Wed, 25 Sep 2002

RI's catcher on the sly

Tertiani ZB Simanjuntak, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

If there is anybody that has made a name for herself from a string of tragedies - from the bloody 1998 anti-Chinese riots to the very recent forced repatriation of Indonesian workers from Malaysia - it could be Sri Parlupi, a social researcher.

Her findings have sent waves of shock through the public and the government, stirring controversy surrounding the high-profile abuses.

A researcher for a non-governmental organization, the Jakarta Social Institute (ISJ), Palupi found herself at odds with defensive state officials in 1998, when she came up with her report that a large number of Chinese Indonesians fell victim to looting, rape and murder during the tragic May mayhem.

The then B.J. Habibie administration strongly rejected her findings on cases of rape, arguing that none had reported any such cases to the police.

The argument raised eyebrows because it is a public secret that the police had done nothing to stop the three-day orgy of violence that is a huge black mark in Indonesian history. Hundreds of people trapped in shopping centers were burned alive.

When confronted by the media, Palupi said that all but two of the rape victims refused to be identified in public.

Her latest investigation is the plight of the illegal Indonesian workers shipped from Malaysia to the island of Nunukan, East Kalimantan.

Her report prompted the irate Minister of Social Affairs Bachtiar Chamsyah to sue her for "deceiving the public."

Along with friends grouped in the Network of Volunteers for Humanity, she was assigned to collect and analyze data while others procured and distributed humanitarian aid.

They also helped local social workers care for the sick and provide medical service.

In her report, Palupi insisted that the government should be blamed for the poor condition leading to the deaths and ill health among the stranded workers due to the lack of facilities in the transit camp.

Not only that, she also concluded that the government's neglect had caused a host of social problems. A case in point was parents selling their children to get passports, the document needed for migrant workers to return to their jobs in palm oil or cocoa plantations in Malaysia.

She claimed that she had found three such cases, and more cases on children left stranded by their parents because the new Malaysian immigration act forbids those without work permits to enter the country.

Outraged, Chamsyah demanded that she show clear evidence to support her report. But the minister faced the music when he eventually visited Nunukan. Chamsyah insisted that the report was "invalid" because Palupi had never been to Nunukan.

She stands by her claims.

She said, "I can bring the parents who sold their children to meet the minister on three conditions: First, he has to apologize to the migrant workers for his terrorizing statement that underestimated their plight.

"Second, he has to ask for forgiveness to mothers who did sell their children because it is the government's incompetence which forced them to do so. And third, the government has to pay compensation to the migrant workers who lost property and dignity in Malaysia and after they reached Nunukan," she said, her small physique shaking with emotion.

Born in Malang, East Java, on Jan. 26, 1965, Palupi got her undergraduate degree from the Bogor Institute of Agriculture (IPB) in 1989.

Since then she has focused on research. She was in charge of a research project held by IPB's Social Forestry Study Center in Bojonegoro, Central Java and became a lecturer at the Catholic Sugiopranoto University in Semarang, Central Java.

Palupi was entrusted to chair the Women's Study Center there for three consecutive years and was elected as the secretary to the University's research center.

To become a social worker was her dream. In 1996, on the advice of her husband, an employee of a private company, Palupi joined ISJ. The institute was founded by noted rights activist and Catholic priest, Romo Sandhyawan Sumardi.

Doing the research for ISJ has been a bridge to build contact with other non-governmental organizations. Palupi has often been involved in analyzing the results of investigations done by her friends.

She wrote the investigation report on the communal conflict in Maluku and organized training for the volunteers who investigated the killing of dozens of people believed to practice black magic (dukun santet).

Now a master's degree student at the Jakarta-based Driyarkara University of Philosophy, the mother of a seven-year-old boy said she was not bothered by all the controversies.

"The public knows the truth. I just have to bring it to them."

She dreams of establishing a research center focusing on the people's economic and social rights, issues which have yet to receive the government's attention although in fact most social problems stem from the government's neglect of those rights.

And she is no longer afraid of controversy.

"It is common for the government to downplay an issue just to suit its interest. But what about the victims? Although the truth is too bitter to acknowledge, we have the obligation to reveal the truth."

Although it's hard to accept a report done by a government critic, a remark by modern physicist Niels Bohr best illustrates the situation: "The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth."