Villagers shot, one killed in Sosa land dispute

Down to Earth No. 47, November 2000

On 25 August 2000, police shot indiscriminately into a crowd of people gathered outside the factory gates of oil palm company PT Permata Hijau Sawit (PT PHS) in Mananti village, Sosa sub-district, South Tapanuli, killing eighteen year old Febriadi Nasution. Thirty-three people were later arrested, 15 of whom are currently standing trial, charged with various criminal damage offences. This bloody incident is the result of an on-going land dispute between the people of Sosa and PT Damai Nusa Setia (PT DNS), a subsidiary of PT PHS. The following report is by a special correspondent in North Sumatra.

The brutal response to the peaceful demonstration by the people of Sosa and the ensuing arrests and charges represent a worrying trend in Indonesia, despite the current atmosphere of reform, whereby business interests, the police, local government and the judiciary act in collusion to suppress opposition to their corrupt and illegal practices. The people of Sosa sub-district have been the object of provocation and intimidation by the palm oil company and Brimob - the mobile police force notorious for its brutality. Local leaders of the North Sumatra Peasant Union (NSPU) and the Sosa Indigenous Peoples Forum (Formasa), have also been targeted. This is a thinly disguised attempt to crack down on organised assertion of local rights. The current trials of Sosa villagers also represent an equally worrying, global trend that criminalises all forms of peasant resistance.



People from a number of villages in Sosa sub-district gathered outside the factory gates of PT PHS on Friday 25 August 2000 at around 17.00, after word spread that four unknown men had attempted to kidnap Ali Sati, an inhabitant of Pasar Panyabungan village, outside the same factory gates. The kidnap attempt was witnessed by a team from Commission II of the North Sumatra Provincial Government (DPRD TkI) from Medan, who had come to investigate a number of on-going land disputes involving both state and private palm oil plantation companies in Sosa. An investigation by the NSPU suggests that PT PHS, in collusion with the local police force and the Brimob unit, used the DPRD team visit in order to provoke an incident with the people of Sosa.

According to the testimony of his wife, Ali Sati was first contacted at 07.00 that morning by PT PHS manager, Mr Kilo-Kilo, who sent a message telling him to gather local leaders at the site of state-owned plantation company PTP IV if they wanted to meet with the DPRD team in order to discuss the land dispute case. Ali Sati gathered a number of the local leaders and they set off, only to find that there was nobody there. On their return to the village, Ali Sati once again received a message telling him to go to the PT PHS factory, where he would find the DPRD team.

Ali Sati set off on his own this time, first having sent word to his colleagues to follow. At around 16.00, while he was waiting, Ali Sati went into the factory to cash in a bill for the sale of some of his farm produce. As he left the factory, four men in civilian clothing grabbed him and attempted to drag him into a vehicle parked nearby, in front of stunned members of the DPRD team who took no action to prevent the kidnap attempt. Ali Sati's colleagues however had already arrived outside the factory gates and went to his assistance, managing to drag him out of the arms of his assailants. Nevertheless, the unidentified men managed to pull off his jacket as he struggled to get free, which contained a sum of money in the region of Rp. 7 million. (The South Tapanuli Chief of Police later admitted that two of the men were his intelligence officers - see Waspada 3.9.00). Word of the kidnap attempt spread to the village and a concerned crowd from Panyabungan and the surrounding area soon gathered outside the gates of PT PHS.

Suddenly and without warning, a Brimob police unit arrived at the scene at high speed, driving straight into the crowd of people forcing them to move quickly aside. Out of both fear and anger, the crowd began to yell at the Brimob unit to get out of the way. At this point Brimob responded by shooting arbitrarily into the crowd. As a result, seven people sustained gunshot wounds, including Febriadi Nasution who later died as a direct result of his injuries. As the crowd panicked and became angry, two vehicles belonging to PT PHS were set on fire.


Cracking down on support

At around 19.00 that evening, Brimob arrested Sahrial Hasibuan, 29, in front of the PT PHS factory gates, as he was on his way home back to Pasir village. Many Pasir inhabitants came to help the people of Panyabungan once they had heard of the kidnap attempt and shooting incident, as part of a network established to support each other's struggle with the various oil palm plantation companies. Sahrial was taken into the PT PHS premises where he was interrogated and beaten. He was later taken to the South Tapanuli police HQ in Padang Sidempuan. The following day he was accompanied by the South Tapanuli chief of police, Superintendent Burhaduddin Lubis, to the police station in Pasar Ujungbatu, where a crowd of Pasir villagers had gathered. Burhanuddin told them that the Panyabungan village head (one of the founders of Formasa), Nasruddin Hasibuan, would be tracked down and arrested. Nasruddin is still in hiding. Sahrial's release was secured only after the Pasir village head was forced to sign a letter stating that the people of Pasir would not go to the aid of the people of Payabungan in the future.


