The Tragic Tale of Tanjung Morawa: A Peasant’s Death and the Struggle for Land Rights

The poem “Matinya Seorang Petani” (The Death of a Farmer) by Agam Wispi, penned in 1955, serves as both a protest and a poignant reminder of the tumultuous events that unfolded in Kampung Perdamaian, Tanjung Morawa District, North Sumatra, on March 16, 1953. The roots of the conflict can be traced back to the return of land concession rights to the Dutch plantation company, Deli Planters Vereeniging, following Indonesia’s recognition of sovereignty in the Round Table Conference of 1949.

As highlighted by Karl J. Pelzer in “Planters Against Peasants: the Struggle in East Sumatra 1947-1958,” the dispute arose when Deli Planters Vereeniging reclaimed vast expanses of land (255,000 hectares) in East Sumatra, which had been cultivated and inhabited by local residents, Javanese and Chinese laborers, and immigrants from North Tapanuli during the Japanese occupation.

To address the issue, Abdul Hakim, appointed as the Temporary Governor of North Sumatra, implemented the “Rencana Sarimin” program in 1950 and established the Special Commission for Agricultural Land Affairs on September 28, 1950. Despite negotiations, tensions persisted, and in 1951, Deli Planters Vereeniging agreed to return approximately 130,000 hectares to the government to expedite the relocation of the population.

However, the East Sumatra Peasant Front, consisting of various farmer organizations and political entities such as the Indonesian Peasant Front (BTI), the Indonesian Farmers’ Cooperative (RTI), and Chung Hu Tjik Kong Hui, opposed the land return. They demanded the nationalization of all foreign companies and expressed concerns about soil fertility and the uncertainty of the well-being of relocated inhabitants.

The government, led by Prime Minister Wilopo, attempted to implement land distribution through a lottery system in 1951, sparking criticism from farmer organizations. Meanwhile, a small portion of the population was being moved to a designated area in Kampung Perdamaian for an agriculture and freshwater fish breeding pilot project.

Tensions escalated when the government instructed Chinese families in the designated area to vacate the land by the end of 1952. Despite warnings and compensation offers, the residents adamantly refused to relocate, citing dissatisfaction with the proposed plots and the lottery system.

On March 16, 1953, the situation reached a boiling point when police and local authorities, accompanied by a tractor, attempted to enforce the relocation. Faced with opposition from a sizable and agitated crowd, the authorities resorted to gunfire, resulting in the tragic deaths of four Chinese residents and one Indonesian, with seventeen others wounded.

Following the incident, the Mobile Brigade arrested individuals perceived as instigators, mainly associated with the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). The government justified its actions, attributing the unrest to the PKI. The ensuing political fallout saw protests, motions of no confidence, and threats of party withdrawals.

The events in Tanjung Morawa in 1953, encapsulated in Agam Wispi’s poignant poem, remain a stark reminder of the struggles faced by peasants in the fight for land rights. The tragic death of a farmer symbolizes the broader socio-political issues surrounding land disputes during a critical period in Indonesia’s history.