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Indonesian police slammed after protester demanding rightful land is shot dead

Villagers of Bangkal protest against palm oil company PT Hamparan Masawit Bangun Persada (HMBP), an affiliate of the BEST Group, in October 2023. (Photo: National Workers Union - SPN) 
Mongabay | 10 October 2023

Indonesian police slammed after protester demanding rightful land is shot dead
 
by Hans Nicholas Jong
 
BALIKPAPAN, East Kalimantan — Activists have slammed the Indonesian police for rights violations after officers reportedly shot dead a villager and injured at least two others during a protest against an oil palm plantation company in Borneo.
 
Gijik, 35, was shot in the chest during the Oct. 7 protest held by residents of the mostly Indigenous Dayak village of Bangkal, Central Kalimantan province, according to AMAN, Indonesia’s main alliance of Indigenous peoples. Another protester, Taufik Nurrahman, 21, was shot in the waist and is in critical condition, Bangkal community leader James Watt told Mongabay Indonesia. A third person, Ambaryanto, 53, was injured in the arm and leg, while police also arrested some 20 villagers, according to James.
 
Police opened fire on the villagers as they protested against plantation firm PT Hamparan Masawit Bangun Persada (HMBP), an affiliate of the BEST Group. The Bangkal villagers have been protesting since Sept. 16 to demand the company comply with its obligation to allocate 20% of its concession to the community under a government-mandated sharing scheme known as “plasma.”
 
“What happened in Seruyan today is a crime against humanity, a violation of human rights, and a violent act done openly by the state,” said Uli Arta Siagian, forestry and plantation campaigner at the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi).
 
Sekar Banjaran Aji, national coordinator at the Public Interest Lawyer Network (PIL-NET), called the police’s action “inhuman” and unjustifiable.
 
“We can see how the police failed to use their logic so that they resorted to using excessive force, which claimed a life,” she said.
 
Central Kalimantan Police spokesman Erlan Munaji said the police’s actions during the protest were in accordance with the rules of engagement. He told local media that a pre-deployment check of all weapons showed none of the police personnel were carrying live ammunition, only blanks, rubber bullets and tear gas.
 
“We’re in the process [of finding out] whether [the victim] died because of that [shooting],” he said.
 
Photos shared on social media and accounts from those on the ground appear to show clearly how Gijik died. Alexius Elister, who identified himself as a relative of the slain protester, said autopsy results concluded that he died from a gunshot wound to the chest.
 
“What’s left to do is determining who’s responsible, and I will take legal action,” he said as quoted by local media.
 
‘Aim for the head!’

There are conflicting accounts of what happened in Bangkal on Oct. 7.
 
Police say it was the protesters who first attacked them, using bladed weapons. Erlan said that while some of the villagers had reached an agreement with HMBP to farm part of its concession, others had refused to accept the agreement and continued protesting against the company. This latter group then attempted to harvest palm fruit from the plantation on the morning of Oct. 7, Erlan said.
 
When the police warned the villagers against doing so, the protesters started attacking them, he added.
 
However, various organizations that have been monitoring the situation for the past month say it was the police who started firing tear gas and bullets at the protesters without any provocation.
 
In videos taken during the protest, a man can clearly be heard shouting orders over a loudspeaker to fire on the protesters: “Prepare the tear gas! Aim for the head! Ready the AK! Let’s play!”
 
In another video of the same moment from a different angle, the person can be heard urging fellow protesters “don’t get provoked” by the police.
 
Shortly after the shouting, gunshots can be heard.
 
“Without any trigger from the protesters, the security forces shot tear gas and bullets from firearms,” said Bayu Herinata, director of Walhi’s Central Kalimantan chapter. “Based on information that we got from the ground as well as videos sent by people on the ground, there’s clearly an instruction from the commander of the security forces to shoot the protesters.”
 
In two previous protests in the long-running dispute, it was also the police who started attacking the protesters unprovoked, Bayu said.
 
“So we need to question the statement from the police that they were attacked first by the protesters,” he said.
 
Ferdi Kurnianto, the Central Kalimantan chapter head for Indigenous alliance AMAN, said some of the villagers did carry bladed implements during the protest. But these were traditional Dayak weapons known as mandau, which are intended for homemaking or defense purposes, not for attacking people, he said.
 
Companies over communities

Uli of Walhi said the Bangkal dispute is emblematic of how the Indonesian government manages the country’s lands and resources.
 
