact, the very same people – Generals Wiranto and Prabowo Subianto, both of whom were accused of murder by human rights groups -- were even running with their parties in the 2009 elections.

President Yudhoyono himself is a retired general of the TNI and promised, upon his first election in 2004, to make Munir's case the test case for Indonesia's reform process. However, key reforms such as the final establishment of a Witness Protection Agency have been delayed. While the law for this crucial institution was passed years ago, no budget has been allocated by the government to facilitate its long overdue start.

Civil societies, both local and international, have been pushing for progress in Munir's case. However, hopes that President Yudhoyono would sincerely fulfil his promise to bring the perpetrators to justice have faded. More and more voices are pointing at his stake in a military elite that continues to hold Indonesia in a vice-like grip. What we see instead are continued reports of military and police encounters that destabilize the social climate and undermine acceptance of the oversized role of the TNI in the Indonesian state and territory.

Instead of containment, the reign of the military in civil areas is further consolidated. The response to the recent bomb attacks that shook Jakarta was not a further professionalization of investigations of the police but rather the introduction of draconian anti-terrorism laws that allow for detention of up to two years. This in turn helped to foster the role of the military as a key power holder in the country.

What was it that Munir has been fighting for? Munir wanted an Indonesia based on justice, rule of law and human rights, where all victims would have access to remedies. Munir was fighting for a democratic society that would be able to hold any public officer accountable for corruption and other crimes and that would take the military out of the civil aspects of life.

Munir risked his life for this dream and he has paid for it with his life. But not even the very least that Indonesia owes him has been done – to bring his murderers to justice. The fifth year after Munir's death is a moment of disappointment. It is also disillusionment for the reform process in Indonesia. Asia Sentinel by Norman Voss. Norman Voss works at the Asian Human Rights Commission/Asian Legal Resources Center.

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