Where Is Indonesia Going?

Against the Current, No. 87, July/August 2000

Malik Miah

For both admirers and critics of Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid, the picture is disturbing: At the presidential palace in Jakarta there are signs of a new “royal court” in the making. Officials converse in Javanese, not the national language Bahasa Indonesia; Wahid himself borrows from mysticism and ancient tracts to plot political strategy; and family and friends are acting as gatekeepers and facilitators, in some cases for businessmen hoping to curry favor. Some analysts describe it as a form of “benign Suhartoism,” a throwback to the disastrous last decade of President’s 32-year rule. (John McBeth, March 9, 2000, Far Eastern Economic Review)

IS INDONESIA BECOMING a democratic republic? Or, as John McBeth reports, a “benign Suhartoism” under President Wahid?

The fact that the first question can even be posed shows how much Indonesia has changed in one year. Then everyone considered Suhartoism alive and well. Today people in Indonesia tend to believe otherwise. Some see Gus Dur, as Wahid is popularly known, as god-like.

What a year it has been. Then the president of Indonesia was former dictator Suharto’s hand-picked vice-president, B.J. Habibie. Habibie became president in May 1998 after Suharto was forced to “retire” after mass protests led by students demanded reformasi, a total change of the corrupt system. The army high command headed by General Wiranto — the real power behind Suharto’s rule — saw this as a temporary solution to slow down a growing rebellion.

But the protests did not stop. The students were increasingly supported by the urban poor, workers and rural toilers, and middle class layers. Ferment among people on the outer islands pressing for more autonomy from Jakarta escalated. The people of East Timor, a colony of Indonesia since its invasion and annexation twenty-four years earlier, were set to vote in an August 30, 1999, referendum for independence.

For the students radicals full “reformasi” meant, and still does, ending government, corporate and military corruption and establishing the rule of law based on civilian control — by which they intend genuine people’s power. A democratic republic cannot be based on the current constitution, which the old and new bourgeois elites still support.

As of the end of May 2000, Washington has resumed military ties with Indonesia that had been broken off in the East Timor crisis, and is taking more open steps to show support for Abdurrahman Wahid and the army, reflecting a higher level of U.S. concern over continuing instability in this strategically crucial country.

A year ago, the Indonesian economy was in shambles — contracting thirteen percent in 1998 after the collapse of the rupiah in July 1997. Corporate debt was $80 billion, making almost all Indonesian banks and companies technically bankrupt.

Ruling-Class Shift

Deepening social, political and economic turmoil convinced sections of the ruling elite to shift their approach to respond to the student-led protests. With modest changes to the Suharto-era constitution, elections were held last summer. Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of the first president and leader of Indonesia, received the most votes, followed by President Habibie and Abdurrahman Wahid, who was not taken as a serious contender.

Would the election results be accepted by the army and Suharto’s faction, which was still in charge of the government under Habibie? The president was to be selected by delegates to the MPR (the supreme legislative body). It included many appointees, among them thirty-eight military representatives.

Student-led protests continued after the vote, demanding that Megawati become president. But the political crisis facing the ruling elite was too great to deny the elections; change was inevitable.

Turning Point: East Timor Referendum

The turning point for the bourgeois elite was the situation in East Timor, which culminated in the humiliating defeat for the Indonesian military (TNI). The intervention of United Nations troops led by longtime friend Australia (the only Western power to recognize Indonesia’s 1975 invasion and annexation of East Timor), and harsh condemnation from the United States government, shook the elite to its core.

Washington had reluctantly come to the conclusion that a bloodbath in East Timor could lead to worse problems in Indonesia — ones the regime could not control. So the Clinton administration pushed for the Indonesian army to leave even if it meant losing its prestige domestically.

The gamble seems to be paying off. The Wahid coalition is moving ahead at consolidating a new elite without tampering with the system. The UN forces in East Timor have militarily defeated the militias. The TNI’s command structure is intact with many new players in place.

The Indonesian defeat in East Timor was decisive in the restructuring of the elite. Few bourgeois opposition figures — until those traumatic developments — had ever openly criticized the entrenched dual function (dwifungsi) of the armed forces in Indonesian society. Only radical students and small revolutionary formations like the Peoples Democratic Party (PRD) called for the end of the military’s role.

