Indonesia held its first direct presidential election in July 2004, and it was immediately classified as one of the largest ever in world history: 121 million Indonesians voted in the initial round, far outstripping the 111 million Americans who had voted in the 2000 U.S. presidential election. But Indonesian democracy, at that point, was still somewhat experimental. After Indonesia achieved its independence from the Netherlands in 1949, its first president, Sukarno (who, like many Indonesians, went by one name), ushered in a brief period of liberal parliamentary democracy. That evolved into a more authoritarian system known as “guided democracy,” which sought to incorporate traditional village consensus structures, but was cut short in 1965, when army general Suharto took power in a transition that included the killing of up to a million suspected communists and leftists. He ruled until 1998, when mass protests and the Asian financial crisis finally prompted him to resign.

Both of the final presidential candidates in 2004 had strong ties to those tumultuous early years of the republic. Megawati Sukarnoputri, the incumbent president, was Sukarno’s eldest daughter. Her challenger, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a retired army general, had served in the military under Suharto. The huge, procedurally complex election was an undeniable accomplishment for a six-year-old democracy. But its results—Yudhoyono won, perpetuating the Suharto-era military’s influence on electoral politics—were somewhat less inspiring.

Indonesia’s modern democracy attracts no shortage of superlatives. The sprawling country of nearly 300 million people and more than 17,000 islands has made huge strides since the end of the Suharto dictatorship. Average life expectancy has risen from about 47 years in 1960 to 72 today, the economy has entered the ranks of the G-20, and the government has undertaken ambitious social welfare projects, including one of the world’s largest health insurance schemes. But Indonesia’s democracy can nevertheless feel rather hollow or insubstantial. Corruption is hopelessly entrenched, civil society is extremely weak, labor organizing is practically impossible, people are jailed for blasphemy, environmental activists are murdered, and the press is, if freer than in neighboring countries such as Myanmar or Vietnam, perennially muzzled. No one can be an “issues voter” because patronage, rather than ideology, drives party politics.

Indonesia’s current president, Joko Widodo, also known as Jokowi, came to office in 2014 pledging reform but has done little to address these challenges—and he has arguably exacerbated some of them. Jokowi made history as the first modern president without direct ties to the Suharto regime, yet respect for human rights has declined throughout his two administrations. (He was reelected in 2019.) Today, millions of Indonesians may be able to vote, but the substantive rights typically accorded to citizens of a democracy are far from guaranteed.

Why? Some answers can be found in a probing new book about an assassination that took place in 2004, the same year as that first direct election. In We Have Tired of Violence, the American human rights researcher Matt Easton gives the true-crime treatment to the life and death of Munir Said Thalib, an influential human rights activist who was murdered on a flight from Jakarta to Amsterdam. By exhuming the crime’s motives and actors and reconstructing the convoluted trials that followed, Easton also sheds light on why so many democratic institutions remain weak in post-Suharto Indonesia—and why one of the world’s biggest democracies remains so haunted by its violent past.

DETECTIVE WORK

Munir died in the airspace above the Ukrainian-Romanian border around 4:00 AM on September 7, 2004. He left behind a wife and two young children, as well as KontraS, the human rights organization that he co-founded to serve Indonesians who had been disappeared, killed, or injured by the state. Originally from an Arab-Indonesian trading family in East Java, Munir became a prominent labor organizer and activist over the course of the 1990s. He was about to start a yearlong master’s degree at Utrecht University in the Netherlands when he was administered a fatal dose of arsenic.

Munir’s national and international stature—in 2000, he had won the Right Livelihood Award, a Swedish prize often called the “alternative Nobel”—meant that his death was met with considerable outcry and quickly classified by Indonesian police as premeditated murder. Munir’s wife, Suci, and his activist friends were also unusually proactive in pushing for answers. Their scrappiness, as recounted by Easton, is impressive. Together, friends and family pulled phone logs, flight manifests, and obscure biographical data of various members of Indonesian intelligence services and politics, and they wrangled meetings with important officials, such as the director of the state-owned Garuda Indonesia airlines on which Munir took his last flight.

