Indonesia: Poor majority struggle for justice


The Indonesian government headed by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (commonly known as "SBY") claims it has reduced poverty in Indonesia from 17.7% in 2006 to 14.2% in 2009.

Even if those statistics are accurate, which is disputed, it still amounts to 33 million people living in official poverty.

However, World Bank researchers estimate that 60% of Indonesians (115 million people) live on less than US$2 a day (a common international standard for poverty).

National chairperson of the Poor People's Union of Indonesia (SRMI) Marlo Sitompul believes the government's claims about poverty reduction are about as credible as its claims to have reduced corruption.

You wouldn't know it from the fawning mass media coverage of SBY's recent Australia visit, but there have been daily protests outside his presidential palace for months against his government's proved corruption.

Sitompul told Green Left Weekly: "Just in Jakarta city there are at least three million people living in poverty but the official figure is only 1.5 million.

"For us, there are five criteria to define poverty: If you cannot eat healthily or you cannot get adequate clothing, housing, healthcare and education at least up to secondary school, then you are poor."

In December 2008, Indonesia's defence minister admitted that access to such basic human needs is still restricted to just 10% of the population.

The government boasts that the Indonesian economy continued to grow even while much of the world went into recession following the global financial crisis of 2008-09.

But in the same period, factories continued to close, official unemployment ranged between 8.5% and 10% (add another 30% for underemployment) and an incredible 72% of the workforce has been forced into the "informal sector".

The SBY government's Poverty Eradication Program does not tackle poverty, but instead involves regular slum evictions and the dispersal of street hawkers. Police weigh in with their batons, arrest people and smash or confiscate their carts and cooking implements.

One issue sparking escalating protests is the call for the resignation of the governor of Jakarta for corruption and for causing the deaths of several street children through aggressive police sweeps.

One boy recently drowned after he fell in a pond while fleeing police carrying out such a sweep.

Kampung Guji Baru is just one of the many shanty settlements in the megacity of Jakarta, where an estimated 3 million poor people try to survive.

I met Sitompul and other SRMI activists in the West Jakarta slum settlement of Kampung Guji Baru.

We met at the rubble-strewn site of a shanty home that had been destroyed in the midst of an ongoing attempt by "land mafia" to clear this three-hectare former swamp that houses about 3000 poor people.

Gangsters have been sent to try and burn out the residents on several occasions, but have been beaten back by the well-organised residents.

Kampung Guji Baru is a strong base of the SRMI and the People's Democratic Party (PRD), the radical party born in the democracy movement that toppled the former dictator Suharto in 1998.

The red PRD flag flutters above the slum settlement, which is next to a fetid and poisonous canal. One resident sported a missing thumb — lost in the street battles in the late 1990s when a molotov cocktail exploded too early.

Developers want to build multi-storey towers on this land to house yet more giant shopping malls and apartments to cater for the wealthier minority in this mega-city.

The land mafia is resorting to "legal" methods. Using falsified documents, they managed to get the courts to issue an eviction order last year.

But the residents are not budging.

Obbie Maulana, a young SRMI activist, said proudly: "I live here, I grew up here and I have a young family here."

His partner has a wooden cart from which she sells burgers in the narrow lanes of the shanty town.

"Some people have lived here for more than 30 years. We will fight very fiercely to defend our homes."

Sitompul also comes from a poor family. His father died in 1998 and his mother worked as a traditional masseur (tukang urut — a job commonly done by poor women) and later a travelling clothes seller.

Travelling clothes sellers eke out a precarious existence. Typically, they have to borrow money for the clothes in each transaction they make.

Born in 1983, Sitompul had only a few years in primary school before he went out to help the family survive. He worked from childhood as a parking boy and a street busker.

He was swept up in the anti-Suharto movement. "I jumped into the movement and obtained my political education."

Sitompul began to understand that "poverty is a result not just of individual situations but a result of the system".

"I realised we have to fight the system if we really want to end poverty. And we also have to fight the state that upholds this system.

"And if I wanted to make a real contribution to the struggle to fight that system, I would have to make a serious commitment."

