Issue 254 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published July 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review



Different forces are jostling for power in Indonesia. Alexis Wearmouth explains the latest stage in the crisis, and we carry a report from the anti-capitalist conference in Jakarta which was closed down by the police

Wahid enjoys the riches
Wahid enjoys the riches
A recent survey by Media Indonesia indicated that Indonesians would now prefer former dictator Suharto to the democrat Wahid by a factor of 26 to one. This astonishing statistic is testimony to the sheer economic desperation millions of ordinary Indonesians face. Indonesia, the fourth biggest populated country on earth, is still suffering the fallout from the Asian crisis of 1998. But it is also an indication of the massive disillusionment with the process of 'reformasi'--political reform--by the political elite in the capital, Jakarta, which has so far failed to deliver any real change. A vortex of competing nationalisms, communal and religious violence is now filling the vacuum, met by increased repression by the generals in an attempt to preserve the unity of the Indonesian state and the generals' own privileged position within it.

The parliament responded to the current crisis on 30 May by voting 365 to four to impeach President Abdurrahman Wahid, popularly known as Gus Dur. Wahid's attempt two days beforehand to impose martial law in order to save himself fell flat on its face when the Jakarta chief of police, Bimantoro, declined to implement the order. Moreover, his refusal to resign his position to allow someone else to do so was supported by 8,000 officers demonstrating outside the presidential palace.

Wahid is charged with involvement in two separate corruption scandals, 'Brunei-gate' and 'Bulo-gate'. But in reality he stands indicted for failing to alleviate the economic crisis. Since the end of last year the IMF has withheld loans worth $400 million. The World Bank and the Japan Bank for International Cooperation have followed suit. The money is unlikely to be forthcoming until Wahid is replaced. The rupiah has slumped against the dollar and it is becoming increasingly difficult for the government to service a foreign debt of $145 billion. By November there will be no money left to pay civil servants. The economic growth of 4.1 percent experienced last year clawed back a fraction of the ground lost during the slump in 1997-98. That has now shrunk back to 2.5 percent. Recession will be compounded by lack of foreign investor confidence, chronic bad debts of domestic capitalists, the ensuing credit crunch, and a combination of the poverty of domestic consumption and shaky demand in Indonesia's export markets. The IMF's solution is, as ever, to hit the poor even harder by insisting the government impose more swingeing cuts in the subsidy on petrol prices. Yet it was precisely the rise in petrol prices that sparked the revolution last time round.

The economic crisis is not of Wahid's making, but he has become a ready scapegoat. The fundamental condition for the resolution of the crisis from the point of view of international capital is to challenge the entrenched corruption of the elite in Jakarta and in the army, who are by and large the same people as under Suharto. If this doesn't happen it will be impossible to institute the transparency in the financial and legal sectors that would be the premise of any renewed foreign investment. But Wahid is never going to be able to achieve this. His power has always been based on a precarious balance between presenting an acceptable democratic face to international business and placating the coalition of the elites who elected him.

Horizontal conflict

As the popular impetus behind Vice-President Megawati and her PDI-P party has ebbed, her moves to align with her former enemies in Suharto's Golkar party against Wahid have made her an acceptable choice to the Indonesian ruling class as the next president. Her consistent backing for IMF restructuring, combined with the popularity that comes from being the daughter of the nation's founding father, Sukarno, means that she will almost certainly become the next president.

However, some more IMF cash aside, the same economic contradictions that bedevilled the current reign will surely reassert themselves under 'Mega', pushing her in the same increasingly authoritarian direction. Her strident statements in support of the army against ethnic separatists in Aceh and elsewhere are one indicator of this tendency.

None of these forces at the top of Indonesian society represent a way forward. Rather they represent an extension and deepening of the bloody 'horizontal conflict' between the various factions of the ruling class and their clientele of armed militias drawn from their respective regional power bases. It is therefore perplexing that the main force on the left, the PRD, has chosen to support Wahid, believing that he is the best option. The dangers inherent in this strategy have been amply demonstrated by the recent army militia attack on the international anti-capitalist conference in Jakarta at the beginning of June.