Arrests, torture, intimidation

On Sunday 27 August, between 08.00 and nightfall, the Brimob unit returned to Panyabungan to look for those who had 'orchestrated the demonstration' on the previous Friday, in practice members of the NSPU and Formasa. Eye-witnesses testify that Brimob officers shot into the air as they forced their way into the houses, shops and mosque of Panyabungan, arresting 33 villagers (all men). The mother of one of those arrested described how the Brimob officers stormed into the house, firing into the ceiling as they demanded to know where her son was. He was in fact in bed suffering from a high fever, but the Brimob officers dragged him out of his bed and loaded him into one of the two trucks they confiscated from villagers. The wife of another describes how her husband was dragged out of their home and beaten as he was in the middle of prayers. Another woman explained how she had a gun held to the side of her head as Brimob officers searched her house, ripping out one of her earrings in the process.

As Brimob rampaged through the village of Panyabungan, people took flight to the surrounding forest, choosing to sleep out in the open rather than face further intimidation by Indonesia's infamous special police unit. A five-week old child died and was buried in the forest because his parents were too afraid to return home. In the weeks following the arrests, Brimob officers maintained a high profile in the area, and though most people have now returned to the village and go about their daily business, some still prefer to sleep up in the forest. Of the 33 arrested, fifteen are still in detention and have been charged with causing criminal damage, including Atar Pasaribu, one of those who sustained gunshot wounds. Those released testified that not only were they beaten upon their arrest as well as in detention, and later refused medical treatment, but at one point along the journey from Panyabungan village, the men were ordered off the trucks and forced to drink the local alcoholic drink, tuak, an anathema to the pious Muslim people of Sosa.


Weak and complicit judiciary

The trials of 15 people have already begun and are set to continue over the next few weeks. The defendants have been split into two groups - 3 who have been charged with acts of criminal damage committed on 25 August, and 12 who have been similarly charged for acts committed on 17 June of this year. This is the day on which the people of Sosa dug a trench in order to designate the land that they argue had been illegally appropriated by PT DNS. In fact, PT DNS had agreed at a public meeting that the people of Sosa could and should dig this trench in order to assist in the settlement of the dispute. It is important to note that under Indonesian law, in the event of an on-going land dispute, such cases are settled under civil rather than criminal law, yet the judge presiding over the case is allowing criminal charges against the 12 to be heard. Also, a claim against the police not only for their violation of arrest and detention procedures, but also for the treatment they meted against the detainees, was refused by the judge. This is interpreted at local level as yet another example of how officialdom conspires to protect corporate interests.


Background to the case

The Sosa are an indigenous people living in around 84 villages in the Sub-district of Sosa. Like other indigenous peoples in Indonesia they have their own adat (customary law) system. According to the Sosa adat system, ancestral land cannot be sold, though it may be leased. In May 1987, this position was supported by an instruction, issued by the district head, HA Rasyid Nasution, that Sosa adat land could not be sold (No. 591/3982). Since palm oil plantation companies, both state and private-owned, first set foot in Sosa in 1984, none of the many ensuing land disputes between the companies and the people have yet been resolved, despite strenuous and largely conciliatory efforts made by the local people.

This recent incident is not the first time that violence has been used against those asserting their rights in Sosa. In August 1998, a farmer was shot during a dispute with state-owned plantation company, PTPN IV, in the Prinarik area of Sosa sub-district. Approximately 23 people were arrested and sentenced to up to a year in prison each.

The roots of the present incident lie in the theft of 2,000 ha of adat land belonging to the people of Panyabungan, who had in fact given PT DNS permission to cultivate 2,000 ha of their land. However, PT DNS appropriated and planted 4,000 ha. Local people have been campaigning ever since for the return of their land. Since the fall of Suharto ushered in a period of more open struggle, the people of Sosa have adopted peaceful occupation and picketing as part of their strategy to reclaim this land.


Local autonomy legislation

The struggle by the people of Sosa, supported by the NSPU and Formasa, against corrupt government officials and business interests is a necessary part of people's efforts to assert their rights and reclaim their birthright. But it also has broader implications in the lead up to the full implementation of the local autonomy legislation in 2001.

Wide-ranging powers of autonomy in the hands of a small number of corrupt and avaricious local government officials spell disaster for the livelihoods of local people as well as for the environment.

For NSPU and Formasa, it is imperative that those government officials and business interests which act in collusion against the interests of the local people and the environment be exposed and removed from office. This is to avoid what would be in effect an intensification of the plunder of natural resources at local level under the autonomy legislation.


Support the People of Sosa

Please indicate your support for the people and support their demands for an open and independent investigation into the shooting incident and the killing of Febriadi Nasution, the immediate return of their land, the settlement of all land dispute cases and the immediate and unconditional release of the 15 defendants.

Send faxes to:
Governor of North Sumatra,
Tengku Rizal Nurdin
Fax: +62-61-4520111; +62-61-4511822

Head of Police for North Sumatra,
Brigadier General Sutanto
Fax: +62-61-7879372

Head of Police for South Tapanuli,
Superintendent Burhanuddin Lubis
Fax: +62-634-21007

Regent of South Tapanuli,
Mhd Salleh Harahap
Fax: +62-634-23553

Please send copies to:
NSPU Fax: +62-61-7862073