Indonesia’s Unfolding Democratic Revolution

Malik Miah

AS WE GO TO PRESS, the pro-democratic forces continue to push their advantage against the weakened army-backed Habibie government.  Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund agreed to soften implementation of its economic austerity package to give Habibie and the military more time to hopefully bring political stability.  In addition, the big Western banks, led by Chase Manhattan, have agreed to reschedule repayment of nearly $80 billion in private debt.

The pact is aimed at giving the foreign banks more say over Indonesia’s future as well as get some of their money back. The government agreed to pay $1 billion of bank debt immediately in return for a three-year moratorium on paying principal.  Interest payments will continue to be paid by local companies with a guarantee that the government will step in if they default.

No such rescue is set for the unemployed and hungry.  Some 10,000 workers in the industrial city of Surabaya went on strike in early June demanding higher wages and benefits.  The workers clashed with the police.  Bus drivers in Jakarta also went on strike for higher wages.  Confidence is growing.

New papers and journals are springing up everywhere.  New political parties are being formed too, by the large religious groups, newly formed workers’ organizations and environmental activists, and even by some members of the ruling Golkar.-MM

THE UNTHINKABLE HAPPENED: On May 21, the thirty-two-year dictatorship of President Suharto came to an end. In a procedure that lasted ten minutes the “king” of Indonesia resigned in disgrace.  Pushed aside by a rising people’s power movement, Suharto asked the people “for forgiveness if there have been any mistakes or shortcomings” of his rule.

His hand-picked vice president, B.J. Habibie, was installed as the new president and expressed his “deepest gratitude” to Suharto: “We will never forget the dedication and the service he has delivered to us. He has formed the core of the success of our development.”

The response from the streets was immediate: cheers that the king was gone, but caution about the future.  The battle for democracy has just begun.

“Habibie is Suharto’s puppet.  Do not accept him!” read a banner.  “First of all, Suharto,” said Janes Nanulaitta, a student who was sitting on the floor of the Parliament building that was taken over by students for five days. “Then Habibie.  Then the Cabinet must be cleaned out of corruption and nepotism.”

Retired general Kemal Idris said the opposition would not accept Habibie as president: “Habibie is part of the Suharto crony leadership, and we do not trust him. We want to see real change.”

Habibie declared in June that he will not seek re-election as president and plans to convene a new electoral commission and hold elections in 1999.  Radical students who led the recent upsurge, however, are demanding Habibie step down immediately and that a caretaker president be appointed.  Others are demanding a new transitional government be formed so all parties can participate in new elections to the parliament.

Habibie said in early June that the government is willing to change the status of East Timor to a “special administrative” one, but not grant it self-determination.  In response to this maneuver, some 3,000 East Timorese rallied and waved rebel flags in Dili, the East Timor capital, June 9.  The armed forces, for the first time, did not intervene.

On June 12 Habibie released twelve East Timor political prisoners, who immediately renewed their pledge to fight for their country’s freedom.  Significantly, in Jakarta, some 1,000 protesters also rallied at the Foreign Ministry demanding a vote on independence for East Timor.  The police attacked the protesters.

Habibie is a longtime subordinate of Suharto’s who acquired his political positions and family wealth from ties to the Suharto family.  He has no independent following and is viewed with suspicion by the military high command, which holds the real power in the country.  Significantly, the armed forces chief General Wiranto spoke at the passing of the presidential torch pledging his support to Habibie and protection for Suharto and his family.

For good reason.  The so-called constitutional change did not hide the obvious fact that it was the mass uprising of the Indonesian people that brought Suharto down. It was not a military coup; it was not a house revolt within his puppet parliament.

It was the student-led rebellion that spread to the urban poor that forced Suharto’s closest advisers to ask him to step down. Defending Suharto and his family, for now, is defending the power of the military and ruling groups.

Students, Ordinary Citizens Arise

Suharto’s downfall came rapidly.  Why it happened so fast had everything to do with the anger of the people against the ruling family as the economy collapsed (people are hungry; unemployment grows; even the middle class is without milk), and the fear of the military and big business that without political stability their economic power would eventually be up for grabs.

The system is at stake.  The wealthy rulers of Indonesia’s 210 million people-and their friends abroad, especially in Washington-are concerned that the unfolding democratic revolution will not stop at simply ending Suharto’s rule.

A popular rebellion could put in power people who believe in democracy from below.  That type of popular power would have repercussions throughout the region.

The uprising was led by students, as historically has often been the case. But citizens who had feared to speak up for more than three decades joined in and forced the Indonesian ruling class to tell Suharto and his family that it was time to go. It is they-the ordinary citizens and working people who backed the students-who brought the democracy movement to center stage.

