The politics of the mudflow have become even, well, muddier, recently. The latest news to bubble up from the dark depths of the containment dams is that a House of Representatives special team has suggested Sidoarjo, East Java, last seen sinking beneath several meters of ooze, be declared the site of a natural disaster.
The team, consisting of 29 legislators from various parties, somewhat surprisingly believes that the mudflow that has submerged hundreds of hectares of villages and rice fields in the area is in fact the work of nature and not the fault of PT Lapindo Brantas, from whose gas exploration well the original flow burst forth.
This belief goes against a widely held opinion that the mudflow is the result of careless drilling work by Lapindo Brantas, a company controlled by the political well-connected Bakrie family, the head of which is none other than Aburizal Bakrie, coordinating minister for the people’s welfare.
Unsurprisingly, the recommendation from the House team has resulted in some public outcry, particularly from the people whose homes, businesses and rice fields in Sidoarjo are now a few meters deep in volcanic mud.
They hit the streets in their thousands on Tuesday to protest against the announcement and demand that the government and Lapindo fulfill their commitment to pay compensation to them.
With such public pressure and massive media coverage, the House in its plenary session on Tuesday could do little but reject the team’s recommendation.
We are relieved by the House’s decisions, but we keep wondering how those 29 legislators arrived at the conclusion that the mudflow in Sidoarjo, which began in late May 2006, was the result of an earthquake in Yogyakarta — about 250 kilometers away — a few days earlier. And why bring this technical issue into a political arena?
Already, of course, there is talk that money might have been involved. It is not impossible that the legislators were acting not on their own consciences but on behalf of those with deep pockets.
The Corruption Eradication Commission is currently investigating a case involving the payment of millions of dollars by Bank Indonesia to some legislators, something which only strengthens suspicions that money might also be involved in this case.
But what would happen if the mudflow were declared a natural disaster, and who would benefit?
Declaring it a natural disaster would have significant consequences, especially for the government and the victims, as well as for Lapindo Brantas and the Bakrie family.
If the government were to accept the proposal, it would mean it would have to bear all the costs, including compensation owed to the thousands of victims.
A 2007 president regulation requires Lapindo Brantas to pay compensation to the victims, totaling around Rp 3.2 trillion (US$335 million), which the company has agreed to do, while the government itself will repair damaged infrastructure, to the tine of about Rp 3 trillion.
So far Lapindo has paid compensation to most of the victims, but only for 20 percent of their lost assets. It has promised to pay the remaining 80 percent in two years, although whether this will happen is anyone’s guess.
The House special team’s suggestion has only raised suspicious and confirmed people’s anxiety that Lapindo is trying to shift the burden of the remaining costs to the government.
We believe that the issue at stake here is more than just paying compensation to the victims. Justice must be upheld and the truth behind the mudflow needs to be revealed.
The government is right to not even entertain the team’s recommendation and instead wait for a permanent court resolution on the matter, which may take some time to complete.
However, if the government wanted to get things done quickly, it could just listen to the verdict of the Central Jakarta District Court last year in a civil case against Lapindo.
The court essentially declared the mudflow the result of negligence in drilling work being conducted by Lapindo Brantas.
But the government declined to use the verdict as a basis for its treatment of the mudflow, instead announcing it would wait for the verdict in the criminal case built against Lapindo by the East Java Police.
But this case appears to be as deeply stuck in the mud as the rest of Sidoarjo, and we haven’t heard much about it lately. It’s time for the government to remind the police of their duties and to get cracking on the case again.
It might be a chance to find out what really lies underneath the mud.