“There are hundreds of companies in Indonesia, whether in the industries of palm oil, forestry or mining, that unilaterally claim ownership of ancestral lands and community territories,” she said. “The pleas of those who reject the companies’ presence in their territories, or refuse to have their lands taken by the companies, are ignored [by the government].”
 
Many of the land conflicts between communities and companies end in the persecution and criminalization of the communities, she added.
 
HMBP, the company in the Bangkal case, has a history of conflicts with other villages in which protesters and their supporters have faced persecution. In 2020, the company filed criminal charges against Indigenous farmers in the village of Penyang, also in Central Kalimantan province, who had been embroiled in a long-standing land dispute with the company.
 
HMBP accused two of the farmers of stealing palm fruit from its plantation. However, the farmers had harvested the fruit from land claimed by the villagers but cultivated illegally by HMBP; the district government had already declared the company to be operating outside its concession in 2010. The district chief also ordered HMBP to cede the disputed land back to the community — an order the company has duly ignored.
 
Police also arrested James Watt, the prominent community activist, while he was in Jakarta, for allegedly orchestrating the alleged theft by the two farmers.
 
In June 2020, a district court sentenced James to 10 months in prison, while one of the farmers got eight months prison sentence. The other farmer, Hermanus Bin Bison, died in custody, reportedly after being refused proper treatment for his ill health.
 
Abdul Haris, a campaigner at TuK Indonesia, an NGO that advocates for social justice in the agribusiness sector, blamed the conflict in Bangkal on HMBP’s failure to allocate 20% of its concession to the community, as required by law. He said similar conflicts will keep happening since many other plantation companies are also noncompliant on this front.
 
More than 80% of the 292 palm oil companies operating in Central Kalimantan haven’t provided plasma plantations to communities, Haris said, citing government data. Nationwide, only 21% of 2,864 plantation firms in the country have allocated the mandatory 20% of their concessions, according to the government’s audit agency, the BPKP.
 
Central Kalimantan Governor Sugianto Sabran has asked President Joko Widodo to evaluate existing permits in the province, and to revoke those of any companies that fail to comply.
 
Sugianto said the conflict in Bangkal isn’t the fault of the villagers.
 
“I don’t blame the people because they are demanding their rights that are cemented in the obligations for companies to allocate 20% of plasma [plantations],” he said as quoted by local media.
 
Sekar of PIL-NET said the deployment of police in conflicts between communities and companies is a result of the government’s decision in 2018 to categorize oil palm plantations as a national vital object. And in most cases, the security forces side with companies over the communities, she said.
 
“Our brothers and sisters in investment areas are losing their rights as citizens because the state is prioritizing investors,” Sekar said. “The government keeps saying that it’s championing sustainable development. But sustainable development is development that’s wanted by the people. But in this case, it claims victims and prosecutes the people. So who are the investments for? Who are defended by the security forces? Are they defending citizens or investors?”
 
Justifying excessive force

Sekar said there’s also a tendency by police to use excessive force in conflicts between communities and companies. She traced this to the rhetoric of President Widodo, who in 2021 instructed the police to crack down on anyone standing in the way of investors — a complete U-turn from an order he issued in 2019 to prioritize locals over investors.
 
Other senior officials have used similarly strong language, with Luhut Pandjaitan, the senior minister overseeing investments, saying in 2022 that he would “bulldoze” anyone blocking the ease of investment and permit issuance.
 
“What’s happening in Central Kalimantan is likely to be caused by the president’s instruction, because it’s not only in Central Kalimantan [where the police used excessive force], but also last month in Rempang Island,” Sekar said.
 
The conflict on Rempang, part of the Riau Islands archipelago in the Malacca Strait, centers around a plan by Chinese industrial giant Xinyi Glass to build the world’s second-largest glass and solar panel factory there, taking advantage of the abundant quartz sand around the island.
 
The plan entails the eviction of the native islanders, prompting them to stage several protests. This drew a heavy-handed response from the security forces, who on Sept. 7 fired on protesters with rubber bullets and tear gas, including at a middle school.
 
According to data from the NGO Consortium on Agrarian Reform (KPA), at least 69 people have died in land conflicts since 2015, a year into the Widodo administration.
 
As long as the conflict in Bangkal remains unresolved and the community remains at risk of persecution, police must withdraw from the region to ease the tension, said Mohammad Ali, the head of NGO Alliance of Agrarian Reform Movement (AGRA).
 
It’s also important for the community to get its rights recognized through the allocation of plasma plantations, he added.

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