To grasp the power of this unfolding revolution, consider that only two months ago (March) Suharto’s hand-picked People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) chose him president for a seventh five-year term! No one voted against.

“If we look at history in the Philippines [1986] or in Iran [1979],” said a high school teacher in Jakarta, “then people power is too strong to resist.”

While there was dancing in the streets after Suharto stepped down, there was also immediate concern whether the change was real or cosmetic.  Habibie’s new cabinet includes 19 holdovers from Suharto.  The armed forces chief remains Wiranto.

While some opponents of Suharto, including the Muslim leader Amien Rais, are willing to give Habibie a chance to bring real change, others are pressing for new elections and the end of his presidency.  Recognizing he has little support among the people, Habibie even sought to get opposition figures like Rais to join his cabinet.  No one would do so.

Five days after taking over, under pressure from six government ministers, led by the Coordinating Minister for the Economy, Ginanjar Hartasasmita, Habibie announced that new elections would be held within two years.

Who will decide the electoral rules is still unclear.  Under Suharto’s Constitution, only three parties are legal and the MPR’s 1,000 members are picked or approved by the president.  This is not acceptable to the opposition.

Habibie also released two prominent political prisoners on May 25 with a promise that others will be freed.  Will this include the leaders of the radical democratic group, the Peoples Democratic Party (PRD)?  The chairman of the PRD, Budiman, remains in jail.

Speaking to a cheering crowd from the balcony of Cipinang Prison in Jakarta, freed independent trade union leader Muchtar Pakpahan and former member of parliament Sri Bintang Pamungkas pledged to fight for amnesty for all political prisoners.

The government stated that communists and East Timor resistance fighters, including their leader Xanana Gusmao, will not be freed.

Will the soldiers who have killed peasants in Aceh and Irian Jaya be freed?  Will those responsible for the disappeared be prosecuted?

Will the major U.S. and other foreign companies that exploit Indonesia’s resources be pressed to pay higher wages?  Will the people get back some of their wealth?

The opposition to Suhartoism are demanding the wealth stolen from the people by Suharto and his family be nationalized.  It’s estimated the family is worth over $40 billion-Suharto alone some $17 billion.  So far Suharto and his six children remain in Jakarta and protected by the armed forces.

Politics Transformed

While the battle for a democratic government and the rule of the majority (workers and peasants) has not yet been won, the popular rebellion has changed all politics in the country.  People are less afraid.  Their expectations are rising.

The turning point occurred May 12.  Six students at the elite Trisakti University were shot by security forces.  The shooting-reported in the U.S. press as Indonesia’s Kent State, a reference to the 1970 murder of anti-Vietnam war students at Kent State by the Ohio National Guard-galvanized the student movement to leave the campuses and press for Suharto’s ouster.

In the rioting that followed, the urban poor joined the movement in large numbers.  All symbols of Suharno’s rule were attacked.

Over 1000 people died, including many hundreds when a Jakarta shopping mall burned down in deeply suspicious circumstances.  The targets included ethnic Chinese and their shops-in some cases, almost certainly, torched by shady provocateurs-and more than 100 women were raped or attacked by organized gangs.

On May 18 students marched into the parliament building and turned it into a center of agitation chanting: “Bring down Suharto!”

That same day Suharto’s hand-picked Speaker of the House, Harmoko, announced that all five factions of Golkar (the ruling party) would seek Suharto’s impeachment if he did not step down. Harmoko was immediately corrected by General Wiranto, who said Harmoko was in violation of the Constitution.

Retired military officers called for Suharto’s removal.  Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of the country’s founding president Sukarno, supported the students and pushed for a front of democratic forces to bring Suharto down.

Amien Rais, the head of the second largest Muslim group, Muhammadiyah, which has 25 million members, became the most visible spokesperson of the opposition, stating: “Mr.  Suharto has to resign and step down, the sooner the better.”

He then announced plans for massive demonstrations for Jakarta and other cities for Wednesday, May 20, the 90th anniversary of the start of the national independence movement.  Expectations were that one million people would march to the national monument in Jakarta and up to 500,00 in other cities.

The army responded by mobilizing tens of thousands of troops to block all entrances to Jakarta.  Wiranto promised that no protest would take place.

Rais, the next day, called off the actions.  The students, however, defied the military.  But no violence took place.  The news media around the world showed photos of students fraternizing with army units in the city and parliament building.  Many in the armed forces-sons and daughters of workers and villagers-were not ready to shoot students.

