Trump’s business partner in Indonesia exhumed graves in West Java to build resort

CILETUH HILIR, Indonesia — In the valley between two volcanoes, the soldiers fanned out around the cemetery as men with shovels moved in to dig up the dead.

Village leader Djaja Mulyana had catalogued many grievances about the construction site that hemmed in his community. He’d filled binders documenting what he considered the deception, broken promises and lost livelihoods from the builders threatening to displace residents.

But nothing like this: In January 2019, gravediggers came to unearth corpses where his Muslim ancestors had rested since the 19th century, said Mulyana and two others who witnessed the excavations. The remains were being moved to make room for a mega-resort that will include a Trump-branded hotel and golf course.

At least one person had agreed to the exhumations, but other families had not given consent. One woman, Iyum, said the remains of her two daughters had been disinterred without her permission.

“Who did they think my children were — dogs?” she said in an interview with The Washington Post.

A woman named Iyum stands at Ciletuh Hilir’s cemetery, where bodies of her two daughters were exhumed and reburied elsewhere.

The Trump Organization’s foray into Indonesia was one of the last foreign deals Donald Trump signed before he was elected president in 2016. It was part of a lucrative and relatively low-risk foreign expansion — licensing his name to hotels and towers around the world — that he halted when he entered the White House. His company, now run by his two eldest sons, said it would not pursue new projects overseas, but would continue those already underway.

The ongoing struggle over land in the jungles of West Java shows that even as the global footprint of President Trump’s company has shrunk, he has continued to profit from deals with foreign developers, including some enmeshed in fraught local disputes.

The Indonesian developer — MNC Group, run by media tycoon Hary Tanoesoedibjo — is now behind schedule on two Trump resorts, including a beachfront resort in Bali. MNC had faced a declining real estate market even before the economic shock of the coronavirus pandemic, according to current and former company officials. The Bali site is overgrown and traversed by wild dogs. Construction on the resort in West Java remains in early stages, a year after company officials had projected it would be operating.

The cemetery dispute in the Ciletuh Hilir community is one more controversy.

MNC Land — the subsidiary building the project, including the Trump resorts — says some residents of Ciletuh Hilir had accepted the company’s proposal to relocate their relatives’ remains “to a new cemetery location that we provide, which is more appropriate.” The company also accused those who refused of exaggerating their concerns as a negotiating tactic to extract higher prices to sell their homes and unearth their ancestors.

“MNC is even willing to bear the entire grave removal costs,” the company said.

The village and its cemetery is located on land slated to become the resort’s theme park. Trump’s business has sought to distance itself from the faraway feud.

MNC Lido City is a planned 7,400-acre development.

The first phase of the project

is a 1,700-acre area that includes Trump-

branded portions to be managed

by the Trump Organization.

Located an hour’s drive south of Jakarta, MNC Lido City is a planned 7,400-acre development.

The first phase of the project is a 1,700-acre area that includes Trump-branded portions to be managed

by the Trump Organization.

Located an hour’s drive south of Jakarta, MNC Lido City is a planned 7,400-acre development.

The first phase of the project is a 1,700-acre area that includes Trump-branded portions to be managed by the Trump Organization.

Located an hour’s drive south of Jakarta, MNC Lido City is a planned 7,400-acre development.

The first phase of the project is a 1,700-acre area

that includes Trump-branded portions to be managed by the Trump Organization.

“We have been told that this is not on or part of any of the Trump portion of the development,” a Trump Organization official said in a statement, adding: “Our relationship with MNC consists purely of licensing and management agreements only, we are not the developers.”

The Trump Organization did not respond to questions about whether it had been aware of the exhumations at the time or whether it had vetted MNC’s practices.

A former MNC official said that Trump’s company received regular updates.

A funeral is held at Ciletuh Hilir cemetery.

“They want to know what’s happening every month. They want to know the standards. They want to know who’s going to be the constructor, who’s going to be the banker, no different than a Hyatt or a Marriott,” said the former official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preserve relationships in the industry.

The Trump Organization’s 600-acre portion of the property — encompassing the future site of an 18-hole golf course, a 120-room hotel and 461 luxury villas — begins less than half a mile from the cemetery, according to GPS coordinates taken there overlaid with MNC and Trump Organization project maps. The marketing materials MNC has produced for years tout the Trump connection, as key components for the 1,700-acre first phase of MNC Lido City, the project that envelops Mulyana and the 200 families of Ciletuh Hilir.