Wahid and Sukarnoputri favored reforming the military. They argued that change must be won through the electoral system, which is why they focused on the presidential elections.

Without the TNI’s defeat in East Timor, the new coalition around Wahid probably would not exist today. Habibie would still be president. Wahid was the compromise choice to keep Sukarnoputri from being president because she was too closely identified with the mass actions for change (protests she avoided for the most part).

Now the role of the army in the state structure is up for challenge. It is no longer a taboo subject, a question of loyalty.

Gus Dur to the Rescue

At the meeting of MPR in October, the new president had to be a person with some credibility among the people, someone with a record who had been critical of Suharto but not a threat to the state and its institutions.

Abdurrahman Wahid fit the title perfectly. As the leader of the largest Islamic group, Nahdatul Ulama, and many times at odds with Suharto, he was probably the second choice of the people who voted for Megawati Sukarnoputri.

Mass protests were derailed as the popular will was thwarted. While she should have been elected president, Megawati agreed to Wahid’s proposal to preserve unity of the new bourgeois elite by becoming vice president. The peaceful transition from the Suharto’s clique to the Wahid-Sukarnoputri team was now in place. Significantly, the change of regimes occurred under the Suharto-era constitution, which remains in force.

The Wahid cabinet includes representatives of the old ruling elite as well as the previously excluded opposition. It includes representatives of Suharto’s created GOLKAR, the United Development Party and the Indonesian armed forces. It includes Sukarnoputri’s secular Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) and the ultra-right Star and Crescent Patty, and the traditionalist Muslim Nahdatul Ulama.

Wahid’s cabinet is a true coalition of the ruling elite, broader than any under Suharto. It is no threat to the old system. The goal of the new ruling group is to burnish the image of the government and win the support of the angry population without challenging the old institutions. Every step taken to date has been to weaken the ability of students and popular masses to take more control of society.

Not surprisingly, Wahid’s government is viewed favorably by Washington, London and Sydney and other imperialist centers. It’s important to recognize that the new ruling capitalist elite is a by-product of mass protests and high expectations, but still a remake of the old ruling team. Wahid is not some loose cannon as the Western media sometimes portray him. Wahid may be blind, but he has 20/20 vision. He is fully conscious of his acts and his objectives.

The old clique still dominates the military, which is why Wahid’s first decisions since taking office have been aimed at the military high command. His objective is to get “his people” in charge, not to end the army’s dual-function role in society.

Confrontation with Wiranto

The army’s humiliating defeat in East Timor allowed Wahid to move against General Wiranto. Habibie, with Wiranto’s agreement, had taken steps to lower the TNI’s profile. Wahid now went further, telling all serving military officers they had to retire or leave their civilian posts. Officers loyal to Wiranto were replaced. A civilian was made minister of defense.

Wahid told Wiranto directly he would be suspended as a government minister if he were implicated by the Commission on Human Rights (Komnas-HAM) investigating atrocities by the army in East Timor. The latter body established a special Commission to Investigate Violation of Human Rights (Kpp-HAM), partly to head off an international tribunal to investigate the terror of the TNI-backed militias in East Timor.

So far Wahid’s maneuver has worked. The report issued by the special commission exposed how the army was aware of and helped coordinate the terror after the August 30 vote. The army had organized a secret unit (Rajawali, Eagle) under the command of Kopassus (a U.S.-trained covert operations unit) to organize the militias who killed East Timor civilians and depopulated Dili and other towns. Some 300,000 of the 700,000 people of East Timor were forced to flee to West Timor and other islands.

While concern of a military coup swirled around Jakarta in January, Wahid did not back down. He said he would act against the army’s abuses if proved. (He was on a foreign rip at the time.) When Wahid returned home, he suspended Wiranto. Nothing happened. By then others in the military were expressing support for the president.

Most importantly, U.S. ambassador Robert Gelbard and Richard Holbrooke, U.S. ambassador to the UN, explicitly warned the military against trying to seize power. Wahid made it clear that if Wiranto refused to step down he would have follow the “law” and gone to court, using the Suharto-era institutions.

