Sun, 28 May 2000

Dita meets calling to fight for oppressed

By Emmy Fitri Hastuti

JAKARTA (JP): Dita Indah Sari, 27-year-old labor activist, shows her true concerns when she speaks at length about the hard life of laborers and their oppressed aspirations amid the current strong wave of capitalism and industrialism.

"It still has a long way to go and we must admit that our labor movement is very young. It was only last year that we were allowed to have labor unions and a labor party," Dita says.

Dita knows it well.

In July 1997 she was sentenced to five years imprisonment under the controversial 1963 Subversion Law. Her crime: organizing two massive rallies involving some 10,000 workers from 10 factories on the Tandes industrial estate in southern Surabaya, East Java, in July 1996.

The rallies, which called for an increase of the minimum wage from Rp 5,200 to Rp 7,000 per day, ended violently after the military moved in to disperse protesters.

The court said Dita was guilty of attempting to undermine the state and topple the government through her labor empowerment activities in Jakarta, Surabaya and other cities.

She was released in April last year after receiving a pardon from former president B.J. Habibie.

Being an activist in those years was a risky choice, and Dita said she had predicted the worst: arrest and imprisonment.

"It's not really a bad experience after all, except that my mother died while I was in prison and I was not allowed to attend her funeral. At the end, it strengthened me to stay here and maintain my stance," she remarked.

Coldly, she commented that, "I understand that my mother was not strong enough to face the fact that her daughter was implicated in a crime and then arrested."

Even though in the beginning her family frowned upon her being a labor activist, she said that later she gained full support from them, even at the worst time, when she was in jail.

Her father, Adjidar is a civil servant and was a member of the North Sumatra Council. Needless to say he was a Golkar cadre and did not approve his youngest daughter's activities at that time.

Dita, the fifth of six children, is the only one who is into politics. She compares herself with her sole elder sister, who "has a normal life; finished her studies, got a good job, married and bore children."

Probably, being a labor activist is her calling. She quit her studies at University of Indonesia School of Law in the early 1990s, and made up her mind to concentrate on the issue. Along with several other young people, in April 1996 she established the People's Democratic Party (PRD).

"When I was arrested and jailed. Syarwan Hamid, (former chief of Armed Forces's chief of sociopolitical affairs), issued a statement which said that parents of PRD members who are arrested are members of the banned Indonesian Communist Party (PKI)," Dita says.

"My father used to be a Golkar loyalist. He was even cadre of SOKSI (Golkar-affiliated worker's union). He got very upset when he heard Syarwan's statement, and he began to believe that there is injustice and incorrect practices in the government," she said.

Dita recalled that her first involvement in the labor movement was in discussion groups on her campus.

In addition to having lengthy discussions on political and economical issues, the group also offered a "live-in" program in which the members were trained to organize mass rallies and to give basic education.

Dita's first live-in program was to live with workers at a factory in the industrial district of Pluit in North Jakarta.

"They lived in a slum area and we saw how little they were paid and how silent they were over their wage. The laborers just did not realize that they could gather a force to represent them and voice their demands," she said.

"We taught them how to fight and at the same time we also learned from them how to voice their demands in their language," she said.

She spent her time in junior high school reading books written by Indonesia's first president, Sukarno, and when she went to university, Dita started reading and discussing Karl Marx's books and discussed his thoughts.

"We always tried to place Marx's thoughts in Indonesia's context, so it's not true that if we read Marx's books then we become pure Marxist," Dita said.

Dita is now chairwoman of the National Front for Indonesian Labor Struggle (FNPBI). It is an organization she established after she was released from jail in April 1999 and a vehicle to attain her dream, having a strong labor force.

Strong in terms that the labors are no longer in an inferior position, that they have wider perspectives and more intelligence, she said.

Laborers have not gained much benefit from the fresher political atmosphere and recent changes here and there in the administration.

"About political openness, I have to admit we have it right now, but it has not brought any improvement for laborers in terms of their welfare and political aspirations. They remain left behind and are still regarded only as a commodity or a tool for certain interests," she said.

It is a long road ahead for labor activists in Indonesia as Dita pointed out the need to reform the Laws on Labor and the need for better and genuine labor-based political parties.

After the 1999 general election, none of the four labor parties from the total of 48 political parties, extend programs to laborers, who are asked only to give their votes, she said.

On May 1, to mark International Labor Day, Dita and her colleagues staged a demonstration in Jakarta. Thousands of laborers attended the commemoration, showing how strong they would be if they were committed to fight for a better fate.

"Officially we also invited representatives of the 48 political parties, but only PRD (Democratic's People Party) attended the demonstration," Dita said.

However, the facts do not discourage Dita. Laborers should fight for themselves, not necessarily depending on political parties or any figure.

"We only help them to empower themselves, give them fuel to fight but they have to stand up for their own struggle," she said in a high spirit.

And she became more enthusiastic when she talked about her activist idol, Brazilian, Lula da Silva. In a moment, her eyes turned bright and her voice sounded very convincing as she related how Lula, a well-known labor fighter who emerged three times on the political stage, bidding herself to the country's presidential candidate.

"I think she (Lula) is a prototype of the true labor leader as she started from being a worker herself, then she lead a labor union before plunging into a real political stage," Dita remarked.