Can Repression Save Indonesia’s Suharto?

Against the Current, No. 65, November/December 1996

Dianne Feeley

THE COST OF maintaining President Suharto and his family’s monopoly on Indonesia–a country of nearly 200 million people scattered across thousands of islands and, for the last twenty years, illegally occupying East Timor–is quickening in the face of a general election scheduled for early 1997.

In 1965, Suharto–at that time commander of a rapid deployment force–overthrew President Sukarno (who had declared Indonesia’s independence from The Netherlands in 1945 and had been revered as a political figure who sided with the poor) and unleashed a bloodbath in which more than a million people were killed. Thousands spent fifteen years in internment camps and hundreds of thousands were forced to carry special identity cards.

Since the coup, Suharto has run the country as his personal fiefdom. While the CIA estimates Suharto’s personal wealth at $30 million, what characterizes the Suharto regime is cronyism, corruption and a militarization of society. As industrialization in the 1980s brought new wealth to Suharto’s family and his long-term business partners, it also led to a dramatic escalation of grassroots organization among peasants, workers and the urban poor. Industrialization cannot paper over the glaring problems of human rights abuses, growing unemployment and environmental devastation, in fact it underscores them.

The Suharto regime has also ruled with arrogance and terror. Although killings on the scale of 1965 have not been repeated, over the last ten years the army has massacred peasants in conflicts over land and demon<->strators demanding their democratic rights. Extreme repression has also been normal operating procedure in East Timor, where 200,000 (one-third of the population) died at the direct hands of the military or as a result of dislocation. Until last summer such brutal methods have never been used against leaders and members of officially recognized political parties, such as the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI).

The Army Attacks Strikers

On July 8 the military attacked a peaceful rally of 20,000 factory workers and their supporters in Indonesia’s second largest city, Surabaya, East Java. The workers, from ten factories in Surabaya’s factory belt, were on strike, demanding a wage increase from $3 a day to $4, improvements in health and safety conditions and an end to the military’s role in the internal life of unions.

Many demonstrators were injured and thirty were arrested. Most were released within forty-eight hours, but among those still in jail are Ms. Dita Indah Sari, the president of the Center for Indonesian Labor Struggles (PPBI); Mr. Coen Hussein Pontoh, a leader of the national peasant union (STN); and Sholeh, an activists from the Students in Solidarity with Democracy in Indonesia (SMID). All are members of the Peoples Democratic Party (PRD).

Dita and her colleagues have been accused of “spreading hatred against the government,” a charge for which, if convicted, they can be imprisoned for eight years.

Ousting Megawati’s Supporters

On July 27 five hundred commandos, wearing the red-and-black colors of the Indonesian Democratic Party, stormed the its headquarters in Jakarta. Armed with clubs, they chased dozens of PDI members out of the building and into the surrounding streets. Their task was to clear the headquarters of supporters of Ms. Megawati Sukarnoputri, a PDI member of Parliament and the daughter of President Sukarno.

Although the PDI was formed in the early 1970s, and is a party officially recognized by the Suharto regime, particularly in the last three years its members have waged a struggle for democracy and against the dictatorship’s interference in its internal life. Since 1992 the PDI has articulated some of the criticisms of middle-level business groups who want an end to the privileged position of the Suharto family and its partners in business. They also want a government based on law. Thus the PDI’s image as the voice of the little person has developed out of the party’s willingness to champion democracy in a society marked by both extreme centralization of political power and by growing inequality.

Suharto was aware of Megawati’s capacity to establish herself as a magnet for democratic forces and attempted to block her rise. The PDI was forced to conduct extraordinary congresses in over to elect Megawati PDI chairwoman. She, in turn, has used her political leadership to defy the regime. Frightened by her potential to challenge Suharto, the government organized a fake PDI convention last June, and replaced her with a more malleable figure, Mr. Suryadi.

The Suharto regime then ordered Megawati’s supporters to stop using the PDI headquarters for “democratic open forums.” When they didn’t, security forces raided. However the expulsion of pro-Megawati forces led to a demonstration of 10,0000 PDI members who protested the attack on their offices. The rally was, however, violently dispersed by steel-baton-wielding soldiers.

As news of the attack spread, young people converged in the streets. They turned their rage on near-by targets of greed and wealth: an agriculture ministry building, a Toyota dealership, several banks. They sacked, smashed and burned the equipment and buildings. Rioting took place over a twenty-four hour period.

The National Commission for Human Rights, established by the Suharto dictatorship, has issued a preliminary report that indicates on July 27-28 five people were killed and seventy-four are still missing. Sources in Jakarta believe that at least forty-seven were shot and knifed to death while as many as 158 are missing and 200 were arrested.