Because Wahid had public support to rein in the armed forces, Wiranto was in a bind. On May 19, he had to resign from the Cabinet following a lengthy interrogation by the human rights commission.

The victory enhanced Wahid’s influence (and illusions in him) among the people. Despite these moves to weaken the TNI’s influence, not one high-ranking officer has been charged and prosecuted, including Wiranto. All the special forces’ units, including the groups responsible for organizing the militias in East Timor, remain active. And yet the UN has not set up an international tribunal.

Winning Public Support

Winning the public spat with Wiranto was important. But other steps were necessary to strengthen the new elite’s support among the public, deepen illusions in the government and to isolate and lessen the influence of more radical elements who have yet to win a mass organized following. These included establishing a multi-party system (actually promulgated under Habibie); disbanding extra-constitutional bodies; lifting restrictions on ethnic Chinese and other ethnic groups; and freeing all political prisoners.

The freed political prisoners include central leaders of the Peoples Democratic Party (PRD); the G30S prisoners charged with the attempted “communist” coup of 1965 that Suharto used to take power after killing over one million people; members of the free Aceh and West Papua national liberation movements; and other Islamic militants and pro-democracy activists.

Wahid also issued a decree allowing 1965 exiles to return home. He supports repealing minister of interior decrees making it illegal to teach Marxism and Leninism and lifting the ban of the PKI (Indonesian Communist Party).

Habibie withdrew most repressive labor laws. There are now some twenty-nine labor federations — but the lack of independent organizations for thirty years means fewer than 200,000 workers are seriously organized in trade unions. The economic crisis is spurring an increase in workers’ protests demanding higher wages and better working conditions.

West Papua and Aceh

In an attempt to win over nationalists in rebelling provinces, Wahid offered the people of Aceh and West Papua autonomy, and more economic resources to the other outer islands. Yet a look at how Wahid is handling the most explosive conflicts shows how much the substance of the regime’s polices haven’t changed.

On December 31, 1999 Wahid traveled to West Papua to announce that the much-hated name of the province, Irian Jaya, would be changed to Papua (the other half of the island is the formally independent, Papua New Guinea). The olive branch was extended to show the new government was open to giving the mineral-rich province more autonomy.

But Wahid’s government rejects the demand for self-determination. (Indonesia’s current constitution recognizes a unitary, centralized state. Autonomy is possible but with limited powers.) When a tribal leader said to Wahid, “We want to build a new Papua,” Wahid responded categorically: “I guarantee freedom of expression so I accept (your) demand for independence as freedom of expression, but I won’t tolerate any efforts to establish a country within a country.” (Reported in the January 3 South China Morning Post)

Only a few weeks earlier the army attacked a group of West Papuans after they put up their nationalist Morning Star flag in Timika. The West Papuan people have been waging a struggle to take back the copper-and-gold mine controlled by Freeport/Rio Tino. The U.S.-owned Freeport had unlawfully seized the sacred tribal land, causing major damage to the environment.

On June 4, after a week-long conference in West Papaua, 2,700 delegates declared the area’s independence from Indonesia. President Wahid called the declaration illegal and threatened to take military action to enforce Indonesia’s “national sovereignty.”

West Papua was a Dutch colony until it was taken over by Indonesia in 1962 against the will of the local people, who wanted their own country. On December 1, 1961 nationalists had declared West Papua an independent state. (The East Timor people also declared an independent republic in 1975 before Suharto invaded and annexed the territory.)

Wahid’s attempt to placate the people of Aceh was even more transparent. He went to Banda Aceh in October to express solidarity with the people’s call for the army to withdraw and hold a referendum. Surrounded by banners calling for a referendum on the province’s status, including the right to independence, Wahid said he fully supported their right to a referendum.

But on November 14, after becoming president, Wahid reversed his stance, adopting the army’s hostile position toward a referendum. “The government,” he said, “will take firm action against individuals or groups who are not prepared to enter into talks or who make unreasonable demands which threaten the integrity of the territory of Indonesia.” (Reported in Tapol Bulletin, #156, January/February 2000)

Aceh’s 4.5 million people overwhelming support holding a referendum. Most favor independence. The armed rebel group Free Aceh Movement (GAM) has broad support. Wahid, a pragmatic politician, recognizes a military solution isn’t possible. To buy time for the army he agreed to peace talks with the rebels, which were held in Switzerland. A May 12 agreement was reached, setting a three-month cease fire to begin on June 2. Wahid and the army high command still oppose a East Timor-type referendum.

