Repression and Revival: Revolutionary Prospects for Indonesia, Part 2

Against the Current, No. 72, January/February 1998

Malik Miah

[The first half of this essay discussed the historical background leading up to the 1965 coup and the formation of the Suharto dictatorship.]

THERE ARE MANY former 1965 political prisoners still alive. Some are still in prison (Col. Latief, one of the main leaders of the 30 September Movement) and many are under house arrest. Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Indonesia’s most famous novelist, continues to defy the regime by refusing to visit the police once a month as all hard-core ex-prisoners are supposed to do.

There are others on the “hard core” list of former political prisoners who cannot freely travel abroad or get jobs. The political prisoners (old and new) should all be freed and the Suharto butchers brought to justice. It is the most important human rights demand for international solidarity.

The regime still calls anyone who seriously questions its ideology as “communists.” (That’s what the army called the leaders of the People’s Democratic Party, PRD, in July 1996.) The regime organizes annual propaganda against “communism” too. Most people still fear the word.

The end of the Cold War, however, makes it harder for the New Order regime to as effectively use “anti- communism” when students, workers and others demand human rights and full democracy. The ideas may be officially banned (“communist” books were burned in 1965 and new ones declared “subversive” are banned today), but the new generation is eager for change, including learning the lessons from the past.

There are three significant developments that the New Order regime faces that worry Suharto’s foreign backers: the growing gap between rich and poor and the awakening of the working class; the rise of militant young people best seen with the formation of the People’s Democratic Party (PRD); and the national liberation struggle of the East Timorese people.

The Asian Tigers stumble

The fast growth of the economy and who benefits from it is what leads New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman (quoted at the beginning of the first part of this essay) to assume, as do many others inside Indonesia, that the new liberal businessmen will force institutional changes—bringing more democracy and ending Suharto’s old method of nepotist rule.

In truth, this new capitalist class is living off the corruption of the system and the exploitation of the expanding working class, which numbers about 20 million workers in urban centers with more and more village women working in the light manufacturing sweatshops run by contractors hired by multinationals like Nike.

The work force is approximately 86 million. Some 30 million work in the service and minerals sector. According to Suharto, 74% of all foreign exchange earnings are from the non-oil and gas sectors. Of this, manufacturing contribute 63.4%.

The new rich’s dependency on the export market and foreign capital investment can lead to crises. The external debt is already large. The recent currency debacle shows the weakness of the “Asian Tigers.” An article in the business section of the August 29 New York Times indicates how fast Third World economic powerhouses can tailspin: “What we have right now [after currency devaluations],” one analyst said, “is a confidence crisis around the region.”

The September 8 Business Week reports that over the last year the Thailand stock exchange dropped 50%, and the Indonesian exchange more than 25%. Investors are taking out capital. While many businesses may go bankrupt, the main groups that will suffer are the factory workers, urban poor and farmers.

The capitalists fear that these social groups (now relatively quiet) will begin to wake up. The big business community will align itself with the army and Suharto against these working people. It cannot and will not play a progressive role for democratic change.


The PRD, on the other hand, symbolizes what Suharto’s military and Washington fear the most: young people in their teens and twenties who are ready to fight and die for a democratic government and control of the country’s vast wealth.

The PRD and its affiliated organizations were banned by the regime in July 1996 after the crackdown of a protest outside the PDI (Indonesian Democratic Party)’s office. The protest was over the army’s takeover of the PDI, one of three legal parties, and the removal of its chairwoman, Sukarno’s daughter Megawati Sukarnoputri.

Suharto decided to blame the newest party, the PRD, for the uprising and arrested its leaders. They were charged under the Anti-Subversion Law. Those arrested included Chairman Budiman Sujatmiko and Dita Sari, the head of the independent trade union, PBBI (Indonesian Center for Labor Struggle), who was already in jail for organizing a workers’ protest of 20,000 in Surabaya July 8.

General Syarwal Hamid, head of the socio-political affairs of the Armed Forces, told the media the day after the July 27 crackdown that the PRD was “communist.” Another general said the PRD manifesto opposed the New Order regime. “For me,” General Soesio Soedarman said, “this is the same as the Indonesian Communist Party.”

