Indonesian Labor Leader

Dita Indah Sari

Why would a middle-class Indonesian law student, who, in her own words, would have been happy to be a kindergarten teacher, feel compelled to become a radical trade union leader? Why would she risk being jailed, sexually abused, beaten, and harassed, all in the quest of fighting for democracy, against poverty and injustice in her country? Dita Indah Sari, 28, has a simple answer: “If I stopped I would have no idea what my life would mean or who I would be.”

Dita, president of the National Front for Workers’ Struggle Indonesia, was among those who organized the grassroots movement that helped topple Indonesia’s autocratic ruler Suharto in 1998. “As Indonesia charts a new course under President Megawati [Sukarnoputri], young leaders like [Dita] may have to mount the barricades again,” predicted Satya Sivaraman in an article for London’s Gemini News Service.

Dita started her activism in 1992 at the University of Indonesia in Jakarta. She organized student demonstrations for human rights, led workers in an illegal trade union, debated women’s rights within the unions, and in 1994 helped launch the Indonesian Center of Labor Struggle. In 1997, she was sentenced to seven years in prison for leading a strike of 20,000 workers. She was released two years later. In Dita’s view, an independent student movement is critical to building a broader struggle against dictatorship. The movement is still needed, with a new political era beginning in Indonesia: Vigilance is important in building a functioning democracy, she believes. “The key is patience.”