THE SECOND ISSUE OF FIHRM-AP - Against Forgetting: Museums and political activism in Indonesia

Author profile - Andi Achdian

Andi Achdian is an assistant-professor at Sociology Department, Faculty of Social and Political Science, Universitas Nasional.  He is also the head of Omah Munir Foundation.  

About Munir Human Rights Museum

The Munir Human Rights Museum was originally established with the name Omah Munir (House of Munir) Human Rights Museum by the Omah Munir Human Rights Foundation in 2013 in the city of Batu, East Java, where Munir was born and raised.  The establishment of the Museum is to promote human rights education for Indonesians, especially the youths to nurture peace-loving citizens that respects human rights and upholds the principles of tolerance and equality. 


The New Order regime collapsed in May 1998. After ruling more than three decades, General Suharto resigned, replaced by the vice president B.J. Habibie who is committed to taking Indonesian politics in a democratic direction. With the collapse of the New Order, political parties sprang up like mushrooms. The new era of the multiparty political system has been evolving to be the foundation of the democratization process in Indonesia to this day. However, not all the basic building blocks of the regime disappeared. Some of the regime's legacy persist in contemporary Indonesian politics.

One of them is the conception of the history of modern Indonesia that features the role of the military, specifically the army, as a key force to save Indonesia from the communist threat in 1965. This historical narrative span more broadly after the army succeeded in fully controlling political power towards the 1970s. The narrative was no longer about the success of the army in crushing the communist movement but also emphasized that Indonesian independence was the main achievement of the army in struggling against the Dutch.

The role of the anti-colonial movement activists such as Sukarno, Hatta, and Sjahrir slowly faded away, replaced by the role of the army and their heroism in the war of independence. In her study of the 20th century modern Indonesian historical narrative, Katherine McGregor (2007) aptly describes it as “history in uniform” to picture how the construction of official Indonesian history that promotes the role of the army was built during the New Order period. This gave us clues that apart from its use for progressive and liberating activism, a museum can also be used by ruling regimes to grease the wheels of the reactionary false historical consciousness of authoritarian rulers. The architect behind it was Nugroho Notosusanto, an academic and military historian who later became the minister of education during the New Order era. Under his direction, the historical narrative is supported by the construction of museums and monuments in various big cities in Indonesia that remind the public of the services and important role of the army.

Movement Against Forgetting

Under the New Order regime, museums have gone beyond their conventional definition as places to store "objects of artistic, cultural, historical or scientific interest" (Oxford Dictionary), to become an instrument of power that legitimizes the historical role of the regime. There came efforts to dismantle this narrative not long after the 1998 reformation. In early 2000, the narratives promoted by independent historians in Indonesia became polemics. Asvi Warman Adam was one of the main figures who proposed “rectification of history” (Adam, 2004).  In highlighting the role of the army, the official narrative of the 1965 event was then juxtaposed with the narrative of the killing of hundreds of thousands of communists and those accused of being communists in various places in Indonesia. However, this new wave was still limited as an academic discourse circulating in limited circles. The New Order’s official narrative was still the dominant version, supported by history texts in elementary and secondary schools, films, and especially in the New Order’s museums and monuments that remain to the present.

Another challenge came from human rights activists and the pro-democracy movement as they attempted to strengthen the public's memory of what happened back in 1998 when Indonesia was under economic and political crisis. On December 10, 2014, activists and academics from the Trisakti University inaugurated the May 12, 1998 Tragedy Monument coinciding with the world human rights commemorates. The monument is made of black ceramic in a 3 meter-height as an effort to commemorate four students shot dead by security forces during a student demonstration on their campus.

At the same time, Komnas Perempuan (the National Commission on Violence Against Women) made the May 1998 Tragedy Inscription as part of an effort to remember the violence and rapes against Chinese women. Volunteers conveyed the rapes of Chinese women to the media and the stories became controversial at the beginning of the reformation. The government responded by forming a Joint Fact-Finding Team (TPGF) to explore the facts surrounding the issue. However, they did not find any supporting "evidence" about the mass rape cases, and the government officially denied that it ever happened. Responding to the government's response, Ita Martadinata as a young volunteer, citizen of Chinese descent and a victim in the incident, planned to give testimony before the United States Congress. However, before her departure to the US, she was found murdered, and the story of the mass rape of Chinese women was forgotten. The May 1998 Tragedy Inscription is a witness that reminds the public of this history.

