Sarah Lery Mboeik: Fighting Against State Hegemony

The woman, dressed somewhat provactively, was conversing with some East Timorese militiamen.

She was there not for a pleasure, but to speak on behalf of dozens of East Timorese children and women hopelessly cramped into massive refugee camps near the border town of Atambua, West Nusa Tenggara.

The woman, Sarah Lery Mboeik, had never thought how thankful people would be until she was given the Yap Thiam Hiem award in 1999 (see photo) for her dedication to the cause of human rights in this country.

The award is granted in conjunction with commemoration of World Human Rights Day, which falls on Dec. 10.

"After the 1999 ballot for independence in East Timor, many East Timorese men changed their mind, from initially joining the Indonesian Military, to supporting the independence of their own land," said the dark-skinned woman, known as Lery to her friends.

"Joining the guerrillas, East Timorese men hid in mountainous areas shortly after the UN announced victory for the proindependence group. Their wives and children, however, were forced to take refuge when massive destruction was visited upon the towns," she said.

In the refugee camps, the women and children were held "hostage" as they were placed in camps controlled by pro-Jakarta groups and were not allowed to go anywhere unless their husbands or fathers showed up from their hideouts.

Male activists would find it difficult to infiltrate the camps to save the women and children, and Lery found herself volunteering to help.

"I don't smoke, I don't wear short pants. But if that was the only way out, I was prepared to do it," she recalled.

She began to "traffic" children and women from the camps, while her activist colleagues waited not too far away to take the refugees to places of safety.

It was never easy, though. Some of the children cried bitterly as she tried to take them out, while Lery tried her best to make them believe that she would not harm them.

"Only after the militiamen realized that I was an activist did they try to hunt me down. I faced all kinds of terror since that time," she said, smiling.

Tough origins

Born on the small island of Rote in East Nusa Tenggara province, on Feb. 20, 1965, Lery had a tough family upbringing.

Her parents were teachers at local schools who had to support seven children, including her.

She struggled against the economic hardship by becoming a hired hand, even though she was still a high school student.

Lery, a mother of three, continued her studies at Nusa Cendana University school of agriculture from 1983 through 1988, and became a part-time worker at a local commodities warehouse for a paltry wage. At other times, she helped friends with their research, to supplement her income.

Only after leaders of a local church, Gereja Masehi Injili di Timur (GMIT), asked her to join the Alpha Omega foundation in 1988 did she begin to see that many others suffered even more than her.

Worse still, they could do little to defend themselves because they were powerless against an abusive administration.

This was during the authoritarian regime of former president Soeharto.

The New Order ruler granted his cronies the right to exploit millions of hectares of forest across Indonesia, including those supporting indigenous and tribal groups.

As a student with an agriculture background, Lery was concerned at the increase in what she called "land defilement", which occurred in her hometown as well as in southern Central Timor, Amarasi and Amfoang -- all in West Nusa Tenggara.

In the 1990s, the government established an Industrial Plantation Forest (HTI), which caused degradation and deforestation.

For Lery, HTI became a hot issue.

One particular perfidious case occurred in the early 1990s when a local authority granted rights to a 300-hectare plot of land, belonging to villagers in southern Central Timor, to timber tycoon Muhammad "Bob" Hasan, who ran plantation company PT Fendi Hutani Lestari.

Backed by the military, Bob's men instructed the villagers to relinquish their land. Those who stood against the order were detained by the local military, physically abused and intimidated.

"I staged a rally asking the military to free local leaders," she said.

Instead of listening to her demands, the military put her in a cell, only releasing her after days of interrogation.

Some military officers even branded her with the tried and true label "communist sympathizer", a traumatic way the New Order regime used to stigmatize its opponents.

That incident occurred when she was six months pregnant.

Lery later joined the Alpha-Omega foundation and was with them for about four years.

Networking overseas

Together with friends, she established the Institute of Information and Advocacy for the People (PIAR) in 1997.

PIAR is a non-governmental organization that provides legal advocacy for local people struggling with land ownership problems.

The NGO also provides assistance to the locals in defending their traditions and cultures, and in the sustainable exploitation of natural resources.

Under the PIAR banner, Lery also mediated a peaceful settlement for villagers involved in tribal conflict.

Lery has also been regularly networking with other human rights activists abroad. She has participated in international forums and been involved with comparative studies on social and environment issues in several countries, including the Philippines, Australia, Thailand and Brazil.

In cooperation with the environmental organization Yayasan Kehati, Lery once published a local paper that ran stories on the environment. She had hoped that people could get free information and share knowledge by reading it.

"I want them to have the courage to improve themselves for I may not always be there to assist them," Lery said.

Her long, extraparliamentary journey has made her realize that local people need sincere political representatives to fight for their rights against state hegemony.

Lery made her political debut when she joined the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) in 1999, but shortly afterward realized that her political stance could not be reconciled with the party's vested interests.

"I quit the party due to a difference of ideas," she said.

During the 2004 legislative elections, she contested a seat to represent Rote, Kupang city and Kupang regency, West Manggarai and Belu -- where all of her real support base existed.

Lery won more than 100,000 votes. But she failed to win a seat on the local council after another politician from a major party got more votes than her.

"I lost the race because I may not have had much money to buy the necessary number of votes. That is the political reality here: Money really does buy power, but I believe that such a situation will cease to exist someday," she said.

*Published by The Jakarta Post Wednesday, February 22, 2006