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Exposing coal-fueled politics: Q&A with investigative journo Dandhy Laksono

Coal barges come down the Mahakam river in Samarinda, East Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo every few minutes. Photo courtesy of Ardiles Rante/Greenpeace.

  • In the days leading up to the Indonesian presidential election in April, a documentary film exposed how the two candidates were deeply tied to the country’s coal oligarchs.
  • The 90-minute film, Sexy Killers, describes the expansion of coal mines in East Kalimantan, the Bornean province known as Indonesia’s coal heartland, and how the industry has wrought environmental, financial and social damages on local communities.
  • The documentary has racked up more than 22 million views on YouTube since its public release shortly before the April 17 election.
  • Mongabay recently spoke with Dandhy Laksono, the investigative journalist behind the documentary, about the key revelations it raises regarding Indonesia’s political elite and the coal industry.

This week, the Indonesian electoral commission confirmed the results of the April 17 election that gave President Joko Widodo a solid victory over his challenger, former army special forces general Prabowo Subianto. As in their 2014 showdown, Widodo portrayed himself as Prabowo’s antithesis: someone without connections to the military or the political elite, standing instead as a “man of the people.” But in the days leading up to the election, a bombshell of a documentary film exposed one way in which both candidates were much the same: their ties to the country’s coal oligarchs.

The film, Sexy Killers, garnered more than 10 million views in the three days since its release on YouTube. (It now has been viewed more than 22 million times.)

The 90-minute film describes the expansion of coal mines in East Kalimantan, the Bornean province known as Indonesia’s coal heartland. If it was a country, it would be the world’s eighth-biggest coal producer. But the mining industry, as the film shows, has wrought environmental, financial and social damages on local communities.

Sexy Killers exposes the powerful figures inside it, some of whom hold or are seeking office at national and local levels, and as such have little incentive to bring about reforms in the industry.

A coal-fired power plant in Central Java’s Batang district, for instance, is shown to be owned, in part, by a subsidiary of Jakarta-listed PT Adaro Energy, which also mines coal in East Kalimantan. Among Adaro’s founders is the private-equity millionaire Sandiaga Uno, Prabowo’s running mate. Another Adaro founder is Garibaldi Thohir, the brother of Erick Thohir, Widodo’s campaign manager.

Both tickets also share links to another coal company, PT Toba Bara Sejahtra. Soon after announcing his candidacy, Uno sold his 130 billion rupiah ($9.2 million) stake in private-equity firm PT Saratoga Investama Sedaya to PT Toba Bara Sejahtra. The latter company is owned by Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, the country’s coordinating minister for maritime affairs and a close confidant of the president. Sexy Killers shows how PT Toba Bara Sejahtra operates several coal-fired power plants in Java.

The company also reportedly owns a stake in PT Rakabu Sejahtera, a company founded by Widodo before he entered politics and now run by his son, Kaesang Pangarep. PT Rakabu Sejahtera has interests in construction, land acquisition, timber processing, and production of goods made from timber and palm oil.

The Widodo administration’s energy policies have also benefited numerous coal companies involved in an ambitious program to add 35,000 megawatts of generating capacity to the national grid, largely by burning coal. Most of these companies are also listed on the Indonesia Stock Exchange as sharia-compliant equities. To be considered as such, they have to be certified, for a fee, by the Indonesia’s high clerical council — chaired until his candidacy by Ma’ruf Amin, Widodo’s running mate.

In Sexy Killers, investigative journalists Dandhy Laksono and Suparta Arz describe the web of business connections between Indonesian coal and energy companies and the country’s political elite. Image courtesy of WatchdoC Documentary.

While the documentary received largely positive feedback for laying out key revelations that linked back to the candidates running for the country’s top jobs, many observers also accused the filmmakers of using it as a call for people to abstain from the election.

Sexy Killers completes a 12-part investigative docu-series called Ekspedisi Indonesia Biru (The Blue Indonesia Expedition), led by Indonesian journalists Dandhy Laksono and Suparta Arz, and produced by WatchdoC Documentary. Throughout 2015, the pair used their own savings to travel by motorbike for thousands of kilometers across the archipelago to capture firsthand the impacts of a corrupt natural resources management regime on the environment and the people.

The series unpacks a range of environmental issues from Indonesia’s palm oil industry (in the film Asimetris), the fight by locals in Central Java against the construction of a cement factory (Samin vs Semen), and controversial coastal reclamation projects in Jakarta (Rayuan Pulau Palsu) and Bali (Kala Benoa).

Dandhy Laksono, left, and his fellow investigative journalist Suparta Arz are the masterminds behind the docu-series Ekspedisi Indonesia Biru, which centers largely on the corrupt management of natural resources in the Southeast Asian country. Image courtesy of WatchdoC Documentary.