“Trump international resort, golf club and residences is at the core of the phase one master plan,” MNC said in a promotional video in August 2019.

American politics feels distant here, but Mulyana and his neighbors clearly recognize the name on billboards they drive past on their motorbikes each day.

“You see it everywhere. It’s written everywhere on the project site,” he said. “There’s the Trump project, the Trump hotels. It’s not the Hary [Tanoesoedibjo] project.”

It is also more ambitious than anything the Trump Organization has signed onto abroad. Tanoesoedibjo has said he plans to spend $1 billion on the two Indonesia resorts. The Trump Organization will get a small percentage of the sales of more than 800 planned “Trump residences,” many that start at more than $1 million, plus management fees to run the golf courses and hotels in Lido and Bali, the former MNC official said.

“Both the Lido and Bali Trump Hotels will be architectural masterpieces that will do for Indonesia what the Sydney Opera House is doing for Australia,” Johannes Spies, one of the MNC officials in charge of design, said in a text message.

In Lido, Tanoesoedibjo is attempting to build a vacation metropolis. It includes a theme park incorporating cartoon characters featured on his television programs, a kind of Indonesian Disneyland. The plan includes hospitals, a university, a place called “Movie Land,” an indoor-outdoor film production studio with re-creations of cityscapes and ancient Indonesian villages, plus a venue for music festivals that could hold thousands of people, to be run by Tanoesoedibjo’s daughter, Valencia, according to MNC presentations and people familiar with the project.

When Donald Trump Jr. visited Jakarta in August to meet Tanoesoedibjo and investors, he told reporters that the Indonesian resorts were “dream projects” and that the two companies were “really working feverishly” to complete them.

“I see a great opportunity,” he said. “The dream is becoming a reality.”

In Ciletuh Hilir early last year, such exalted visions felt far away.

When the gravediggers broke for lunch on Jan. 23, 2019, Mulyana and his neighbors rushed to the cemetery.

The agitated crowd quickly noticed a mistake and summoned Heri, a 56-year-old out-of-work farmer who, like others in the area, goes by one name.

The remains of four of his relatives — two siblings, his great-grandfather and another relative — had been pulled from the ground without his consent, he and others in the community said, along with the bodies of Iyum’s two girls.

They had dug up the wrong people.

“I broke down crying,” Heri he said.

Heri, a resident of Ciletuh Hilir, is photographed while renovating his house. The bodies of four of his relatives were dug up from the cemetery at Ciletuh Hilir. They were later returned and reburied.

‘They gave us hope’

The Lido Lakes Resort and Conference Center is nestled in a stunning part of Indonesia: between lush and misty mountains about an hour south of the capital city of Jakarta. The adjacent Gunung Gede Pangrango national park is one of the last pristine tropical forests on the island of Java, a sanctuary for endangered leopards and silvery gibbons.

It was at this resort that Djaja Mulyana and other locals gathered in July 2014 to hear representatives of the property’s new owner, MNC, describe their early plans for transforming the weekend getaway into a resort that would become the pride of Indonesia. It was the middle of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, and the gathering included a meal to break the day’s fast.

Residents came away impressed. Many in the village were tenant farmers who grew corn and cassava on others’ land for subsistence wages. They lived in cinder-block homes connected by dirt footpaths. The MNC officials promised jobs for the farmers and schools for their children, Mulyana recalled; the plan was to build “the biggest tourist destination in Asia.”

“They gave us hope,” Mulyana said.

Within a few months, however, doubts emerged.

When surveyors and prospectors started poking around in the neighboring villages —collectively known as Wates Jaya, part of the Bogor district — residents questioned them. Mulyana did not think the village had given necessary permission for work to begin, and he had not seen any permits. The workers were outsiders, not locals, as residents hoped.

Villagers claimed hereditary rights to their homes. They had been allowed to farm the area even as it changed hands often between government and private companies in recent decades. Residents cite family ties back to the period of Dutch colonialism that preceded Indonesia’s independence in 1945, when the land was used for rubber and tea plantations. They date the cemetery to 1834.

Adang, a villager in Ciletuh Hilir, looks for grass to feed his goat.

“I belong to a tradition, to a culture that I cannot simply abandon,” said Firmansyah, a 34-year-old resident. “It is our belief that the land belonged to our ancestors as a community. I’m probably seventh generation … and the cemetery has been there since before the independence. That’s what I wanted to protect, the reason I resisted. It’s the historical value.”

