An Interview with Dita Sari

Emily Citkowski

Posted July 14, 2008

IN A SURPRISE move by the Indonesian government, jailed labor leader Dita Indah Sari was released from Tengerang prison Monday, July 5th. Dita was jailed in May of 1997 for leading a strike of 20,000 workers. She was originally sentenced to six years, reduced on appeal to five.

Dita was recently elected president of the newly formed trade union organization FNPBI (National Front for Workers Struggle Indonesia), a coalition of progressive unions. She plans to continue her work as a labor organizer. Last winter, Dita rejected the government’s offer to release her if she agreed to cease all political activity.

Since her release, Dita has been a very busy woman. She has resumed her work as a union activist as the president of the FNPBI; she has been bombarded with press conferences and interviews; and she has visited numerous friends and family, including her niece who was born while she was in prison.

We tried to go to a mall where she used to shop, but when we got there, we saw that it had been burned out in the riots in May `98. She had missed the downfall of Suharto and the chaos that ensued afterwards.

After three years in prison, the freedom to make the seemingly mundane day to day choices most of us take for granted&#8212what to eat for dinner, or what movie to see&#8212can be a heady experience. Dita admitted to me that it was really strange to wake up one day and be told, out of the blue, to pack your bags and leave the life you had been living for three years. Not that she was complaining, it was prison after all.

On July 27, Dita led a demonstration of workers from the FNPBI with students from KOMRAD and the KPUI (two of the student groups involved in the ongoing democracy movement). A dynamic speaker, as she spoke to the demonstrators about the need to increase wages, end the contract work system and abolish the dual function of the military in society (“dwifungsi”), it was hard to believe that she had been removed from the struggle for three years.

Against the Current: Why did the government agree to release you now?

Dita Sari: I was released because of international pressure. Unions, women’s organizations, and human rights organizations made campaigns, actions and petitions to Habibie to demand my release. This international solidarity, combined with campaigns by workers’ and students’ groups and political parties in Indonesia was the main reason.

ATC: Do you think the timing of your release had anything to do with the attack on the July 1 PRD (Peoples Democratic Party) demonstration?

D.S.: Yes, of course, because the attack was publicized and made the government look bad. They realized they had to do something and released me to counter the bad publicity.

ATC: What were your conditions like in prison?

D.S.: They were very bad during the seven months when I was in Melang prison. My access to visitors was restricted. All my reading material was censored, and worst of all I was very isolated from all of the other women prisoners.

Prison officials accused me of organizing a prison riot when I was in the Surababya prison. As a result they moved me to Melang and started a smear campaign against me among the other prisoners and guards. They made the other prisoners afraid of me, and made them not trust me. They made a space of hate and suspicion between the other prisoners and me.

This put me in a corner and I was not able to relate to anyone in a normal way. Even if I spoke about normal things I was still haunted by the idea that other prisoners would interpret what I said the wrong way and report it to the guards. This was mentally and psychologically very tiring.

It was better when I was moved to Tangerang. I was able to relate to the other prisoners. I became like an advisor to them. Since I’ve been released I have sent greetings to them over the phone.

ATC: What do you think about the current state of politics in Indonesia?

D.S.: A lot of people believe the elections will bring a new government which will bring more fairness and justice, and a better economic situation. That’s why everyone is so enthusiastic.

Even though we know the elections were fraudulent, a lot of people thought the elections were fair because the International presence made them think so. People have illusions and there is nothing we can do to change it until a new government is in place and we can show the people what kind of government it will be in reality.

Most people support the PDIP and are not willing to accept otherwise. It is a matter of time until we can prove to people, so they can see with their own eyes, hear with their own ears, and feel with their own bodies and recognize for themselves that the government will not bring about the changes that they need.

These elections are a door to a new Indonesia. PDIP support is a giant wave, the sea. After PDIP comes into power it will be easier to show the people the reality of the situation.

ATC: Do you think it will be easier to organize workers now, in the post-Suharto period?

D.S.: In some ways it is easier to organize now. There is more democratic space. We can set up legal unions. We can campaign and pass out leaflets.

But it is still difficult to organize at the grassroots level because the government still uses methods of intimidation, firing and blackmail to prevent workers from organizing themselves.

It looks like we have democracy but we do not. The old methods are still used at the grassroots because they do not want the workers to be politicized or organized into a powerful union.

ATC: At this time, there are eighteen registered unions. This seems like a lot. What do you think should happen?

