Indonesia’s Democratic Movement Under Attack

Against the Current, No. 128, May/June 2007

Max Lane

ON MARCH 28 and 29, a series of rightist mobilizations took place in Jakarta, Indonesia. The largest of these was a 500-strong mobilization aimed at disrupting a march and rally being organized by the United Party for National Liberation (Papernas) protesting foreign domination of the Indonesian minerals sector and demanding nationalization of companies in the sector. These groups were armed with scythes, knives and canes. This was the fourth time in the last six months that Papernas had been targeted for violent disruption.

Kompas daily newspaper listed the following groups as being involved in the attacks: Forum Betawi Rempug (FBR), Front Pembela Islam (FPI), Pelajar Islam Indonesia, Indonesian National Patriotic Movement and the Front in Defence of the Red and White Flag. Other smaller mobilizations, but involving people from the same network of groups, were also mobilized against other targets on the 28th as well as the 29th. These also included the Anti-Communist Movement (GERAK).

The common theme in these attacks has been a virulent anti-communism. The atmosphere encouraging an offensive by these small rightist groups has been set by the government, which has launched its own anti-communist campaign through the Attorney-General’s department. The latter campaign has not been aimed at Papernas, but at the second group of people who have also come under attack from the rightist groups on March 28: the numerous historians who have been writing new histories of Indonesia in the more liberal atmosphere after the fall of Suharto.

In March the Attorney General banned 14 history textbooks. Previously, writers and even Ministry of Education officials had been summoned as part of a criminal investigation initiated by the Attorney General’s Department. The crime of which the historians have been accused? They no longer label as “a Communist plot” the actions of a group of military officers who detained and later killed seven generals on 30 September 1965.

The military officers who led the action to arrest their seniors, who they claimed were plotting to overthrow the then president, Sukarno, called  their group the Thirtieth of September Movement (G30S). General Suharto, whose faction seized control of the Army, started a campaign to describe the G30S as a Communist Party (PKI) conspiracy and started to call it the G30S/PKI. The PKI was banned and more than a million of its members and supporters killed in an Army-led slaughter.

The new generation of historians has written textbooks where they return to using just G30S and sometimes provide alternative explanations of the events. The fact that they do not continue to blame the PKI is considered by the Attorney General’s department as a criminal act.

A 1967 resolution of the Peoples Consultative Assembly (MPR), which had been purged of all its left-wing members, bans the spreading of Marxism-Leninism. This resolution, which in effect bans communism, is still in effect.

On March 28, twenty members of the group GERAK protested at the Indonesian Academy of Sciences, demanding it “clean itself of communists,” singling out historian Asvi Warman Adam, one of the most active writers and campaigners for the end to the falsification of history, specially on the events of 1965. Other groups demonstrated at the Attorney General’s department supporting the ban on the history textbooks.

Papernas and the March 29 Assault

Previous attacks have taken place on Papernas meetings in Surabaya (2006), in Jogjakarta (2006) and in East Java earlier this year. Attacks on the party that initiated its formation, the Peoples Democratic Party (PRD), had last come under this kind of attack in 2001, when they were seen to be supporting President Abdurrahman Wahid, who had called for an end to the ban on communism or any other  ideologies.

In these earlier instances, the group leading the attacks was the Indonesian Anti-Communist Front (FAKI), which was able to mobilize 50-100 armed men. In most of these earlier cases, the police stood between FAKI and the Papernas events, so that no actual physical attacks took place. At the same time, the police applied pressure on Papernas to end their events more quickly than they had planned.

The laws banning communism, not questioned by any party in the parliament, lend a huge “formal” legitimacy to these groups’ activities in the eyes of the police, many of whose views reflect the conservative mentality developed during the Suharto years.

As a part of launching Papernas’s political campaigning following its founding congress in December 2006, it scheduled a series of morning rallies and a Jakarta Peoples Rally in the afternoon to demand the nationalization of the mining sector industries, including oil and gas. Of the 137 oil and gas companies operating in Indonesia, 110 are foreign owned with contracts giving them exploration rights over 35% of Indonesian territory, according to Papernas’s analysis.

The occasion for the demonstration was the parliament’s discussion of new laws on investment and a UN seminar, being held at the Shangri La hotel, reviewing Indonesia’s progress in meeting the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. Agus Jabo, Chairperson of Papernas gave me the details of what happened by phone from Jakarta.