Mongabay spoke by phone to Dandhy Laksono about his rabble-rousing films, the state of democracy in Indonesia under the control of political oligarchs, and the role of investigative journalism and documentary-making in tackling the corrupt management of natural resources.

The interview, translated from Indonesian, has been edited for length and clarity.

Mongabay: Sexy Killers has received more than 20 million views on YouTube. The feedback from viewers has been colorful, both positive and negative. This is quite extraordinary because the topic in the documentary isn’t exactly light. Why do you think the film struck such a chord with Indonesians?

Dandhy Laksono: I think there are many factors. The most mentioned is timing, and I agree with that. We intentionally decided to release the movie in April for public screenings, and then we released it online just days before the election. That was the perfect timing to attract the public’s attention.

The second factor is the film title, which makes people curious. The trailer we released also supported the title, as it had sensual scenes. Those are the first impressions. But those two factors alone wouldn’t have made the film go viral if people were disappointed after watching it. Its strength, then, lies in the people who went and made it viral after they saw it. That means these viewers aren’t the type to be manipulated by clickbait. It didn’t even make YouTube’s trending list.

So the first two factors grabbed people’s attention to watch it, but the factor that made the movie viral and rake in more than 22 million views, without YouTube’s intervention, was because people made it happen for a third reason: the fact that they think the movie’s message is important and relevant. And also, relatable. There’s new knowledge in it. Even though it’s not necessarily new information, because the media don’t regularly cover these topics, some people think that it’s new information.

The most solid factor is that people were fed up with the insubstantial political debates. People saw in the movie that what’s substantial is the relationship between businesses and political elites. The public gets to see how the two camps are fighting with each other when in fact, behind the scenes, they’re actually supporting each other, and have the same business network. Even though they have different political views and alliances and campaign funding sources and sponsors, they have the same economic interests, and the basic underlying support for both camps is the same. People have had enough of insubstantial political debates about religion, race, and about who had the largest attendance during campaign rallies. So when they saw the movie, voters felt they learned something new and with depth. Therein lies the power that helped the movie go viral.

Have you gotten any responses from the people and companies featured in Sexy Killers?

Nothing directly, but we monitor responses in the media. And I think it’s healthy that the feedback or even backlash doesn’t come directly to us. What’s really the point in that? We’re just movie makers. And if there’s any incorrect information in the movie, it’s better to make a public statement denying the information, especially because the movie is already viral.

But from what’s been noted in the media, the responses have been about efforts to cancel, to diminish, to delegitimize and to deem the movie non-existent. But no one has responded to the movie’s content. Sandiaga and Luhut and PT Adaro only refuted what’s on the surface without responding in more depth. Luhut even said that we didn’t have anything better to do.

However, I think the public sees the attempts to refute the movie as counterproductive. For example, Ignasius Jonan, the energy minister, said he hadn’t even watched it because he was worried his family would think that the movie was actually porn because the title had “sexy” in it. So they attack it on a superficial level instead of responding to the substance of the movie. But the viewers are smart. So the more they respond in such a way, the more valid the movie becomes.

Do you think the lack of a substantial response from officials is common from this government?

I think that’s typical of authority, and maybe especially in Indonesia. They’re acting ignorant to save face, and so refusing to give any substantial response. But despite all this ignorance, I hope something is happening behind the scenes. I hope there are efforts within their circles that will drive a change. Though I say they’re acting ignorant, I remain optimistic. Behind this rhetoric, I hope something changes in a positive way. But if not, then they truly are ignorant. But at least I hope it helps our civil society to put more pressure on these figures — social pressure that leads to political pressure to drive improvement in energy policies in the context of Sexy Killers. Or hopefully a new political generation will be born, one that refuses to give in to political death traps or refuses to be part of the political oligarchy. I just hope that the effects will last longer than the ruling period of these elites who are currently in power.

How confident are you that the future political generation in Indonesia can be free from oligarchs or big companies with big bucks?

I think it’s a global phenomenon. In Australia, the politicians there are intertwined with coal interests. In the U.S., if you watch Michael Moore’s Sicko, big pharmacy interests are lobbying the political elites. However, what’s happening in those countries is that the interests are buying the politicians, but in Indonesia, that doesn’t need to happen because the policymakers are also business owners.

What I show in Sexy Killers is that there’s no need for lobbyists because the National Energy Council is filled with coal businessmen. Here in Indonesia, they’re not shy in showing that conglomerates own everything from upstream to downstream. You can see that media owners are also coal business owners. Coal business owners are also palm oil business owners. Even companies that aren’t necessarily palm oil companies, like the one Widodo is connected with, still have interests in the industry. There’s a big conflict of interest there when PT Rakabu Sejahtera, with massive capital, was designed to provide services from upstream to downstream. From land clearing, land backfilling, land acquisition, transmigration destination planning, and all the way to wood products, and the derivative products produced by plantations, such as toiletries.