These friends organized an action committee for Munir, while Yudhoyono, the victor in the 2004 election, appointed a dedicated fact-finding team to investigate Munir’s death. But even the latter had a meager remit. It couldn’t compel witnesses to appear or conduct searches; it could “only share information with the police and make suggestions, hoping the police would follow up,” Easton writes. The investigation also faced countless obstacles: the crime scene was a mess, critical evidence on the plane was destroyed by a clumsy Dutch investigation, a provisional toxicology report wasn’t filed for over three weeks, and the Indonesian police delegation to Amsterdam never obtained the full autopsy report. Still, the fact-finding team and the action committee managed to identify key suspects and even to home in on the location of Munir’s poisoning, which was his layover at Singapore’s Changi Airport.

Easton sheds light on why Indonesia is haunted by its violent past.

The first suspect to emerge in the book is Pollycarpus Budihari Priyanto, a co-pilot for Garuda. He immediately appears so shady and sinister that, were this a television crime drama, he would be dismissed as a too-obvious culprit. He is rumored to have close ties to the military and cannot provide a consistent account of anything he did on Flight 974, including how exactly he upgraded Munir to business class. During their investigation, one of Munir’s activist friends received three anonymous text messages claiming that Pollycarpus became an agent of the state intelligence agency (Badan Intelijen Negara, or BIN) in 2002. These messages further alleged that BIN officials orchestrated Munir’s murder because they were afraid that he would sound the alarm abroad about several disappeared anti-Suharto activists. This theory has the ring of truth, and despite its hazy provenance, the book essentially endorses it. Its claims appear borne out by the slowly unfurling web of intelligence contacts, countless incriminating details about Pollycarpus’s actions in the months before Munir’s death, and the discovery of more than three dozen calls between Pollycarpus and a prominent former Special Forces commander. In December 2005, Pollycarpus was convicted of Munir’s murder and sentenced to 14 years in prison. But although Pollycarpus likely committed the murder, a far bigger question remained: Who ordered the hit and cui bono? The book posits that one likely candidate, though perhaps not the only one, was Muchdi, the former general and Pollycarpus’s reputed BIN handler.

When Munir was still alive, he once counseled a fellow activist, “Don’t be too preoccupied with the bullets,” when it came to investigating disappearances—meaning, focus on the why instead of the how. Regrettably, this book does not take that advice. Easton recounts a years-long investigation and lengthy trials, but the basic contours of these events were already reported over a decade ago, and he struggles to finesse the raw material into a gripping narrative. The courtroom drama is hard to follow; it includes, for instance, extended speculation over whether the “vector of poisoning” was orange juice or noodles. This book is clearly a labor of love, but concordant with Easton’s professional background, it sometimes reads like a human rights report. There is neither a dramatic twist nor a novel conclusion; the people who seem most guilty by the book’s end were the same ones who stood trial over a decade ago. All that said, I couldn’t help but be touched by Easton’s diligent sourcing and exhaustive research. As a onetime foreign correspondent in Indonesia, I am acutely aware that few Anglophone writers have made such an effort to cover any Indonesian subject in recent years, let alone an 18-year-old case of limited global or American significance. I hope this book does not remain such an exception.

TOPSOIL AND BEDROCK

We Have Tired of Violence does not explain Munir’s murder in an exciting or new way, but it does illuminate just how and why so many institutions in newly democratic Indonesia faltered right out of the gate. The protest movement that finally dethroned Suharto in 1998 was called reformasi, or reformation. Its target, however, was not the military as a whole but Suharto’s regime more narrowly, as the name of Munir’s organization, KontraS, signaled: kontra, or against, Suharto. According to one infamous Transparency International estimate, Suharto was the most corrupt world leader in recent history, swindling as much as $35 billion over three decades. But he held onto power until the 1997 Asian financial crisis and a massive student protest movement finally turned his regime into a sinking ship. His military allowed him to drown. When student protesters camped out on the grounds of parliament, Easton writes, “the army appeared loyal, and yet the days passed, and they did not remove the occupying students.”

