Suciwati: Fighting for justice and end to impunity
Duncan Graham (c) 2006
Before sociologists and grief counselors got hold of the word, "closure" meant keeping the door shut. Now it refers to the absence of a corpse, unresolved disputes about cause of death, the mystery of a sudden fatality.
And the reason.
And the perpetrator.
Suciwati does not have closure. Maybe she never will. That's not through any lack of energy or dilution of purpose. The widow of slain human rights activist Munir Said Thalib isn't short of determination and drive; but she knows time erodes all things, including memories and campaigns for justice.
One man has been convicted of her husband's murder and is now serving 14 years in jail. A crime has been committed, a criminal found. The gavel has banged down, the file slammed shut.
The story seems to have run its course. It's time to move on to other things.
"I have to keep going to honor the spirit of my husband and so the truth will be revealed," she told The Sunday Post at her home in the hill town of Batu in East Java.
"This is not about revenge, it's about justice. My hope is that the law in Indonesia will be upheld and that there is no impunity for criminals, whatever their rank and contacts. The rule of law must be returned to our country."
But unless there are new and startling revelations Munir's death will slowly slip down the news lists. An issue which once made page one headlines will become a one-paragraph filler on a slow news day, then disappear altogether as other scandals eclipse the murder.
This is not an Indonesian disease; it happens everywhere unless there's a tireless crusader with credibility prepared to keep going where others falter, to put out the statements, to make the speeches, to lobby the influential.
To maintain the rage. To stay focused.
Even when editors spike the stories because they've read them all before, when only the converted come to the meetings to make up the numbers, and the politicians' minders say their bosses are too busy.
Can Suciwati keep going? She's 37 and looks older. Friendly, but cautious. Modest but frank. A no-nonsense woman but not so tough that she's lost her femininity. On the wall just a big photo of Mecca and an ocean of pilgrims. No photos or press clippings, Arabic calligraphy or stirring exhortations from Nelson Mandela in an attempt to display commitment by association.
She greeted this paper politely in a tracksuit and without makeup, dispensing with the elaborate rituals of a Javanese hostess as though she's been mixing with too many foreigners and their casual-but-serious style has rubbed off. Or that she realizes formal rites are superficial and superfluous; they get in the way of important talk.
The strategy now is to keep up the pressure on the government. She has visited Europe and many countries in Asia to tell her story. She's been boosted by the support of 70 U.S. Congress members who have urged the Indonesian government to uncover the plot -- but knows American backing carries little political clout since the invasion of Iraq.
Some commentators claim resolution of the Munir case is the acid test for the Indonesian government and its commitment to justice. But this is unfair. No administration can be judged by a single case in a country as complex as Indonesia.
It would be great to say Suciwati is still just as resolved as she was in September 2004. That was when she learned that her husband of eight years had been poisoned with arsenic on a Garuda flight heading for Holland.
But her eyes say this is just the beginning and the road ahead may be even harder and longer than the one she's already trod.
When the poisoning was proven she met President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. She said she found him sympathetic and concerned but bimbang, meaning indecisive. But he did agree to commissioning a fact-finding inquiry which has reported and been dissolved.
The upshot was Garuda pilot Pollycarpus Budihari Priyanto has been convicted of premeditated murder.
So now it's time for closure.
Not so. Suciwati is tired, but restless. The full report has not been released. Like her colleagues in the NGOs she believes Pollycarpus was just the agent of her husband's death and that other more powerful and sinister figures masterminded the assassination. She believes they are linked to BIN, the state intelligence agency and seemingly a law unto itself.
She has two small and hyperactive children who demand her time. Like her they seem more Western than Javanese. They don't know why Dad's not coming home or why Mom should always be talking to adult strangers and not competing with them on PlayStation. Caring for them is her priority.
She has to live in two places, Jakarta where she works part time as a secretary, and in the middle-class family home in Batu where she has responsibilities for an aging parent.
But she is in demand for speaking engagements in Indonesia and abroad, deputations and demonstrations. Like it or not, she is the public face of the campaign and if she falters, so will others.