On the morning of March 29 around 2000 supporters of Papernas, many of them members of urban poor campaign groups, headed for Jakarta in buses. They had been saving for months, donating a few cents a day, to be able to hire the buses. As they arrived at the second of their protest destinations, the Shangri la Hotel, they came under a surprise attack by around 100 members of the FPI, FBR and other groups who were wielding knives and canes and threw stones into the crowd or into the bus windows, smashing at least 20 windows.

The overwhelming majority of the Papernas supporters were housewives, unarmed of course, many with young children, and were forced to disperse. Heavy rain made the situation even more difficult. The Papernas supporters later regrouped back in their base areas. They had to cancel their planned afternoon Jakarta Peoples Rally at the Independence Proclamation Park, where another 300 or so FPI, FBR and other members were also waiting.

Agus Jabo told me that at least 10 people were taken to the hospital. According to Kompas, the head police detective there was also injured. Despite knowing of the threats, the police mobilized only a small contingent to the event totally ineffective in protecting the rally. The police had only issued the paperwork making the rally and march legal at the very last minute, using the fact of the threats and possible violence as a reason for holding up the bureaucratic permission process.

Still Moving Forward

Papernas members also report that the feeling among their supporters, after regrouping back at their base, was still strong and angry. “Later in the afternoon on March 29, we held a press conference protesting the events,” Jabo told me. “There were other groups there who had suffered similar harassment the day before, such as the Coalition Against Foreign Investment an NGO coalition that had protested outside the parliament.

“We will also be suing the FP and FBR for the damages they did to the buses and to the ten people who were hospitalized, some beaten, some suffering heart problems,” he said.

At the conference a joint protest statement was signed by Papernas as well as the two main Indonesian human rights organizations, Imparsial and KONTRAS, as well as the Jakarta Legal Aid Institute and the pro-democracy advocacy group, DEMOS. Other groups, including the Working Peoples Association (PRP), have also issued solidarity statements.

Dita Sari, prominent labor activist and the Papernas presidential candidate, also related over the phone how three of the women, housewives, also spoke at the press conference. “They told how these armed men demanded they confess to being paid to attend the rally. They refused, saying that they had instead donated 10,000 rupiah to pay for the buses. The gang members demanded the women confess to being communists, but they explained they are religious people and were there to support education and health for poor people. Others gave evidence of how they were beaten with bamboo canes.”

“Again and again we have seen how the police cannot be relied on at all to protect our rights. I think this means that whenever Papernas organizes events in the future, we will need our own self-defense group for protection.”

Separate from this, but at the same venue, another meeting was being held to organize resistance against the attack on the historians. Hilmar Farid, one of the most active of the historians, told me that they would be thinking of how to link the responses to the increasing activity of the rightwing groups. They would consider with their petition campaign but also try to organize a major public forum to debate the issue of the right to interpret history.

“It seems there is a conflict sharpening between some of the old Suharto-era groups and the elite factions who are trying to consolidate their power,” Jabo told me. “Both, of course, want to shore up the neoliberal economic system so they don’t like our policies. But it may be that the old New Order elements, now out of power, are trying to provoke wider horizontal conflict as a way of destabilizing or discrediting those in power now. The groups who attacked us are just the manipulated agents on the ground, not the real forces pushing this process along.”

The incidents on March 29 involved around 2,500-3,000 people — 2,000-2,500 Papernas supporters and 500 members of the various rightist gangs. These are small numbers within the scale of the national politics of Indonesia, a country of 250 million. And there are probably only a score or more historians at the frontline of the struggle for the freedom to interpret history, although many more at the level of post-graduates and recent graduates.

Yet these events have been highlighted in the mass media. A national TV debate between Dita Sari and Asvi Warman Adam and two conservative intellectuals took place on April 4. More will follow.

The Democratic Revolution

It is no coincidence that the attack on history and the PRD’s attempt to launch a new party of national liberation have come under attack at the same time, and are being linked in public discussion.

In the late 1980s in Indonesia, a new effort began to build a mass movement against the Suharto dictatorship. Students broke out of the ideological straitjacket that had been imposed during the previous 24 years of near totalitarian military-backed rule. They linked up with peasants, and later factory workers, and began mobilizing on the streets.

The landmark activity was the mobilizations with peasants against the seizure of land with almost no compensation for the Kedung Ombo dam project in Central Java. The revolutionary impact of this student-peasant, student-worker street mobilization, even while beginning small, cannot be overemphasized. It represented a qualitative break with the political life prevalent between 1965 and 1989.

