Indonesia Can't Silence Independent Labor Group

COURAGE is ''not the absence of fear but the triumph over it.'' So writes Nelson Mandela in his powerful autobiography, ''Long Walk to Freedom.'' He and many other men and women around the world have dared to risk everything in struggles against repressive societies. Some of those courageous leaders are well known: Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma (also known as Myanmar), Lech Walesa in Poland, Andrei Sakharov in the Soviet Union, and Wei Jingsheng in China.

But many are not so well known.

One is an idealistic Indonesian labor lawyer, Muchtar Pakpahan, who dared to found and lead an independent organization of workers, the Indonesian Welfare Labor Union, or SBSI by its Indonesian acronym. Against all odds, Mr. Pakpahan and his colleagues have rallied some 300,000 workers to the SBSI banner since its founding in 1992. That did not sit well with the military regime in Jakarta. The government has its own organization for the industrial labor force, the All-Indonesia Workers Union, whose subservience is enforced by active and retired military officers. For defying that government monopoly, Pakpahan is now serving a four-year prison term.

In its attempt to cow Pakpahan, a man of deep democratic convictions who once chaired the Indonesian Christian Students Movement in Medan, the government has used many tactics. Police shut down a national SBSI congress in mid-1993 minutes after Pakpahan opened it. They have repeatedly detained him and his colleagues. Once they interrogated him for 19 hours. At times, they sought to tempt him with a senior post in the government union and opportunities to study abroad. Even his wife and children have not been spared from harassment.

Some rank-and-file worker activists have met even worse fates. Two years ago, a 23-year-old worker named Marsinah, a member of the government union, was murdered after she led an unauthorized protest to get her East Java factory to pay the legal minimum wage of $1.08 a day. In 1994 two other young workers died in Sumatra after joining in demands for improvements in working conditions.

Others disappeared without a trace. News about these tragedies -- especially the admissions in court that Marsinah died after being raped and tortured while in detention -- stirred strong feelings among workers, especially in Medan, Sumatra's most industrialized city.

In the spring of 1994 thousands of workers in Medan and the surrounding area, mostly from factories engaged in export production, went on strike for increases in wages, which averaged under $2 a day. They also held a series of demonstrations, which, though peaceful and orderly at the start, escalated into riots after police intervened and arrested protesters. Local SBSI leaders in Medan blamed outside provocateurs for fomenting ethnic passions that resulted in the destruction of Chinese-owned commercial property and the death of a Chinese factory owner. The government, however, blamed the SBSI, and most of all Muchtar Pakpahan, though he was hundreds of miles away from Medan at the time.

The government's indictment reads like a history of Pakpahan's union activities. When a judge found him guilty in November and sent him to prison for three years (later extended to four after he appealed), the US Embassy in Jakarta called the sentence ''unwarranted,'' and added: ''We believe that he should not be held accountable for unintended violence in connection with protests over legitimate labor demands.'' Sidney Jones, executive director of Human Rights Watch/Asia, denounced Pakpahan's jailing as ''clearly designed to kill the free labor movement.''

Unions throughout the world are campaigning for Jakarta to release Pakpahan as well as any other SBSI leaders (now numbering six) locked up for union activity.

While still harassed by police, worker activists not in jail are keeping the SBSI's hopes alive. Among other things, they are circulating thousands of poster-sized calendars with a drawing of their imprisoned leader sending this message: ''For you the workers, I am willingly in jail.''

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