Dan La Botz’s Made in Indonesia

Against the Current, No. 98, May/June 2002

Kurt Biddle

Made in Indonesia Indonesian Workers Since Suharto
by Dan La Botz (South End Press, 2001)
395 pages, $18 paper.

MADE IN INDONESIA is a good overview of the current players in Indonesia’s new labor movement, and those who have participated in anti-sweatshop campaigns or anti-corporate globalization efforts will find the book useful.

The dynamic labor movement in Indonesia began in the last years of Suharto’s rule, but it’s really been since the fall of Suharto in May, 1998 that Indonesian political space has opened dramatically, resulting in a new wave of labor organizing.

In 1965, the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) was blamed for the murder of six leading generals and an aborted coup. As General Suharto seized power, the Indonesian military began systematically murdering or facilitating the slaughter of anyone associated with the left.

Up to one million people were massacred and thousands of others imprisoned. The New Order, as Suharto’s rule was called, was a time of complete destruction of independent organizations such as unions, political parties and women’s organizations.

But there were always underground organizations and attempts to organize workers, peasants and students. Made in Indonesia introduces us to some of these activists and helps us understand the various ideologies and backgrounds that influenced them.

Activist Voices

The interviews with union activists and La Botz’s comments on them are the strength of the book. In a very accessible, journalistic style he lays out the current labor scene in Jakarta.

La Botz looks at several different currents taking place in the Indonesian labor movement. He looks at the split that took place in the old government-sponsored union SPSI. We also get a good introduction to newer unions such as the bank workers union FOKUBA, and two unions based on Sukarno-era political ideas, as well as a discussion of the importance that Indonesian NGOs have played in the labor movement.

La Botz stresses the importance of two dynamic union leaders: Muchtar Pakpahan of the Indonesian Prosperity Labor Union (known by the Indonesian acronym SBSI), and Dita Sari with the National Front for Indonesian Labor Struggle (FNPBI).

Both Dita and Muchtar were imprisoned under the Suharto regime. Both understand the importance of independent political parties in advocating for workers’ rights. Yet the two have very different approaches to labor unions.

Muchtar’s conception of a union is based on European social-democratic ideas, whereas Dita has a much more radical approach. Dita recently made international headlines with her refusal of the Reebok Human Rights Award.

I got the impression that the book was written at two distinct times, because its style and readability changes drastically with the beginning of the fifth chapter, where La Botz gets into the research and interviews he conducted in Jakarta.

In La Botz’s Part I, three chapters on Indonesia and Globalization, we get an effective overview of Indonesia’s political-economic system, and other nations’ economic exploitation of Indonesia’s vast resources and cheap labor.

These early chapters give important historical background that most readers will need to put the current situation in Indonesia in context, including Dutch colonial rule, the 1945-1949 national revolution, Suharto’s 1965-1966 rise to power, and his overthrow in 1998.

But this section is often repetitive and there are some inaccuracies, as well as numerous misspellings of Indonesian words, names and places. The book could have benefitted from an editor with a greater knowledge of Indonesia.

The AFL-CIO’s Role

An interesting debate La Botz raises is whether the AFL-CIO should accept U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) money for their international programs.

Many readers are familiar with the AFL-CIO’s terrible programs in Latin America and the suppression of independent unions there in the 1970s and 1980s. But the operations in Indonesia have been different.

Even during the Suharto years, the AFL-CIO in Indonesia was advising and supporting independent union efforts. The American Center for International Labor Solidarity (ACILS) is the entity affiliated with the AFL-CIO in Indonesia. USAID provides approximately $1 million a year to ACILS in Indonesia since 1997.

La Botz believes that the AFL-CIO shouldn’t accept money from USAID. However, there are several examples in the book in which the AFL-CIO was able to assist independent unions in Indonesia, including the more radical FNPBI.

The irony is that Dita Sari complains that once other international unions (many of which are far more progressive than the AFL-CIO) learn how radical the FNPBI program is, they don’t give money.

It would be best for the AFL-CIO to be completely independent, but if they are able to give critical support to Indonesian unions now, why refuse this government money?

Problems of Socialism

As La Botz acknowledges in the introduction, I have several times been torn between two approaches. This work is essentially two books, one “simply about the Indonesian workers and unions written for the student anti-sweatshop movement, and the second a more political book aimed at the small left audience” (xxv).

So on one hand La Botz stresses the need for cross-border solidarity, but he also outlines his conception of a socialist revolution in Indonesia. And neither of these books are really about the mass of Indonesian workers, but about union activists and revolutionaries.

The book provides a good introduction to the Peoples Democratic Party (PRD), with a depth unequaled in English thus far. The PRD came to international attention after several of their leaders (including Dita Sari) were imprisoned under Suharto.

Many of the demands they put forward in 1994-1997 became the demands of the Reformasi movement in 1998, including the end of military involvement in politics and the repeal of the five political laws. La Botz has extensive interviews about the background and events that influenced this small, but dynamic socialist party.

The epilogue does a good job of explaining what La Botz means by socialism, and he distinguishes his definition of socialism from the totalitarian regimes in China and the former Soviet Union. He draws from Hal Draper’s essay The Two Souls of Socialism to further clarify the type of socialism he advocates.

The reader could have benefitted from this distinction earlier in the book, since many readers may wince at the word socialism and all the connotations of Stalin and breadlines.

La Botz then goes on to criticize the largest grouping advocating socialism from below, the PRD, for their strategy of first fighting for a democratic society and then fighting for a socialist society. La Botz believes they should (or should have) implement(ed) Trotsky’s permanent revolution strategy in which the struggle for democracy becomes the struggle for socialism.

The problem with this in Indonesia is the forces that joined together in 1998 to demand that Suharto resign included students from Indonesia’s elite universities, leaders of huge Muslim organizations, NGOs, union leaders and many diverse elements of Indonesian society.

By and large these were not socialists, and many just wanted an end to the cronyism, corruption and military brutality that was the New Order. After Suharto stepped down, the movement didn’t have much common cause and split into several factions.

The PRD couldn’t lead people to socialism, first of all because they are so small, and second, the Indonesian people weren’t demanding socialism or a new economic system. The buzzword was Reformasi (not Revolusi).

Indonesia’s democracy movement isn’t as strong now as it was in 1998. Indonesia still hasn’t been able to pull out of its economic crisis. Although the Indonesian military was vilified and lost much of its power because of the Reformasi movement, it still remains powerful.

In the northern Sumatra province of Aceh the war between the Indonesian military and guerillas fighting for Acehnese independence claimed some 1800 lives last year and continues to rage on.

In November, on the other side of the archipelago, in West Papua, independence leader Theys Eluay was murdered, most likely by the Indonesian special forces unit Kopassus. But these struggles don’t appear to connect to a polarization between left and right.

Solidarity Needed

Indonesian workers still need support from the rest of the world. In the wake of the September 11th attacks, the travel industry has been hit especially hard. With people afraid to fly, hotels have emptied.

But in February, outside the Indonesian Embassy in Washington, some 100 protestors from the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE) demanded that the Shangri-La Hotel in Jakarta reinstate workers who were locked out, beaten by police and hired thugs and finally sued by the hotel for damages caused by the hotel’s own decision to lock out its staff.

The HERE union staff and members certainly had enough worries with Washington hotel workers being laid off, but they felt it was important to come out and support workers from the other side of the globe.

This is the kind of solidarity that Dan La Botz argues for in Made In Indonesia.

from ATC 98 (May/June 2002)