Issue 223 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 1998 Copyright Socialist Review

Students protests in Jakarta

Indonesia: the revolution's, next step

As the struggle against the Habibie regime begins to rise, John Rees reports from the Indonesian capital, Jakarta.

Riots, demonstrations, strikes and protests are now a daily fact of life here in Indonesia. Every day in Jakarta alone the students who brought down the Suharto dictatorship last May are back on the streets demanding the resignation of President BJ Habibie, Suharto's chosen successor. They also want an end to the so called 'dual function' of the massive military--industrial machine, ABRI, which allowed the armed forces to become the backbone of the Suharto state.

But the students are not the only force ranged against the new government: rioters, mostly the urban poor whose numbers have grown as unemployment has risen by 100 percent in the year ending last July, driven by hunger and impoverished even further than normal by hyperinflation, are taking to the streets in every part of this massive country. And organised workers are also beginning to flex their muscles.

The Habibie government vacillates on an almost hourly basis. It is pushed one way by the ruling class and the military who are its dominant office holders, but is still fearful that another round of insurrectionary protests will force it from power. In East Timor, the government has to promise that it is withdrawing troops, but is then exposed as simply moving them around to different bases in the jungle. The ruling Golkar party is still the mainstay of the regime, but has to remove its own former ministers from the working party on the new parliamentary body.

Most importantly, after 1,000 students protested and fought with police and soldiers outside the parliament building in mid-September, the Minister of Defence and Commander of the Security/Armed Forces, hardliner General Wiranto, warned that 'ABRI will not hesitate to take firm actions against any street demonstrations which disturb the peace... You [reporters] should just await my firm actions.' And wait we did. as student demonstrators gathered outside Wiranto's defence ministry the following day the army was out in force. But while soldiers blocked the road in front of the ministry there was little evidence of a crackdown. Nor did any evidence emerge as student protests and riots swept the country again in the following days.

Wiranto and his fellow ministers may have their doubts about the reliability of the troops. Sat underneath a tree in Jakarta's Merdeka Square waiting for the demonstration outside the defence ministry to begin, I saw a soldier ten yards away flick away an old newspaper with his baton to reveal a pair of Y-fronts drying on the grass, left there by the poor of the shanty huts erected in the middle of the park. The soldier bent down and picked them up, carefully folded them, and put them in the leg pocket of his fatigues. Any government which relies on soldiers so poor they have to steal used underpants from the outcasts of the city is not resting on a firm foundation. Indeed many soldiers, though privileged and with access to graft denied ordinary workers, don't earn much more than, and live amongst, the workers.

In addition the ideological ties which bound the soldiers to the regime are fraying. Under Suharto's dictatorship the army was officially revered as the central pillar of the state. But now the government line is that we are all living in the 'era of reform'. Even the expensive cars on Jakarta's expressways sport 'Pro Reformasi' stickers in their back windows. Yet if reform is to mean anything it must mean a diminution of the armed forces' role in politics. So even the regime has had to end the law obliging the families and children of armed forces members to vote for Suharto's Golkar party in elections. General Sutrinso said, 'It's not the era of giving orders any more. It's now the era of reform'. Even Suharto's second son, Bambang Trihatmodjo, the chair of the Communication Forum of Indonesian Veterans' Children, parrots the new line by supporting a statement which read: 'Political aspiration should now be based on trust, expectations, visions of struggle and political rights.'

No wonder Wiranto is reduced to complaining in the press that criticism of ABRI is getting out of hand: 'Judging past incidents with the current paradigm [of the reform era] is just not right... If this goes on and on, it's not impossible that it could disrupt the administration of the state and the government.'

Students protests in Jakarta

But the political attacks on ABRI and the new government will go on because they are just the symptom of a huge social and economic crisis. The Food and Horticulture Ministry reports that some 17 million families (or 68 million individuals out of a total population of 200 million) are 'hit by dire food shortages'. In central and east Java, the richest and most populous island in the archipelago, some 17.5 million people survive on one meal a day. Another 38 million eat twice a day, but 'this ability is declining fast' according to the ministry. Yet Indonesia remains a society where capitalist industry dominates the social landscape--and the rich continue to live a life a galaxy away socially, but yards away geographically. Versace may be closing down in Jakarta's expensive shopping malls and Sogo, the Japanese equivalent of Harrods, may be having a sale, but the rich still flock to the exclusive air conditioned boutiques and food courts in Blok M Plaza; outside on the steps an eight year old beggar sits with a baby too young to walk propped up beside him, its legs and arms covered in sores. They are just two out of tens of thousands who stand or crouch on every intersection and street corner in Jakarta.

