A troubled dramatist has fallen victim to a scam involving idiotic claims about the secret gold of an Indonesian king.
When I first encountered playwright and actress Ratna Sarumpaet in early 1998, she was a hero. She had written a play about Marsinah, a labour rights activist who in 1993 was raped, tortured, beaten and left to die after the military intervened in a strike at her workplace in East Java. Marsinah was one of the leaders of the strike, in which workers had demanded minimum wage. Her killers were never brought to justice, but Ratna made sure Marsinah was not forgotten.
In March 1998, Ratna was imprisoned for leading a discussion that questioned the wisdom of re-electing President Suharto at the height of the Asian financial crisis. In those days, people who dared to criticise the increasingly corrupt, repressive and nepotistic regime were at risk of being abducted, tortured and murdered. Ratna, feisty and fearless, was an inspiration to pro-democracy activists.
After the fall of Suharto in May 1998, Ratna continued her activism through the theatre. She had a stint in Europe, and was feted for her dedication to human rights and women’s rights. In 2009, she attempted to run for the presidency but the Constitutional Court ruled independent candidates were ineligible.
It came as a shock in 2014 when Ratna launched a racist attack on Time magazine’s Indonesia correspondent, Yeni Kwok. Yeni had written an article criticising musician Ahmad Dhani’s song supporting presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto. Dhani had worn a Nazi uniform when performing the song, which was an unlicensed rip-off of Queen’s We Will Rock You.
Human rights activists questioned why Ratna was supporting Prabowo, Suharto’s former son-in-law, who had been dismissed from the military in August 1998 because troops under his command had abducted pro-democracy activists. In response to the criticism, Ratna insisted she was neutral and supported neither Prabowo nor his rival, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo.
Ratna became a strident critic of Jakarta’s no-nonsense governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, after he took office in 2014. Some observers claimed this was because Ahok had cut the provision of “social funds” to mass organisations – an act that gained him powerful enemies. Ratna falsely accused Ahok of paying off the Corruption Eradication Commission, the police and the military.
In 2016, Ratna was briefly detained for allegedly plotting a coup against Jokowi. She had ditched her partisan stance and was a staunch Prabowo supporter. She subsequently joined his campaign team for the 2019 presidential election. In September 2018, Ratna posted a photo online of her bruised and swollen face, claiming she had been assaulted by three men at Bandung airport in West Java. Prabowo and other opposition figures quickly condemned the “cowardly attack”. But it was all a lie. Ratna later confessed she had not been attacked but had undergone liposuction. She was arrested in October for spreading fake news and is awaiting trial. Police found she paid for her vanity procedure with funds from a bank account that had received donations for victims of a ferry sinking disaster in North Sumatra.
INDONESIAN KING’S FORTUNE CON
Now, this is where the story really starts. Four days before undergoing cosmetic surgery, Ratna had on September 17, 2018, held a bizarre press conference at the national parliament in Jakarta. She claimed the government was blocking the release of Rp23.9 trillion (US$1.64 billion) in assistance for Papua province.
Backing up her claim was a Papuan man, Ruben P.S. Marey. He had contacted the Ratna Sarumpaet Crisis Centre with a ludicrous tale about being the descendant of an ancient Indonesian king, who left a massive fortune of 57,000 tons of gold, which ended up in a Swiss bank account controlled by the US Federal Reserve and the World Bank.
The story goes that this mythical wealth was to be used for global humanitarian purposes in the 1960s, but US President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 and founding Indonesian President Sukarno was ousted in 1965, so the gold remained under the control of Jewish bankers.
Ruben said that as one of seven ancestors of the king, he received a share of the wealth, which he had intended to use for development programs in Papua. He said the World Bank had transferred Rp23.9 trillion to his Indonesian bank accounts in 2016, but the Finance Ministry and Bank Indonesia were blocking the money. To get the money released, he would need to pay a fee of Rp50 million.
Sound familiar? It’s a classic Nigerian advance-fee scam. The sort of stupid crap that goes directly to email spam folders every day. Ratna fell for it hook, line and sinker, fooled by hundreds of pages of phony documents, including emails with atrocious spelling and grammar. She transferred Rp50 million to Ruben and then began accusing Jokowi and Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati of “financial crimes” for blocking Ruben’s money.
The World Bank and the Finance Ministry both denied the story. Their official denials did not explain the whole thing was just a scam. One group, the Friendship Forum of the Palaces of the Archipelago, which deals with matters of Indonesian royalty, pointed out it was a hoax as there was no known hidden treasure of ancient Indonesian kings.
If Ratna had done some fact-checking, she might have learned that Ruben has a history of making outrageous claims about money. In November 2012, he claimed gunmen had stolen US$970,000 and Rp279 million from him in Jakarta. He also claimed to be an official of the Coordinating Ministry for Political, Legal and Security Affairs – something the ministry denied.
Despite being exposed as a liar, Ruben found plenty of people to believe his fantasies. On September 26, 2018, he organised a protest of about 500 people at the National Monument Park, opposite the State Palace, demanding the government stop blocking his money. He said sums of US$812 million, £605 million and EUR231 million had been sent to his accounts with Bank Negara Indonesia (BNI), Bank Central Asia (BCA) and Bank Mandiri. He claimed the president and finance minister were in cahoots with a national banking mafia to prevent the people of Papua from enjoying his money.
Following Ratna’s arrest in October, police began investigating her story about Ruben’s blocked funds and realised they were dealing with a scam. On November 7, they arrested Ruben and three of his accomplices. The gang of four had posed as officials of Interpol, the State Intelligence Agency, the State Palace, Bank Indonesia, and the Financial Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre. One more member of the gang was still at large in late November.
Police said that in addition to Ratna, the gang had also scammed an individual who gave them Rp940 million in the hope of receiving a share of the World Bank money.
It’s sad when activists become blinded or deluded by greed. One can only hope that common sense prevails in the run-up to next year’s elections, and that people aren’t fooled by lies and scams.