Indonesia’s New Social Upsurge

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

Togi Simanjuntak

[This article continues our coverage of the ongoing Indonesian crisis. In our previous issue (ATC 68), correspondent Carolus Irawan Saptono reported on the preparations for the fraudulent and repression-ridden election. This was subsequently “won” as predicted by the Suharto regime’s Golkar party, with over 70% of the proclaimed vote. The deaths of over 250 people in protests against the rigged election, however, came as an embarrassment to the regime and signal of a weakening dictatorship.

[The following report focuses on the revival of the labor movement and the repressive response. Previous coverage of the crackdown against the radical wing of the labor and peasant movement, the Center for Indonesian Labor Struggles (PPBI), the national peasant PTN and an allied student federation appeared in ATC 65 (“Will Repression Save Suharto?” by Dianne Feeley).

[The author of the following article, Togi Simanjuntak, is a researcher with the Institute for the Studies on the Free Flow of Information (ISAI) and a member of the Alliance of Independent Journalists, a journalists’ organization set up after the banning of three media (Tempo, DeTiK, and Editor) in June 1994.]

“whispering into the world’s ear: ‘I have seen marsinah,(1)
marsinah has spoken to me'”
— Putu Oka Sukanta,(2) Marsinah, Jakarta, 1993

“titik sugiarti(3) will not rise again
but the embers left burning will not be extinguished”
— Putu Oka Sukanta, Bara di Kolam Limbah
(Embers in the Stagnant Pool), Jakarta, May 1994

JUST A WEEK before the 1997 election campaign period there was a wave of protests and strikes involving thousands of workers in a number of industrial areas in Java, including Tangerang, Bekasi, Bogor and Ungaran. The actions called on companies to fulfill minimum working standards, in particular by paying the government-regulated regional minimum wage.

These protests came as a considerable surprise, given earlier warnings by officials that action would be taken against any possible threat to the smooth running of the 29 May election. If necessary, according to police spokesman Nurfaizi, this included shooting on sight.

Apart from the protest action by thousands of Megawati Sukarnoputri supporters at the parliament building on 15 April, these labor strikes represent the biggest street protests since the 27 July 1996 riots(4). Yet as a result of the government’s repression and persecution of its critics in the aftermath of the July events, political observers have described pro-democracy groups as “lying prone.”

The implications that a labor strike can have was clarified by an official in the Ministry of Manpower, Bomer Pasaribu. He pointed out that the failure — on the part of both companies and government — to listen to workers’ demands could lead to further worker action in the pre-election period. Bomer’s statement, and the workers’ protests themselves, point to the significant role of workers as a determining factor in assisting the climate of political change in Indonesia.

Thus far the role of workers as an element of the people’s movement appears to have been ignored by the broader political community that is seeking to bring about the ideals of democracy in Indonesia. Yet the assumption that democratization can be achieved by relying on the educated middle class is incorrect.

The characteristics of the process of capitalization in Indonesia are different than those in Western Europe, North America, or even newly industrial nations such as South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Malaysia.(5) Further, the fulfillment of workers’ basic rights runs parallel with the struggle to create a more democratic government.

While many workers in Indonesia are still focusing on the struggle for their basic rights, fulfillment of these rights runs parallel with the struggle to create a more democratic government. In the future — particularly in the free market era–it appears inevitable that the call for basic rights, and the need for structural change in the political system and in government economic policies, will run in tandem.

New strategies being employed in the workers’ struggle — both in terms of scale and at a political and structural level — have been pioneered by two independent workers’ organizations formed in the last four years: the Indonesian Workers’ Prosperity Union (SBSI) and the Indonesian Centre for Workers’ Struggle (PPBI). But following the government’s persecution of leading activists in the crackdown that followed the July 27th incident, the work needs revitalizing.

Global Economic Squeeze

The government faces major economic challenges and these will certainly have an influence on politics. While Indonesia has been able to attract foreign investment because of its cheap labor force and natural resources — and its relative political “stability” — it now faces competition from China and Vietnam, whose workers’ wages average only thirty-six cents a day. These two countries have already liberalized their economies so as to be able to integrate into the world market.

Indonesia’s capacity to compete in non-oil exports, such as textiles and shoes, which up to now have been mainstays,(6) has been weakened by industrial mobility. At the same time, the country is not yet really prepared with a sophisticated high-, medium- or even very low-technology industry. This is aggravated by pressure from the international community regarding human rights — especially in regard to East Timor — and protectionist national car legislation.(7)

As foreign investors flock to Indonesia looking for new subcontractors, the basic rights of workers and their freedom to organize remain at a disappointingly low level despite the guarantees outlined in Article 28 of the country’s constitution. One well known example is of Nike. [Nike’s behavior at home and abroad is discussed in Bill Resnick’s article elsewhere in this issue of Against the Current — ed.]

