TRUE STORY PIECE: The Sawangan Incident, 2001 by Max Lane

I never liked sitting in the room at seminars and conferences where I was the organiser. I had organised some very big conferences, with speakers who were not just boring academics, but national liberation leaders from East Timor, communist radicals from India, trade union militants from the United States, men and women who had been in and out of jail and torture houses in Indonesia, poets and dramatists. But even so, I still hated being inside listening. Nervous tension. Would things go wrong – but then if I was sitting outside I had to be nearby in case something did go wrong.

So it was in Sawangan, West Java, Indonesia in 2001. I was not an organiser actually, but had been helping out. I shared the stress.

One drop and then two drops of sweat splashed on the table top, and I wiped them away and then my forehead. It was hot, even shaded under the traditional shaped roof of the outdoor eating area next to the seminar room. There were only three of us there. The rest were inside in the seminar room, listening to speakers on neo-liberalism in the Asia Pacific. About 150 people, including thirty or so foreigners from 13 countries. I could hear the voice of the speakers, but not their words. Sounds. I had been chatting with the two Indonesian participants outside who were also seminar avoiders. One was a lawyer who was there just in case. He was from the famous Legal Aid Foundation of Jakarta. The discussion paused.


This is a bit of a sleaze joint, I thought. A “resort” of thirty or so cabins strewn out over roughly maintained lawns. The sheets were clean enough but worn thin, even more so the towels. The lounge bar was hardly that. Half of something only a bit more than a shed, with deep double sofas. A couple of fridges behind a small counter. No doubt filled with beer or whisky.

And the bungalows had semi-hidden carports – a give-away.

The roadway between the pavilion where we were sitting and the resort office was dirt. A stone caught my eye. It was shiny among the dust and bits of gravel. I was hypnotised for a moment, or daydreaming, perhaps helped by the hum from the seminar room. All was going well and was quiet. My friend at the table was absorbed in a cigarette.

Then the sound of wheels on gravel woke me up. And engines. Trucks. I woke from the daydreaming to see two trucks of armed police drive into the resort. They could only be here to close the seminar. There seemed to be others with them, not police.

The two of us were inside the seminar room. Didn’t take us long, we were moving faster than usual. I am a bit of a stroller.

“The police are here.”  There was a moment of surreality. Then a moment of incomprehension. Actually, “moment” doesn’t really capture the speed at which things seemed to be happening. Faster than one can think. “Come down from the stage,” I got the two speakers and the chair sitting down with everybody else. No need to present sacrificial first detainees. I found a seat also. So did Tjandra, the lawyer.

The police were inside. They lined the walls. They were armed with rifles. A very tall, very big, athletic policeman stood on the stage, where the speakers had been. “Disband!” he declaimed in a booming voice, with no introduction or explanations “This seminar must disband now.”

It wasn’t going to be as simple as that.

The Indonesian participants, all political activists from the anti-dictatorship movement, rebelled. They included former political prisoners Budiman Sujatmiko, Dita Sari and Agus Priyono. They started singing protest songs. One climbed up on to a table to recite the poem by the disappeared poet, Wiji Thukul” “There is only one word: resist!” There were chants of protest. The policeman’s voice had to be boom louder to make his voice heard. “The seminar must disband. This seminar must disperse.” Then there were more uniforms on the stage. A smaller man, but with the insignia of a more senior officer and a man in an Immigration uniform. The Immigration officer obviously wasn’t there to deal with the 100 or more Indonesians.

The seminar rebellion continued. Speeches, songs, poems, interspersed by demands for dispersal. The armed police stood around all the two side walls and the back walls while the seminar participants either sat at the desks that were part of the conference set-up or stood up to make speeches or shout protests. Budiman and Dita stepped forward as representatives of the conference participants. They were public figures.

“All foreigners please surrender your passports.”

“Should you hand them over?” Dita approached me sitting among the participants. (They will notice that, I thought.)  “Are we resisting?” “Yes.” “Then no.”

We refused.

“All foreigners must surrender their passports.”

More rebellion and protesting voices from the Indonesian participants.

The big man with the booming voice was back. “The seminar must disperse and all foreigners must surrender their passports.”

We refused.

Some of the Indonesians were ion their mobile phones. To the press; to contacts in the government. Abdurrahman Wahid was president of Indonesia. Former activist from the 1970s  Marsilam Simanjuntak was his Attorney-General. Some of the foreigners – from Australia, Europe, America, Pakistan, India and the Philippines – were phoning also.

