Issue 218 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 1998 Copyright Socialist Review

Feature article: Indonesia: the anger explodes

Indonesia, the fourth most populous country in the world, has erupted in turmoil in recent months. Hatred of the dictator Suharto coupled with economic collapse in what was one of the 'Tiger cub' economies has led to mass demonstrations and protests, and the development of a strong political opposition. In this issue, we print interviews with a number of militants including a leader of the PRD and a leader of the union SBSI.

Interviews compiled by Peter Morgan and Tom O'Lincoln

The People's Democratic Party (PRD), though still small, is Indonesia's most important leftist organisation. While not calling for socialism, the PRD does condemn Suharto as 'an instrument of capital', promotes 'popular radicalism' and demands self determination for East Timor. This is why Suharto has gaoled most of its leadership. Speaking from prison in March, the PRD's chairperson, Budiman Sudjatmiko, declared that 'we are focused on strengthening the organisations of the workers and city poor. The workers have the power, so that is a priority for us.'

One PRD leader still at large and working underground is Mirah Mahardika. Here are excerpts from an interview with him published in the group's journal, Pembebasan (Liberation):

The economic crisis that's gone on for half a year has proved the failure of the New Order regime. Or more precisely, the New Order has pushed the people into misery, and the people have lost all confidence in the government. There is panic as prices rise and basic necessities get scarcer. Meanwhile, demands for Suharto to step down from his throne grow stronger. There has even been talk of a military coup. The commander in chief accused the PRD of causing trouble by spreading rumours. What do you say to that?

MM: It's not strange, because the PRD has continually called for the people to overthrow Suharto and not to trust in him. Our actions are not aimed to cause panic, but to spread awareness so that people don't continue to be deceived by the dictator. The people are living in misery, prices are soaring, there are sackings everywhere swelling unemployment, and the people are supposed to be silent and accept it. That's false consciousness. Well, the PRD intends to shatter that false consciousness.

Suharto has made economic changes with IMF assistance. Does that mean he has international support in his handling of the economy?

MM: We have to understand whose interests the IMF represents. It represents imperialism, in this case the US. IMF style reforms only serve that sort of interest. It's true the IMF puts pressure on Suharto's cronies and tries to eliminate their special privileges. The special deals for the president's family and pals, like [his son] Tommy's Timor car, [his daughter] Tutut's toll roads and the like are disadvantaging foreign capital, so the IMF wants to squash them. But don't imagine the IMF will help the people or democratise the economy. The IMF reforms hit the people, with mass sackings, removal of subsidies on basic necessities and rising taxes.

The crisis has already taken on many dimensions, not just the economic. The social dimension is public disquiet, while the political dimension is collapsing confidence in the regime, a polarisation in the capitalist class itself and the willingness of some public figures to reject Suharto. Certainly, in such incredible conditions of social and political upheaval, economic reform will fail.

We reject the IMF reforms. So what kind of reforms are needed?

MM: Nationalise all the crony businesses those of Tommy, Tutut, Bambang, Ari Sigit, Bob Hassan, Probosutejo, Liem, and all their pals. They have no right to these businesses, which were built on public funding. These businesses will serve the people's needs. Seize the wealth of the corrupt elements, using part of it to pay the foreign debt, part to raise subsidies for basic necessities for the people. Remember, Indonesia is ranked first in the world for corruption. About 30 percent of the government budget goes in rakeoffs. Restore subsidies on oil, electricity, rice, and other commodities the people need. And put more emphasis on producing for people's needs through government intervention.

How do you think the democratic forces can take over the presidency?

MM: Because the parliamentary road is no longer possible, we must go outside parliament. So the form is people's rebellion or people's power. Of course we have to try to minimise bloodshed, and that's not impossible, especially if respected figures are involved. People's power in the Philippines didn't involve bloodshed. The bloodshed started after Cory Aquino was in power. Not because of people's power, but because of Aquino's failures.

How can it be done?

MM: By mobilising the masses on a large scale. We can't do it by ourselves. We have to learn from experiences in other countries, and from mass mobilisations in Indonesia in 1945 and 1965. It is always done with a united front.

What would be the PRD's role in a coalition government later on?

MM: We would take part on the condition that the government was truly on a democratic course and was fighting for the people's prosperity, especially the little people. Of course it would be a government of forces who had served well during the struggle to overthrow the dictatorship and then worked hard for the people... It's not possible for democracy or socialism to grow out of the barrel of a gun or by bureaucracy. Multi-party democracy must be guaranteed. And if the government betrays these desires, the PRD will go into opposition. Our manifesto says we will be the opposition of the future.


'They demonstrate more and more'

We talked to Rekson Silaban of the SBSI union, who was recently in London:

A lot of people are angry at the Suharto government. Now everybody is looking for political changes but the main demand is for Suharto to step down. Until he steps down it is difficult to talk of political change. The existing political system is a dictatorial system, so only the Suharto supporters are in power. If he goes then there will be a much better chance to set up an independent political party, and a parliament which genuinely represents the people.

