|Subject: Rights Activist Sarah Lery Mboeik:
Fighting Against State Hegemony
The Jakarta Post Wednesday, February 22, 2006
Sarah Lery Mboeik: Fighting Against State Hegemony
Tiarma Siboro, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta
The woman, dressed somewhat provactively, was conversing with some East
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.
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
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,"
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.
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
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
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
"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
"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
"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.
------------------ Joyo Indonesia News Service ------------------
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