Still noisy rebellion.

The senior policeman came down from the stage. He was arguing with Dita and Budiman. The Immigration officer approached me demanding passports. I answered in English that it was up to the conference how to respond. He looked angry.

Peoples’ voices were getting louder.

A small scrum was developing round Budiman and the police officer. There was new movement and shouting at the main door to the seminar room. There were men in other uniforms pushing their way in. The scrum got worse, there were more police with rifles now in the centre of the room. Everything was noisier; louder and louder.. Pushing and shoving.

“Budiman!” I was standing beside the police officer. Must have transported somehow. “Budiman! Ask the officer can we get some order.” Budiman looked quizzically at me. He knew I spoke fluent Indonesian. “I can talk with him.” Budiman spoke in Indonesian to the officer. “I will go with him up onto the stage and we can make some order,” I told Budiman in English. Budiman repeated and also cajoled. So did I and we moved off, up onto the stage. The three of us sat there. The policeman shouted for order. Things calmed a little but there was still a scrum at the back.

Somebody started pulling Jon Lamb by the shoulder. “No, stay there, Jon,” I called from the stage.

Budiman came forward, angry: “Why are these people in camouflage outfits here? They are not the police!” They were militia from a group called the Pemuda Kabah, affiliated to the United Development Party (PPP), a party from the dictatorship period. “They must leave!” he demanded.

“All those who are not police; all those in another uniform must leave; leave now!” announced the police officer, also on the stage.

Other police pushed the militia out of the room.

There was some order. “Calm.” Everybody was in a seat, except Dita and Budiman and the police that surrounded us all.

“You must all go to the police station,” he said to me. Budiman translated.

About two hours had passed. It was a stalemate. Although we hadn’t handed in our passports. It was obvious we had to leave the scene. The militia were not always obedient to the police.

“Remove them to the trucks,” he ordered.

They tugged at Jon again.

“No. Wait,” this time in Indonesian. “it must be orderly and safe. No dragging people.”

“Stay put, Jon.”

The policeman ordered his men to form a cordon from the front door to the trucks so the foreigners would be protected from the militia.

“Row by row, ya?” I turned to the officer.

The foreigners began leaving to climb aboard police trucks outside. The police did not miss the Pakistan and Filipino, although the Indian participant seemed to be able to melt in with the Indonesian participants.  A few had to go to their bungalows first to get passports and bags.

“Pak, we have a problem,” I spoke to him. I pointed to a couple who had brought their five year old daughter with them. “The small girl shouldn’t be taken on a truck. What about in your police car?” Sitting on the stage, I could see through the seminar room window at least one sedan.

He ordered two policeman to escort them to the sedan. The three of them sat on the back seat.

The room was emptied of foreigners.

“You too,” said the officer, in Indonesian now.

I walked with him down off the stage and to the front door of the seminar area.

There was that sleazy bar bungalow again. And the gravel road. And three police trucks packed with foreigners. They were not big trucks. They had benches down each side with about 5 or 6 people on each bench. The Indonesians had assigned two activists to accompany the foreigners on each truck to the police station. The two Indonesian lawyers at the seminar were also among them. The police were still standing around, although the cordon had dispersed.

I stood at the front door looking from truck to truck. They were all packed full. There was only one sedan, and with Peter Boyle, Pip Hinman and the young girl in the back and two officers in the front, there was no space there either. I knew there was a problem but before I any idea came to me, a middle aged man from among the militia stepped forward:

“We’ll take him!” he offered. He wasn’t wearing a militia camouflage uniform. He was well0-built, middle aged, and smiling with one of those unpleasant smiles somebody of ill-intent can put on. The senior officer was already in his car. The young policemen standing around had blank looks on their faces. I wasn’t really warming to the militia leader’s invitation. In fact, there was a kind of significant worry in my stomach: fear, no doubt.

“Up here, Max,” one of the Australians on the nearest truck shouted. Those on his bench squeezed along making an extra space. Somebody had been watching, thankfully. I scrambled up and sat between my Australian saviour and one of the two young Indonesian policeman guarding us.

Most of the Indonesian friends were inside.

After we drove up the militia, armed with machetes, attacked them. One was slashed with a machete and hospitalised. Most escaped into the neighbouring golf course. Some were able to hide until the militia left. We heard about it a little later, by text message, when we arrived at the police station in central Jakarta.

And the ride in the open police truck in the convoy from West Java into central Jakarta?

Well that is another little story.

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