Philip Jacobson

In Indonesia last Christmas Eve, shortly after sunrise on the volcanic island of Sumbawa, police dispersing a civilian assembly at the port of Sape started shooting. For five days, residents of Bima Regency had been occupying the port in defiance of a gold exploration permit their regent had granted an Australian company. Their blockade had brought the small but crucial artery to a standstill. On the sixth day, the police were sent in to negotiate, and when they reached an agreement with the protesters it seemed the affair would end peacefully. But then the guns came alive. The bullets struck dozens of people, and two teenagers were killed.

The Sape tragedy made headlines across the country, but the large dispute over the mining plans had been going on for more than a year. The first major episode took place the previous February on the day Ferry Zulkarnain, the Bima regent, stood up thousands of people in Lambu, a subdistrict of Bima. The people had gathered at the main Lambu office because they had been promised Ferry would come hear their grievances in person; when they were told he wasn’t going to show, they became incensed. With rocks and sticks, they overpowered the special forces police who had come in his stead, swarmed upon the building and burned it to the ground.

Nor did Sape mark the dispute’s conclusion. After the incident at the port, Ferry suspended the gold exploration permit, but the protesters wanted it completely done away with. On Jan. 26, there was a third and final confrontation, this time at Ferry’s own office in Bima city. Just as they had in Lambu, thousands of people overran the seat of government and burned it down.

Two days later, Ferry revoked the permit.

Bima’s coming to a head crested a wave of populist conflict in Indonesia, including a strike by Freeport workers at the company’s mine in Papua; a dramatic, gruesome land dispute in Mesuji; and a toll-road blockade over the minimum wage in Bekasi. Each of these events fed a national debate about the strength of the rule of law. For many commentators, the central question seemed to be, as articulated by one Jakarta Post reader, “To what extent is the rule of law in danger of being supplanted by mob rule?”

In a Feb. 1 editorial, the Post wrote: “Street power is the main answer these days, with people disregarding their democratic right of bringing grievances to their elected representatives.” 

My own newspaper, the Jakarta Globe, asked on Jan. 27 if disgruntled citizens should be “allowed to hold the economy hostage,” adding that such “destructive action cannot and will not be tolerated.”

In Bima, though, they were asking different questions: What do you do when the state threatens your way of life? How do you deal with a system that treats you like you don’t exist?

In March, I traveled to Bima. I wanted to find out who had organized the demonstrations and riots and how and why they had done it. News reports had referred vaguely to something called the “People’s Front Against Mining” (FRAT). I met an activist who could connect me with Syahbuddin, the FRAT president. For three nights I stayed with him and his family in Lambu. I met many “members” and “village coordinators” of FRAT, which can be described as a loose community network that draws its strength from the same kinds of ties that have probably always existed among these people. (“Everyone is a member of FRAT,” someone told me.)

By and large, the people I talked to described a deep frustration with the local government, one that in their words only ever lied to or ignored them, despite their many democratic overtures. The decentralization reforms of recent years have given regents great power - they control mining concessions, for example. “It is like a feudal system,” Sakti Mulyadin told me in Sumi village. “Ferry is like the king of Bima.”

According to Umrah, a twenty-something who is one of FRAT’s main coordinators, Bima’s people first learned of the permit when PT Sumber Mineral Nusantara began exploring in 2010, two years after the company received the permit. Umrah said the opposition movement was initiated by Bima University students. They appealed to Lambu subdistrict but received no response, so they started holding demonstrations and set about spreading the word. “We gave an education about politics to the community – that in Lambu there is a mining company named Sumber Mineral Nusantara,” Umrah said. “How did they respond? They rejected Mining. They don’t want SMN to be here. Based on their understanding, experiences, they agreed that the mining company should not enter Lambu.”

FRAT set up coordinators in each village, and the movement grew. “Soon, so many people were aware of the mining issues that when there was a demonstration or mass action, we didn’t really need to ask them to join,” Umrah said. “Almost all of them just join.”

In the violent clashes that followed, many people were injured and arrested. Syahbuddin’s daughter, Vina, who is 16 and lists “sekertaris FRAT” as her occupation on her Facebook page, was shot in the leg.

Abidin, 43, the Sumi village coordinator, was one of those arrested and jailed for seven months after the incident in Lambu. “That’s the agony, the struggle, the sacrifice of SK 188 [the permit],” he said. “If mining enters here, most likely our [way of] life will be neglected, and I don’t know where this will take us.”

Two years, three violent clashes, tens of bullet wounds and at least two deaths later, the permit is no more.

I asked Latif, the journalist whose friend connected me to Syahbuddin, what he thought of the all the talk about mob rule taking root. “’People Power’ is the last choice,” he said. “Before that, the people try another way, like peaceful protest, but [they typically get] no response. So they do something to make the government care about what they want.”

The following photos respectively depict Syahbuddin and Vina at Sape port; an old man at Sape who was shot in the stomach; rice paddies in Lambu; a chief of a village of Lambu standing amid the wreckage of his home, which was attacked by angry, vengeful Bima people after the Sape incident (on the same day); graffiti on the wall of a destroyed village office in Lambu, also attacked that day ("Ferry should go to court because he is a scholar in stupidity for signing SK 188. We don't want mining in our village," it reads); fishermen off the coast of Sumbawa; FRAT coordinators and other Bima people watching the video of the Lambu clash, which most of them had never seen.

The videos respectively depict the Lambu subdistrict office incident of February 2011 and the Sape shootings. They were compiled from cellphone footage provided by FRAT.

(FRAT President Budi and daughter, Vina)

(A gunshot victim)

(Paddy Field)

(The Village Chief)



(Video of Lambu Office Incident)

(Video of Sape Shooting)

(Watching the video)

(Bima office wreckage)

(Kantor Bima entrance wreck)

(Bupati burned out)

Philip Jacobson is a journalist in Indonesia. He has worked at the Jakarta Globe for nearly a year as a copy editor and part-time reporter. He carved out a beat covering a dramatic struggle for control of Jakarta's piped water system, an ongoing saga involving city officials, foreign companies, dogged activists and a contentious privatization arrangement. He also wrote about Ahmadiyyah Muslims, disgruntled West Papuans and an indigenous peoples’ conference. In September he plans to relocate to Yogyakarta, gain a proficiency in the local language and set about freelancing. Contact him at to discuss potential collaborations.