Meanwhile, in the westernmost region of Indonesia of Aceh Darussalam, a more phenomenal step was taken by several NGO organizations in 2011 by building the Aceh Human Rights Museum. The museum is small. They built panels in the yard of the Tikar Pandan Community office which displayed narrations of shootings against residents protesting at Simpang KKA, people who went missing during the conflict, and the houses "rumoh geudong" where soldiers tortured people suspected of being the Free Aceh Movement sympathizers. It’s a simple museum, but with a great mission as stated in their manifesto:

We believe that small lights will always keep a sign in dark spaces. So, we built a sanctuary of memory; so that we, the women and men of Aceh, who live and die, who are raped and slaughtered, who are tortured and obliterated, raise a voice that goes beyond life and death: Never again! Aceh bek le lagee njan! Aceh never again!

In short, political reformation in Indonesia has opened the door for human rights activists and pro-democracy movements in Indonesia to create new historical narratives aside from the official one. They use the main slogan "against forgetting" to respond to the prevailing culture of impunity in Indonesia that allows perpetrators of past human rights crimes to still breathe free air. The movement against forgetting through museums and monuments eventually became an initiative to counter the government's neglect of these crimes.

Omah Munir

Another account that illustrates how museums become an arena for activism is through the ongoing construction of the Munir Human Rights Museum in Batu City, Malang, East Java. I will describe here briefly from my own point of view as member of Omah Munir Foundation’s member.

It starts with the stories on gross human rights violations in Indonesia similar to what happened to Munir Said Talib (1965-2004), a prominent Indonesian human rights lawyer who was murdered on September 7, 2004, on his way to the Netherlands for his further studies. Besides the fact that the reformation has opened the political faucet for democratization in Indonesia, Munir's death is a wake-up call for many Indonesians that the old regime legacies remain entrenched in their contemporary life. His case trials could only imprison the field operators, but key figures coming from high-ranking military and intelligence officials remained free from legal sentences. Impunity was back in power in this case.

In 2013, Suciwati contacted me while I had just completed the establishment of a police museum in Indonesia. She expressed a desire to build a museum dedicated to her husband and the struggle for human rights in Indonesia. I know Munir quite closely. He was an old colleague when I worked under his leadership at the Indonesian Legal Aid Institute. I saw Suciwati's proposal as a brilliant idea, emphasizing the importance of museums as an “engaged of protest” arena, as exemplified in the establishment of the National Museum of the American Indian in the 1980s and the civil rights movement in the United States (Kyle Message, 2013).

The question is how do we finance the plan? Museum is an expensive project with the involvement of architects, construction engineers, and historians, and it became a formidable challenge. The first solution came from Suciwati who gave up her house with the late Munir in Batu City, East Java Province, as a museum. It was a small house of no more than about 400 square meters including a yard and house buildings. Although small, it has a significant historical value and a good underpinning to start the initiative.

By mid-2013, Suciwati planned to gain wider support. The idea of building a museum that talks about Munir's life and the history of the human rights struggle in Indonesia has become viral. Young activists joined, as did artists and media celebrities, including politicians and public officials who sympathized with Munir, for example, Lukman Hakim Syaifuddin (who later became Minister of Religion) and Dahlan Iskan, owner of a media network who became Minister of State-Owned Enterprises. The development of museum eventually has provided a kind of engagement of a wider network in democratic movement in Indonesia.  

The process of building this museum has finally opened a new way of campaigning for human rights in Indonesia. People previously distant from human rights and democratization issues suddenly appeared to involve by giving their time, energy, and funds in a joint project. This seems to represent Sidney Tarrow’s idea (2011) about modular collective action which brings together various parts previously separated in a joint action among civil society. Entering the end of the year, the museum building was complete, and it was officially opened to the public under the name Omah Munir (literally Munir's House) on December 8, 2013. What was previously just a dream, has finally come true. The Omah Munir Foundation consisting of the initiators of the museum was later established for the purpose of management.

Omah Munir is a project that directly challenges the official and conservative historical narrative that has been lasting for decades. The museum provides a counter experience to the established historical narrative. As visitors arrive at the museum, they will meet the bust of Munir donated by a sculptor while the museum was under construction. Visitors are then taken to see a flow of historical narratives presenting about the birth of the human rights movement in Indonesia through the formation of YPHAM (Human Rights Care Foundation) and YLBHI not long after the birth of the New Order. The fact that YPHAM is an organization that actively defends communist political prisoners and campaigns for justice has challenged the official narrative of the army's success in crushing the communist movement.