Through the use of subcontractors, Nike employs 22,000 Indonesian workers. The average worker earns roughly $2.50 a day, among the lowest wages in the Third World. Yet the struggle to improve wages and working conditions has been blocked by the government. For example, only one organization, the All Indonesia Workers Union (SPSI), is officially recognized as a legal workers organization.

The Indonesian government’s records put the number of SPSI members at more than 1.1 million, comprising some ten thousand workplace units. A retired military officer and a district level leader of the ruling party Golkar usually chair the SPSI branches at a provincial level. The Minister of Manpower is a member of the SPSI’s Consultative Council. SPSI members are directed to become members of Golkar, and Golkar members dominate the SPSI leadership (see Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1991, U.S. Department of State, February 1992, 870).

Anyone wanting to set up an independent workers organization — or organizations for other professions<197>are usually prevented from doing so by the application of Law No. 8 of 1985 concerning Social Organizations. The law states that an organization wishing to establish itself or legalize its existence must include Pancasila, the state ideology in its statute.

On the pretext of acting in the interests of the security of the nation, the law gives the state the power to control non-governmental organizations that receive foreign assistance without the consent of the government. Additionally, through Article 8, the government seeks to pressure nongovernmental organizations into forming umbrella organizations, facilitating government control.

Examples of such umbrella organizations are the SPSI (workers), the PGRI (teachers), the PWI (journalists) and the KPI (seamen). (See Ben Witjes, “The Indonesian Law on Social Organizations: A Study of the Sociopolitical Context and the Consequences for Indonesian and Foreign NGOs,” Nijmegen (Netherlands), April 1987, 50.)

As far as wages are concerned, despite the fact that over the last four years the minimum regional wage(8) has risen by 125%, there is still a gap between the minimum wage and what is needed to meet the cost of living. Over the last thirteen years the regional minimum wage has risen by as much as 270%, but food, housing and transport have increased by around 400%. This means that Indonesian workers in 1982 were better off by one-third than they were in 1995.

The level of pay in Indonesia constitutes the lowest in ASEAN. While the rate of pay in Indonesia by 1993 had risen to twenty-eight cents an hour, in Singapore the rate is $5.12, in Malaysia it is $1.80 and in the Philippines it is sixty-eight cents.

Mechanisms of Labor Control

In Indonesia the government has set up a system of industrial relations that dictates every disagreement must be resolved through the Tripartite Cooperative Institute. This mechanism comprises workers’ representatives (in this case SPSI representatives), representatives of the owners, and the government (the Department of Manpower/Labour).

Due to its lack of independence, the SPSI, representing the workers and to whom workers look to for support, is coopted by the government and acts as an extension of the owners. When agreement is not reached and workers respond by demonstrating or striking, the military — as an extrajudicial force(9) — frequently intervenes and intimidates workers. Marsinah, Rusli and Titi Sugiarti(10) are examples of three labour activists who have died in the struggle for workers rights.

The last four years have seen the rise of independent labour organizations, which have become alternative channels for the aspiration of workers. These are the SBSI and the PPBI. The two have even attempted to integrate the workers’ struggle into the democratization movement. For example, PPBI protest actions always raise the issue of abolishing the package of five political laws that are proclaimed in Article 28 of the country’s constitution. Pro-democracy activists and critical intellectuals regard the package (laws on political parties, social organizations, general elections, the parliament and People’s Consultative Assembly, and referenda) as restricting the right to organize, gather and express opinions.

The PPBI also challenges the dual function of the military, a concept through which the military actively intervenes in the socio-political affairs of the country. Worker activists argue that workers cannot hope to receive their rights if they are denied the possibility of establishing an independent workers organization.

Wilson, Chairman of the PPBI’s Education and Propaganda Division, told this writer that it is impossible to struggle for workers’ basic rights without challenging the military’s right to be involved in all aspects of political and economic life to such an extent that it threatens any possibility of democratic life.

The Transformation of the Movement

In the beginning the SBSI was led by activists from nongovernmental organizations in North Sumatra affiliated to the Batak Protestant Church (HKBP), an ethnic Batak Protestant church organization. In addition there were others, such as labor lawyer Muchtar Pakpahan, the current SBSI chair, who were involved in advocacy work for workers.