They are in a war of attrition against a mighty opponent with limitless resources and countless tricks to delay and divert: The faceless State.
And if she is a continuing success her life may be in danger. Like her late husband.
The package of severed chicken heads delivered after her husband's death with a warning not to implicate the military was well publicized. Not known is that she was recently the victim of a hit-and-run while out on her red motorcycle and believes this was another threat to add to the SMS messages.
Westerners are regularly warned about terrorism and the possibility of kidnapping. Senior politicians fear assassination and have been given extra security.
But the one person who seems most at risk is unprotected.
She sits with her back to an open window. Only three meters separate the house from a major road. Into this space a bomb was lobbed when her husband was still alive.
The front door is open, and so is the gate. People wander in and out, unchallenged, including a man in a full-face helmet. Suciwati is determined not to become a prisoner or be silenced. "My life and future are in God's hands," she said. "Everything is in God's plan."
Even the killing of her husband? "Everything."
If she'd rushed into a retreat and disappeared from public life no reasonable person could have laid blame. Kontras (the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence, established by Munir in 1998) has plenty of smart activists prosecuting the cause with vigor. In practical terms she doesn't need to be on the front line.
But in issues like this the public wants a face, an ordinary individual they can relate to as an aggrieved fellow human being. They do not want a distant spokesperson for a complex organization discussing abstract concepts.
The former teacher who was educated at the Malang IKIP (Teachers Training College) was once a labor unionist pushing for higher wages for workers. This brought her to Munir's attention in 1991. But after becoming a wife and mother she saw her role as supporting her husband and family.
"We were a partnership," she said. "Although I come from a traditional Muslim family we were a modern couple, respecting each other. There were no gender issues."
In India, Sonia Gandhi became the reluctant politician after her husband Rajiv's assassination in 1991 defying demands that she return to her home in Italy and keep out of Indian affairs.
Suciwati is in the same mold. She doesn't hanker for status and recognition, but she's now the internationally known figure representing Indonesia's awful record on human rights.
Every time she appears in public the world remembers that Indonesia may be a fresh new democracy but sinister forces are busily killing, maiming, destroying and destabilizing the government. A wise administration would back her cause to fruition, if only to keep this meddlesome woman silent and shut up the shame.
"Munir was never stopped by threats," Suciwati said. "Danger is everywhere. I get many messages of support and sympathy. Sometimes not strong. I chose the domestic life, but now I have this other responsibility.
"If you are human, then you must be afraid. But God has a plan for me and I must follow it."
Munir was born in 1966 in Batu, East Java. He trained as a lawyer and started work in Surabaya with a legal aid office. He soon made a name for himself defending victims of abuses by government and business.
In particular he criticized the military and police for their treatment of labor activists and their behavior in Aceh and East Timor.
In 1998 he started Kontras in Jakarta and won several international awards for his promotion of human rights.
Despite controls on the media during the New Order government of former president Soeharto, Munir soon became a famous face on television and newspapers because he was always prepared to speak out. There were plenty of threats and physical violence, culminating in the trashing of the Kontras office in 2003 by a mob of thugs.
Many found this curious as the fall of Soeharto had introduced a new era of open discussion. The political power of the military had been diluted, and people felt more relaxed about criticizing authority.
However Munir and his colleagues were also prying into issues of corruption involving big business and government agencies. Clearly they had made some powerful enemies.
A major problem for the credibility of NGOs in Indonesia is that most are subsidized by foreign funds and consequently open to the charge that they are running agendas set by overseas agencies.
By 2004 Munir felt he was in need of a break and set off to a university in Utrecht. He told friends at the time: "I want to take a rest, to study again and to reflect."
He died on board Garuda flight GA 974 on Sept. 7, two hours from his destination. An autopsy in Holland revealed 456 milligrams of arsenic in his body, three times the lethal dose.
(Pic caption above: Suciwati at home in Batu with Diva Syuki, 3, and Alif Allende, 7)
(First published in The Sunday Post 12 March 2006)