D.S.: It goes back to the workers themselves. Workers will consider Indonesia’s political and economic system and choose. The union which can provide the best program, militancy and consistency in defending workers rights will be the union the workers choose.

So for the FNPBI, it will depend on how strong we can build our union and what kind of space the political situation will create for us.

ATC: Is the FNPBI targeting any particular industries?

D.S.: We are targeting transportation and manufacturing (textiles and garment). Transportation is important strategically because if it stops, and the workers go on strike, production in a lot of sectors will be disrupted.

The service sector is also important, but at this point we have to think strategically about the sectors where we already have influence. We have a base in manufacturing and transportation. We are still small and must use our energy and resources in the best way.

ATC: How does your organizing strategy differ from some of the bigger unions like the SBSI or the SPSIP (a split from the old government-run SPSI)?

D.S.: We see the workers’ struggle as political and economic. The two cannot be separated. The SBSI does not have a perspective to mobilize the mass of the working class. It is not their tactical priority. Their priorities are more in terms of negotiations and legal advocacy&#8212they are experts at this. But they must combine this with mobilizing the workers themselves.

ATC: Is it difficult to politicize workers?

D.S.: Yes. But we must start from the grassroots.

ATC: How will the FNPBI relate to these other unions?

D.S.: We recently had a joint meeting and formed the Union Solidarity Forum, where we can find commonalities between the struggles of the workers represented in our unions and come up with common solutions. This will be the first step in developing a close relationship between all of the unions.

From now on, the most important thing is to give the best of ourselves to the union movement instead of trying to badmouth other unions. If another union can do what we cannot do, we must learn from them.

I think we can make a confederation of unions with common goals. I have this idea of creating a “labor wing” within the political milieu so we can bargain with the regime and other political forces.

ATC: Are you talking about a labor party?

D.S.: In ten or fifteen years, maybe. But what I mean for now is a way to pull other political forces to be closer to the working class.

ATC: Would this be a forum for workers to organize themselves?

D.S.: Yes, a place for workers to take charge now and later maybe take power.

ATC: A major obstacle for organizing workers now is the presence of the military both as guards inside the factory and when they attack strikes and demonstrations. A few months ago I saw a strike attacked by the military. Workers were beaten and twenty-six organizers and workers were arrested on that day alone.

D.S.: It is not just the military but also the civilian bureaucracy, like the Department of Labor, trying to reduce workers’ involvement in union activity. This is because the military and government are in collusion with the factory owners.

If the bosses think it is necessary they can call the local police, give them a bribe and the police will send guards into the factory. But the military [the police are part of the military in Indonesia&#8212EC] does this not only for money, but they also see it as a way of maintaining order, the status quo.

ATC: You got involved in labor activism when you were a student. How and why did you get involved?

D.S.: I was an ordinary student. I came from a very middle class family. I wanted to become a lawyer. When I got to the University of Indonesia I started attending lots of forums, discussions and study groups.

I joined the Free Study Forum which was the embryo of SMID (Students in Solidarity for Democracy in Indonesia, one of the groups that formed the PRD). As students, we recognized the need to connect with workers in order to build democratic change.

The group encouraged me to spend a month living in the workers’ quarters in order to understand what their conditions are, and also to talk with them about political and economic issues in order to begin to organize them.

This was very difficult for me because I was pure middle class. It was hard to live in such noisy, polluted, dirty conditions. At first I just felt pity for them because I saw them as suffering and oppressed even if they didn’t see themselves as oppressed. But my feelings of pity changed to a more emotional bond and I saw organizing as my task.

Now I identify my project so much with myself that if I stopped I would have no idea what my life would mean or who I would be. It developed from a long process and it is a very personal thing for me, very emotional.

ATC: One of the growing movements among students in the United States is organizing support for workers struggles in the U.S. as well as abroad, especially around the issue of sweatshops. What advice or message do you have for these student labor activists?

D.S.: You will face hard work. You must adapt yourselves. A lot of students don’t want to involve themselves in labor work because they don’t think they will be able to relate to the workers. Or they think that the workers’ political consciousness is too low. But the key is patience.

When you work with the masses all you have to do is win their trust and that is all I want to do. I don’t care how other political figures see me, but I care how the masses see me.

ATC: How can we build international solidarity between Indonesian and American workers?

D.S.: Journalists can play a positive role because they can write about the situation of Indonesian workers so that American workers will know.

My release has proven the effectiveness of international solidarity. It shows how unions must stress links with other unions abroad. When I was in prison, a lot of unions made contact with me. We must continue these relationships and exercise it so that it is not only solidarity for me, but solidarity for my union.