This is a bad precedent.

It’s still legal, though, and nobody can say otherwise. This is a common business practice. And as a citizen, Luhut has the right to own shares anywhere. But what needs to be understood from the movie is the large potential for conflicts of interest. In fact, that’s already happening among the current policymakers and businesses. So the next time Luhut makes a policy, we have the right to know whether he’s speaking as Widodo’s subordinate or business partner. And when both of them make a decision that’s related to energy or palm oil plantations, we also need to know for sure whether that’s affected by any conflict of interest between them as business partners. So that’s what I think the movie is more about.

Despite being illegal, it’s common for coal companies to abandon their depleted pits, which then fill up with rainwater and pose a drowning hazard for locals. Hundreds of people have died in these pits in Kalimantan, mostly children. Image courtesy of WatchdoC Documentary.

How did you gather all of this information and make the connections, considering the lack of transparency in Indonesia?

I had a lot of help from my team. We also had a special research team, and many of our friends are journalists who are experienced in the issue.

We are friends with Jatam [a watchdog NGO for the mining industry] which made a report called COALRUPTION. There was our friend Greenpeace. Basically, no new kids on the block. Everyone was invested in this and they put in their work.

Second, the documents were publicly accessible. Yes, transparency here is lacking. That’s why the materials are limited. We couldn’t really dig in very deep. I think the reports from our friends at Global Witness [an international NGO that campaigns against corporate secrecy] are more detailed, especially because our platform is audiovisual, which is limited by duration and format, so we couldn’t actually show them in such great detail.

However, let me say this: with just the little information that’s available, we can already show a worrying situation like this. Imagine what it would be like with the materials that are off-limits? For instance, the exact donations given by companies to politicians. The exact donations to fund campaigns. We’re talking real figures, not those that are reported to the electoral commission. That’s something that can’t ever be disclosed. Even in the U.S. where it’s more transparent, there’s still information available on the surface and below the surface.

You did the field investigations in 2015. Is there a difference between local people’s understanding about coal mining in their area at the time and now that they can see the bigger picture laid out in Sexy Killers?

The people near the sites actually know more about the energy industry than the electricity consumers. The people in Kalimantan say ‘They dig up the coal from our village, but why are we the ones that still experience power outages?’ That means the people who live upstream understand the issue better than those of us living downstream in Java. The surprise mostly comes from people who don’t know where their electricity comes from.

What’s new for the people in the mining sites is that they realize that what’s happening in their village is also happening elsewhere in Indonesia, including villages near coal power plants. They realize that even after the coal is dug up and processed into electricity, it’s still problematic, and that the transportation of coal is also problematic. So it’s more about the extent of the impacts. It’s also the feeling of ‘We’re not alone’ in this. And that gives them a boost to fight further. So there’s also a lot of positive reactions from local people after watching Sexy Killers, and other documentaries.

Did you plan in 2015 that you would publish this in 2019, right before the election?

No. That was a decision made two months prior.

In 2014, many people saw a huge difference between the presidential candidates. Can you say the same thing about 2019, even though they’re the same candidates?

In terms of economic policy, I don’t see any difference. Both offer the same thing. At a presidential debate in 2014, Prabowo pledged to allocate 10 million hectares (25 million acres) of land for agricultural farming as an effort to tackle rice imports. That’s essentially the same policy as Widodo’s. And of his predecessor, SBY [former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono]. It’s the same with Suharto, who cleared 1 million hectares of peatland in Pulang Pisau, Central Kalimantan, which remains abandoned to date.

So, Suharto, SBY, Prabowo as a presidential candidate, and Widodo as the president, they’re not different. Because they all come from one ideology, one school of thought, and are even surrounded by similar technocrats, and also are trapped by the same foreign loan commitments. So the president, in terms of political economy, merely serves as a formality. The formula, the thought, the paradigm, and even the policy instruments that they can use are limited. This capitalist system has ceased to provide a variety of wider space for idiosyncratic leaders. So whoever is put up there, it’s plug and play.

Widodo’s image as a ‘man of the people’ is a PR product, a campaign product. But for those who have looked into it deeper, monitored things more closely, that image starts to crumble. For those who are satisfied with symbols, the way they believe in religions merely on a symbolic level, what happens is post-truth.

