A Nation Is Let Loose to Protest, but to What End?

In Indonesia, a mill accused of ecocide is closed but reopened after protesters waver.

On a cliffside along the steep road down to Lake Toba in Sumatra, a group of monkeys sat forlornly around of one of their kin, hit by a car only minutes earlier.

There was little they could do - monkeys cannot protest and if they could nobody would listen.

For 32 years, people here along Southeast Asia's largest lake, and all over Indonesia, were just as powerless. But all that changed with the downfall of former President Suharto in May. Dragged down with him was the authority of the police, Army, and government officials.

Within weeks of Mr. Suharto's resignation, the people of Lake Toba blocked the access road to a $600 million pulp mill on the lake shore that they claim is polluting the air and poisoning their fish ponds. By late last month Indorayon Inti Utama had lost $28 million in earnings.

Hit by an economic crisis and a drought that have no equal, people across Indonesia are venting frustration at the big businesses that flourished during Suharto's rule.

"We know that since Indorayon came here our fish die every time it rains," said Marhamin Sitorus, a farmer turned activist. "But when Suharto was still president we didn't dare speak out."

Indorayon, part of the Asia Pacific Resources International group headquartered in Singapore, insists its emissions are minimal. It blames any poisoning on the farmers' herbicides.

But for people like Mr. Sitorus the mill is the obvious culprit - there is no other factory within a 60-mile radius. The mill has never been popular, and mill managers concede they should have bought more local supplies and supported more community projects to give villagers more of a stake in the operation.

The four-month blockade of the mill has turned the people at this famous tourist spot into the country's most effective grassroots movement. They have underscored the weakness of the new government of President B.J. Habibie, which needs law and order to woo back foreign investors but has been left rudderless and divided by the sudden departure of Suharto.

The protests at Lake Toba have also been among Indonesia's most violent expressions of public frustration. When police arrested two men, activists attacked the police station and freed them. They burned company houses, warehouses, and trucks and took drivers hostage.

Protesters, in turn, accused police of ransacking their homes, beating family members, and stealing valuables.

Many of the local people pointed to their Batak ethnicity, famous for its hot temper and outspokenness, as a reason for their protest's radicalism. "We Batak are not afraid to fight, to speak our mind," says Musa Gurning, a protest leader.

Like many grass-roots movements across Indonesia, however, the protesters were inexperienced and quickly fell prey to the same elite that served Suharto.

Businessman Usman Nabit-upulu headed a protest group after Indorayon cancelled contracts with his company. But he switched sides and both locals and company workers charged Mr. Nabitupulu took a fee for his support. When he attempted to redirect his allegiance again, the protesters wouldn't have him.

Village chiefs also switched sides repeatedly. Twelve chiefs, intimidated by attacks, turned against Indorayon and offered to return money they said they were paid to support the mill.

Even Mr. Gurning, the most persistent leader of the protests, has been accused by both sides of abusing the protest for his own business interests.

Politicking has split the community, sparked violent clashes, and deepened a schism in the dominant Lutheran Church. People on both sides of the dispute claim the military and police were quick to make a profit from the protests as well, joining in some of the attacks on Indorayon before offering their services to the company for a hefty price.

Last week, they took action. Several hundred soldiers and police moved in. The mill is now up and running.

An environmental and social audit that Mr. Habibie ordered to appease the people can now go forward. "We've had so much support - from the government, the police, the military," says Dale Paterson, the mill's general manager. "The government wants to give us another chance."

The villagers are back to Square 1 - ike the monkeys up the hill, they cannot protest.

"When the soldiers moved in they dispersed anybody who gathered in groups of more than three people," says villager Opu Maujahan. "We stopped the protests because we just can't move."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to A Nation Is Let Loose to Protest, but to What End?
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today