Despite the extremely difficult situation, the left must present an alternative vision of 'vertical conflict' from below against the ruling class, rather than try to play the ruling class at their own game. The possibilities are demonstrated by the magnificent action of the year old dockers' union in getting 8,000 dockers in Jakarta to shut down the port on May Day this year. The ruling elite are divided. The new union federation, the SBSI, has had a role to play in involving young worker militants with other activists in initiatives like this month's anti-capitalist conference in Jakarta, in order to generalise from the best experiences of the movement. With petrol price rises and other attacks on the way, there is every possibility of generalising popular struggles that today are atomised--if the left takes a lead.

Conference clashes

Supporters of Megawati demonstrate
Supporters of Megawati demonstrate

Paul Kellogg, editor of Socialist Worker in Canada, travelled to Jakarta on 3 June to attend the 'Asia Pacific Peoples' Solidarity Conference: Fighting Neoliberalism in the Asia-Pacific'. The conference met for only one day and a half before it was raided by police and violently shut down. Paul was among 32 foreign delegates who were detained by police and had their passports seized.

The conference was organised by the People's Democratic Party (PRD) of Indonesia, the main left organisation involved in the revolutionary resistance that successfully challenged the Suharto regime in the spring of 1998. Paul was sent as a representative International Socialist tendency.

Organised under the umbrella organisation Indonesian Centre for Reform and Social Emancipation (Increase ), the conference was supported by various groups including the National Student League for Democracy, the National Peasant Union, the Indonesian National Front for Labour Struggle, the People's Cultural Network, the People's Youth Movement and the People's Legal Aid Foundation.

According to conference organisers, their aims included raising awareness within Indonesia about the nature and role of neoliberal economic policies; to help advance the process of the progressive movement in Indonesia develop its own alternatives to the IMF-prescribed neoliberal strategy of the Indonesian state; to develop cooperation between the Asia Pacific and other major areas such as Europe, North America and Latin America; and to introduce the international participants to the struggle for reform and social empowerment, for fundamental social change, in Indonesia.

The official reason for the repression was irregularities in the visas of the foreign delegates. But the real reason was the anti-capitalist political agenda that threatened the Indonesian state and the multinational corporations that back it up.

The foreign delegates from 12 nationalities included journalists, broadcasters and representatives of NGOs. Among them was Pierre Rousset, a high ranking official from the European Union. After foreign delegates were removed from the conference site, a Muslim militia wielding swords and knives attacked unarmed Indonesian delegates. The conference ended in bloodshed.

After being detained for several hours, the foreign delegates were given permission to leave the police station--but only on the condition that their passports were held and the one Indonesian detainee remained. For various reasons, about ten of the foreign delegates left the station. Paul was among the 22 who remained through the night. They successfully secured the release of the Indonesian detainee. While they were in the police station, Increase activists organised solidarity protests, press conferences, and arranged legal aid and other services.

As ASIET (Action in Solidarity with Indonesia and East Timor) summarises: 'This repressive action comes at a time of uncertainty for the future of Indonesian democracy as President Wahid comes under continuing attack from the forces of the old regime. It is a reflection of the anti-democratic resurgence of Golkar, the party of former dictator Suharto, as well as extreme right wing Islamic forces.'

'Our philosophy is solidarity'

Before the police raid in Indonesia Paul Kellogg, Tom O'Lincoln, Ian Rintoul and Giles Ungpakorn interviewed trade union activists in Jakarta
Indonesian workers

What are the conditions like for workers in Indonesia?

Let me give you an example of conditions. Go to the garment factories or the shoe factories. The working day is supposed to be eight hours. But almost every day, if there's work to be done, they'll have to do 2 or 3 hours of forced overtime, and there's no time and a half. You can start work at 8am and not be done until 9pm.

The bosses pay very low wages. They know the workers can't live on what they pay. So they let them steal some of what they make. They have calculated that it's cheaper than paying them. So the workers can steal just so much, and not more.

You're now allowed to have strikes, and that's good. But if the company has agreed to reopen talks, you have to stop the strike. If you keep striking, you go to jail. It's not always easy to talk politics, to organise, to get strike action going. Most workers are worried just about how they are going to get something to eat tomorrow. It's against the law to be fired for your union activity. But they find excuses. The boss will close the factory and move it to another place quite far away. Workers can't pick up and move like that. So that lets them get rid of the troublesome ten-year veterans and start over with younger, inexperienced and cheaper labour.