Despite intimidation and pressure from the military, the SBSI swiftly established 87 branches across the country, claiming a membership of around 250,000. In an effort to stifle the SBSI’s growth, the Department of Labour used as weapons the regulations contained in Law No. 8 of 1985 concerning Mass Organizations, as well as Ministerial Regulation No. 5 of 1987 concerning the establishment of an organization or union.

The government’s repression of the SBSI also uses extrajudicial intervention to intimidate worker activists. Military intervention has frequently been used to halt SBSI activities, whether workers’ training sessions, the establishment of organizational branches, or protest actions and strikes. Activists are used to being military interrogation — even being subjected to physical intimidation — as well as threatened with arrest, trial and imprisonment.

In October 1992 Muchtar Pakpahan and nine other leaders were interrogated overnight by police. Their alleged crime? They were involved in discussions about establishing a branch office in Tangerang. The U.S. Embassy attache for labour affairs, Greg Talcott, who had been present at the meeting, was also interrogated for an hour before being released.

On another occasion, as a result of a national strike in February 1994(11), Pakpahan, Soenarti (Chairman of the Executive Council), and Trisjanto (leader of the SBSI in Central Java) were arrested by police and charged under Article 155 of the Criminal Code.

Even the SBSI’s training session in Sibolangit, North Sumatra, was broken up in November 1995 by some forty members of the security forces. Thirty-five training participants, including five SBSI organizers, were interrogated for ten hours in the local police station.(12)

Following this violation of their rights, Pakpahan and sixteen SBSI leaders went to the National Human Rights Commission and the national parliament to complain about the breaking up of the meeting. They also questioned the statement made by the regional military commander, who banned all SBSI activities in four provinces: Aceh, North Sumatra, West Sumatra and Riau.

Government Provocations

Muchtar Pakpahan and other SBSI leaders were involved in a major demonstration involving tens of thousands of workers from more than 80 factories in Medan (North Sumatra) from 14-19 April 1994. Demonstrators called on the governor to meet four demands: an increase in wages from about $1.50 to about $3.50 per day; a review of Minister of Manpower regulation No.1/1994, which allows the government to recognize the SPSI as the one and only officially-recognized workers union; an impartial investigation into the death of Rusli; and reinstatement of 389 workers sacked after a strike at the PT Korek Api Deli factory in March 1994.

Dissatisfied at the attitude of government officials in response to these demands, the angry crowds were infiltrated by the military. Shops were damaged and looted and many cars were damaged. Yuli Kristianto, an ethnic Chinese businessman, was killed by the crowd after they surrounded his car.

The military chief of staff accused the SPSI of being the mastermind of the riots. The regional military commander alleged that the SBSI had used the same tactics and methods used by the banned Indonesian Communist Party.

Evidence gathered by the SBSI’s own fact-finding team showed that there had been provocation by “outside forces” during the peaceful action. When the demonstrators shouted “Give us freedom to organize” and “Long live SBSI,” some members of the crowd who have been identified as members of the security forces in civilian dress began shouting slogans other than those agreed upon by those coordinating the action, such as “down with Suharto.”

Anti-Chinese leaflets and posters, which had nothing to do with the SBSI, were distributed. Medan criminals who carried out the damage to and looting of shops told SBSI activists that they had been paid by the authorities to take this action. (See Human Rights Watch, May 16, 1994, Vol.6, No.4; also Amnesty International, “Labour Activists Under Fire,” early May 1994.)

Muchtar Pakpahan Imprisoned

As a result of the Medan riots, SBSI Chairman Muchtar Pakpahan was tried for inciting workers. After being found guilty at the district court, a verdict confirmed on appeal to the high court, Pakpahan’s appeal was eventually successful. He was unconditionally released after his case was heard by a panel of the Supreme Court headed by Adi Andojo, a judge widely accepted as having maintained his moral integrity and independence.

However, in a controversial decision that contravened the Code of Criminal Procedure (only the litigate and the accused have the right to judicial review), the prosecutor filed for a judicial review.

Last December the nation’s chief justice reversed the previous Supreme Court ruling. The result is that Pakpahan has been sentenced to four years imprisonment.

The Medan case has attracted considerable press and international concern, but a number of pieces of the story concerning the military’s repression warrant reiteration here.

The parents, wives and children of the activists have also experienced intimidation and terror. For example, in March 1992 the Chairman of the Medan branch of the SBSI, Amosi Telaumbanua, together with Riswan Lubis and other leaders, was arrested and tortured at the District Military Command for five days on suspicion of organizing a strike at the PT Rotanindo company.

