Photo by Adnan Buyung Nasution & Partners Law firm.


With the death on 23 September of Professor Dr Iur Adnan Buyung Nasution, 81, Indonesia lost one of its greatest champions of the rule of law.


Bang Buyung, as he was affectionately known, was among Indonesia’s leading lawyers and trial advocates and its foremost thinkers on law reform and human rights. He also pioneered legal aid for the poor and marginalised, and turned cause lawyering into a potent form of political activism.


Buyung devoted his life to the hope that Indonesia would one day become a true negara hukum (rule of law state). Although he died with this dream unfulfilled, he helped bring it closer to realisation than ever before in Indonesian history.


Buyung earned a Law Degree from the University of Indonesia in 1964, and studied International Law under Professor Leiser at the University of Melbourne in 1959. In 1992, he completed a PhD at Rijksuniversiteit Utrecht, Holland, the topic of his thesis being “The Aspiration for Constitutional Government in Indonesia”. This was later published in a number of languages and became a classic text on Indonesian constitutional history.


Buyung’s long career in the law saw him involved in most aspects of law and justice in Indonesia. From 1957 to 1968, he served as a prosecutor and head of public relations at the Kejaksaan, or Public Prosecutor’s Office.  From 1966 to 1968, he was also a member of the national legislature, the Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat (DPR).


After leaving both the prosecution service and the DPR, Buyung established his own law office, Adnan Buyung Nasution & Partners, and in 1970 took the historic step of founding the first legal aid and human rights office in Indonesia. This later became Lembaga Bantuan Hukum (Legal Aid Institute) or LBH, and for much of the New Order period it was a key source of political opposition. It also became a training ground for young cause lawyers, most mentored by Buyung and many now holding leadership positions of national importance.


In establishing LBH, Buyung was inspired by his studies in the Melbourne Law School, where he was introduced to local legal aid organisations, and worked as a volunteer. It was therefore a source of pride to him that he was appointed an honorary professorial fellow in that same faculty in 2010.


Under the authoritarian rule of President Soeharto, Buyung was the leading dissident lawyer in Indonesia, and was involved in many subversion trials as defence counsel, usually on a pro bono basis. He led these doomed defences to demonstrate the regime’s cynical manipulation of the legal system. This he did to great effect, often winning global attention and reminding the world of the systemic corruption and repression that underpinned the New Order.


In fact, Buyung became an influential and powerful critic of violations of human rights and rule of law by Indonesia’s military-backed government. He developed a sophisticated and highly influential critique of the New Order system, which he articulated at every opportunity. He did all this at considerable personal risk. At different times he suffered arrest, imprisonment, loss of his practicing rights and threats against his life, and was forced into exile in the Netherlands for four years. He remained undeterred by the regime’s attempts to silence him, however, and always returned to act for the poor and dispossessed.


Buyung’s outstanding contribution to human rights and access to justice in Indonesia were acknowledged internationally. He won awards for legal aid in Stockholm as early as 1976 and in London the following year. In Indonesia, however, he continued to face harassment from government and military officials wherever he went.


The ideas about democracy and constitutionalism Buyung developed during his years of opposition later made an important contribution to the Reformasi (Reform) movement that emerged after the New Order finally collapsed amid economic chaos in 1998. Buyung’s thinking and his own example of commitment to change played a part in Indonesia’s transformation from an authoritarian regime to a vibrant, multiparty democracy. His work helped form the thinking of many of the reformers who reconstructed Indonesia’s constitution over four years from 1999 to 2002. The new constitution they produced enshrined democratic principles, including, in particular, separation of powers, as Buyung had always urged.


In 2000, just a couple of years after the end of the regime he had opposed for so long, Buyung’s life-long campaign for the rule of law was finally recognised by his own country when he received the Bintang Maha Putra, one of the highest honours the republic can award.


Around this time, Buyung returned to private legal practice and was soon earning high fees in high profile cases. He was much criticised by his cause lawyer colleagues for representing notorious figures associated with the New Order, like former General Wiranto and, later, corruptors, such as Gayus Tambunan. Buyung’s reply was always that rule of law depended on unpopular defendants being able to obtain proper representation. He argued for the “taxi-rank” principle, saying that advocates should never refuse clients simply because they do not like or agree with them. Indonesian lawyers, he said, needed to be more professional.


In his last decade, when many others would be enjoying retirement, Buyung championed efforts to reform and reorganise the legal profession in his country. The result was a major new statutory scheme for regulating lawyers. This was intended to create the single independent, ethical and self-disciplining bar in Indonesia that Buyung rightly saw as one of the most important missing pieces in Indonesia’s legal system.


To Buyung’s great disappointment and frustration, this reform was quickly sabotaged by those who had every reason to fear ethical discipline, and Indonesian lawyers remain fractious, disunited and undisciplined. For him, this failure symbolised the flawed and incomplete state of rule of law in Indonesia. It concerned him deeply in his last years, despite all that had been achieved.


In 2007, Buyung retired from LBH’s board of trustees and became a member of the Presidential Advisory Council (Wantimpres). This prestigious constitutional body advises the president and during Buyung’s term it often played a role as a policy watchdog too. Buyung’s appointment to the council by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono marked his return to government after almost four decades. It was a signal statement of how much Indonesia had changed for the better since he founded LBH in 1970, a transformation Buyung helped deliver.


Indonesia has lost an exceptional lawyer, thinker and political activist.  Adnan Buyung Nasution achieved a great deal for Indonesia, against extraordinary odds, even if it was never as much as this ambitious and driven man hoped. He has left a significant legacy of reform, an example of professionalism for other lawyers, and a clear vision of what a true Indonesian negara hukum might one day be.


As he was dying, Buyung gave his last words, scrawled on a sheet of paper, to Professor Todung Mulya Lubis, once Buyung’s protégé and now another of Indonesia’s top lawyers. In it Buyung called for the defence of legal aid, and the continuation of his thinking and the struggle to help the poor and marginalised. This now stands as a challenge to the lawyers, activists and reformers who survive him.


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