General Sutoyo said, “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.”

But the public did not buy it. How could these youth be communists? They weren’t even born in 1965! The media campaign backfired and the regime later dropped the charge that the PRD members were behind the July 27 riots. Instead they were charged with being subversives opposed to the ideology of the regime.

The PRD, of course, is a small new development in the country. It was formed in April 1996 and publicly proclaimed in July. Its members are radical democrats and socialists. Its program calls for the overthrow of the Suharto-military dictatorship and establishment of people’s power.

The party’s manifesto issued on July 22, 1996, explains: “The structures of true democracy must be subservient to the sovereignty of the people. For that reason, a popular democratic coalition government must be created for the future, in order to channel the aspirations of the people.”

The PRD’s program for democracy strikes a chord among the people. Its significance thus is not its size (numbering a few thousand at most), but what it reflects about a new mood in the country. Few people support Suharto and his family. They fear him and the army because of what happened in 1965. Not surprisingly, the week before the vote millions of people registered in outlying villages left Jakarta to vote even though everyone knew Golkar, the ruling party, would win.

Prior to the May elections the Megawati supporters were the most mobilized section of the population. Although Megawati was not allowed to run, she and her supporters had the strongest support among the urban poor and students. The government-run PDI received 3% of the vote (official count).

The lead-up to the vote saw Megawati’s supporters join rallies of pro-PPP (Moslem-oriented party) supporters and others against Golkar. Scores of people died in clashes between these activists and the police. Although the PPP leadership (also “approved” by Suharto) did not organize the rallies, as the only legal vehicle allowed to campaign in the elections, their rallies and party became the center of organized opposition. Supporters of golput (blank ballot) and boycott joined the rallies.

PRD members helped to distribute over 600,000 leaflets supporting the opposition alliance. The PRD educated around three central positions: repeal of the five 1985 political laws that limit freedom of association, end the dual role (dwifungsi) of the military in ruling society, and establish a democratic government.

The tactic was to call for a boycott of the undemocratic elections, while joining all mass protests against the regime and its party, Golkar. The PRD’s effective response to mass sentiment and use of the united front tactic gained them more influence and recruits even though a majority of its leadership were under arrest. New leaders stepped forward.

During the political trials, the arrested PRD leaders presented the party’s views to the press and public, which led to broad coverage by the media. Budiman’s speeches were in the best tradition of Cuban leader Fidel Castro’s famous 1953 “History Will Absolve Me!” speech. The government, of course, saw this as proof of its charge of “subversion.”

The fourteen leaders received sentences ranging from eighteen months up to thirteen years for Budiman.

East Timor: Suharto’s Achilles’ heel

Suharto’s Achilles’ heel is East Timor, a territory never colonized by the Dutch. Indonesia’s invasion of this former Portuguese colony occurred in December 1975—one week after Timorese liberation forces declared East Timor’s independence. [Portugal withdrew from its colonies in Africa as well as East Timor during the Portuguese revolutionary upheaval of 1974-75—ed.]

Indonesia’s invasion came shortly after a visit to Jakarta by President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Kissinger. There is ample evidence that Washington gave the green light for the invasion. The national liberation forces led by the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (FRETILIN) were too left and not trusted by Washington.

At the time of independence there had been a population of some 700,000. The invasion and occupation led to up to 200,000 Timorese losing their lives. Within a year, Suharto proclaimed East Timor the country’s 27th province and soon began transmigrating other Indonesians to the occupied territory.

But Jakarta and its initial backers have been surprised by the determination and resistance of the East Timorese people. The national liberation army, Falintil, continues to carry out attacks against the occupation Indonesian army. During the May elections several armed actions were carried out, killing dozens of the occupying army and police force.

Under the leadership of Xanana Gusmao, the Fretilin helped to launch a united front resistance force, the National Council of Maubere Resistance (CNRM). The CNRM is a broader umbrella group that incorporates all the factions of the resistance in the struggle for self- determination. In 1989 Xanana was separated from the Fretilin, with their agreement, to focus on building the CNRM. The Falintil was placed under the direction of the CNRM led by Xanana, the new coalition’s president.

