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Land occupation, dismissals highlight 1998

Jakarta Post - December 30, 1998

Jakarta – Reoccupation of land by grassroots people and labor disputes following massive dismissals at many companies due to the monetary crisis were just two of the highlights during the year in Greater Jakarta.

As a result, the two issues were among the major components of regular complaints received by the Jakarta Legal Aid Institute and the National Commission on Human Rights this year.

Called the year of reform for this vast country, 1998 gave many people the courage to reoccupy their land which they said was seized by force by men who had been untouchable during former president Soeharto's era.

Just a few days after Soeharto announced his resignation on May 21, thousands of people – be they the real owners or not – occupied vacant land plots, including those believed to be owned by Soeharto's relatives and cronies, with hoes, ropes and sticks on their hands.

With these tools they then staked out their lots by making rough fences and planting crops, such as bananas and cassava. Some of them spent their nights at the sites to safeguard their property.

In many cases in Greater Jakarta, the "new" inhabitants claimed to be the real land owners or at least farmers who had for years cultivated the land until they were evicted in previous years. They showed no fear when taking over the sites, leaving the stunned local security authorities nervous.

It seems that their dread disappeared with the resignation of Soeharto, who they thought directly or indirectly involved in the land appropriation. These people thought that once their "enemies" who used to threaten their lives and suppress their courage to defend their rights had lost their power, the police, soldiers and other government apparatus would no longer have the backbone to stop them as happened in the past. But their assumptions were often naive. Military and police officers were still dispatched to the disputed land.


Soeharto's 751-hectare Tapos cattle ranch in the hills of Ciawi in Bogor regency, 70 kilometers south of here, is a excellent example. People from nearby villages who had attempted to reoccupy the land since early June frequently clashed with the ranch employees, who received strong backup from local soldiers and police.

According to the people, part of the vast ranch was theirs until it was expropriated in 1971 by the former president while he was in office. Soeharto then converted the site into a cattle breeding ranch and, sometimes, an open space for meeting his guests, who included visiting foreign leaders.

Officially, the ranch is managed by PT Rejo Sari Bumi with Soeharto's children listed as the shareholders. After several conflicts, the ranch management – upon seeing the eagerness and boldness of the farmers – finally in September allowed the people to cultivate one-tenth of the site. But this seemingly wise move did not last long.

Under a strong escort of police and soldiers, the ranch employees destroyed the crops and injured some of the people. Since then, clashes have become an endless spectacle at the site.

Not far from the Tapos ranch, hundreds of Cimacan farmers in the mountainous Cibodas area flocked in ecstasy to the Cibodas golf club on the night of July 20, digging up the land and planting crops on the site.

The startling invasion made the golf course's employees and security guards flee in panic. The farmers claimed the 33-hectare site, now home to a golf club belonging to private firm PT Bandung Asri Mulya, as their own.

The occupation by the farmers only lasted for a few days after which police officers managed to disperse them. At least five farmers were injured in the clash.

In Bogor, hundreds of farmers and land owners were also involved in a dispute over a 257-hectare plot in Rancamaya village which had already become home to a luxurious housing complex with a golf course.

In stressing their demands, the people – who claimed that the site was theirs – staged many protests at the Bogor council and mayoralty offices. They also threatened to forcibly enter the housing complex, which was developed by PT Suryamas Duta Makmur in 1992. The farmers claimed they had never received any compensation when their land was appropriated by the company.


In Jakarta, hundreds of people from far away places in late May rushed in groups with hoes in their hands to a 120-hectare property in Cengkareng, West Jakarta. They mistakenly thought the site belonged to Soeharto.

In the following month, another group of unidentified people invaded a plot of land on Jl. M.T. Haryono, East Jakarta, which they believed belonged to Soeharto's youngest son, Hutomo "Tommy" Mandala Putra. Similar to the Cengkareng case, the group left the land empty-handed.

In South Jakarta, land owners' heirs demanded "appropriate" compensation for some 12 hectares of land on the 67-hectare Matoa National Golf Course and Country Club. The club is managed by PT Sarana Graha Adhi Santosa, a company controlled by former Soeharto golfing buddy Mohamad "Bob" Hasan. The farmers also threatened to take over the site unless the company fulfilled their request.

The growing number of land disputes led the victims to set up a union for evicted people on July 21 at the Jakarta Legal Aid Institute. The union members pledged to regain their thousands of hectares of land located in 46 spots in Jakarta and surrounding areas in a bid to face up to the bitter realities of life during this time of hardship.

The dreadful economic situation alone has already left tens of thousands of people jobless as companies, from big to small enterprises, could no longer deal with the bad climate. But it did not stop there. Disputes arose between the jobless and their former employers over severance payments.

The ex-workers desperately needed the money because the rank of unemployed was swelling and new jobs were hard to find, while the employers insisted that the current crisis had left them unable to meet such demands. The disputes often ended with workers rallies. Dissatisfied, some of them have sought legal advice.

The Jakarta Legal Aid Institute alone has been busy this year with complaints over such issues lodged by some 10,000 dismissed workers. Mass dismissals due to the severe impact of the economic crisis have not affected casual workers only.

In May, at least 1,800 employees of private airline Sempati Air, controlled by Tommy Soeharto, were also dismissed. The management gave them severance payments but employees argued that the amount was below the sum stipulated in the manpower regulations. They then joined hands staging rallies to protest their former employer. The airline then ceased its business operation.

Since then, hundreds of dismissed employees from the airline industry, including Mandala and Bouraq airlines, also staged rallies demanding severance payments.

In August, the dismissed airline employees, including pilots and flight attendants, set up a union, aiming to struggle for their demands and to help members find new jobs.

Massive dismissals also occurred in the country's banking industry after the government liquidated 16 banks in November last year and suspended 10 other banks in April and August this year.

The dismissed workers, including hundreds of employees of Bob Hasan's Bank Umum National, strongly insisted their ex-employers pay their severance money according to the regulations.

But serious clashes were often recorded between security officers and casual workers during massive protests at the compounds of factories. Some 2,000 protesting workers of steel processing firm PT Gunung in Bekasi, for instance, clashed with military officers at the firm's compound on June 30. At least 23 workers suffered rubber-bullet wounds.

Violent incidents often marked the struggles of the people – both land owners and dismissed workers – to win their rights. But some of them continue their struggle through the legal process.

Tapos farmers, for example, plan to sue former president Soeharto for illegal land appropriation. But it is still, perhaps, a long journey for them before their dreams come true because their legal rights have not yet been met.

The country's economic and political uncertainties further impede their attempts to struggle for their rights or to find new jobs or good business opportunities. So, 1999 might turn out to be another gloomy year.