Those sentiments have done little to impede MNC from building all around them. As earth-clearing and preliminary site work has progressed, residents said construction workers have moved a mountain of dirt across a main road into the village, blocking that access. Builders also walled off the community with concrete fencing, and filled in portions of a lake used for fishing and drinking water, residents said. The cleared land now presses right up against the tight cluster of homes.

“As the construction work is starting on site and in line with work safety regulations, fences must be built along boundaries between the project MNC’s area and Ciletuh Hilir Kampung, in which the people still [have] access to and exits from the Kampung,” the company said in its statement, using the word for neighborhood.

After MNC bought the land in 2013, it had allowed the residents of Ciletuh Hilir and villages to farm on the land, continuing a decades-long practice. That permission stopped in 2017.

MNC had an “agreement stating that ‘if MNC at any time needs the land, then villagers must vacate the land without compensation from MNC,’ ” the company statement said. “MNC has requested the villagers to vacate the land based on the agreement, as we plan to start developing the area as entertainment hub (non-Trump project).”

The development is an opportunity for some. MNC said it now employs more than 300 people in the broader Lido area. They do construction and site security among other jobs.

Ruins of a house in Ciletuh Hilir. This is a common sight in the village. Residents say that MNC Land has purchased this house but that demolition has not been completed.

Remains of a structure at the development site.

Ruins of a house in Ciletuh Hilir. This is a common sight in the village. Residents say that MNC Land has purchased this house but that demolition has not been completed. Remains of a structure at the development site.

In Ciletuh Hilir, residents say MNC asked its employees in the community to sell their homes at low prices and evacuate. MNC did not respond to questions about prices.

Those who remain — and can no longer farm — have turned to buying crops elsewhere and selling them in local markets or looking for other work in town.

“They want to acquire our lands on their terms: by paying the lowest price, using intimidation and so much more,” Firmansyah said. “And this includes the land that the local community had been farming on — we’re not allowed to use it anymore. That’s one of the ways that the company was using to kill the economy in our kampung.”

Using heavy machinery, workers cleared about 70 acres of farmland without providing compensation, residents would later recount in a letter to Indonesian President Joko Widodo outlining their concerns. The Post reviewed a copy of the letter, provided by a local lawyer.

“They cut down our banana trees,” Mulyana said.

Mulyana had been elected in 2010 as head of his rukun warga, or citizens’ association, a local administrative body in Indonesia encompassing a cluster of neighborhoods. He was a farmer, like his parents before him, and unaccustomed to facing off against a massive corporation.

Djaja Mulyana, the village leader of Ciletuh Hilir, stands near the concrete fence that borders his village with the MNC Land development behind it.

At home, Mulyana kept his doors open at all hours, smoking cigarettes and trading gossip with neighbors who filtered through. As worries grew about the development next door, he contacted a pro-bono legal collective based in the nearby city of Bogor for help defending the village. He began accumulating stacks of letters, blueprints, meeting minutes and photos that eventually filled three plastic binders.

One of those documents, passed to Mulyana by a politician friend, galvanized his opposition to the project.

It was a 2014 letter signed by officials in Wates Jaya — a local jurisdiction that includes Ciletuh Hilir — stating that residents had been informed by an MNC subsidiary about the coming development. The document said that residents in the area “have no objection to and approve of the request for the site permit.” Dozens of signatures from the attendance form used during the Ramadan meeting with MNC representatives — including Mulyana’s — were appended to the letter.

“I was so angry when I found out,” he recalled.

Mulyana said his signature had been used to suggest his approval of the development. He felt deceived.

“We never signed anything agreeing to that,” he said.

Letter claiming residents support project

“Based on this development plan, we hereby acknowledge that in principle, we, the residents of Wates Jaya Village, Cigombong Sub-District, have no objection to and approve of the request for the site permit, insofar as the land acquisition process following the issuance of the permit is conducted in a proper manner and in accordance with our agreement.”

One of the local officials who signed the letter, Basrowi, said that he couldn’t recall the details of the permitting process but denied that anything deceptive had taken place. There will always be some opponents to such projects, he told The Post in an interview.

“You’re talking about 10,000 people. Not everybody has the same opinion,” said Basrowi, who until recently was the head of the Cigombong subdistrict that includes Ciletuh Hilir.

MNC said it complied with all applicable laws and regulations in the permitting process and never falsified any residents’ signatures.