Wahid also established a human rights tribunal in Aceh. In May a trial was held of soldiers charged with executing civilians and brutalizing students. They didn’t deny the charges, saying they were following orders. Twenty-four soldiers and one Indonesian civilian were convicted and sentenced to prison terms ranging from eight-and-a-half to ten years. While none of their superiors were charged, the trial was a first.

Tragedy in the Moluccas

The violence on the seven-island Moluccan chain (popularly known in the West as the “Spice Islands”) has been the most confrontational since the fall of Suharto. Some 12,000 people have died in communal violence, mainly between Christians and Muslims. Megawati Sukarnoputri, assigned by Wahid to seek dialogue to stop the violence, traveled there to meet with local leaders.

The Moluccas tragedy is unlike Aceh and West Papua in that there is no recent history of nationalist demands for self-determination. Most political observers said the conflicts were initially tied to the power struggle in Jakarta, but are now out of control.

The issue that sparked the violence concerned the balance of Christian and Muslim communities. Suharto used transmigration to move people (who were Muslims) from more populated islands to the Moluccans. The migrants were not accepted by local residents — Muslims or Christians.

As in other outer islands, local communities began pressing for more autonomy after Suharto’s fall. The hope of pro-Suharto forces was to use anti-migrant and communal violence to weaken the new regime in Jakarta, particularly to isolate Sukarnoputri.

Bourgeois factionalism can be very bloody. Unfortunately the logic of fanning communalism can take a life of its own. Most local people now see the violence as protecting their religion. Demagogues on all sides are whipping up communal sentiments.

On Java, for example, some 50,000 Muslim protesters held a rally demanding a holy war against the Christians. They attacked Megawati Sukarnoputri for failing to stop the violence. Some of these forces had also opposed Megawati becoming president because she’s a woman.

Economic stakes are also involved. Muslim migrants were sent to one Christian area two years ago to shift the community balance. The enclave includes a new gold mine with an estimated 600,000 ounces of gold. Production began in 1999. (Far Eastern Economic Review, January 20, 2000)

Suharto’s “Trial” and Hidden Wealth

Wahid’s treatment of Suharto, his family and crony friends is consistent with his goal of class solidarity as opposed to justice. Soon after becoming president, Wahid publicly said that if Suharto is found guilty of corruption and other abuses he would be pardoned.

At the same time he ordered the attorney general’s office to finish its investigation of the family’s business dealings. It is estimated that the family and close associates stole over $73 billion during Suharto’s thirty-two year rule, including $15 billion to Suharto himself. Suharto, now 79, refuses to fully cooperate with the investigation, and so far none of the stolen wealth has been recovered.

The attorney general, meanwhile, arrested Timber tycoon Mohamed “Bob” Hasan, a longtime golfing buddy and business associate of Suharto on charges of defrauding the state.

The Economy and IMF

While Wahid supports the IMF austerity plan, he’s put it on the back burner. Not that he doesn’t understand the issues. His order of business is consolidating his personal rule first — where the charges of new cronyism arise. The IMF favorite, Laksamana Sukardi, a close aide of Sukarnoputri, was therefore fired as State Enterprise and Investment Minister on April 24. Sukardi was the most willing cabinet minister to take on financial corruption and implement the IMF plan.

Wahid picked the vice-chair of Nahdatul Ulama as Sukardi’s replacement. While Washington and the UN are sympathetic to the new group in power, the failure to restructure the economy is a big concern. In an article in the May 15 Business Week, “Indonesia’s dangerous vacuum in economic leadership,” reporter Michael Shari observes:

“Wahid continues to put off key reforms such as pay increases for civil servants, the removal of fuel subsidies, and management changes ate state-run enterprises. `The policy drift is delaying the economic recovery that everyone is waiting for,’ says Bruce Gale, regional manager of Political & Economic Risk Consultancy Ltd. in Singapore.”