In May 1993, Telaumbanua was detained again in similar circumstances, this time for eight days. He was unconditionally released and then sacked from his job. His two children, aged 9 and 10, were snatched by unknown people and only found three days after Telaumbanua’s release.

In addition to its work in seeking to improve workers basic rights, the SBSI also seeks to integrate the workers’ movement into a broader alliance with other pro-democracy elements. One concrete example of such an alliance is the Indonesian People’s Council (MARI), set up on in June 1996. Muchtar Pakpahan is a founding member.(13)

Linking Issues

Unlike the SBSI, which places demonstrations calling for basic rights and pro-democracy political movements in two separate grooves, the PPBI integrates the two actions in the same demonstration.

In December 1995 the PPBI, in coalition with Indonesian Students’ Solidary for Democracy (SMID), coordinated a strike by around 12,000 workers from the Central Java textile factory PT Sri Rejeki Isman Tekstil (commonly known as Sritex, whose owner is the wife of Minister of Information Harmoko).

The following July the PPBI again coordinated a demonstration of tens of thousands of workers in the industrial region of Tandes, Surabaya, East Java. During each action the PPBI, in addition to calling for basic workers rights, also called for the abolition of the five political laws and the dual function of the armed forces.

Following the events of 27 July 1996, the Suharto regime persecuted pro-democracy activists, among them Muchtar Pakpahan and two PPBI activists, Dita Indah Sari (PPBI Chairwoman) and Wilson Nurtias (Chairman of the PPBI’s Education and Propaganda Division).

One of the accusations made by the prosecution against the two PPBI activists was that they linked each workers’ protest action, which should only relate to basic rights, with calls for the abolition of the five political laws and the dual function of military.

Both activists and organizers for the PPBI and the SBSI are charged with not being content to limit their work to seeing economic improvements for the workers. But they are driven by the nature of the Indonesian governmental system to link the question of economic improvements for workers to the issue of democratization in Indonesia.