“The development permits in relation to the MNC’s land are processed and obtained from the regional government in accordance with prevailing laws and regulations,” the company said.

A new partnership

Donald Trump met Hary Tanoesoedibjo in early 2015 through associates in real estate, and by late summer they had a deal.

The two men were an uncanny match. Both were entrepreneurs who liked luxury and glitz. They both developed resorts, were hosts of beauty pageants and had political ambitions.

Tanoesoedibjo, 54, lives in the type of splendor Trump could appreciate. On his 100,000-square-foot estate, he keeps a 23-person house staff and a 1,000-bottle wine cellar, Forbes reported last year. When he bought a mansion in Beverly Hills, Calif., for $13.5 million last year, it was Trump’s, as The Post first reported last year.

“We’re partners,” Tanoesoedibjo told Bloomberg News in 2017. “We can come to meet them anytime to discuss the business.”

A roadside signpost of the MNC Lido City development includes the Trump Organization portion of the project.

Before Trump’s campaign, his company was in the midst of a rapid international expansion. In 2014, Trump spent $79 million in cash to buy two golf courses in Scotland and Ireland. By the next year, when the two Indonesia deals were signed, Trump Organization officials were touting coming hotels in Vancouver; Baku, Azerbaijan; Punta del Este, Uruguay; and Rio de Janeiro.

Trump’s foreign partners often lacked a reliable track record of real estate success. Some have faced allegations of corruption.

The beachfront Trump tower in Uruguay remains an unfinished construction site, four years after it was supposed to open, bogged down by lawsuits and financing issues. The Trump Organization dropped out of Azerbaijan just after Trump’s election amid allegations against the builder of money-laundering and bribery, The Post has reported. Developers for the Uruguay and Azerbaijan projects did not respond to requests for comment.

The company pulled out of the Rio de Janeiro hotel around the same time amid a federal investigation of potential bribery involving his local partners. Paulo Figueiredo Filho, Trump’s former hotel partner in Rio de Janeiro, said the Trump Organization did not pull out because of the investigation but because of operational disagreements that remain confidential. He added that no one was convicted.

Only the hotel in Vancouver has opened.

Even with all the problems, the Trump Organization’s licensing deals abroad remain a lucrative source of income. In 2018, Trump reported $2 million to $8.7 million in foreign licensing deals and management agreements — not including revenue from the three golf resorts he owns outright in Scotland and Ireland — according to his 2019 personal disclosure form. The form lists revenue but not profits. Trump also reported $212,200 in technical services agreements relating to Indonesia that year.

When Trump became president, his company decided to stop new foreign projects. Donald Trump Jr. told reporters during his visit to Jakarta last year that the company voluntarily gave up “tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars’ worth of deals.”

But for existing projects, or those already in motion, Trump’s new job added fresh complications. In some places, such as Panama and Toronto, building owners stripped Trump’s now controversial name from their hotels. Land-use disputes at his golf courses in Scotland and Ireland are now supercharged with international politics.

When Trump took office, Tanoesoedibjo flew in for the inauguration. He had already lost one campaign for vice president of Indonesia and had formed his own political party and said he wanted to run for president.

Since then, the association with Trump has probably complicated his resort projects.

Trump’s executive order banning visitors from entering the United States from several majority-Muslim countries was not good for public relations in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation.

Although Indonesia was not included in Trump’s ban, MNC officials worried that his stance could provoke a backlash in West Java, with its more conservative Muslim population, the former MNC official said.

Wahyudin is a community leader in Ciletuh Hilir.

Enjah is a resident of Ciletuh Hilir. He helps manage the cemetery and his grandfather is buried there. Enjah used to be a farmer but now earns a living selling handmade boilers.

Wahyudin is a community leader in Ciletuh Hilir. Enjah is a resident of Ciletuh Hilir. He helps manage the cemetery and his grandfather is buried there. Enjah used to be a farmer but now earns a living selling handmade boilers.

A wrenching confrontation

It was two years ago when MNC representatives approached residents in Ciletuh Hilir and offered to pay them to relocate remains from the village cemetery tucked in a grove of trees.

According to the company, some residents accepted the proposal and asked for police protection during the exhumation process because other neighbors were upset. MNC said that it had “successfully carried out” another cemetery relocation in the Gombong Onan neighborhood.

Residents of Ciletuh Hilir recall that one man agreed to the removal of his relatives’ remains.

