Deported from Indonesia — for photography

November 6, 1991

By Michael Tardif

I was expelled from Indonesia on October 29, more than a day after being arrested while photographing a student demonstration in Bogor.

The demonstration had been called against companies in the area that refuse to pay their workers the legal minimum wage. About 200 students marched from Bogor Plaza to a local government centre carrying banners and chanting slogans.

I tried to follow the students into the grounds of the building but was blocked by police, who tried to take my camera. The students then surrounded me and escorted me into the grounds.

We were surrounded in turn by police and military, who confiscated my passport. The students started chanting "Visit Indonesia year! Where is democracy? Return the passport!"

The nervous police did return my passport, but immigration officials then took it from me a second time. A delegation of five students decided to accompany me in talking with the officials, but the military separated us and I was interrogated for four hours before being put in a car and taken to Jakarta. There I was held for a day before being put on a plane to Sydney.

The fact that the government deported me for simply taking photographs of a relatively small student demonstration is a sign of the regime's nervousness. It's nervous because it's sitting on a potential social time bomb, and the students have started the clock ticking.

The Suharto government is beset by financial crisis, having to service a US$64 billion foreign debt. It is desperate to attract foreign capital, especially to manufacturing industry. The incentives it offers are access to extremely cheap labour and resources.

Workers in the Tanggerang district reported that the legal minimum wage is Rp2100 (A$1.40), an amount they are still fighting the companies to have met. The more organised they have become, the more repressive has been the government's response.

"Now we're in a position where all our communities and all our workplaces are infiltrated by the military and their spies", said one worker. "We can't organise openly to defend ourselves. We can't even talk openly in our communities without the risk of being labelled a troublemaker and loosing our jobs or worse."

The influx of foreign capital has created a new layer of migrant workers in the cities. They form a huge labour market. Unemployment levels are high, reaching 60% in some regions. The government, in alliance with the companies, uses this pressure to force wages down even further.

In Jakarta, one can't help but be struck by the levels of poverty. Street traders, the distribution network for manufactures on the domestic market, crowd the roads trying to sell their assortments, on the footpath. Many of them are children as young as five or six. They can't get sick because to stop working also means to stop eating, but sickness is a permanent reality under such conditions.

Those from the informal sector, people without legal identification and thus unrecognised by the government, crowd into slums around the rivers. There is no clean water, so they must bathe and drink from the foul-smelling black canals that twist through Jakarta's urban districts. The children are covered in skin diseases and have continual intestinal complaints, often dying from them. Ironically, 500 metres from one of the slums I visited was an international standard private hospital.

These conditions breed crime. Someone with nothing and no access to anything has little choice but to resort to petty theft for survival.

The regime manipulates the situation to intensify the state of fear that the population already lives under. It is common for petty criminals to go missing, later to turn up face down in a river. A student I spoke to who has been documenting the phenomenon said that since the middle of the '80s these disappearances have increased from 20 a year to 20 a month.

Social conflict doesn't stop at the edges of the city. Over the last four years the main sector offering opposition to government policies has been the rural farming communities in conjunction with the students.

Typically, conflicts in the rural areas are between large capital and the communities. As the regime encourages exports, it has often granted large land concessions for plantation industries, but with no regard for the welfare of traditional farmers.

In Badega, south-east of Bandung, local communities were forced to move from their land when it was granted to a tea export company. In Cilacap, central Java, 1000 families were removed and their houses destroyed by the state oil company Pertamina. In Kedung Ombo, a total of 400,000 people lost their land and homes to the waters of a World Bank-financed mega-dam project.

The regime's reaction to protest over these issues is harsh. Just prior to my departure, there were reports from foreign sources that the military had shot dead five peasants in Bekasi protesting about the government's seizure of their land. The government planned the land to be used for the construction of a golf course — no doubt to entertain unwitting tourists in "Visit Indonesia Year".

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