Megawati has remained defiant, asserting that she is the legitimate leader of the PDI and demanding that the government allow the PDI to decide their own internal policies. At the same time local PDI branches are filing legal challenges to the Suryadi leadership in more than 200 local courts. This represents the single biggest political case in Indonesian history.

But the government and its military are defiant too. The army claims that the PDI is a Trojan Horse inside of which can be found the PRD. They have stationed thousands of combat troops with “shoot-on-sight” orders at key locations in the capital. The armed forces has ordered the arrest of all PRD members, but such an order is illegal under Indonesian law, which requires warrants with specified crimes. As the Director General of Social and Political Affairs, Sutoyo, told the press, “The Armed Forces will go after all the members of the PRD. We are not on the defensive here, we are on the offensive. the Anti-Subversion Law will be used against them.”

Who Is the PRD?

On August 7 President Suharto accused the PRD of acting in a way tantamount to insurrection on July 27, when the street rioting followed the military attack on the PDI offices so the intentions of the government is clear: use the moment to destroy the PRD. The frenzied campaign against the PRD can intimidate Megawati and her supporters as well.

As of early October, thirty-four members of the PRD had been arrested. These include three national leaders: PRD chairman Budiman Sujatmiko, PRD secretary general Petrus Haryanto and I. Pranowo, PPBI secretary general. At least ten are threatened with being charged and tried under the 1962 Anti-Subversion Law, which carries the maximum penalty of death. No person ever put on trial in Indonesia under political laws has ever been found innocent.

Lawyers for the PRD prisoners have refused to sign the reports on their interrogation. This is the first time Indonesian political prisoners have refused to sign. According to one of Budiman Sudjatmiko’s lawyers, prisoners cannot be legally detained unless they sign. So far, thirty-three lawyers have volunteered to form a defense team for the PRD leaders in Jakarta, a similar team has been formed in Surabaya to defend the PRD prisoners in East Java.

The Indonesian army newspaper, News of War, ran an article on the PRD and described it as an organization run by young people. Quoting unnamed “activist sources,” the article summed up the PRD and its cadre:

“They operate in strategic areas, among students and workers, forming public opinion through leaflets and publications. Wherever there are leaflets and an action of over 1000 people, it’s the PRD behind it. They are very clever and intelligent young people. They are not only very theoretically brilliant, rivaling any scholar, but also throw themselves into the field. They are not only brilliant orators casting a spell over the people, but also understand the people in great detail. That’s the PRD.”

In actuality the PRD was formed by activists from various grassroots groupings that developed in the early 1990s as student activists joined with workers and farmers in a series of campaigns for improvements in their conditions. They developed a strategy of mass mobilization of workers and adopted a general program aimed at achieving a multiparty democracy, with the right to freedom of organization for workers, peasants and all oppressed sections of society. In the words of the PRD itself, “Democracy is the bridge than can lead to a more civilized society, reflecting the people’s aspirations.” In the PRD’s 1994 declaration, democracy must exist in politics, in economics, in the culture.

But since the PRD’s beginning in 1994 the Suharto regime has threatened it with sanctions should it engage in political activity. Soesilo Soedarman, Minister for Politics and Security stated that “The PRD is not legal.” Director-General of Social Political Affairs of the Home Affairs Ministry, Sutoyo, announced that if the PRD puts up resistance, the police will “disband them forcibly.”

Government Moves

By the end of August the heads of all the government-recognized parties (Golkar–Suharto’s party, the Moslem United Development Party and Suryadi for the PDI) met and agreed they all supported the president. They also pledged to refrain from criticizing each other during the elections.

On September 4 Suharto ordered the national Defense and Security Council to prepare regulations that would forbid all outdoor rallies and political activities during the campaign period. All show of mass support is banned and all political activity is to be held indoors. This ban prevents the pro-Megawati PDI majority from mobilizing people and also alleviates the problem that a government-recognized party might have in turning out a crowd.

The first international response to the events in Indonesia is being organized for October 28. Hunger strikes, petitioning, leafleting, picketing and actions at Indonesian consulates will occur on that international day of protest. The demands are:

* Release all people detained following the military assault on the headquarters of the Indonesian Democratic Party on July 27, including those like Mokhtar Pakpahan [leader of the Indonesian Prosperity Workers Union, SBSI], later taken into custody.

* Release the leaders of the Peoples Democratic Party (PRD) arrested in Surabaya on July 8

* End all intervention into the internal affairs of the PDI and restore recognition of the elected leadership

* End all repression against the PDI and the PRD and permit freedom of assembly and association.

For further information about the on-going campaign, contact AISET, P.O. Box 458, Broadway 2007, Australia. Fax: 61-02-6901381; e-mail:

ATC 65, November-December 1996