- While studying law at the University of Indonesia, Dita Indah Sari met politicized students affiliated with the underground democracy movement who introduced her to the realities of life for Indonesia’s working poor. She abandoned law school and became an underground labor organizer, leading strikes and demonstrations and helping frustrated workers translate their grievances into politically meaningful action.
- In 1996 she co-founded the People’s Democratic Union (later the People’s Democratic Party, PRD), dedicated to a progressive, democratic alternative for Indonesia. Dita Indah Sari was arrested on charges of subversion and sentenced to five years in prison after a massive labor action in Surabaya and released in 1999, when Suharto and the New Order had been swept away.
- Today, DITA’s Indonesian National Front for Labor Struggle represents workers in the health, textile, transport, metal, and wood industries. DITA’s approach is militant but nonviolent; she lobbies Parliament for reforms in Indonesia’s labor laws and for the removal of army and police from the factory floor.
- The RMAF board of trustees recognizes “her resolute activism on behalf of working people and their place in Indonesia’s evolving democracy.”
Under the dictator Suharto and his New Order, politics in Indonesia was a matter for the rulers, not for common folk and workers. The basic freedoms of speech and assembly were luxuries the young nation could not afford, the government said; for economic development there must be order. The ideal citizen deferred respectfully to the state. Meekness was a national virtue. DITA INDAH SARI did not fit in.
Born in 1972, DITA SARI grew up in Medan and Jakarta. In 1991, she entered law school at the University of Indonesia. There she met politicized students affiliated with the underground democracy movement. They introduced her to the realities of life for Indonesia’s working poor, especially those who labored in the country’s burgeoning manufacturing sector. Low wages and pliant workers were keys to attracting foreign investment. Independent labor unions were prohibited and the government freely employed the army and police to keep restless laborers in check. Living with workers in an industrial slum, DITA learned firsthand just how difficult life could be on the country’s paltry minimum wage, or the even smaller sums many workers were actually paid. She abandoned law school and became an underground labor organizer.
It was a period of great ferment. All across the Indonesian industrial belt, workers were breaking out in spontaneous strikes for better pay and working conditions. There were more than one thousand such strikes in 1994 alone. With her allies in the Indonesian Center for Labor Struggle (PPBI), DITA now led strikes and demonstrations herself and helped frustrated workers translate their grievances into politically meaningful action. In 1996 she joined in founding the People’s Democratic Union (later the People’s Democratic Party, PRD), dedicated to a progressive, democratic alternative for Indonesia.
All of this was illegal and dangerous. Time and again, DITA was detained and beaten. After leading a massive labor action in Surabaya in July 1996, she was arrested on charges of subversion and sentenced to five years in prison. “The regime made a big mistake by putting us in jail,” she says, speaking of herself and other activists. “We were like lions, sharpening our claws. Getting ready.”
By the time DITA was released in 1999, Suharto and the New Order had been swept away. Political parties now proliferated in Indonesia’s new democratic space. So did labor unions. Today, there are thirty-two of them. DITA’s Indonesian National Front for Labor Struggle (FNPBI) represents workers in the health, textile, transport, metal, and wood industries. As she seeks common ground with other union leaders, Dita is also building alliances with workers at the grassroots and recruiting a new generation of organizers—conspicuously among women, who constitute 40 percent of Indonesia’s labor force.
As FNPBI’s leader, DITA’s approach is militant but nonviolent. She is practical. Strikes often hurt workers, she knows, so compromise is better. But in her experience, many powerful people in Indonesia today remain hostile to labor unions. The armed forces still intrude in labor disputes. Sometimes, therefore, she insists, “We have no other choice but to fight.”
Carrying her cause to Parliament, DITA lobbies for reforms in Indonesia’s labor laws and for the removal of army and police from the factory floor. Amid her country’s current economic and political crisis, she fears that workers will be left behind. Yet, Indonesia is a democracy now. And for workers, DITA believes, democracy—much more democracy—is what is needed. The realm of politics belongs to every citizen, she says, but Indonesia’s workers “are not yet awake politically.” Twenty-eight-year-old Dita hopes to awaken them. And, just possibly, to lead them.
In electing DITA INDAH SARI to receive the 2001 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Emergent Leadership, the board of trustees recognizes her resolute activism on behalf of working people and their place in Indonesia’s evolving democracy.
Your Excellency Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, President of the Philippines, Trustees of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, Your Excellencies, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen:
First, I would like to thank the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation which has given me this award. Since this tradition began, I am the seventeenth person from Indonesia who has accepted this award.
All the democratic and labor movements in Indonesia are happy too, because I dedicate this award to them with hopes for building the new way to break militarism, and defining the way for economic and political problem-solving for people in third world countries.
This is a very prestigious award. I consider it not an award for myself but for generating international attention toward the role of labor and the democratic movement in creating change in Indonesia. This is not apart from every other obstacle I’ve been through. From living with laborers in rural areas, friends in the democratic struggle, and prisoners for three years, these things taught me a lot.
Ironically, even if there was attention from the international community the labor movement does not have a proper place in Indonesia. Coinciding with democratic demand, democratic space started to open but it has not changed society’s point of view towards the working class. People consider the labor movement as a frightened, uneducated movement which only produces social unrest.
This unrest is directed towards the conditions of workers which get worse day by day, exploited by international capitalism. International capitalists only give profits to multinational companies, with government support.
Economic pressures and political changes have motivated the labor movement to move forward step by step. In the beginning people do not recognize alternative organizations but now they do. This condition convinces us that struggle is the right choice.
Honorable audience, choosing Emergent Leadership for a new category is a proper thing. The youth holds the future in their hands. The essence of this category is to remind young people that they have a responsibility to liberate the people from poverty and injustice. Leadership is a process of maturity and should enable people to understand social problems in society.
Political process in Indonesia in the last decade has created young leaders who have very good spirit and integrity. But they have not accepted opportunities to involve people in decision making. Until today, traditional leadership based on culture, religion and family background is still the dominant leadership in Asian countries. We know that it has weaknesses. But in the democratic movement against multinational corporations and international finance agencies, we have seen it has resulted to new blood for continuing the democratic struggle all over the world. That is the youth; this will be the blood for a new generation, and a new civilization without exploitation. For these reasons, we have to build it hand in hand.
Emergent Leadership is relevant and brilliant; this is a way for the Magsaysay Award to bridge the sunset of traditional politics to the rising sun of the new leaders, and honor leaders of the future. The Magsaysay Award dares to challenge the old pattern of Asian leadership.
I myself have high hopes on this Magsaysay Award to us. I wish this award will motivate the youth to be leaders of the future, and we will see prosperity, justice, and new democratic order based on people’s participation. For all of us here, we have to give more opportunities for them to evaluate their work, create new approaches for democratic movements, based on prosperity and justice for all. This is the greatest accomplishment I can contribute to democratic movement and social freedom.
In a country where the first of May, International Labor Day, is not a holiday, where independent trade unions are illegal, and where women are expected simply to be good wives and mothers, Dita Indah Sari could be described as a misfit.
Defying the Indonesian establishment and her own family, she left school, organized trade unions, and led public protests. She took her country and its government to task for decades of exploitation and abuse of workers and women. For that crusade she paid a heavy price; she was harassed, beaten, and jailed. Today, as a free woman, she continues to court danger as an outspoken labor leader in a country that, despite new freedoms, remains hostile to those who challenge the entrenched system.
Nothing in Dita’s background would suggest that she would one day become an outspoken activist. A New Order baby, she was born in Medan, Sumatra, on December 20, 1972, five years after General Suharto seized power from Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno.
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