Indonesia: discontent simmers beneath the fear

Wednesday, September 18, 1991

Frank Gollan

On a visit to Indonesia, FRANK GOLLAN found widespread stirrings of opposition.

"We are paid 1000 rupiah [less than 70 cents] a day", said a community leader in a village whose land had been flooded by the Kedung Ombo dam in central Java. Their land gone, peasants are forced to work in factories. How do they cope with the change? "We do not know what we are any more."

Others have taken up the government offer of transmigration to Sumatra, only to return. "Here things are desperate, we have to eat anything we can to survive, even leaves." But in Sumatra, "They told us we would have good land, but it is forest. We have to cut down the forest, and then the soil is not as good as here. It is so difficult that people prefer to come back here."

Indonesia is now in the sights of large developers, from Japan and elsewhere. At the same time, a small but substantial section of Indonesian society is making its fortune along the way.

Raw materials are there for the taking: oil, natural gas, coal, gold, timber, water resources and low-paid workers. If just 5% of the population gets rich from the exploitation of the rest, then this represents a consumer market of nearly 10 million people. The country invites comparison with Brazil, where society is divided into an elite with a Western lifestyle, a poor working class and the absolutely destitute remainder.

A key in this strategy is the transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich. The farmers I spoke to were offered Rp250 a square metre for land which is worth Rp9000-12,000. Land in East Timor and West Papua (Irian Jaya) offered for transmigration has simply been stolen from its traditional owners.

"My relative has three Mercedes and a BMW. He has so much money he doesn't know what to do with it. His house is of the finest European wood and stone. He recently purchased an adjacent property and asked an architect how to extend to take advantage of the extra space. Not possible, said the architect, so he is having the house knocked down and is starting again." For friends of the ruling Soeharto family, there is simply too much money to spend.

I drive through the "golden triangle" of Jakarta real estate. "I have never seen so many banks in my life", I comment to a visiting Dutch parliamentarian after we pass a kilometre of new office buildings, almost all banks. "There aren't this many banks in the Netherlands", he replies.

"Theft depends on who you are", explains a peasant. "If I steal a chicken then I will go to prison for three or four months. But if someone steals millions ..."

Urban land theft

City dwellers as well as peasants are victims of land theft. A few blocks from where I stayed in Jakarta, a group of people live on a bench in front of the rubble which was once their homes. The compensation was too small to allow them to move, so they just sit there, trying to raise a little extra money by selling some stones from the wreckage.

The government is encouraging transmigration among the urban poor. "They want us to migrate, but we are workers, not peasants. We have jobs here. We don't know anything about farming." So explained residents in a pitiful slum on a river bank in Jakarta.

Around 100 people live in makeshift housing, drawing their water supply from the river, a sewer polluted blue by a textile plant. Their "well" is a hole dug down to the level of the waste water outlet from the neighbouring rich house.

"Do the authorities harass you?" The flood inspectors who are responsible for the river come along once a month to collect a bribe of Rp50,000.

Corruption is all-pervasive. "There are no seats on the train", explains the ticket office as I purchase a third class ticket from Bandung to Yogyakarta. A friend takes me to another window, where a seat reservation is magically found. This is a special carriage, reserved for the families of the military, who sell the seats. As a foreign visitor, I am honoured by not having to pay the bribe.

Police terror

I asked a student about protests during the Gulf War. "We held four demonstrations against the Gulf War. On the last one they arrested us and beat us up. I was beaten around the head, and the guard told me he was going to rape me."

At a prison in Jakarta, one of the several dozen political prisoners held there explains, "They do not torture us here. That is done when we are arrested, before we are transferred here."

During my stay, the country marks its 46 years of independence from the Dutch and Japanese. Signs are everywhere, "17-8-45 to 17-8-91." What of the generation of 1945, I ask a writer. His look is bitter: "They were almost all traitors". He adds, "The future is with the youth".

An artist relates an anecdote: on Independence Day at a nearby school, children 8 to 12 years old present a play they have prepared for the occasion. In their own words they explain that they need better sanitary conditions, that they can't play because they don't have a playground, that when their fathers get sick they lose their livelihood, that in the wet season their slum is flooded. After the performance, police arrest their teacher.

I join around 300 people watching a free puppet show and gamelan orchestra. The show is held beside a river poisoned by a textile factory. It is put on by the government to let everyone know that all is okay. I stay with a friend overnight, who explains the local amenities. There is a blockhouse with three bathing cubicles for 200 residents. We have to walk some blocks to wash or use the toilets.

"Do you know Kathe Kollwitz?", my friend asks, showing me a catalogue of the German artist's sketches from the early decades of the century. The themes are simple: struggle against hardship in the ever-present shadow of death. I look around the slum, and can see the similarity.

Amidst the poverty stands an imposing building marked Transitu Transmigrasi, Transmigration Station. My mind flashed to the Happiness Centres in the film Soylent Green.

I talk to peasants from Sumatra affected by plans for the giant Koto Panjang dam project, six times larger than Kedung Ombo. I recall the peasants from there transmigrated to Sumatra. Where will the Sumatrans be transmigrated to? "Oh no, they don't call it transmigration." They are just forced to destroy the virgin forest to find new land. The compensation for their land is handled by a middle man who keeps up to half the money.

'We cannot live'

"We cannot live on Rp1500 a day", the factory worker explains. A 20 minute taxi trip has just cost me Rp5000. Two days later, 14,000 workers strike in Tanggerang, east of Jakarta, demanding their wages of Rp1600 per day be raised to the official government minimum of Rp2100.

Everywhere I go, things are happening. Bus drivers strike for two days against police harassment in central and east Java, and plan further action. In factories across Java, organisation is developing despite extreme threats.

There is a sense of change in the wind. In East Timor young children ask strangers, "Bapak, kapan pulang (when are you going home)?" East Timorese and West Papuans are hesitant to make predictions. They have sought independence for many years. But now there is an airing of the issues, at least in some circles.

In the sketches of Kathe Kollwitz, death hovers behind all. In Indonesia it is the deaths of 500,000 or more Indonesian Communist Party members and supporters killed in the white terror of 1965. Survivors warn their children with trauma-filled memory. But even terror must run its course, and the issues of today are driving off the shadows of the past.
A national meeting of Indonesia Solidarity Action (AKSI) will be held in Melbourne on the weekend of September 21-22. See page 23 for details.

Issue