During this period, the regime implemented a policy known as “the floating mass” — an explicit substitute for democratic mass politics. Preceded by the terroristic mass murder of around a million activists, peasants, workers, students and intellectuals and the imprisonment of tens of thousands more, the policy banned all mass mobilizations, as well as membership of political parties at the village level. Left wing parties, unions and publications were also banned altogether, and even the leaderships of conservative parties with a genuine mass following were de facto taken over by the government. The dictatorship’s philosophy was summed up as follows by its chief ideologue in the 1960s and ‘70s, Major-General Ali Murtopo:

“The political parties were always trying to marshal mass support by forming various affiliated organizations based on the ideologies of their respective parties. The mass of the people, especially those in the villages, always fell prey to the political and ideological interests of those parties. Their involvement in the conflicts of political and ideological interests had as its result the fact that they ignored the necessities of daily life, the need for development and improvement of their own lives, materially as well as spiritually. For this reason it is justifiable that political parties are limited to the district level only [i.e. are banned from the villages]. Here lies the meaning and the goal of the depoliticisation (the process of freeing the people from political manipulation) and the deparpolisasi [the process of separating the people from political party allegiances] in the villages.

“In this way people in the villages will not spend their valuable time and energy in the political struggles of parties and groups, but will be occupied wholly with development efforts. Through this process there emerges the so-called ‘floating mass.’”

This “depoliticisation” and “deparpolisation,” at the heart of the Suharto dictatorship’s political strategy, represented an effort to wipe out a political tradition that had come into existence in the very process of creating Indonesia as a nation, and had provided the political method that was employed to fight attempts by U.S. imperialism, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to gain dominance in Indonesia between 1960-65.

Indonesia was one of the most mobilized and most party political countries in the world in the ‘50s and early ‘60s. This is why the terror had to be so great in 1965, to suppress not just the left, but the whole tradition of “trying to marshal mass support by forming various affiliated organizations based on the ideologies of their respective parties.”

What began in 1989 was a new process, aimed at mobilizing people indeed at the village level, in direct confrontation with the fundamental basis of the dictatorship. And it caught on quickly: Through the period 1990-1996, a series of student-peasant and student-worker mass protests took place which re- legitimized this method of struggle.

A range of groups pioneered the effort, at the forefront of which was the Peoples Democratic Party (PRD). By 1996, more moderate party forces, such as (Sukarno’s daughter) Megawati Sukarnoputri’s Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI), also started to use the mass mobilization method. In the middle of 1996, responding to attacks from the dictatorship, militant and angry mass mobilizations of PDI supporters started to take place. The regime reacted with a Crackdown, targeting in particular the PRD, but also the activist elements in the PDI.

Suharto fell as a result of mass mobilizations, which threatened to radicalize if the ruling class had not sacrificed him. Conceding to the pressure of the mass radicalization, the balance of forces between the ruling class and the rest of society was dramatically altered — not to the extent that the ruling class did not continue to rule, but it no longer could implement the depoliticizing “floating mass” strategy.

In the new climate political parties have mushroomed. Aksi, street protest mobilizations, have become a daily occurrence involving almost every sector of the population — even though often small, sporadic and rarely extending beyond a few sites of grievance.

The success of the anti-dictatorship movement has re-won, as a legitimate method of struggle, mass street protests, strikes and other forms of mobilization as well as political party mobilization. This, in fact, represents a key element in the method of struggle introduced into Indonesia at the beginning of the 20th century in the course of the anti-colonial struggle that created an Indonesian nation.

Struggle for National Memory

However, 35 years of ideological suppression has meant that the endemic social protest, while a fundamental feature of Indonesian political life today, has remained fragmented, not congealing into national ideological streams of any kind at all.

The dictatorship’s political strategy went beyond mass murder, terror and suppression in order to achieve the “floating mass,” “depoliticisation” and “deparpolisation.” It also carried out a centralized, coordinated and systematic approach to wipe out the masses’ memory of the previous 60 years of history, the history of the national revolution that had created Indonesia and which then grew over into a struggle to consolidate independence in the face of neocolonialism.

To be sure, the murder of a million people dents a class’s memory a fair bit by simple physical elimination of human brains. Suppressing the parties and unions, breaking them up with terror as well as legal bans, smashes up chains of continuity. Banning the writings of Sukarno, the national revolution’s main thinker, as well as all other leftwing publications was a further blow.

To consolidate these measures, the regime then handed over all efforts relating to the writing of history, including school and university curricula, to the Armed Forces History Center. Exposure to any elements of the populist, left or radical ideological traditions of the nation’s formative process was denied all generations of children educated since 1965.

Many young people, including high school and university graduates, never read a single speech by Sukarno — or any other major historical figure. Instead they have been forced to rote learn one of the grossest falsification of histories ever undertaken. In this history, the Army is presented as the national savior since time immemorial (even before there were modern armies) and the Left, especially the Indonesian Communist Party, as the embodiment of evil and treachery.