Suharto Discredited

Who killed the students at Trisakti University?  Who organized the burning of shops and the shopping center?  Rumors spread that much of the violence was provoked by thugs tied to the military.

Since Suharto and his family’s political downfall, investigations are underway to pin blame and take anger away from the proteges of Suharto.  An unprecedented military investigation has identified fourteen soldiers, including six officers, as suspects in the students’ shootings.

It was in this context that Suharto’s generals joined with previous pro-Suharto officials to shift course and demand his resignation.  Wiranto personally visited Suharto the night before his resignation to tell him his power was gone.

Events were moving so fast that Wiranto did not give Suharto the dignity to temporarily step down and make Habibie acting president, as Suharto had done to President Sukarno after the 1965 military coup.

The difference was Sukarno was still widely respected.  Suharto isn’t.  The people want his head.

The next day, Suharto’s son-in-law, General Prabowo, was removed from his command by Defense Minister General Wiranto and sent to head a military college in Bandung.  Prabowo responded with anger to his demotion.  He confronted Suharto and then strapped on his firearm and took a truckload of his special foreces to the Presidential Palace to see Habibie.  He was convinced to stand down, denied he attempted a coup and said he agreed to his new re-assignment.

Why didn’t Suharto use the military to crush the rebellion?  Could he have gotten away with it?  Almost certainly not, because the army high command, the business community and the top aides had made the decision to make Suharto the scapegoat.

Politics of Economic Collapse

International finance capital had left the country en masse, and wanted a change in government as the only way to implement the austerity package of the International Monetary Fund.

Imperialism wants a stable regime-not a democratic one. As long as Suharto served that role, he was the man. Suharto’s cronyism was never an issue for foreign investors.  The ten to twenty percent under the table payments and phony partnerships was just part of doing business.  As long as the profits came in at a high return, there were no complaints from the mining giants and oil companies.  Overproduction in the region ended that. That’s why the currency (rupiah) collapsed and the investors fled.

The issues of cronyism and nepotism are mainly political issues.  Under the blows of the currency crisis, the new middle class was being wiped out. The super rich were hit, but protected by Suharto.  The students had expected to join the middle class, but now had no future.

The working class and peasantry had made some modest gains under the thirty years of economic growth.  But in less than three months time last summer, per capita income went from $1300 to less than $300.  Hunger and starvation were once again on the agenda, as a country that had become self-sufficient in rice a decade earlier now had a shortage.

With nationwide unemployment rising toward 15%, close to half of the industrial work force is jobless.  And the IMF demands for Indonesia to receive its $43 billion bailout was that Suharto agree to cover the huge private debt of the local capitalists.  The seventy percent rise in fuel prices that sparked the last stage of protests was simply the final straw for the masses.

While the crisis was expanding and deepening it is important to note what hadn’t happened yet: major strikes by factory workers, and rebellions in the countryside.  The urban poor-who are workers in the main-did join the city rebellion.

This additional fact is why the military and other government officials moved against Suharto when they did. The pro-democracy movement was getting stronger and the leadership in the wings was looking more militant than Rais and conservative bourgeois figures.

Suharto had not allowed any major bourgeois figures outside his control to exist.  There was no one like Kim Dae Jung in South Korea, who had genuine support among the people, to take over and protect capitalist interests.  It’s why Washington, Sydney, Tokyo, Amsterdam and all the Western capitals backed Suharto to the end, and now hope the military can salvage the situation.

Capital cannot reap super profits if the working people are in rebellion.  Suharto’s time had come. A new means of capitalist rule was needed-one that would allow the foreign bankers to get even a better return and more control of the economy than under Suharto.

Why Washington and the banks didn’t push for democracy, however, has everything to do with what capitalist democracy really is: It’s democracy for the rich. They fear a process of democracy where laws can be adopted and implemented that weaken the free market.  It’s why a loyal dictator is more reliable for investments than one that allows some democracy.

The Western capitalists had hoped Suharto could survive and protect their investments.  Once that wasn’t likely they went along with a military option (they had no control over events) that opened the door without turning over power to the people.

Rais and other pro-market opposition leaders have made clear that they are willing to help Habibie in a transition if he brings some real reforms.  But will the newly energized students, urban poor and working class accept that limitation?

U.S. Position

What was Washington doing as this rebellion unfolded?  Until mid-May the Clinton administration stood by its option that it stayed out of the internal affairs of other countries! They continued to urge Suharto to live up to the IMF austerity package but refused to support calls for political reforms.

It wasn’t until May 20 (the day before Suharto’s resignation) that Secretary of State Madeline Albright said: “[Suharto] has the opportunity for an historic act of statesmanship-one that will preserve his legacy as a man who not only led his country, but who provided for its democratic transition.”