  1. A 25-year-old woman labor activist who disappeared and was found murdered in May 1993 in Porong, East Java, bearing the marks of torture. In November 1993 nine members of staff at the company where she worked, together with a member of the sub-district military command, were arrested, tried and found guilty of involvement in Marsinah’s murder. However, when they appealed against their convictions they were cleared of all charges. During the court hearings it was revealed that all ten had been tortured during interrogation at a military agency and forced to confess to the military’s version of events: that they had murdered Marsinah. However, the report by Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation’s investigation team found strong indications that Marsinah was killed at the district military command office and that if the collaboration were unravelled it would reach senior military officials in East Java. As a result, the Marsinah case has yet to be resolved and it seems unlikely that those actually responsible will ever be brought to trial.
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  2. A prolific poet born in Bali who has been writing since the 1960s. The two poems quoted as an introduction to this article are expressions of respect for the late workers’ heroine, and are taken from his poetry collection Engkau Selalu Muncul di Dalam Mimpiku (You Always Appear in my Dreams), Jaringan Kerja Budaya, 1995.
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  3. A woman activist from Bandung, West Java, killed in 1995. Her body was found floating in a pool of factory waste. As in the case of Marsinah, up until now police investigations have yet to reveal who really killed her. Despite the efforts of non-governmental organizations to bring this case to national attention, the police still appear unable to make progress in the case.
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  4. The 27 July 1996 Incident refers to the riots that engulfed Central Jakarta and its environs following the attack on the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI) headquarters in Central Jakarta, then being defended by a pro-Megawati taskforce. The attack was carried out by hundreds of hoodlums and members of the military disguised as supporters of Soerjadi, the Chairman of the PDI appointed by the June Medan Congress, who has the backing of the government but whose current position is regarded by the Megawati leadership to be illegal and unconstitutional. The attack was supported by hundreds of police and military forces who then joined in the attack and entered the offices. Provocation by the security forces angered the thousands of Megawati supporters who gathered nearby. The riots suddenly erupted, dozens of buildings and cars were damaged and set on fire. The Jakarta authorities put the material damage at Rp. 100 billion. The National Human Rights Commission’s final fact-finding report, published in October 1996, lists five people as having died, 23 as missing and 149 injured. Following the riots 124 Megawati supporters were tried and sentenced to four months’ imprisonment. In contrast, the government has not followed up on the Commission’s report with respect to the five people who died, even though it states that one of them was shot.
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  5. Yasuhiro Kunio describes capitalism in Indonesia as ersatz capitalism in order to differentiate it from the form of capitalism found in Western Europe or other parts of the world with the same traditions. It is also different from capitalism in East Asia. In Indonesia the state has excessive direct involvement in the process of the accumulation of capital and even gives privileges to certain individuals to enable them to be big businessmen, thereby ensuring their reliance on the government. Thus the development of a bourgeois class with a strong bargaining position vis a vis the government, as has occurred in many other capitalist countries, is almost an impossibility. See Olle Tornquist, “Rent Capitalism and State in India and Indonesia,” Paper presented to the conference on State and Civil Society in Contemporary Indonesia, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia, November 1988. Developing O’Donnel’s concept concerning authoritarian-bureaucratic states, to differentiate between capitalist countries such as South Korea, for example, Arief Budiman describes Indonesia as a bureaucratic authoritarian rentier state and contrasting it with South Korea. See Arief Budiman, Negara dan Pembangunan: Studi tentang Indonesia dan Korea Selatan (States and Development: A Study of Indonesia and South Korea), Yayasan Padi dan Kapas 1991, 1-21.
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  6. In addition to textiles and shoes, eight other non-oil exports are proving highly susceptible to competition from various countries such as China, Vietnam and Bangladesh. The demand for increased efficiency and productivity has led companies to consider shifting from labor intensive production, to capital intensive production. A shift of this kind, which would threaten jobs, will become a reality in the future.
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  7. On 30 April 1997 the Japanese government, supported by the European Union and the United States, formally requested the formation of a panel within the World Trade Organization to investigate Indonesia’s controversial national car policy. This policy, in effect from February 1996, has Indonesia working together with the South Korean car manufacturer, KIA Motors, to produce a national car. For three years it would not be subject to import taxes. The government appointed the company PT Timor Putra National — in which one of President Suharto’s sons, Tommy Suharto, has shares — to be KIA’s counterpart in the venture. In retaliation Ford Motor Company canceled their plans to produce 50,000 cars per year in Indonesia (see The Business Times, May 2, 1997).
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  8. The regional minimum wage (UMR) is an effort by the government to establish: a standard wage for workers which is based on what is deemed reasonable for their daily needs; workers’ performance; humanitarian values to achieve the fulfillment of minimal physical needs, which is measured on the calorific needs of single workers (Broad Outlines of State Policy Concerning Wages, 1993).
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  9. These forces may be members of the military’s regional internal security agency, the regional, district or subdistrict military command, or the armed forces intelligence agency. Usually workers activists who are detained will be asked a number of questions such as: do you believe in Pancasila? which political organizations do you support? what ideology do you favor?; what was your purpose in holding a clandestine meeting? did you hold a clandestine meeting? who instigated you to go on strike? etc. Activists are then handed a record of their interrogation which they are required to sign — sometimes after being threatened and physically intimidated — containing the following sentences: I organized the clandestine meeting and instigated other workers to strike; I broke the windows of the factory; I wrote anti-Chinese graffiti, etc.
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  10. Twenty-two year old Rusli was a worker who was killed in March 1994 following a clash between the security forces and around 12,000 workers from seven factories who were on a long march between Medan and Belawan. When the clashes started Rusli, together with eight colleagues, jumped from a bridge into the Deli river. The other eight survived, but Rusli’s body was found two days later. A number of witnesses have stated that before he jumped into the river, Rusli was beaten up by forces from the Police Mobile Brigade. The autopsy results back up these statements. In mid April 1994, under pressure from local human rights activists, the company paid Rusli’s family compensation of $4,830.
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  11. See TAPOL, Indonesia Human Rights Campaign, February 10, 1994.
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  12. In these training sessions the material provided aims at improving the quality of workers struggle by strengthening their bargaining power with company management. The material used, among others, is: “Metode Pengorganisasian Mogok di Lingkungan Pabrik” (Methods of Organizing Strikes in Factories), “Metode Pengorganisasian Unjuk Rasa” (Methods of Organizing Strikes), “Teknik Mengorganisir Massa” (Techniques for Organizing the Masses), and “Teknik Menghitung Rugi Laba Perusahaan” (Techniques for Calculating Companies’ Profits and Losses).
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  13. MARI was established on 26 June 1996 in the office of the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation in Jakarta. MARI was formed out of concern at the government’s intervention in the internal affairs of the PDI through efforts to shake Megawati Soekarnoputri’s leadership. MARI was established by sixty pro-Megawati social and non-governmental

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  14. organizations.

ATC 69, July-August 1997