Another story in the museum also features a female worker, Marsinah, who was killed in an interrogation process by the military for her involvement in leading a labor strike. The presentation of her story in Omah Munir is also a reminder for visitors about the achievement of Indonesia's development which must be repaid with the sweat and blood of the workers. Other stories highlight incidents of gross human rights violations in Indonesia, such as enforced disappearances and political killings as in Papua and East Timor (now an independent state). It for certain includes Munir's personal story and his life journey as a human rights defender, and the murder incident against him as well.

Since its official opening on December 8, 2013, Omah Munir has received visitors from various backgrounds and of all ages. However, university students and young students make the highest number of visitors. They see their visits as part of the human rights learning process in schools and universities. After five years, it is interesting to reflect that museum could be an effective medium for campaign activities of human rights institutions for instilling important universal human rights norms in the lives of Indonesian people.

Munir Human Rights Museum

The fact that providing alternative discourse to the conservative historical narrative by a small museum like Omah Munir was undeniably limited. In 2018, Omah Munir management board has begun to consider the importance to develop cooperation with government to enhance and develop Omah Munir’s museum into bigger human rights museum in terms of building, infrastructure, program, as well as support system. This step was quite successful by having the government's commitment to fund the construction of a museum as provided by the East Java provincial government, and land as provided by the Batu city government.

In addition, the management board elaborated a wider collaboration with other elements of civil society. There were three main activities on this regard. Firstly, cooperation with Indonesian Architects Association (AAI) to organize museum design competition to build public awareness about the importance of human rights museum. The result was an attractive design by the architect Achmad Deni Tardiyana (Apep) with an eco-friendly and sensitive to diffable. Secondly, Omah Munir Foundation was also collaborating with the Jakarta Arts Institute to hold a competition of creating artworks to be displayed at the museum. Thirdly, Omah Munir has also organized consultative meetings with environmental activists, journalists, indigenous peoples, people with disabilities, and women activists to explore the possible narrative and themes for the museum. The points from this meeting then resulted in a key issue for museum curatorial development.

The first floor is specially designed for children to recognize important values such as tolerance, freedom, and equality in public life. The second floor is for the history of human rights in Indonesia which brings content such as issues of gross human rights violations, the environment, indigenous peoples, women, and press freedom as proposed by civil society groups in Indonesia. The last floor is the stories about Munir and his initiatives such as the campaign about missing persons are on the third floor which is the last room for visitors to reflect on human rights issues in Indonesia.

Collaborative works with government undeniably raised some questions about curatorial independency, especially in the issue of human rights. Does the future human rights museum will be able to stand with impartial integrity to the thorny case of gross human rights violence in Indonesia’s history? 

Yet, some adjustment and changes did occur during this process. The first was the changing of museum name into Munir Human Rights Museum. But rather than signifying conformity to official view, it was intended to embrace a wider issue of human rights in Indonesia beyond the specific theme of human rights defender stories as represented in the previous museum. In terms of curatorial independency, thankfully the political climate in Indonesia still provides an open room to keep it. 

Worst scenario might happen in the future. But one thing is certain from this experience. Museums and historical sites have become an important arena of social activism for human rights activists and pro-democracy movements in the reformation period. Time will tell whether this is an effective method to instill the importance of human rights values in the mind of Indonesia’s younger generation.  

1. Suciwati :The founder of Omah Munir and widow of the late Munir Said Talib

1. Suciwati :The founder of Omah Munir and widow of the late Munir Said Talib

2. Inside the old museum

2. Inside the old museum

3. Completing the MOU Signing formalities, Suciwati (Munir Foundation Board) and Dewanti Rumpoko (Mayor of Batu Government, East Java),

3. Completing the MOU Signing formalities, Suciwati (Munir Foundation Board) and Dewanti Rumpoko (Mayor of Batu Government, East Java),


Adam, Asvi Warman (2004). Pelurusan Sejarah Indonesia. Yogyakarta, Penerbit Ombak. 

McGregor, Katherine (2007). History in Uniform: Military Ideology and the Construction of Indonesia’s Past. ASSA Southeast Asian Publication Series. USA, University of Hawaii Press. 

Message, Kyle (2014). Museum and Social Activism. Engaged Protest. Oxon, UK. Routledge.

Tarrow, Sidney G (2011). Power in Movement. Social Movements and Contentious Politics. New York, Cambridge University Press. 

Against Forgetting: Museums and political activism in Indonesia

Against Forgetting: Museums and political activism in Indonesia