At the moment all the 'parliament' has to be approved by Suharto. How do you expect change if the parliament is just for this group of people? Also how can you talk about 'clean' government with Suharto and his family in power? He has six children and all of them are very wealthy, and the government is corrupt.

There has been a real increase in poverty. If I just take the government figures, before the current crisis the government said there were 25 million people below the poverty line but now there are 150 million below the poverty line and this with a population of 200 million. There has been a massive increase in workers' unemployment.

People have lost confidence in the government. They are waiting for political reforms, but these are not coming, so there is a good possibility that a revolution may come. The crisis has gone on for four or five months now. Suharto wants support from the army but even now the army is reluctant to support him, so there is nobody who can stop the revolution. The people are now thinking we must have a revolution because there is no chance of the existing government stopping the suffering.

During the last election there was no political party that spoke about change. Now the PRD has been suppressed because it wanted political change. People are really very outspoken now about the government in the press and they have taken to the streets. During the recent election there was an order from the military to suppress the demonstrations and send the organisers to prison, but the people don't listen and they demonstrate more and more.

Recently there have been quite a number of student demonstrations in every city, not just in Jakarta. The struggle today is much bigger now than it has ever been because it has spread throughout the country. The workers most affected are the construction workers, who have been supported by government workers and financial sector workers. A combination of manual and non-manual workers have been involved, but industrial workers have been at the forefront.

The police have arrested eight of our members. They were worried about the alliance between workers and students, the government clearly fears this solidarity. The student movement has spread in central Indonesia recently there was a demonstration of 30,000 students. Now there is a trend that if one group of students comes out and demonstrates, the bus workers will help spread the demonstration to other universities. Our trade union the SBSI is independent, and the government does not recognise us. We have set up 60 local regional boards, which have to operate secretly in some areas, although not in Jakarta.

If Suharto resigns now people will still remember what he's done. Today people need food they are hungry, and if they can't get food they will go out onto the streets. A lot of people now try and force open the shops and take food. It is the first time I think that there is a possibility of a revolution. The situation is getting out of control. People have suffered for 30 years under Suharto and they will do things in their own way even if it means killings.


Trade unionist Dita Sari was jailed after leading a mass workers' demonstration in Surabaya in July 1996. In an International Women's Day message this year, she said:

'We bow our heads for all the fighters who have fallen opposing the international system that oppresses the people, especially women. Our struggle will not be finished until women are equal with men, as members of a working class that will rule over a just and prosperous world. Over the past few months, almost all Indonesian women...have had to confront an economy strangled by the bankrupt New Order dictatorship. Their children malnourished, with milk prices soaring, education costs out of reach, mass sackings and millions out of work... Our struggle will not be separate from the prayers and struggles of our international comrades we are one.'


Jakarta labour researcher Vedi Hadiz says, 'Perhaps 2 million have lost their jobs. It's worst in the building industry where companies run on debt. But factory workers are now seeing their companies closing or cutting back drastically. Some estimates suggest that there will be 13.5 million 'open' unemployment. 'Disguised' unemployment could reach 48 million, more than half the workforce. On top of this, prices of essential goods have risen drastically, up to three and four times. The minimum wage is usually raised each new year, but this year no rise was announced. There have already been small eruptions in factories because employers refuse to pay traditional holiday bonuses in full. In the short run there is potential for a wave of disturbances. But the independent unions and labour activist groups are still too weak. The officially recognised government union SPSI has no teeth.'


Who's who?

  • Megawati Sukarnoputri leads the unofficial 'Fighting' Indonesian Democratic Party (Fighting PDI). The official PDI is Suharto's puppet. Megawati has a huge following, but is extremely cautious and refuses to mobilise serious struggles.

  • Popular Muslim leader Amien Rais plays a similar moderate role. A sharp and courageous critic but has yet to go further than that. Many Muslims would follow him if he called for action, but he shows no sign of doing so.

  • A wide range of NGOs (non-governmental organisations) activists organised around labour issues, women's and human rights, the environment and legal aid are loosely linked in the Indonesian United Democratic Party (PUDI), whose leader, Sri Bintang Pamungkas, has been gaoled by the regime.

  • The Indonesian Prosperous Trade Union (SBSI) led by Muchtar Pakpahan is the biggest independent workers' organisation, and was associated with a 20,000 strong mass strike in Medan (Sumatra) in 1994. Muchtar Pakpahan is also in prison.

  • The radical People's Democratic Party (PRD) was blamed for the 1996 Jakarta riots and its leaders gaoled, the group fights on underground. While not calling for socialism, the PRD believes in militant struggle against the bosses.

    Return to
    Contents page: Return to Socialist Review Index Home page