Fellow Workers, Fight On!

Against the Current, No. 69, July/August 1997

interview with Muchtar Pakpahan

THIS INTERVIEW WAS conducted in early May, while Muchtar Pakpahan was being treated at a private hospital in Jakarta. Also present were Soenarti, SBSI Secretary General, Acting Chairman Tohap Simanungkalit and SBSI activist Rekson Silaban. The responses were first discussed among the SBSI leaders.

Togi Simanjuntak: You are accused of involvement in the 27 July incident. Many observers argue that the pro-democracy movement has been immobilized since the event. How do you see the prospects of workers’ struggle, and particularly the SBSI, given the objective conditions facing the movement?

Muchtar Pakpahan: The establishment of the SBSI on 25 April 1992 was prompted by the long-term suffering of workers: their lack of basic rights, their lack of freedom to organize, their very low wages and ill-treatment. For these reasons they established a union, established the SBSI.

Although the 27 July incident had many consequences, which caused the pro-democracy movement to pause, or even fall down flat, and many people withdrew from the movement, the SBSI will continue for as long as workers still have faith in the SBSI, for as long as the suffering of workers continues. It is the suffering of workers that has provided the impetus. So the 27 July incident has no impact on the workers movement.

Without workers struggling for the freedom to organize there is no possibility for their fate to be improved. For that reason workers must continue to struggle, and will succeed. If not, Indonesia will experience difficulties in the future.

TS: What is your view of the trial process that is currently taking place with respect to pro-democracy activists, i.e. the PRD activists, as well as you yourself?

MP: The political trials of the PRD activists are like the trial I have already experienced, trials that are not fair and are not neutral, that are not balanced. This can be seen in each court session. If a prosecution witness gives testimony in our favor, he is immediately snapped at by the judge or escorted out. And if we formulate questions, the judge turns them into new questions, so that the sense and purpose of the question becomes different, and gives the witness free rein to clarify what he knows. He is coaxed to ensure that his answer is what the judge wants to hear.

These are the kinds of political trials we are now experiencing. Clearly, in my heart, I cannot accept this kind of thing. I will confront it, I must oppose it. It is for this [reason] too that we are struggling to bring about change in Indonesia — including the desire to create a justice system unlike the one we have now, one which is independent and impartial. And I believe that the prospects for such change, which include altering the legal system, will develop in tandem with globalization and the APEC free trade era.

TS: Has your imprisonment resulted in difficulties for the SBSI?

MP: The SBSI is not me and I am not the SBSI. The SBSI consists of thousands of members and hundreds of organizers. For that reason, even if I am imprisoned, the SBSI’s programs will continue throughout my time in jail. There is no problem. There are still other organizers. These days the SBSI continues to be headed by Soenarti as the Secretary General and Tohap as Acting Chairman.

TS: The government has recently issued draft legislation regarding manpower. Labor observers regard the draft as containing many negative aspects. What do you think of it? What is the really substantial problem facing workers in Indonesia?

MP: In general terms the draft legislation on manpower is bad. Specifically, the item on freedom to organize does not give workers room to unionize. More than half of the workers are required to establish a union. And the unions that are established will clearly be those acceptable to the government. The criteria is determined by the government, and so too are the details for sacking workers.

Therefore the substance of the law merely constitutes legitimacy to governmental authorities to determine everything. This draft gives the government the opportunity to make twenty-five new regulations.

In other words, this draft law corners workers and puts them in a very weak bargaining position compared to the owners of capital. And the draft makes clear that in the end everything is up to the government. That is why the SBSI has prepared revisions. And the SBSI will work as hard as possible to fight it [the existing draft].

TS: On the 29 May 1997 there will be general elections and in March 1998 the General Session of the People’s Consultative Assembly. How do you see the contemporary political situation? Can Megawati Sukarnoputri lead the ranks of the people towards an Indonesia that is more just, prosperous and democratic?

MP: The general elections taking place on 29 May are no more than a way of legitimizing the continuing authority of Suharto. Everything is up to Suharto.

We will continue to struggle so that in the days to come there will be change and renewal. As for the hope that Megawati is capable of leading change, I believe that this is possible. It depends on Megawati seeing and using the moment. If I were asked what I would most hope for, it would be peaceful change. If that is the case, then it is better that Suharto carries this out.

TS: A last question. With respect to the court process you are currently undergoing, is there anything that you would like to say to workers, both in Indonesia and abroad?

MP: I hope there will continue to be support from friends who are leaders of unions in the international community. Ask the Indonesian government to respect the Constitution and to put into effect the conventions recognized by the international community.

And to Indonesian workers I say, don’t be afraid to fight for your rights and don’t stop fighting, continue the struggle. Because unless workers struggle to improve the situation, you will never enjoy a better life. Continue the struggle!

ATC 69, July-August 1997