Nearly 3,900 residents of Indonesia’s Sumatra Island on Thursday filed a lawsuit in Tokyo, each seeking 5 million yen for damages caused by a dam Japan funded with official development assistance.

In the suit, the first of its kind over ODA, the 3,861 plaintiffs claim they were forcibly resettled after the Kotopanjang Dam was completed in 1997.

Among those named as defendants in the suit, brought before the Tokyo District Court, are the Japanese government and its foreign assistance body, the Japan International Cooperation Agency, the state-run Japan Bank for International Cooperation and Tokyo Electric Power Services Co., an affiliate of Tokyo Electric Power Co., Japan’s largest utility.

The hydroelectric dam was built at a cost of some 31 billion yen and paid for with a yen-denominated government loan.

The plaintiffs said they have become “developmental refugees” because they have been left without proper living facilities, including clean water, on the land where they were resettled, and with no job opportunities.

The dam, located in the middle of the island on the border between Riau and West Sumatra provinces, has also damaged the natural environment in the area, they said, noting elephants and other animals face starvation.

The plaintiffs are also demanding that the defendants urge the Indonesian government to remove the dam and restore their living conditions and the natural state.

On Thursday, 15 local residents wearing T-shirts emblazoned with a “No More ODA” slogan submitted the complaint to the court along with thousands of letters by proxy.

The Japanese lawyers said more than 1,000 local residents will later join the suit at the Japanese court.

Adhel Yusirman, an Indonesian lawyer who accompanied the plaintiffs, said they will file a lawsuit in Indonesia in October, urging the Indonesian government to return to their former level the living standards.

They also plan to seek an inquiry into whether Japan’s ODA for the dam project was used appropriately.

Plaintiff Masrul Salim, 49, told reporters he expects the Japanese government to halt its ODA payments to Indonesia until the Kotopanjang Dam problem is settled.

The plaintiffs are represented by a group of Japanese lawyers headed by Akihiko Oguchi, who is based in Tokyo.

Japanese supporters, including scholars and citizens’ movement activists, said they expect the lawsuit to present an opportunity to review how ODA is used.

They said Japanese ODA-funded development projects are increasingly seen as inefficient as far as improving living conditions in recipient countries, while only Japanese consulting firms and construction companies actually benefit.

Oguchi said the Japanese supporters plan to file a taxpayers’ suit, claiming the government misused public funds to pay for the dam in Indonesia.

“Given the cozy relations among politicians, bureaucrats and business leaders, Japan’s ODA destroys culture, the environment and the way of living of local residents under the pretext of assistance,” said Yoshinori Murai, a professor at Sophia University.

Murai, a specialist in Indonesia studies, said democratization in the wake of President Suharto’s downfall in May 1998 paved the way for the plaintiffs to work actively with Japanese lawyers and supporters.

“We can see cases of misuse of Japan’s ODA not only in Kotopanjang but also in other development projects, such as in the Philippines,” he said. “I expect more suits to follow.”

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