As a capital city and seat of government, Jakarta attracts frequent protests, for better or for worse.
There are those who are paid with a boxed meal and a bit of cash to take part in a staged demonstration, and there are those who are really desperate. The two are often confused.
So when six villagers from the little-known Meranti Islands in Riau threatened to set themselves aflame in front of the State Palace earlier this month, they were met with suspicion and a somewhat muted response from the government.
Self-immolation as political protest was done prominently by Buddhist monks in Vietnam during the 1960s. Then there was the young Tunisian street vendor who triggered the Arab Spring when he lit himself on fire last year.
For Indonesians, none have hit closer to home than Sondang Hutagalung, a 22-year-old student activist who immolated himself near the State Palace last December.
A short note found by his girlfriend after the incident showed Sondang’s frustration with the social problems plaguing his country. Sondang “cursed” injustice, public apathy, poverty, pain and sadness, evil rulers and criminals.
“… damned [them], until I cannot feel anything anymore,” the note said.
With so many issues vying for the public’s attention, it was easy to overlook the plight of the 33,240 residents of Padang Island in Riau’s Meranti chain.
Until the villagers journeyed to Jakarta last year to protest in the capital, their dispute against the Riau government and the Riau Andalan Pulp and Paper company had mostly only been covered by the local media.
“For almost four years, we fought a good fight,” Muhammad Riduan, the leader of the protesting villagers, told the Jakarta Globe in a recent interview. “We plan to burn ourselves in front of the State Palace because our target is to have the president himself handle our case.”
Their aim is to get a 2009 Forestry Ministry decree that granted 40,000 hectares — almost half the island — in concessions to RAPP revoked.
The villagers initially tried working through diplomatic channels, Riduan said. They met with representatives from the company and the local government. None of it helped.
Last November, they stepped things up a notch. Some 84 villagers camped outside the House of Representatives for three months. Several stitched their mouths shut in a dramatic hunger strike. Still, it didn’t work.
“The government sent its representatives to do mediation and investigation for this issue, but as we had predicted earlier, that team came only for formality. They didn’t produce anything,” Riduan said.
So on July 5, he and five other villagers came again to Jakarta and said that if their demands were not met, they would set themselves on fire.
They were immediately brought to a safe house with tight security in Tebet, South Jakarta. A week later, Forestry Minister Zulkifli Hasan told reporters that his ministry would revise the island’s spatial planning.
“Land belonging to the villages and the people will be excluded from the concession area,” Zulkifli was quoted by state news agency Antara as saying. “So the borders of the community land and the company’s will be clear.”
Since then, several of the protesters have returned to their villages. Riduan, though, has stayed in Jakarta to make sure the government keeps its promise.
“What the government did to us is not fair,” he said. “We were offended many times and [the offense] only motivates us to do this sacrifice. We are tired. We don’t want to die. But we have to warn the government. We screamed and this would be our last effort.”
An unresponsive government was also what brought 44-year-old Hari Suwandi to the capital. Hari trekked on foot for 25 days from his home in Sidoarjo, East Java, to draw attention to the plight of the people from his village, Kedung Bendo, which was buried in the massive Sidoarjo mudflow in 2006.
He was followed by three women in their 60s: Suyati, Mainah and Wiwik Wahjutini. They took the train to Jakarta.
“We demand justice. We demand our rights,” Wiwik said. “Our goal is to meet the president.”
It is the women’s third such attempt.
“The first time [we came to Jakarta], he was busy with reforming his ministerial cabinet,” Wiwik said. “The second time, his son was getting married.”
The mudflow has been widely blamed on Lapindo Brantas, a gas-drilling company controlled by the Bakrie Group, and the firm was at one point ordered to pay out compensation to the affected villagers. Wiwik carried with her a six-page document that said the company still owed her and 35 other households a total of Rp 13.7 billion ($1.5 million).
Like Hari, Wiwiek and her friends wanted President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to be firm with Lapindo.
“All of us saved for years. I had to save for more than 20 years for a house that is now buried under the mud,” said Wiwik, who said that this time around she would stay in Jakarta until Friday. “We will wait and keep on demanding our rights also for the sake of our children and grandchildren.
In 2007, a presidential decree held Lapindo liable for compensation to the villagers who lost their homes to the mudflow. But two years later, the Supreme Court ruled the disaster was caused by natural forces, and the original presidential decree was revised to deem compensation the government’s responsibility.
But that didn’t end the dispute. A group called the Savior Team for Lapindo State Budget has filed a challenge with the Constitutional Court against saddling the government with making the payout, arguing that taxpayer money should not be used to cover for a private company.
From desperation to agitation
Teddy Hidayat, head of psychiatry at the Hasan Sadikin hospital in Bandung, said that violent protests were more an expression of agitation and aggression than of frustration.
“Desperation and frustration may lead to aggression, but to reach that level it depends on each individual,” Teddy said.
“The point of a demonstration is more to attract public sympathy than for people to express themselves.”
Freedom of expression is enshrined in the Constitution.
“As long as a demonstration does not inhibit the fundamental rights of others, it is acceptable,” said Haris Azhar, a prominent human rights activist.
In cases of extreme protests, he added, the citizens of society have two responsibilities. The first is to provide help however they can, and the second is to remind the protesters of the consequences.
“The ultimate responsibility to change the situation still lies in the hands of the government,” he said. “Being silent will only exacerbate the situation.”