By tacitly allowing the inevitable collapse of the regime, the military managed to transition nearly unscathed into democratic Indonesia. Many of its members found prestigious employment after 1998. Retired generals such as Yudhoyono entered electoral politics and rose quickly. Easton writes that these pre- and post-Suharto elites “accepted the procedural democracy of free elections and peaceful transitions, as long as everything else could stay the same: criminality, corruption and impunity.”

Every democracy is imperfect in its own way. If many of the United States’ excesses stem from the outsize role of individualism in the country’s culture, the Achilles’ heel of Indonesia’s democracy may be the stranglehold of the military, and the near-total impunity it has enjoyed for its past violence. Today, the Indonesian military is like bedrock under the few inches of soil where nominally democratic institutions have sprouted since 1998. Their roots cannot extend past a certain point.

Protesting Munir's murder in Jakarta, Indonesia, September 2007
Protesting Munir's murder in Jakarta, Indonesia, September 2007
Dadang Tri / Reuters

The abiding power of the military in Indonesia manifested at several junctures in Munir’s life and death. Take the clearly partial treatment that the police gave major suspects with military backgrounds. General Hendropriyono, who led a massacre on the island of Sumatra in 1989, became the head of BIN in 2001. Munir stood out as a vocal opponent of Hendropriyono’s appointment. But when Hendropriyono was finally implicated in Munir’s case, he was, according to Easton, “interviewed [not] at police headquarters, which would be beneath an army general, but in his hotel suite.” When two members of the Munir fact-finding team tried to question him, he filed a defamation complaint, which police promptly acted on by calling the members in for questioning instead. Muchdi, the former Special Forces general most likely to have ordered the hit, was even harder to pin down. Munir’s supporters believe his advocacy for people abducted by the Special Forces in 1998 torpedoed Muchdi’s army career, spurring a personal vendetta. But the police never fully cooperated with the Munir fact-finding team, providing it “with only 18 records of interrogation out of about a hundred” interviews conducted with suspects, according to Easton. Muchdi ignored four court summonses in a row in 2005, and once he was finally forced into court in 2008, his defense presented him as a home-grown hero. The stands were packed with his cheering supporters. Unsurprisingly, Muchdi was acquitted. He then swiftly entered politics, joining the Gerindra Party of former lieutenant general Prabowo Subianto.

The fact-finding commission became more and more ineffectual as the months dragged on. Their investigation likely never stood a chance against the deep networks, strengthened over decades, of the military and intelligence communities. Ultimately, only Pollycarpus and two Garuda officials, convicted of facilitating a murder, served any jail time. In 2010, Garuda was also ordered to pay an undisclosed sum of more than 600 million rupiah (about $68,000) to Munir’s widow, but its officials simply ignored the directive.

ORIGINAL SIN

No one would have been less surprised by all this than Munir, whose intended graduate research hoped, in Easton’s words, “to answer the puzzling question of why it was so hard to protect human rights even after a military-backed government had come to an end.” Munir had a genius for big-picture analysis. His experience organizing workers informed his understanding of the extent of ongoing anticommunist paranoia, and its distortive effects on Indonesian society. Easton writes that with KontraS, Munir hoped to rethink “the entire role of the military and intelligence in a democracy.”

The success of the protest movement that dethroned Suharto meant that for a while the winds of change were with Munir. Indonesia once again had political parties, the press was declared free, the military was no longer granted automatic seats in the assembly, and the police became a civilian force separate from the military. As Easton writes, “Four years into reformasi, Indonesia was still drafting and passing a raft of laws on human rights, the military, police, terrorism, and intelligence.”

But the military never actually answered for its crimes in 1997 and 1998, especially the disappearances of activists and dissidents. Although curbing state violence was an imperative of reformasi, the young democracy’s subsequent leaders emphasized not justice, but reconciliation and forgiveness. So it stands to reason that the military really hasn’t confronted its even more malign actions from 1965 and 1966, namely the mass murder of up to a million suspected communists, leftists, intellectuals, and various minorities. This event was so traumatic, so far-reaching, and so bloody—and its perpetrators in power for so long afterward—that most Indonesians reacted by adopting a traumatized code of silence.