Reports circulated that the U.S. navy was prepared (as it did with Marcos in the Philippines in the 1980s) to evacuate Suharto and his family if necessary.

Waiting to see how the wind is blowing, Washington has so far decided to take a wait-and-see attitude toward Habibie while stressing that the IMF package must be implemented.  IMF funds for now are on hold. Joint military exercises with the Indonesian armed forces are also on temporary suspension.

Some members of Congress, however, are pressing the government to push for more democratic change.  They want a more transparent capitalism so big U.S. companies can step in and buy up local businesses (as is already happening throughout Southeast Asia).

They aren’t concerned if some foreign investors take a hit for bad loans, since in the long run the imperialist giants will gain even more economic control of Indonesia and Southeast Asia when they seek new loans.  Unlike in Latin America where most of the debt was public, the $70 billion debt in Indonesia is in the private sector and was never guaranteed by the government, which was running a surplus until the crisis.

Washington and the IMF are pushing the government to bail out the private sector so the foreign capitalists get their money back and charge even higher rates for new loans.

The debate underway in the country is over what type of democracy?  Western-style parliamentary democracy?  Democracy based on a tyranny of the majority where the rights of minorities (Chinese, Acehnese, Timorese) are not respected?  Or democracy where the working people have control?

Many in the opposition are expressing concerns about having too much democracy, fearing the disintegration of the state since many of the hundreds of ethnic groups want more autonomy.  It’s why most oppose self-determination for East Timor, which historically was never part of Dutch Indonesia.  (The PRD, the party that stands for the most thorough and radical democratic program, firmly supports self-determination for East Timor.)

The pro-democracy genie cannot be put back into the bottle, which is what Habibie and the generals hope to do. Many wonder if Suharto is still not pulling the puppet strings.  But the situation is fluid and no one force can control it.

The Divided Opposition

Who is the opposition?  While it was unified to get rid of Suharto, it is not unified on what to do next.

The most prominent public figure to date is the Muslim leader, Amien Rais, head of the Muhammadiyah (Followers of Muhammad).  Rais is a long time player in Islamic politics.  His organization began in 1912, and is mainly urban based.

The largest Muslim group, Nahdlatul Ulama (Revival of Religious Scholars, NU) is mainly rural-based and on the island of Java where sixty percent of the population live. It has some 30 million members.  Its leaders have been critics of the regime.

Rais’ support for the opposition is significant because it reflects the fact that the Muslim population, who are mostly workers and peasants, are suffering greatly from the economic crisis.

Suharto had always gone out of his way to give concessions to this layer of the population.  In 1990, Suharto established a new Muslim group as a way to increase his influence among religious Muslims.  The Indonesian Association of Muslim Intellectuals (ICMI) was formed with Habibie as its first head.

Rais was himself a member of ICMI. Habibie in fact asked Rais to join his cabinet, but he refused.  Habibie and Rais, and most Muslim leaders, have a connection.  What role Rais will play as the democratic struggle radicalizes is unclear.  But so far he has preached caution since Suharto’s resignation and urged his followers to give Habibie and his new cabinet a chance.

Megawati is the most well known opposition figure who had led the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI) until the military removed her in 1996.  During the May 1997 parliamentary elections she practiced extreme caution even though her supporters called on her to act more boldly.  As the economic crisis deepened, she took a more pro-active role and openly stated for the first time she was ready to become president to save the nation.  So far, she’s made no clear proposals on what to do next. She agrees that new elections should be called, but also that the people must be prepared for some sacrifice because of the economic crisis.

Other prominent bourgeois figures include former government ministers and retired generals.  Since all of them at some point owe their careers to Suharto, it is unclear what role they will play in bringing fundamental change.  Most are simply trying to save their own skins.

The recognized unions have always been under Suharto’s thumb.  Only one federation is legal.  The freeing of Muchtar Pakpahan adds the voice of a very important person.  His union, the SBSI (Indonesian Prosperity Labor Union), was never allowed to recruit openly and register as an official union.  This will likely change.  The SBSI has already stated it will do so.

Will the PRD and worker leader Dita Sari be freed soon?  Her union, the PPBI (Indonesian Center for Labor Struggles) was banned last year. It was the most militant workers’ group in Surabaya.

Among the students there are many factions.  In 1965 it was Muslim students that Suharto and the generals used against the PKI (Communist Party) and Sukarno.  They waged most of the anti-Chinese violence.

Soon after Habibie took office, some 300 Muslim students and others were bused into the parliament to raise banners hailing Habibie.  This led to clashes.

