Not many people, neither left-wing activists nor intellectual defenders of agrarian justice, will have ever heard his name, let alone met him. Mukhlis, a young peasant farmer from Rengas village, Ogan Ilir, South Sumatra, was one of twelve victims shot by police mobile brigade (Brimob) in December 2009. On that bloody Friday, he and hundreds of other villagers were defending the reoccupation of their land which had previously been seized by state-owned plantation company PTPN VII. Hot metal pierced his finger. A rubber bullet struck his forehead. The ring finger on his right hand is now shorter than it should be.
Mukhlis remembers, “On that day I was leaving to wash in preparation for Friday prayers. My mother told me “There’s no need to go and join in (defending the land occupation), you’re still young, you’ll just get shot.” Mukhlis was 23 at the time. “But it wasn’t at anyone’s invitation that I decided to join the struggle. Something inside of me was calling,” he continued, as he raised the palm of his hand towards his breast.
Since 1982, thousands of hectares in and around Rengas village, which local people had cultivated for decades and had passed from generation to generation, were taken over by PTPN VII (previously PTP. XI.XXII) to plant sugar cane for the Cinta Manis (Sweet Love) Sugar Factory. It was one of hundreds of stories of land seizures by corporations or the state during Suharto’s New Order administration. These forcible expropriations were accompanied by acts of intimidation, harassment and other violence, and a lack of transparency when it came to awarding compensation. At the time Rengas villagers were given compensation of 150,000 rupiahs per hectare or 15 rupiah per square meter. “Our parents were forced to look for farmland in other regencies. And they had to rent the land,” Mukhlis recalls.
Three years after Mukhlis and dozens of other villagers were wounded by the violence of state troops and hired thugs, it was Angga’s turn to become a martyr. On 27th July 2012, bloody Friday returned once more. This twelve year old kid became the latest sacrifice to Brimob’s guns as they swept through Limbang Jaya village, in Ogan Ilir. In Limbang Jaya. As in Rengas, villagers had long been fighting for their rights to the land seized by PTPN VII Cinta Manis. State forces have always responded to the people’s struggle with intimidation, and sometimes with gunshots.
These tragic incidents have not dampened the efforts of Mukhlis and the other villagers to keep fighting for their rights. Together with two other farmers from Rengas, Mukhlis represented his community at the second congress of the Forum for Communication between Agrarian Communities (FKMA) in the Ambarbinangun Youth Hall, Kasihan, Bantul, Yogyakarta Speial District, last 8th-10th February. I was involved as a volunteer helping with technical aspects of the organisation.
The evening that he reached the congress location, Adi, a colleague of Mukhlis from Rengas, related how enthusiastic they were about this opportunity to share experience about the crucial problems were facing, and to create bonds of solidarity between peasants from different areas under the umbrella of FKMA.
The Story Begins. 1st April 2011, Kulon Progo Shoreline Farmers’ Association was celebrating five years of struggle resisting an iron mine on the south coast. The mine would evict peasant farmers from the area, claiming that the land belongs to Pakualaman Ground (ie. the local Sultan’s palace). Visitors came to this event from the South Kebumen Farmer’s Association Forum (FPPKS) and Wot Galih villagers Solidarity Forum (Foswot) from Lumajang who were also fighting against iron mining. This convergence strengthened communication between the three communities towards the strategic agenda of their struggles, and would also begin to extend the network throughout Java.
On the 20th – 22nd December 2011 a meeting for farmers was organised in Kulon Progo. It was attended by ten grassroots communities, from Pati, Lumajang, Kebumen, Cilacap, Kulon Progo, Blitar, Banten, Tasikmalaya, Ciamis, Cilacap and Lapindo mudflow victims from Sidoarjo. Each community had experienced very similar kinds of agrarian situations where the state and corporations had threatened and/or removed people from the land that formed their living space. The founding of the FKMA would be declared in this meeting.
Before the declaration, all the different groups shared experience about each of ther local situations, discussed, mapped out the different actors and different problems which each community was facing. Some examples were treating cases as isolated conflicts, creating a discourse which favoured the company, outsiders creating divisions between the people in order to take advantage of conflict to further their own ends. Peasants were even being charged with criminal offences, in a grand plot of state officials and businessmen working together to deprive the people of their means to support themselves.
The forum has continued to develop communication and consolidate strong bonds of solidarity. The network has also been expanded both to agrarian communities and also others. As more and more agrarian conflicts continued to break out across the country, FKMA organised a second congress. Apart from representatives from the Indonesian Peasant’s Union (SPI) and Rengas Youth Front (FPR) in Ogan Ilir, other groups in attendance included PPLP Kulon Progo, Sedulur Sikep from Pati, People’s Alliance Against Evictions (ARMP) from Parangtritis, Bantul, South Blora Peasant Union and The People Accuse Movement (GERAM) from Blora; Sumedang Independent Peasant Farmers Group, Fisherfolk Forum (Fornel) and Balong Community in Union (PMB) from Jepara, People’s Movement Against Aqua Danaone Factory (GRAPAD) from Banten, Urutsewu United from Kebumen, The Voice of Lapindo Mudflow Victims/AL FAZ from Sidoarjo and Foswot from Lumajang.