Xanana Gusmao was captured in November 1992 and imprisoned in Jakarta. Yet the resistance continues. The Falintil is active and making new recruits. In 1996 the Nobel Peace Prize was given to CNRM leader Jose Ramos Horta and East Timorese Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo.

The United Nations does not recognize Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor. It still considers former colonial ruler Portugal responsible for East Timor and supports tripartite negotiations between Portugal, Indonesia and the UN. The East Timorese seek a referendum on self-determination.

Solidarity continues to grow around the world. In the United States, resolutions against more U.S. military and economic aid to Indonesia have been submitted to Congress. Many Congressmen have spoken in support of self-determination. Jose Ramos Horta and other East Timorese have traveled across the country and been well received.

What’s new is the sympathy inside Indonesia. There a group of Indonesians now openly support East Timor’s independence. Because of Suharto’s control of the media and the fact that East Timor is a far-off island with a small population, most Indonesian democrats had accepted the regime’s claim that East Timor is the country’s 27th province, or considered it a secondary issue.

The PRD was the first organization to challenge that view. It helped to launch a pro-East Timor support organization (now banned) and raised the issue in their trials. Xanana and some of the PRD leaders are serving time in the same Jakarta prison. The issue is a thorn in Suharto’s side too, because he still likes to present his regime as pro-Third World and independent of Washington.

Maintaining some of the old symbolism of Sukarno’s “non-alignment,” Indonesia never toed the line on U.S. policy in Vietnam, for example, even after 1965, and gave the African National Congress of South Africa $10 million after Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990. This past July, when South Africa’s President Mandela visited Indonesia and asked to see Xanana Gusmao, Suharto agreed. This meeting, which took place July 15 at Suharto’s Presidential Place, and the subsequent Mandela letter were reported by all the major media.

But Indonesia was unprepared for Mandela’s intervention. In his letter that was leaked to the press Mandela told Suharto: “We can never normalize the situation in East Timor unless all political leaders, including Mr. Gusmao, are freed. They are the ones who must bring about a solution.”

On Independence Day (August 17), the government replied to Mandela’s call for negotiations with Gusmao by keeping him in prison but announcing that his twenty-year sentence was being reduced by three months!

It is clear that a military solution to East Timor is not possible for the Suharto regime—short of genocide of the East Timorese people. The new factor—the growing awareness among Indonesians that East Timor is not really their province—is a problem. As more youth serve in the occupying army, and the resistance stays steadfast, we could see repercussions inside Indonesian society.

What Next?

The PRD leaders are optimistic about the future. They don’t see Suharto or Suhartoism surviving. But they don’t speculate about divisions in the army high command in determining what they do and prospects for revolutionary democratic change to their country. What happens in the army is out of the people’s control. What they can do is demand an end to the dictatorship, an end to the army’s dual role and establishment of real democracy.

The PRD’s optimism is based on the size of the mass actions during the election period where more workers, following the lead of the urban poor, began joining the political protests. Generally working-class consciousness is low and most strikes and protests only raise economic demands.

Mirah Mahardika, Coordinator of the Central Leadership Committee of the PRD, discussed the new situation in an interview in the PRD’s newspaper Pembebasan (Liberation):

Recently, it is the urban poor who have become the vanguard in political actions. But I am optimistic actions by the urban poor will in turn draw in workers followed by peasants. If we reflect on the history of mass movements under the grip of the New Order regime, students have been in the vanguard. However it seems that the role of students as the vanguard ended in the middle of 1996. That is when pro-Megawati groups emerged backed by the urban poor. The student groups were still involved with issues on their own campuses, but were unable to mobilize themselves in large numbers. Once again, there would have been no emergence of the urban poor if it were not for the student demonstrations, and if there had been no joint actions with workers, the urban poor and peasants.