The solution is for the public to get access to adequate information to enable them to understand something beyond the campaign packaging. The documentaries that we’ve done have just been a stimulant, because how many can WatchdoC make in a year? Media should be the avant-garde, particularly television, which still is the biggest source of information for the public. Unfortunately, television has been hijacked by partisan political parties. So all of those factors contributed to the emergence of documentaries like Sexy Killers. It seems like a surprise, but everyone probably already knows about this. It’s already in our minds, nothing’s new. It’s just a matter of putting it into a visualization.

When did you realize that Widodo keeps a close relationship with the oligarchs?

It was in November 2014. He was inaugurated in October, and in November I reached the decision that he was a fake. At the time, he announced his cabinet, which, I think, didn’t reflect his nine-point priority agenda. The composition was heavily influenced by political allies. Even the professionals picked based on merit are technocrats who are guardians of the values of a capitalist economic system. The way he picked the police chief and the attorney general was business as usual, ignoring history in regards to the country’s anti-corruption commission. So it was clear to me from the day Widodo formed his cabinet. There are [former general] Wiranto and [former general] Luhut who are still on board to this day. I realized that November that Widodo couldn’t escape history. The bubble for me was destroyed then.

Who did you vote for in 2014?

In 2014 I voted for Widodo because I didn’t want Prabowo to rule. I used to joke ‘Anyone but Prabowo.’ This year, if the opponent wasn’t Prabowo, I could probably go ‘Anyone but Widodo.’ But because it was still Prabowo, I decided to abstain.

The fallout from the coal industry extends beyond mining and includes its transportation and burning. Image courtesy of WatchdoC Documentary.

What do you think of the state of investigative journalism and filmmaking in Indonesia now, especially when it comes to work that concerns corruption and management of the country’s natural resources? Do you believe this kind of work can play a role in shaping Indonesia’s democracy, or at least making it a better place?

I do agree. I think one of the important requirements for a democratic country is symmetrical information, an equal level of knowledge — although it’s impossible to naturally have an equal level of knowledge. But we must have a system that allows for symmetrical information. That way, people can have an equal choice and understanding. And a requirement for symmetrical information is to have a literate public, in addition to press freedom and freedom of expression.

We at WatchdoC, which is a commercial company, besides running our business, want to work in line with our social agendas, and that’s literacy. WatchdoC happened due to our frustration with television’s failure to be a center of public knowledge. It’s only working as a money-making machine. And all of the 11 channels are basically owned by the government and the oligarchs. That’s why my friends and I created WatchdoC 10 years ago as a platform to challenge them. Thanks to YouTube we can bypass many things to reach out to the public. Imagine Sexy Killers being screened only once on a national TV channel: it might be watched by 2 to 3 million people, but afterwards it’s gone. Meanwhile, with a platform like YouTube, you can still watch it now and share it. People can still discuss it, be engaged in the comment section. We can also get feedback. TV has become old-school in that way because it can’t provide interactions like those on YouTube.

Your documentary series, Ekspedisi Indonesia Biru, largely centers on corruption in the management of natural resources in Indonesia. What was the thought process like before the investigation? Where does it go next after this?

The inspiration for Ekspedisi Indonesia Biru came from our desire to produce movies that aren’t bound by sponsorship, advertisement, ratings or share numbers. We wanted to see what we could create if we just went with our ego and idealism and set them as free as possible. That’s our experiment with Ekspedisi Indonesia Biru. As a production house, we’ve already produced hundreds of movies for television, but they were bound by contracts, sponsors, advertisement, viewing age, political interests, etc.

Our themes are social justice, environment and culture. But within those themes, we dismiss those media boundaries. Imagine if we have the themes and facts, but they’re limited by boundaries? And that’s what’s happening with the media now.

We investigated in 2015 and then had four years to work on the material. It took us that long to process the material because we still had to make money in the meantime for food. Because we weren’t sponsored, we couldn’t dedicate our time fully. After this, we want to recover our savings. And then after that, we’ll find something else to investigate and experiment with.

Are you thinking of screening your movies abroad?

We’ve actually screened them quite often, thanks to volunteer efforts by our friends and network abroad who already know what WatchdoC is, particularly on university campuses in Australia, Japan and Singapore. They’ve screened our films Rayuan Pulau Palsu, Jakarta Unfair, Asimetris, and most recently Sexy Killers. Some of the movies have been aired on foreign TV channels: the 30-minute version of Asimetris was aired on Al Jazeera. And that’s just a bonus for us because we never targeted the international audience. For us, the fight within the country is already hard. We can’t bear it. But our friends abroad consider our work interesting and relevant.

In 2015, Dandhy Laksono and Suparta Arz traveled across Indonesia to capture the state of the environment in the country. Image courtesy of WatchdoC Documentary.

Image banner of coal barges on the Mahakam river in East Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo, courtesy of Ardiles Rante/Greenpeace.

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