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Written byLinAcacio-Flores
Illustratedby JomikeTejido

Dita Indah Sari

 Under the dictator Suharto and his New Order, politics in Indonesia was a matter for the rulers, not for common folk and workers. The basic freedoms of speech and assembly were luxuries the young nation could not afford, the government said; for economic development there must be order. The ideal citizen deferred respectfully to the state. Meekness was a national virtue. DITA INDAH SARI did not fit in.
Born in 1972, DITA SARI grew up in Medan and Jakarta. In 1991, she entered law school at the University of Indonesia. There she met politicized students affiliated with the underground democracy movement. They introduced her to the realities of life for Indonesia’s working poor, especially those who labored in the country’s burgeoning manufacturing sector. Low wages and pliant workers were keys to attracting foreign investment. Independent labor unions were prohibited and the government freely employed the army and police to keep restless laborers in check. Living with workers in an industrial slum, DITA learned firsthand just how difficult life could be on the country’s paltry minimum wage, or the even smaller sums many workers were actually paid. She abandoned law school and became an underground labor organizer.
It was a period of great ferment. All across the Indonesian industrial belt, workers were breaking out in spontaneous strikes for better pay and working conditions. There were more than one thousand such strikes in 1994 alone. With her allies in the Indonesian Center for Labor Struggle (PPBI), DITA now led strikes and demonstrations herself and helped frustrated workers translate their grievances into politically meaningful action. In 1996 she joined in founding the People’s Democratic Union (later the People’s Democratic Party, PRD), dedicated to a progressive, democratic alternative for Indonesia.
All of this was illegal and dangerous. Time and again, DITA was detained and beaten. After leading a massive labor action in Surabaya in July 1996, she was arrested on charges of subversion and sentenced to five years in prison. “The regime made a big mistake by putting us in jail,” she says, speaking of herself and other activists. “We were like lions, sharpening our claws. Getting ready.”
By the time DITA was released in 1999, Suharto and the New Order had been swept away. Political parties now proliferated in Indonesia’s new democratic space. So did labor unions. Today, there are thirty-two of them. DITA’s Indonesian National Front for Labor Struggle (FNPBI) represents workers in the health, textile, transport, metal, and wood industries. As she seeks common ground with other union leaders, Dita is also building alliances with workers at the grassroots and recruiting a new generation of organizers—conspicuously among women, who constitute 40 percent of Indonesia’s labor force.
As FNPBI’s leader, DITA’s approach is militant but nonviolent. She is practical. Strikes often hurt workers, she knows, so compromise is better. But in her experience, many powerful people in Indonesia today remain hostile to labor unions. The armed forces still intrude in labor disputes. Sometimes, therefore, she insists, “We have no other choice but to fight.”
Carrying her cause to Parliament, DITA lobbies for reforms in Indonesia’s labor laws and for the removal of army and police from the factory floor. Amid her country’s current economic and political crisis, she fears that workers will be left behind. Yet, Indonesia is a democracy now. And for workers, DITA believes, democracy—much more democracy—is what is needed. The realm of politics belongs to every citizen, she says, but Indonesia’s workers “are not yet awake politically.” Twenty-eight-year-old Dita hopes to awaken them. And, just possibly, to lead them.
In electing DITA INDAH SARI to receive the 2001 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Emergent Leadership, the board of trustees recognizes her resolute activism on behalf of working people and their place in Indonesia’s evolving democracy.