The first day of the congress, Friday 8th February, was quite tough. Before the group had even finished outlining all the cases and latest developments from each community, the forum was interrupted by the arrival of more than a dozen intelligence agents from the police and military. After negotiation, the discussion was able to resume smoothly.
An important point which emerged in the Second Congress of FKMA was the question of movement autonomy. “Towards an Autonomous Grassroots Resistance” was chosen as the conference slogan. FKMA was not conceived as an umbrella organisation that would seek to standardize the movement. The diverse strategies of struggle chosen by each community should be maintained as much as possible. The only thing was, and this was something which was only agreed after two days of long discussions and sharing of thoughts and emotions, was that there was a need to regard with caution outsiders that want to help the struggle, whether they be academics, NGOs, mass organisations, student organisations or other elements of civil society. Particular attention was drawn to the political parties which frequently take advantage of grassroots movements to further their own narrow or elitist interests, especially in the run-up to the 2014 elections.
This important point didn’t just emerge out of nowhere. During the discussion, each community could share experiences of how such outside groups had taken advantage of their struggle. In wasn’t only that they had used the struggle for their own agenda, but they were also judged to have weakened the movement, because they had secretly also affiliated themselves with the movements’ enemies. In the end they only caused divisions in the movements’ solidarity.
“Therefore, does that mean that movements need to avoid networking with these outside groups, especially NGOs and academics?” was the immediate response which arose, both during the Forum’s internal discussions and also in the public discussion on the last day of the congress.
No. On one hand, it was re-emphasized that FKMA is not a movement which believes in only one single path of struggle, and on the other, FKMA does not want to be be an exclusive movement. This was the answer given to that question. It means that FKMA still needs solidarity from different elements of society that wish to strengthen the movement.
“Please show your solidarity, but don’t take over!”
Another important point was the strategy of how to confront state violence. Campaigns promoting “non-violent resistance” emerge increasingly frequently, while physical confrontations between state forces and local people in agrarian conflicts take place all the time. There was also an attempt to understand the rationale behind these campaigns, given that currently peasants often take the blame for these physical confrontations, especially in reports in the mainstream media.
If people blockade a road, this image is already considered an act of violence. But if state forces shoot the people then they are judged to be ‘maintaining stability and security’. Yet which group is actually being violent here?
Sunday Lunchtime, 10th February, after the public discussion which was led by Mukhlis from Ogan Ilir and Linggo from Sumedang, the statement of the Second FKMA congress was read out. Standing together with fourteen other people, Sumanto from PPLP Kulon Progo led the declaration.
The declaration was a summary of discussions through the three days of the congress. The main subjects which inspired the declaration were the mechanisms of repression the people face, eviction of their living space that results from the cosy relationship between the state and corporations, whether in the framework of regulations or acts of violence.
[for full text of declaration see here]
This declaration opens the way for fresh energy for agrarian struggle, a chance for the movement to take a deep breath. This is not only seen in the assertive attitude proclaimed in the statement, but also through the active involvement of Mukhlis and other young peasants in the FKMA. As Linggo mentioned in the public discussion, an autonomous agrarian movement needs peasants who are in active resistance. The feeling also emerged in the meeting that an agrarian struggle that can ‘breathe deeper’ needs the involvement of many younger peasants with a will to resist.
The congress ignited the spirit for agrarian struggles, peasants in struggle and young peasant farmers. Because agrarian struggle will not be over even supposing that the various agrarian conflicts mentioned in the statement should one day be resolved. More than just about who wins each dispute, agrarian struggle is a matter of autonomy and the how people in a society can have sovereignty over their own lives.
In a paper he wrote for the second FKMA congress, Indonesian agrarian expert Gunawan Wirandi said that peasant farmers were the foundations of civilisation. Therefore a struggle that has agrarian justice as its goal “cannot be merely a moment, not just a day or two, not just a month or two. This is a long-term struggle, and we have to be aware of that.”
After quoting Gandhi’s Seven Social Sins – politics without principle, wealth without work, commerce without morality, knowledge without character, pleasure without conscience, science without humanity and religion without sacrifice – that he believes are plaguing our lives, Gunawan Wiradi said he hoped that the second FKMA congress could fertilise togetherness, solidarity, a belief in the power of struggle, and a resilience to be always ready to make sacrifices on the long road ahead.
At dawn before the public discussion on the last day of the congress, I had the chance to chat to Mukhlis. He told me how much he would like to visit all the other places that congress participants had come from in order to see directly the problems they were facing. “Unfortunately I can’t right now. But I would really like to… Maybe another time…”
Long Live Solidarity! Long Live the Struggle!