In March the IMF canceled a $400 million loan. At the same time, IMF top officials are seeking to find ways to accommodate the new regime.

East Timor Revisited

Even Wahid’s approach to the newly free East Timor flows from his objective to consolidate personal power and strengthen the new bourgeois regime in Jakarta. As noted earlier, it was the debacle in East Timor that weakened the old Suharto faction in the armed forces and state bureaucracy.

On February 29 Wahid traveled to East Timor’s capitals, Dili, and met with Xanana Gusmao, leader of the East Timor people. He opened a diplomatic office, pledging cooperation. Yet there are over 100,000 East Timor refugees living in West Timor and other islands. Armed raids by the defeated militias into East Timor continue. None of these thugs have been arrested or prosecuted by Indonesia. They continue to collaborate with the covert operation units of the TNI.

So what’s up? The government’s recognition of East Timor is primarily a signal to Washington, London and Sydney that Jakarta seeks good relations. The TNI wants to renew military training and end the suspension of arms sales.

Indonesia knows another fact: Tensions within East Timor are rising between the UN administrators and the local people. The United Nations Transitional Authority in East Timor (UNTAET) controls every aspect of life. East Timor’s leaders are rarely consulted. As many as eighty percent of the territory’s 700,000 people have no jobs.

According to Akara Reis, vice-president of the Socialist Party of Timor (PST), those who do get jobs face discrimination in pay and working conditions: “One reason for the massive gap between earnings for local and imported workers is that the local Timorese workers are deemed `unskilled.’ Computer skills and English are considered a prerequisite for better-paying jobs.” (Green Left Weekly, Australia, May 3) This has led to workers’ protests, and threats of violence.

The dollar is the official currency. While $500 million has been pledged to rebuild East Timor, the UN and foreign aid groups make the decisions on how it is used. Many Timorese see UNATET administrators as “new occupiers,” even as they praise the UN for driving out the Indonesian army.

The transition period to an independent East Timor is to continue for another year, maybe two. That’s a long time if local groups are kept out of the decision-making process. The challenge for the international solidarity movement is to support the East Timorese leadership’s push for more control.

The East Timor Action Network (ETAN) along with the International Federation for East Timor (IFET), the body that organized and Observer Project during the August 30 referendum, is organizing a Monitoring Project to work with East Timorese groups. According to Charlie Scheiner of ETAN, “It will watch and report on activities of foreign institutions in East Timor, and help them to better understand East Timor needs and concerns.” ETAN has also set up an Indonesia Action Network (IAN) to pressure the U.S. government to maintain its suspension of U.S. military ties with Indonesia, including bans on military training and weapons transfers.

What Next?

Indonesia remains strategic for Washington and its allies. It is the fourth most populous country in the world and the largest Muslim country. Its further disintegration would have major ramifications in the region. Washington is increasing its economic aid to the country. Annual aid went from $80 million to $125 million, the USAID budget alone from $5.3 to $23 million.

The European Union resumed arms sales with Britain leading the way. U.S. military aid remains suspended, however. Washington’s wants the military in the barracks because the army’s open political role today is undermining construction of a strong, stable capitalist state. (During the Cold War the United States had the opposite view. Then the army’s political role was not only backed but encouraged to crush the left.)

Is Indonesia a democratic republic? Not yet. None of the positive changes so far (freedom of the press, for example) have been institutionalized. That requires a new democratic constitution. A constituent assembly must be elected.

The army must be sent back to the barracks and its dual function role ended permanently. The growth of mass trade unions, popular groups and new working class parties are essential to make such fundamental changes.

Wahid, Sukarnoputri and the new elites oppose radical changes. But can Suhartoism be resurrected by the new elite? Not likely: Wahid and the other new elites based their personal power on the illusions of democracy. Can a genuine democratic republic be won? Yes: But not by elections or presidential decrees — only popular revolt.

No one thought a student-led movement could force Suharto to resign. He did. The coming together of explosive developments can lead to revolution. Small groups can grow rapidly and win mass influence. The opening battle for a democratic republic did begin in May 1998. The second round was won last year when East Timor won its freedom. The next conflict to win democracy in Indonesia is yet to come. Inevitably, it will.

ATC 87, July-August 2000