“There was no prior communication, no deliberation, no consensus, they were coercive right from the start,” Firmansyah said. “They came with arrogance, knowing full well they had money, they had power, they came having absolutely no regard for the fact that people here still needed our cemetery.”

On the day the soldiers and police arrived, an angry crowd gathered and argued with authorities, according to video taken at the scene.

The gravediggers disinterred six corpses and put them an ambulance, said three people who were present. Once neighbors realized that Heri’s relatives had been unearthed by mistake, they rushed to the ambulance and pulled out the four body bags.

Firmansyah said he was in tears as he helped others rebury the remains that day. According to local Islamic tradition, the ahli waris, or primary heir, should handle any duties related to the grave, not military-backed construction workers, he and other residents said.

“I cannot put into words the mixture of emotions we felt at the time,” he recalled. “We were upset, angry, all wrapped into one.”

“It felt like it was the end of the world for me,” he said.

A broken truck near Ciletuh Hilir.

Two other bodies dug up that day belonged to sisters — Susanti Binti Caing and Ade Holisah Binti Caing — who had died in 1985 and 1988. Their mother, Iyum, wasn’t there the day the soldiers came.

“I knew nothing about it until after they were dug up,” she said. “I was shocked. I cried.”

She had already been grieving: Her husband had died about a week before the gravediggers came.

“I want my children here. Where they should be,” she said.

Iyum and Heri complained to police. Iyum’s report, written by her lawyers and filed with the Bogor police three weeks after the graves were dug up, notes that her daughters were “in no way related” to the man who approved his relatives’ relocation, according to a copy obtained by The Post.

“Both of the bodies have not been returned to their graves,” it read.

The controversy at the cemetery quickly led to angry protests. On Feb. 13, villagers gathered outside the Bogor police station, a scene captured by local media outlets. Nine days later, a group from the village protested in front of the House of Representatives and the presidential palace in Jakarta, according to photos of the event provided to The Post.

In letters to Hary Tanoesoedibjo and President Widodo in the following months, lawyers representing the village said residents experienced “deep traumatic and psychological pressure” from actions by MNC and Indonesian security forces, such as the loss of the villagers arable land to the military-backed actions at the cemetery.

“The residents’ refusal was not heeded,” read the letter to Tanoesoedibjo, dated April 3, 2019, “to the point that a physical altercation broke out, and the officers continued to carry out the destruction of the cemetery by force and with no regard for human rights.”

Lawyers representing the villagers have issued three subpoenas to MNC Land between December 2019 and February 2020 to discuss the disinterred bodies and the village’s loss of its agricultural land. But the small legal collective has been hesitant to escalate the situation in the courts because of the company’s vastly superior resources, said Anggi Triana Ismail, one of the lawyers representing the village.

Letter from residents to MNC Chairman Hary Tanoesoedibjo

April 3, 2019

“That as a result, our client along with residents who were present at the time, experienced severe trauma and psychological pressure caused by the conduct of the state officers against our client and the residents of Kampung Ciletuh Hilir.”

“MNC has a lot of powerful people on their side,” he said.

No lawsuits have been filed against MNC as a result of complaints “raised by the villagers or relevant communities,” the company said in its statement.

“They do not have a strong basis for filing a lawsuit,” it added.

An evening at Ciletuh Hilir. Behind the concrete fence is the MNC Land development area.

A place of solitude, for now

Ciletuh Hilir residents say that about 2,000 people are buried in the three-acre cemetery. Many of the graves are unmarked, except for plants and saplings rising from mounds of earth.

Even those might eventually disappear.

Residents acknowledge that they may not prevail against the coming resort. A demolition of their community — and relocation of the cemetery — is still a possibility.

For now, neighbors regularly stand guard at the cemetery, worried about an unannounced return of the gravediggers.

They also find moments of solidarity there. During a recent funeral, neighbors convened to sprinkle flower petals on the freshly turned soil.

Every Thursday evening, Abdullah Sayuti, the village cleric, leads the community in group prayer, as they work through what he called the village’s “psychological burden.”

“People have been feeling uneasy for a while now,” he said.

And so they come together and pray for better times, hoping that life alongside Donald Trump’s future golf course might someday improve.

Muhammad Fadli contributed to this report.

Joshua Partlow is a reporter on the The Washington Post’s national desk. He has served previously as the bureau chief in Mexico City, Kabul, Rio de Janeiro, and as a correspondent in Baghdad.

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