First-hand reports are now emerging about the extraordinary events in Jakarta last Friday, during the 2nd Congress of the SBSI, the Indonesian Prosperity Trade Union. It illustrates the extent to which the Indonesian government will go to interfere with workers' rights and freedom of association.
The SBSI is the unofficial and independent union confederation in Indonesia. The union now had 99 chapters throughout the country and 12 sectoral organisations. Its leader, Muchtar Pakpahan, has been in prison since last August, on charges of "treason".
The SBSI Congress was scheduled for September 19 - 21. On Friday, September 19, the SBSI Congress ended around 15:00 Jakarta time. The congress was held at the SBSI office, because the authorities cancelled their hotel reservation at the last moment on the pretext that this was an "illegal gathering".
The organizers and the international guests were awaiting transportation back to their hotels. As they waited, some 100 police moved on the union's headquarters and arrested seven leaders of the union, as well as two Australians and two Dutch journalists. Those arrested included Greg Sword, Asia-Pacific Regional President of the International Union of Food f Allied Workers(IUF) and Ma Wei Pin, IUF Regional Secretary.
When the international observers heard about the arrests, they met and decided to challenge this arbitrary action. They asked Brother Hassan Yussuff, representing the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), to provide leadership. The international delegation went to the police station, and asked to see those detained, to determine if they had been ill-treated. The police refused. The international delegation persisted. They demanded to speak to the police commander, who by this time had gone home. Finally, the officials agreed to call the commander. He eventually agreed to let them see the prisoners.
The police on duty were dumfounded by this development, to the point of asking the international observers to confirm what they had just been told by their commander! Clearly, no one had challenged their authority in this way.
When they entered the holding area, they could only see the two Australian unionists. They learned that they had not received food, and insisted that they be released. They then asked to see the Indonesian prisoners, and were told they were being held at another station.
The Indonesian authorities agreed to release the two Australians, at approximatley 01:00 in the morning. But not before an official of the Australian Embassy intervened to try and stop their release. Incredibly, the Australian government official had been sitting there the whole time, and played no role in seeking the release of the two Australian nationals!
The Australians returned to their hotel, to eat, clean up, and then returned to the Jakarta prison, where they were subsequently released the next day.
The next morning, part of the group of international observers went to the other prison. By then, the authorities were expecting them! Again, they insisted that the Indonesian prisoners be released. Ultimately, around 18:00 on Saturday, all the Indonesians were released.
It is not known whether the SBSI leaders still face charges under Indonesian law. If anyone who has information or updates on this, please post it as soon as possible to APEC-L.
This incident shows the positive role international observers can play in the exercise of fundamental labour and human rights. When APEC leaders meet in Vancouver this November, the repression of independent unions in Indonesia should be at the top of their agenda.
Tony P Wohlfarth
Canadian Auto Workers' Research Department