JAKARTA, Indonesia — In 2002, Reebok offered its Human Rights Award—worth $50,000—to an Indonesian woman, who seven years earlier had led a strike against one of Reebok’s suppliers. This woman declined Reebok’s offer, eschewing the irony, the money and the recognition in order to draw attention to “the low pay and exploitation of the workers of Indonesia, Mexico and Vietnam.” This woman is Dita Sari.
Sari is known throughout Indonesia as a labor activist who was unjustly imprisoned after participating in a peaceful protest against low wages in factories. The courts charged her with subversion, convicted her under the Indonesian Criminal Code’s “hate-sowing” articles and sentenced her to six years of imprisonment, later reduced to five. She was in her mid-twenties.
For two years she wore the blue dress and rubber sandals that all female Indonesian inmates must wear. She suffered through weeks of solitary confinement and contracted typhoid fever. During this time, her mother died.
The Indonesian government repeatedly offered her clemency in exchange for a forfeiture of future activism. She declined those offers as well.
For decades, Indonesia had been governed by the corrupt dictator Suharto, whom the United States supported with billions of dollars in aid. In 1998, the imprisoned Sari received, with tears of relief, the news that Suharto had stepped down. At this point, the International Trade Organization, Amnesty International and other groups enjoined the Indonesian government to free Sari. As a result, President B. J. Habibie released and pardoned her in 1999.
Looking back on her imprisonment, Sari remarked, “You know, the regime made a big mistake by putting us in jail. We are like lions, sharpening our claws. Getting ready.”
Indeed, she quickly returned to organizing workers. In 2001, she was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award, nicknamed “Asia’s Nobel prize,” for her efforts. The aforementioned Reebok incident occurred the following year. Sari had considered accepting Reebok’s award, but had ultimately decided an acceptance would send the wrong message: she certainly did not approve of the $1.5 dollar per day wages and unhealthy working conditions for laborers in Reebok’s five locations in Indonesia. Moreover, in Sari’s view, globalization as conducted by multinational companies like Reebok had only widened the gap between the wealthy and poor.
Fast forward to the present.
Since the government decentralized, Indonesia has gained a strong democracy, and Indonesians will vote for a new president soon. They must choose between Joko Widodo, a newcomer from the grassroots who is said to represent the new Indonesia, and Prabowo Subianto, a former general with strong leadership, but a problematic past. Prabowo fled the country in 1998 to avoid a court-martial for his involvement in incidents where activists for democracy were kidnapped and tortured.
Where is Dita Sari in all of this? She is working within the government’s bureaucracy as a staff member for Labour and Transmigration Minister Muhaimin (Imin) Iskandar. Regarding the change in tactics, Sari said, “Up until now I have always been outside the system…but I also thought about how I could contribute ideas more effectively. Cak Imin himself is a person who is open to new ideas…”
Sari supports Widodo in the upcoming election, as one would expect. Her Twitter account (all in Indonesian) has been tracking the election and posting links to news of Widodo’s success. She was tortured by officials like Prabowo in the 90’s, and any movement toward the elitist military dictatorship of the past can only seem like a step backward to her and a threat to workers’ rights.
– Ryan Yanke