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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

Defender of the Poor

A small-town lawyer takes on big-city interests

By Sangwon Suh and Eliot Cohen / Mataram


BEFORE DAWN ON MARCH 5 last year, some 600 government soldiers and police descended on the village of Rowok in southern Lombok, a small Indonesian island east of Bali. Outnumbering the villagers, the troops proceeded to burn down houses and destroy crops. At least 19 residents were injured. "It was a robbery," says an elderly villager. The raid left 400 squatters with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

What had Rowok residents done to deserve this treatment? They were in the way. The powers that be in Jakarta had designated Rowok a Tourist Development Area. A beach resort was to be built on the site of the village, and its inhabitants therefore had to be evicted. Forcibly pushing out poor occupants of prime real estate is nothing new in Indonesia of course, and the Rowok villagers might have been just one more addition to the country's statistic of displaced people -- but for the championing of their cause by an attorney named Gusti Putu Ekadana.

"Pak Eka," as the gutsy lawyer is known throughout the island, has found his calling defending the land rights and traditions of Lombok residents. In recent years, the white-sand beaches, coral reefs and green hills of southern Lombok have attracted the attention of developers, but Ekadana has proved to be a major obstacle to government plans to bring upscale tourism to this "Bali before."

Ekadana took the case of the Rowok villagers to regional and national officials, to the courts, to the press and to the streets -- as he has done for half a dozen other groups. For more than four months, Ekadana's driveway and office in Mataram, Lombok's capital, became home for 150 villagers with nowhere else to go after the eviction. "The government did it because these people are poor -- poor of power, poor of information, poor of possessions," charges Ekadana. He stresses, though, that it is not "the government we are against but people who use their positions to obtain privileges."

The 37-year-old father of three began his lifelong campaign for social justice as a teenage gangster -- "It was my way of fighting back against the gap between the haves and have-nots," he says. With a law degree from Mataram University, Ekadana goes after local and national big fish: children of top politicians, Jakarta business kingpins, administrators and the military. Surprisingly, his clients sometimes win.

In the Rowok case, they are up against Jakarta arms merchant Franky Lasmana, a top supplier to the military, and Andri Setiawan, a son of the governor of West Nusa Tenggara province (of which Lombok is a part). Both are owners of the company that was awarded building rights at Rowok. On the opposite side are some 150 families who settled in Rowok three decades ago and have since been trying -- so far without success -- to gain title to the land through official Indonesian channels. In 1990, Jakarta offered the villagers 3 million rupiah ($1,250) per hectare -- about one-tenth its market value -- as compensation. The residents balked. "We don't want money," says one elderly villager. "We want to be left alone."

That is probably not going to happen. While Ekadana's agitations have led the World Bank to freeze its planned loans for Lombok's development program, his opponents have not been slow in fighting back. Late last year, they succeeded in having Ekadana's license to practice law suspended on a technicality. The lawyer has received death threats and no longer travels alone. He also claims he was offered a 20 million rupiah (about $8,300) bribe to get off the Rowok case.

His enemies also regularly slander his religious background (his father is a Hindu Balinese), asking why Muslim villagers are letting a Hindu represent them. "Regular people don't care what you are if you want to help them," rebuts Ekadana. Despite being the target of such slurs, Ekadana is not without his own prejudices and displays a ready willingness to scapegoat Chinese. "Chinese people give the government money and get privileges," he claims.

As the case winds its way tortuously through Indonesia's legal system, the villagers are back in Rowok, harvesting corn and cassava, raising chickens and children, and rebuilding their homes and their lives. They accept Ekadana's assurances that the army will not return for the time being. In any case, as an elderly villager says, "we have nowhere else to go." But to turn to Gusti Putu Ekadana.


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