Sitompul worked with the organisation of street buskers and advocated for emergency aid to the poor who became victims in the terrible floods in 2002.

He has also defended urban poor victims of deliberate burnings of their homes by the "land mafia" and fought for poor people's access to hospital care.

As well as a rich history of struggle around such demands, the SRMI has also carried out political education and mobilised the urban poor bases in all the major mass struggles around national issues.

Look at any progressive mass demonstration in Indonesia's cities and the urban poor masses make up the majority. They are the backbone of what's called the "parliament of the streets".

The SRMI organises 30,000 members across 17 provinces nationally. Even the official poverty figures more than double those for Jakarta in the more remote provinces.

The SRMI makes up the largest section of the PRD's mass base. PRD leaders estimate that a further base of 20,000 is organised through peasant groups affiliated to the National Peasants Union (STN).

PRD cadre who are also SMIR activists strongly support the party's decision at its March 1-3 congress to re-launch itself as an open party.

Sitompul told GLW: "For me, the most important thing is that the PRD was brave enough to become an open party with a political perspective that sees winning votes in elections, building anti-neoliberal coalitions and building the PRD as an alternative party is important.

"The democratic environment in Indonesia — even though it is still hijacked by the elites — provides an opportunity for the movement to build in the open. We realise that building alternative political parties is not easy.

"Participating in elections is not just about winning political positions, but about how we can build an alternative party and movement. Therefore, our electoral plans have to be in line with our work to build the influence and structures of the PRD.

"In Indonesia, there are still obstacles to the political ideology needed to build an alternative party", Sitompul added, referring to the violent attacks by right-wing thugs on the meetings and offices of the National Liberation Party of Unity (Papernas) that the PRD worked through from 2006-2008.

Sitompul believes coalition tactics are important, particularly in the electoral sphere. "The poor should have their own party and ideology. By owning their ideology and party, they can break from the shackles of oppression by the elites.

"But a struggle based only on sectoral interests cannot lead to victory for the struggle to liberate the poor.

"Currently, it is difficult for us to get even a small win in elections running using our own party. That is the hard reality.

"Therefore, we had to develop a strategy for a broader struggle to build a real party of the poor and to prepare to win the many political and ideological struggles that are still ahead of us.

"We have to work even harder to ensure that the PRD can have a great deal of influence among the poor — ideologically, politically and organisationally.

"PRD cadres have to work hard to fight for influence over the people, before the people can be won over to the idea that we have a party that can truly fight for the liberation of the poor and for socialism."

Sitompul explained: "If we and the residents fail to defend the right of the people of Kampung Guji Baru to have the land to live on, this would clearly present a serious threat to the expansion of the base of the PRD and the broader people's movement.

"The systematic eviction of poor settlements is not merely a result of government negligence and oppression of the poor, but it also expresses the ruling elite's need to block the expansion of popular movements like the SRMI."

He said SRMI and the people of Guji Baru "are determined to fight to the finish. We are running a big campaign in Jakarta around a motion of no confidence in [Jarkarta] Governor Fauzo Bowo and President SBY because they refuse to seriously listen to our protests.

"Thousands of poor people have signed a mass protest letter to the governor and the president. Also mass actions have been held at the governor's office and the presidential palace.

"Campaigns against the governor and the president have become part of the struggle to defend Kampung Guji Baru. Other mass organisations and political parties are being asked to join in solidarity with this campaign.

"We also ask for solidarity from our friends in other countries. For a start, they can send a protest letter to the Indonesian government against the planned eviction of Kampung Guji Baru."

To read the protest letter, and for details on where to send your letter in support of Kampung Guji Baru people's campaign, visit Links, international journal of socialist renewal, .]

If you like our work, become a supporter

Green Left is a vital social-change project and aims to make all content available online, without paywalls. With no corporate sponsors or advertising, we rely on support and donations from readers like you.

For just $5 per month get the Green Left digital edition in your inbox each week. For $10 per month get the above and the print edition delivered to your door. You can also add a donation to your support by choosing the solidarity option of $20 per month.

Freecall now on 1800 634 206 or follow the support link below to make a secure supporter payment or donation online.