Workers still have illusions in economic demands. They think that by demanding higher wages, overtime pay and the like, everything will be fine. But this must be seen as part of a process. Later on, workers will achieve a clearer awareness, that economic issues cannot be resolved just with economic demands, that they are strongly linked to the political situation.

If the political atmosphere outside the factories is dynamic, it will also flow into the factories. So, the political actions by the urban poor will spread to the workers. When it reaches this point, the pro-democracy movement will have reached a more advanced stage. The potential for mass mobilizations will be greater, because of the coming together of a number of different interests.

The new anti-labor Manpower Bill went into effect October 1, 1997, making it illegal to form independent unions, granting employers the right to lock-out striking workers and limiting strikes. Yet by mid-October 16,000 workers at the state aircraft IPTN, in Bandung, went on strike amid rumors of IMF-dictated layoffs.

The National Democratic Revolution

The coming revolution in Indonesia will be a democratic one. It will be national and take up both political and economic demands. It will end the Suharto dictatorship, establish full democracy where all social forces (and ethnic groups) and classes can function without fear of terror, and grant the East Timor people self-determination.

The dual role of the military will end. Those carrying out torture will be prosecuted. Workers at sweatshops will get a living wage and peasants land to work. Women’s rights will be respected. And the vast natural wealth (mines, oil, rain forest, etc.) will be redistributed and put to society’s use. Financial corruption will be made illegal.

To achieve these democratic goals the PRD and other democratic forces are seeking to build broad united action fronts. They are not relying on the elections or splits in the army; and refuse to subordinate their campaign to big business or those seeking to reform the regime’s institutions. They include socialists, liberals and others who may support market capitalism but feel squeezed out by the big conglomerates.

The core of this new leadership team exists in Suharto’s prisons—the growing number of political prisoners—from all generations but especially the youth. They include the PRD leaders, members of Megawati’s PDI, supporters of the PPP, East Timorese leader Xanana Gusmao, former PKI members and friends, the ex-engineering professor and ex-member of parliament Sri Bintang, who is head of the PUDI (Indonesian United Democratic Party), and students and trade union activists. Muchtar Pakpahan, the head of the independent trade union, SBSI, is also a key political leader.

MARI (Indonesian People’s Council), a coalition of some thirty pro-democracy groups—including the PRD, SBSI and PUDI—was recently formed. The radicalizing youth are key to the process where new political awareness among militant workers, peasants, students and the urban poor is on the rise.

If Suharto lives, he will surely be reelected president for five years in March 1998. Prospects for a “peoples power revolution” may be put off, but it will take place.

International Solidarity

We in the United States and the West must show solidarity with the democratic movement in Indonesia and the freedom struggle in East Timor. We should demand freedom for all political prisoners. It is an issue that all working people and students can support. We should support the liberation of East Timor. And clearly the end of the Cold War makes it harder to link movements for self-determination to the communist threat.

The issue of East Timor, which is more widely known than Indonesia’s democratic movement, should be an opening to discuss Indonesian politics as a whole. In the labor movement we should champion the cause of sweatshop workers like those at the Nike factories.

* Nike presents itself as a “hip” and “cool” company. It uses its contracts with mainly African-American sports stars like Michael Jordan to get Black youth and others to buy their expensive shoes. Nike pays, through contractors, very low wages to their mostly female workforce. It is important to explain both sides of the issue: Nike is exploiting Blacks and poor youth at home (why not build factories in urban areas to provide jobs for these young people?) as well as workers in Indonesia and Vietnam.

As a number of African-American commentators have written, the sports stars have leverage to press Nike and other shoe companies for change. The anti-Nike campaign is an important way to link workers’ rights and the democratic rights’ fight.

The case of independent trade union leader and labor lawyer Muchtar Pakpahan is being supported by the AFL-CIO and many international labor federations. His case, along with PRD leader Dita Sari (head of the banned-PBBI union), is also a way to highlight the plight of Third World workers.

Indonesia may seem stable, under tight military control; but few thought Zaire’s Mobutu would fall so quickly either. What we do internationally can help strengthen the popular democratic movement and move up the calendar date for the overthrow of Suharto.

ATC 72, January-February 1998