The sheer scale of the 1965–66 killings may have permanently hobbled civil society in modern Indonesia. Today, the remit of politics in “the country with no left,” as Australian activist Max Lane memorably put it, is “barren terrain.” There are genuine and brave activists across the country today—fighting corruption and advocating for open democracy, free speech, and minority rights—but not that many of them. Their problems are, as in Munir’s time, small numbers and large institutional resistance.

DEMOCRATIC LIP SERVICE

Munir once cannily observed of Yudhoyono that he was “a user of democracy rather than a believer in it.” It was Yudhoyono who first formed the committee to investigate Munir’s death in 2004, and it was he who ordered an end to the investigation not long after his reelection in 2009. This tactic of announcing symbolic change through new institutions or flashy appointments followed up with stonewalling, delays, and obfuscation remains broadly useful in modern democratic Indonesia.

Indeed, the current president has mastered this move. Jokowi, once dubbed Indonesia’s Obama, swept into office on a platform of reform. But the halo of potential change he once wore has thoroughly dissipated in the drab reality over which he presides. In his 2014 campaign, Jokowi took up such third-rail topics as the 1965–66 killings and the 1998 disappearances—one of Munir’s signature causes. But once in office, he focused almost monomaniacally on the economy. In 2015, Indonesian activists formed a symbolic people’s tribunal in The Hague to address the mass killings, but the Jokowi administration simply ignored their recommendations that Indonesia “apologize to all victims, survivors, and their families for . . . crimes committed in Indonesia in relation to the 1965 events,” investigate and prosecute said crimes, and provide compensation to victims and survivors. (His vice president at the time dismissed the tribunal as “drama.”)

It was in the Jokowi era that Pollycarpus was released from his second prison stint, having served just eight years of his 14-year sentence. Jokowi also appointed Hendropriyono, the brutal general allegedly involved in Munir’s murder, as a transition team adviser—one of many Suharto-era military hands in his administration.

If there is any powerful new bloc of Indonesian civil society, it is that of Muslim populists and religious conservatives, who became much freer after the relatively secular Suharto era and who have been far more successful in effecting change than human rights advocates have. In recent years, right-wing Muslim groups have organized huge protests of over 200,000 people and helped get dozens of sharia-inspired local bylaws on the books.

As for liberal activists, it’s a small and shrinking world. Reading Easton’s book, I bittersweetly realized that I knew not only most of the human rights organizations of the early millennium but even many of the individuals cited by name, such as Maria Sumarsih, who has organized a weekly protest near the Presidential Palace since 2007. She is now 70 years old. It’s unclear whether people without direct memories of the 1998 student protests—and Indonesia is a young country, so there are fewer every day—will find their own ways to challenge the military’s stranglehold. The mood of Indonesian youth is summed up less by any specific activist movement than by golput, the movement to abstain from voting altogether.

The parallels between Munir’s and today’s Indonesia are why this book’s study of how democratic institutions can frustrate justice is so valuable. In 2017, I attended a community event at the Jakarta Legal Aid Institute. A planned seminar on the 1965–66 mass killings had been dialed down into a night of music and poetry. Nevertheless, the event was controversial and by sundown had attracted a huge mob of Islamist protesters, who shouted, “Kill Communist Party members!,” blockaded the exits, and trapped some people there until four in the morning. (The Communist Party of Indonesia, or PKI, was violently disbanded in 1965.) At one point the police used tear gas not on the belligerent protesters but on the event attendees. Munir, too, patronized the Legal Aid Institute, which helped him get his bearings as a labor organizer in the 1990s. He, too, was injured in a violent riot at the institute in 1996, during which a soldier stomped on his hand and broke his finger. And, as in Indonesia today, authorities did not seek out the perpetrators. Instead, they arrested the leader of a new leftist pro-democracy group. As Easton writes, “Under pressure to investigate the violence, the government instead prosecuted the victims.”

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