During the parliament takeover and the events leading up to Suharto’s downfall, the more moderate wing advocated a student-only protest movement.  Those students influenced by the PRD advocated reaching out to the urban poor and the working class.  The radical students had more influence outside Jakarta.


The radical democratic group, the PRD, was banned by the government last year. Its top leadership was arrested and convicted of crimes against the state.  Its members and supporters continued to function underground and were very active in the upsurge.

In a statement issued May 14 at the height of the protests, the PRD called on the broad peoples opposition to push for an Independent Peoples Council (IPC) to replace the bankrupt Peoples Consultative Assembly (MPR).  The latter body is controlled by the old regime.  The proposal specifically called on prominent left, moderate and more conservative leaders of the movement to be included in the IPC.

The PRD’s program, adopted in 1996, called for the formation of a Peoples Coalition Government to establish a republic that represents all the people, workers, peasants, urban poor, students and the middle class.  The PRD called on the “soldiers and civil servants” to “remove your uniforms and join with the people.  It is time for you to abandon Suharto.”

They explained: “We must reject collaboration with the armed forces, In a modern democracy the military must not be allowed to mix in political affairs.  The political violence and the destruction of democracy in Indonesia is a result of allowing the military to enter the world of politics legitimized by the dual function of the armed forces.”

On an issue that many in the middle-class opposition refuse to address, violence against ethnic Chinese, the PRD leadership stated: “The source of the people’s suffering is not the Chinese, but Suharto and the dictatorship.  The attacks and looting of our Chinese brothers and sisters will only weaken our struggle and benefit Suharto by becoming a battle between the people.”

Most ethnic Chinese are not rich but small shop keepers.  They are used as scapegoats. Sara (communal hatred) is used to divide the population.  While Suharto’s closest friends include wealthy ethnic Chinese like Bob Hasan, Suharto’s New Order governments adopted numerous anti-Chinese laws.

Chinese-language schools are banned; use of Chinese characters in public is illegal; and celebration of the Chinese New Year is outlawed.  Most ethnic Chinese have been forced to take Indonesian names and only speak Indonesian.

In a statement issued after Suharto’s resignation the PRD leadership explained: “The appointment of B.J. Habibie as his [Suharto’s] replacement is still far from democracy and is no less than maintaining the regime.  His resignation was intended to cool the anger of the people.

“If he had refused to resign, the hatred of the people would have increased and been the trigger for even more people to spill into the streets.  If the masses continued to mobilize, it would not only have been the presidency that was lost, but also the system of the New Order government, his family’s businesses and even his and his cronies’ physical safety.”

They conclude by stating that “The mass demands have yet to be fulfilled: 1.  withdrawal of the 1985 five repressive political laws; 2.  abolish the dual role of the military; 3.  the accountability and trial of Suharto; 4.  nationalization of Suharto’s and cronies’ companies; 5.  nationalization of the wealth produced by corruption; 6.  hold new elections which are multiparty, free and democratic; and 7.  free all political prisoners.”

U.S. Hands Off!

In the situation unfolding, imperialism has little it can do except to hope its friends-the army and top bureaucrats-are strong enough to maintain their power.  The ongoing economic crisis in the region makes their options fewer.

The IMF austerity must go through, as far as the big banks and Washington are concerned.  They hope the most conservative of opposition leaders can be co-opted to oppose the more radical democrats on the ground.

What can we do to help the democrats of Indonesia?  Step up pressure on the U.S. government to keeps its hands off. All military ties to the armed forces must cease.  Economic aid to Habibie must end. The IMF austerity package should be opposed.  The big U.S. banks and corporations should eat their bad loans.

We should support the democratic movement for freedom of all political prisoners, including Xanana Gusmao; for free multiparty elections; for the right of workers and peasants to have their own organizations; and for the formation of representative government.

We should support the demand of the East Timor people for self determination.  This includes the liberation forces’ demand that the United Nations call for a referendum on East Timor’s status be implemented.

We should support the efforts of the ethnic Chinese Indonesians to stand up against communal violence and racism.  Many conservative supporters of Islam continue to blame the mostly Christian Chinese as the evil behind Suharto.  Solidarity among the various ethnic groups is key to fighting the plague of Suhartoism.

In the coming weeks and months, the battles to root out the New Order regime will cause splits in the democratic movement and new leaders to emerge.

The downfall of Suharto was just round one of a long and complex battle.  Habibie will be next. Working people have more space to organize and push their demands.  Nothing like this has existed since the 1960s.

History is being made.

Malik Miah is the co-editor of IndonesiaAlert! and an advisory editor of Against the Current.

ATC 75, July-August 1998