Rights campaigner Munir dies on plane

Outspoken rights campaigner Munir, 38, died onboard a flight to the Netherlands on Tuesday morning, to the shock of many who knew him as "the voice of the voiceless."

One of the founders of the independent Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras) passed away on a Garuda Indonesia flight to Amsterdam, which departed from Jakarta via Singapore late Monday. The cause of the death remains unclear.

Garuda spokesman Pujobroto said Munir died about two hours before landing at Amsterdam's Schipol airport.

His friends and colleagues said he appeared healthy and cheerful before departing to continue his studies on human rights at Utrecht University, where he had been offered a scholarship.

They, however, said that Munir had, at one time, been in the hospital in Jakarta for liver ailments. He also suffered from gastric problems.

Pujobroto said the purser or crew supervisor Najib reported to Capt. Pantun Matondang after seeing that Munir, sitting in seat 40-G, appeared to be very ill.

"The cabin crew immediately reported to the pilot in command that a passenger was sick -- a condition which had forced him to go to the restroom several times," Pujobroto said in a press statement.

Matondang then ordered Najib to ask for medical assistance from another passenger, a doctor who also happened to be onboard. After giving initial first aid, Munir was moved to a seat near the doctor.

"At that time he (Munir) looked comfortable and was able to rest comfortably, but about two hours before the plane landed, Najib and the doctor found that Munir had died," Pujobroto said.

Authorities at Schipol airport examined Munir's body in accordance with airport regulations.

"Garuda is ready to take Munir's family to Amsterdam and transport his remains back to Indonesia," said Pujobroto.

Kontras coordinator Usman Hamid said Munir's remains are expected to be flown to Jakarta on Wednesday, pending an autopsy.

Munir is survived by his wife, Suciwati, and a son and daughter. As Suciwati prepared to leave for Amsterdam on Wednesday, the family home in Bekasi, East Jakarta, was crowded with praying people, including victims and survivors of the several cases of violence including the Semanggi shootings.

The news of Munir's death shocked colleagues include those who work for Kontras, a non-governmental organization which provides legal counseling to victims of state-sponsored violence.

"Someone phoned the Kontras office at about 11 a.m. and told us Cak Munir died, but we didn't take it seriously. We considered it a hoax, but then around 1 p.m. Pak Todung confirmed he had died," Kontras researcher Batara Ibnu Reza said, referring to noted lawyer and rights campaigner Todung Mulya Lubis.

Todung said a friend of his who also flew to Amsterdam on Malaysian Airlines called to inform him about Munir's death.

Curious rights activists have demanded an autopsy on Munir, according to Todung.

Munir, who also cofounded the Imparsial human rights watch, has won much credit, including from military figures, whom he persistently criticized.

"He (Munir) was a critical, staunch figure. Sometimes his criticism made many ears redden. He criticized the Indonesian Military, and, often, me. But we need a person like Munir to remind us if we stray away from democracy," former Army general presidential frontrunner Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said.  (-- Tiarma Siboro and Muninggar Sri Saraswati)

Published by The Jakarta Post on August 9, 2004