They do not know the fear they cause in the highest circles. Even the IMF, while continuing to squeeze Indonesia's economy, has warned that the government must take immediate action to stop further increases in the price of rice and boost supplies. The Jakarta Post reports that throughout south east Asia 'popular anger has frozen policy making... policy choices made on a day to day basis could spark large political struggles.' Fear of 'unrest' is the sometimes spoken, but always present, text of every official announcement.

But many workers and urban poor cannot wait any longer as the government and the IMF fail to square the circle of insisting on free market 'reforms' while simultaneously trying to 'prevent unrest'. In a few days in mid-September there were riots and looting in Bondowoso, East Java, where one man was killed by the army as a crowd attacked rice mills and shops selling basic commodities; in Malang, East Java, five were wounded as a crowd took 50 metric tonnes of rice from a warehouse, and also took 15,000 chickens, six televisions and one pick-up van in another incident; in Banyuwangi six were arrested for stealing teak trees (part of the 100,000 teak trees which have been taken in recent weeks) but were freed when a crowd threatened to burn down the police station where they were being held; in Gresik police arrived too late to stop the looting of three shrimp farms; in Ngawi police were overwhelmed as villagers raided a teak plantation. In west Java workers toil in the onion fields under armed police guard. In Jakarta itself a fire raged for 15 hours when the three storey Senen shopping centre in the middle of the city was looted.

The weaknesses of the riots and the student movement are their fragmentation. No concerted organisation can guide rioting and, at the moment, no concerted organisation leads the student struggles. Hundreds of activists' committees call protests, often on the same day in the same city only hours or hundreds of yards apart. But in Medan on the island of Sumatra something has happened which shows how the movement could unite in future struggles. Public transport workers struck at the same time as students protested against ABRI, and commuters, unable to get to work, rioted and looted. It's the first time the various elements opposed to the regime have acted together. It came spontaneously, but the workers' action--well organised and drawing in youth from the urban poor who intimidated the few strikebreaking vehicles which did appear on the streets--acted as its stable core. If the example is understood and spreads, the Habibie government will have become qualitatively more unstable.

If Habibie falls it could still be to the right. ABRI remains coherent enough to step in. But it is probably still more likely that Habibie will fall to the left, in which case the likely immediate beneficiaries will be the 'moderate' opposition. This is dominated by Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of Indonesia's founding nationalist leader, Sukarno, and head of the Indonesian Democratic Party, and Amien Rais, Muslim leader of the newly established National Mandate Party (PAN). Both have mass support. Megawati's supporters petition at railway stations, her image adorns cheap mirrors sold at roadside stalls and her stickers are found on the windows of shacks in the dirt alleyways of poor ghettos. Rais's support comes from the 28 million strong Islamic movement.

Both are courting popular sentiment, calling for investigations of Suharto's wealth, meeting with the relatives of those kidnapped by the military under Suharto, and were instrumental in getting Habibie to pull national elections forward by a year to May 1999. But both are so timid that they make the bourgeois opposition that Marx and Engels denounced for their cowardice during the 1848 revolution in Germany look like revolutionary heroes of unmatched courage. Here is just one small example: Amien Rais has set up an independent team to investigate Suharto's massive wealth, estimated by the US magazine Forbes to be US$4 billion. Not that radical a move, but a good idea--until Rais then announced that such an investigation would need the approval of Habibie and ABRI, the person and the institution most likely to be implicated by such an investigation, before it could act!

So it is certain that, if the crisis of the Habibie regime puts Megawati or Rais in power, the fundamentals of the capitalist economy and the old state structure will remain. It is equally certain that all the current 'democratic' supporters of reform will cry, 'Thus far and no further.' The sole effective force remaining to confront the regime will be the working class.

The fate of the Indonesian revolution will then depend on whether an effective leadership can emerge within the working class which will continue to organise around demands for workers to take control of the economy, feed the starving, set the unemployed to work and so on. The Indonesian working class started from nothing only last May. Union federations are springing up. Socialists, many of them students, are heading into the working class districts and into the poor ghettos as organisers. Some of them are beginning to look towards the Marxist tradition and so to understand how the democratic revolution can grow over into the socialist revolution as the democratic leaders fail to fulfil the hopes first raised by the fall of Suharto. On their progress the fate of the Indonesian revolution will ultimately rest.


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