Opinion

Munir: Vanguard of reform



Sidney Jones, Singapore

When I think of the people who had the most impact in bringing about a democratic Indonesia, Munir would be up there near the top. He was everything a human rights champion should be: principled, tough, smart, funny, and fearless. He stood up to people in power, he made them angry, he got threat after threat after threat, and he never gave up.

Some accused Munir of blackening Indonesia's image abroad. But he didn't -- he enhanced it. In the dying days of the Soeharto government and the traumatic first years of the transition, a common Western perception of Indonesia was of an authoritarian state, riddled with corruption and plagued by violence, that wasn't going to change.

But Munir personified a new generation, born in 1965, not mired in the mindset of the 1970s. He had a clear vision of what Indonesia should and could become, and no one was going to stop him or anyone else from getting there.

Anyone who met Munir knew reform was possible. Not just possible, that's too weak -- inevitable. There would be rule of law. There would be accountability. There would be justice. Just as he was convinced, when he cofounded the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras), that the activists who disappeared would be found alive, and most were, he was also convinced that the ordinary Indonesians deserved and could get a much better government than they had. When you met Munir, any negative stereotypes of Indonesia crumbled -- there was hope for real change.

After the devastating violence in East Timor in 1999, the Indonesian government at the time argued that it could do its own investigation; there was no need for an international commission.

The world was skeptical, until the Commission of Inquiry into Human Rights Violations (KPP-HAM), of which Munir was a key member, produced a thorough, impartial report, far better and more detailed than the UN's own effort -- then all the doubters began to believe.

That the subsequent prosecutions didn't match the quality of that report was no fault of Munir's. Whenever he was involved, Indonesia's image abroad was positive, of a country that had turned a corner and could try dispassionately to right past wrongs.

I could never understand how someone so relentlessly subjected to attacks, verbal and physical, could remain such an optimist. He shrugged off the insinuations, innuendo, and downright lies that were hurled at him. He was an activist in the best sense of the word, doing things when other people just talked.

He got human rights monitoring posts set up in Aceh, he got people on the ground in Maluku as soon as the violence broke out, and he never forgot the families of the disappeared whose agony never ends as long as the fate of their relatives remains unknown.

Some people might have rested on their laurels, or moved into a less stressful job after winning an honor as prestigious as the Right Livelihood Award or being named Man of the Year by Ummat or being cited as a ""Young Leader for the Millennium in Asia"" by Asia Week magazine.

But Munir continued to argue for military reform and human rights protections with passion, humor, and an absolute conviction that he was right. The bombs in Malang, the attacks in 2002 and 2003 on the Kontras office didn't stop him in the slightest, nor did his serious health problems. I wish we'd all told him to slow down, but he wouldn't have paid attention anyway.

Munir was a very close friend, someone with whom I worked closely over the last six years. I can't imagine a world without him. My heart goes out to his family -- and to Indonesia.

The writer is Director of the Southeast Asia Project of International Crisis Group, Jakarta

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