Much of this falsification of history also demonizes Sukarno, although the regime was constrained by the need to recognize his role in the struggle for Independence. He was relegated to purely being one of the “proclamators” of Indpendence on 17 August 1965. For almost 35 years absolutely no other version of history reached anybody, except the tiniest number of inquisitive malcontents.

Aksi Without Memory or Ideology

The social protest that has spread so phenomenally after the fall of Suharto in May 1998 has remained sporadic, in generally small mobilizations and limited to the site of grievance. Protests have not generally aligned with any of the almost twenty parties in the parliament, or the more than 60 parties outside it. Only in a few cases have they spawned new organizations of their own, and usually confined to a particular region. Most of these are peasant federations and trade unions. But they remain small too, and local or located in just a few sites of grievance.

There has been no crystallization into nationwide ideological or political organizations, movements or even more vague networks. Any dynamic in that direction remains weak, still early in its development and progressing slowly and hesitantly. This is because there is no ideology, at least no conscious discussion of ideological choices. This in turn is connected to the suppression of ideological life for 35 years and once more to the falsification of history, the suppression of memory, particularly as the ideology of mass mobilization before 1965 was Sukarnoism articulated as “socialism ala Indonesia.”

In 1980-81, the publication of the historical novels of Pramoedya Ananta Toer and the emergence of a publishing house, Hasta Mitra, led by radical Sukarnoists Joesoef Isak and Hasyim Rachman, was the first bomb which blew apart some of the suppression of history and memory.

These novels reminded people that the project of Indonesia was motivated by the desire for human and social liberation and not military glory, order and crude economic growth. The fact these incredibly well received books were published by Sukarnoists revived an interest among young intellectuals in the Left from before 1965.

The books were banned and the publishers virtually — though not quite — driven out of business in the 1980s (but they have produced more books liberating history since the fall of Suharto.) Indeed the issue of memory and history has been central to key political developments since the fall of Suharto.

Presidential Politics

Since the fall of Suharto, in May 1998, there have been four Presidents. Their coming and going has been relatively boring, except in the case of President Abdurrahman Wahid. In 2000 the Peoples Consultative Assembly (MPR) elected him even though he was nominated by one of the smaller parties. He received the support of almost all the parties operating under an Islamic banner because they opposed the other major candidate, Megawati Sukarnoputri, as she is a woman. Wahid also received the support of GOLKAR, the ruling party under Suharto, which was the main rival to Megawati’s party in terms of size.

This meant that Wahid was elected by a very conservative constituency in the MPR, but he rapidly lost this constituency’s support. In fact, he alienated some of the groups so much that even more conservative Islamic groups swung their support behind Megawati. The MPR later deposed him through an impeachment process, voting that he had been engaged in corruption — based on a very weak and unconvincing case.

What lost Wahid this support? Among a range of factors were two of his attitudes that threatened the elite’s 30-year-old ownership and control of the national collective memory, and the ideological hegemony that such control helped ensure. First, he announced that he advocated a repeal of the formal ban on Marxism-Leninism, arguing that there should be no attempt to ban any ideology.

Second, he called for reconciliation with the victims of the 1965 suppression, i.e. the pre-1965 Left. These policies galvanized the most right-wing groups into an explicitly anti-communist formation, but also galvanized the mainstream right — GOLKAR, the Army, the PDI (now PDIP) and the Islamic parties into a single bloc against him.

It was also during Wahid’s Presidency that the process was begun to review all history curricula, a process that was not completed until after he was deposed. Even so, it appears some of the books that came out of that process are being labeled as “criminal.”

The public discussion over interpretation of history has remained steady since the Wahid period, and has resulted in an explosion of material on history and the assertion of a more independent stance. Most of this new work is aimed at “correcting” history, i.e. fighting the New Order’s falsification of history. This is a radically political process even if, until the conflicts of the last few weeks, it has taken a mainly intellectual or even academic form.

Panic on the Right

It is not surprising that we are now seeing the first signs of panic on the right. So far this comes from the ultraright, manifested through the actions of various paid thug (preman) gangs, operating either under an Islamic, anti-communist or chauvinist nationalist banner.

Behind these groups are the most Suhartoist elements in the army and also ex-Army officers. They are the most sensitive to the threat. Other rightwing forces, I think, don’t yet realize the Pandora’s Box that will be opened if history, and the right to collective memory, is re-won by the masses of Indonesia.

ATC 128, May-June 2007