Death of a Dissident: Murder, Empire and the Dutch in Indonesia

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Almost eleven years ago, in September 2004, a man called Munir Thalib boarded a Garuda Airlines flight from Jakarta to Amsterdam. A slight, moustachioed man in his late thirties, Thalib was relatively well-known in his native Indonesia, having won headlines as the head of a human rights group which exposed corruption and brutality among the Indonesian military. Thalib’s work had earned him many admirers, but also fierce opponents – he’d received a broken hand from the security services, hate mail and even the occasional death threat. Now, though, Thalib had reason to feel relieved. After years of campaigning, he had secured place at university in the Dutch city of Utrecht, and was looking forward to starting a new life beyond the reach of his powerful enemies. The plane ride to Amsterdam was,quite literally, a flight to a safer life.

Thalib’s upbeat mood was further improved when the plane stopped briefly in Singapore, and a friendly off-duty Garuda Airlines pilot stopped by his seat to offer a free upgrade to Business Class. Delighted at his good fortune, Thalib moved to a new extra-large chair and settled back to enjoy the free food and fruit juice. A few hours later, however, he began to feel unwell. He soon began vomiting, and doctor who happened to be on board was summoned to provide assistance. But by the time the plane began its slow descent into Schiphol airport, Thalib was dead. Dutch authorities quickly conducted an autopsy, and reached a remarkable conclusion: Thalib had been poisoned by a dose of arsenic added to the orange juice he’d been served on the plane. In a plot twist worthy of the trashiest airport thriller, the pilot who had offered Thalib an upgrade was convicted of his murder, and the airline’s Chief Executive charged with telling the pilot to do it.

A couple of months ago, more than a decade after Thalib’s death, a small group of relatives, activists, reporters and politicians held a brief remembrance ceremony in the Hague. Thalib’s widow watched as the city’s Mayor renamed a street in the dead dissident’s honour. An area of the city which already had streets named for Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa and Nelson Mandela now also has a ‘Munirpad’, or Munir Street.

For Thalib’s family, the renaming ceremony was a welcome recognition of the price that had been paid. For the Dutch, though, it was perhaps an uncomfortable reminder of their sometimes rocky relationship with his homeland.

The Dutch relationship with Indonesia goes back over four hundred years, to the days when motley bands of explorers and adventurers left Amsterdam by ship in pursuit of nutmeg, pepper and other valuable spices. As the spice trade flourished, the Dutch established trading posts and colonies in cities like Jakarta, and Amsterdam’s wharves heaved with imported coffee, tea and spices. Dutch merchants became fabulously wealthy, and invested their new-found riches in the construction of beautiful canals and elegant townhouses, decorated with art by new talents like Rembrandt and Vermeer. Indonesia remained a Dutch colony for several centuries, winning independence only during the great fracturing of empires which followed the Second World War.

More than half a century later, the legacy of those colonial days is still obvious in the Netherlands: countless streets are named after Indonesian cities, there’s a sizable Indo-Dutch community and Indonesia is a popular Dutch holiday destination. Indonesian food is as popular in the Netherlands as Indian food is in Britain.

However, the Dutch empire also had its darker side; now often forgotten by those who holiday in Bali and rave about the quality of Dutch ‘nasi goreng’ and ‘kip satay’. The Dutch fought hard to retain control of their colonies, and left only after a bloody civil war, enormous pressure from the UN, and an American threat of economic sanctions. Thousands were killed in fighting between the departing colonists and the colonised. After the Dutch left, Indonesia suffered decades of dictatorship, marked by anti-communist purges which killed thousands, brutal domination of territories like East Timor, corruption, economic crises and terrorism; troubles for which the departed Dutch bore at least some responsibility. Stories of imperial guilt are not unusual, but remain a challenge to the Netherlands’ reputation as a beacon for human rights and personal liberty. Many remain ignorant of the dark side of imperial history, or at least reluctant to talk about it. Just last week, Prime Minister Mark Rutte was criticised by some for expressing “regret” about “the horrors of the war in Asia” but stopping short of offering a full apology. Today, relations between the Netherlands and Indonesia are warm, but the shadow of empire is long.

Despite its turbulent past, Indonesia is now a thriving (if chaotic) democracy, and an emerging economic success story. As of last year, it has a dynamic new president, Joko Widodo – a street kid turned statesman, doing his best to present himself as an Asian Obama – who hopes to accelerate the development of the country. However, those hoping that Widodo’s election would lead an accounting for the crimes of the previous era have been disappointed. Last year, before Widodo’s election, the pilot convicted of Munir Thalib’s murder was released from jail. He had served just six years of a murder sentence, and was freed amid rumours of a close relationship with the Indonesian intelligence services. Despite the memorial in The Hague, the exact circumstances of Thalib’s death remain clouded in mystery. “This street is like a ghost,” one of his friends told reporters in the Hague. “As long as the case is not resolved, then the Indonesian government will keep being haunted by the truth”.

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