Free trade has been very bad for Indonesia. The prices of rice and gas and other things are kept low by government subsidies. But the IMF wants those subsidies gone. Twice the government has announced it would remove the subsidies, and twice it had to back off. It is afraid of what workers and the poor will do.

Another thing you should know is about how the name brand shoes and clothes are made. At a lot of factories they don't know what brand they're making. There are whole factories devoted to just putting on the labels.

Under Suharto all we could have in the factories were discussion groups, five here, ten there. After the fall of Suharto suddenly we could reach thousands. We started to complain, 'We don't know each other any more.' But that's a good problem.

We then piled into a car for a long ride to a house on the west of Jakarta. Inside we meet a group of about 12 trade unionists. One is the chair of the union. Two work in metal factories. The one woman present is the coordinator for organising with women workers. There's a worker from a bicycle spare parts factory. And one person there does legal advocacy. The main spokesperson is the general chairman of the Greater Jakarta Labour Union (SPJ)

What is the state of the union movement in Indonesia?

It's only in the last year or two that we've had real trade unions. Under the old regime people on the ground could do very little. Only now is the process at work of education of the working class. So even though the laws have changed, education is still necessary. If you ask workers why they join the union, they will say they are looking for action. If the union has a major success, workers will say, 'Now I want to get involved.'

Here is an example of a labour victory. There's a company called Mayora that makes snacks and chewing gum. It employs about 2,500 workers, and 1,361 were sacked because of strike activity. The union had just been formed, so it was a major challenge. To win their reinstatement the union blocked the Bitung and Gatot Subroto toll roads. Workers also slept in at the labour department for 18 days and at the company's main headquarters for seven days. We won all the jobs back.

What is the relationship between your union and politics?

Labour affairs are not separate from politics because this state was built on the sweat of the workers. The needs of the workers are affected by national and international politics. A big part of that in Indonesia is the heavy presence of the International Monetary Fund. What they have done [imposing price increases for the necessities of life] has shown us that politics and working class issues are inseparable.

Would you consider building a political party?

Unless I'm mistaken we already have three labour parties--but they mean nothing because of the low level of working class consciousness. And education needs energy, money, time-- this is not short term. But this is not separate from action. To get money to do education means collecting dues. If strikes win, dues go up. We need perseverance and patience.

In Thailand a lot of work amongst workers is done by NGOs. But they don't allow workers to lead themselves. Is this a problem in Indonesia?

Yes. It's the difference between a service union and a campaigning union. A campaigning union has to be based on the empowerment of workers, making sure workers are involved in the union. There has to be an emphasis on self activity.

The Quebec City protests against globalisation linked the institutions of global capitalism to the privatisation and deregulation that is wrecking workers lives. Is there this type of a mood in Indonesia?

People in Indonesia went to the World Bank. They pointed out to them that 30 percent of the wealth in Indonesia disappeared through corruption. So why can't the World Bank cut our debt by 30 percent? We didn't have any success with that.

There are struggles here that fit together with those struggles in the west. There is a lot of anti-debt agitation. That was a big thing at this year's May Day demonstrations. Indonesia is severely affected by international developments. So we know that it's important for struggles in the west to link with struggles in Indonesia.

The IMF plays a big part in Indonesian politics. They want subsidies on basic necessities removed. If this happens and prices go up, it would have a really negative impact on workers, making it difficult even to survive.

The fall of Suharto was the beginning for most real workers' organisations in Indonesia. Under the new order regime [Suharto], workers felt themselves to be the most downtrodden. Now they say this state wouldn't exist without us. Prices go up, and that's linked to both the IMF and the billions that Suharto stole.

The prospects for a militant movement are greater the more people become aware of all these issues. To link these issues, the philosophy of our union is solidarity. When workers are on strike in one place, other workers bring food, bring drinks, bring money. And even in difficult conditions we can see results. Ever since we blocked the toll roads the employers are scared of us, and we're getting a lot of quick settlements.

The prices of rice and gas are kept low by subsidies. But the IMF wants them gone

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