Indonesian democratic movement on the rise


By Vannessa Hearman
and Tony Iltis

The Indonesian Front for the Defence of Human Rights (INFIGHT) was formed in 1989 "to make a more democratic society in Indonesia, a society more respectful to basic human rights, especially basic community rights of the people", co-founder and international relations officer Roem Topatimasang told Green Left Weekly.

Topatimasang, who was in Australia for the recent Socialist Scholars Conference, described INFIGHT as "a united front of women's organisations, environmental groups, human rights groups, trade union groups, student groups and local people's groups".

INFIGHT was part of a "new trend" making "a different way from some previous democratic opposition groups. We are concerned in our group to make a more popularly based movement. Some opposition groups before were just a few urban middle-class people in Jakarta — what we call the 'salon political elite'. What we want to do is something different.

"We learn from our experience that to make a movement for democratic struggle, without a strong broad base at the grassroots level, it's nothing."

Part of this new trend has been a change in the student movement: "The student movement has been growing in the last five years, after a long vacuum since 1978. In the past, the student movement in Indonesia had no relationship with the people at the grassroots level, but now it has. Many student groups have close links with local people's organisations, such as those of peasants and workers, in many regions.

"I think this new trend creates more prospects for the student movement in the future because it is going back to its roots."

One issue that has involved the student movement is the land dispute around the construction of the Kedung Ombo dam. This project, financed by loans from the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the Exim Bank of Japan, has taken the land of 30,000 farmers.

When farmers expressed dissatisfaction with low compensation and lack of consultation, they were subjected to violence and intimidation by government authorities and the military. In 1989 students formed the Solidarity Group for the Victims of Kedung Ombo, which has held protests and helped the farmers organise.

There are several other land disputes in Indonesia, such as Pulau

Panggung in Sumatra, also centred on the issues of "low compensation and the military forcing the people to move from their land".

Independent union

INFIGHT has made a priority of grassroots political work among urban workers. "Generally speaking, the workers' conditions are not changing at all", Topatimasang explained. "Workers are still paid low wages and have bad working conditions — no health guarantees, no health insurance and, most importantly, no right to form their own unions. So that workers could unite with each other and become stronger, we formed [the independent trade union] Setia Kawan last year with some groups in Jakarta.

"The other objective was to prove to the international community, especially international trade union organisations like the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, that there is still the willingness to make free trade unions in Indonesia but that it is difficult to do so because of the tight control of the regime.

"We are optimistic that in the next few years we will have strong, free trade unions. Some other working-class sectors in Jakarta are inspired by Setia Kawan and have asked us to help them organise free trade unions. For example, taxi drivers in Jakarta and some textile workers have asked us to help them to organise themselves.

"We just founded Setia Kawan last year, and it has given widespread motivation to other workers to make their own unions. We're very optimistic."

Wages are lower, and conditions even worse, for women workers, who are mainly concentrated in mass production such as textile factories. There is no maternity leave. Women's groups in Jakarta and Yogyakarta, while small and relatively inexperienced, have had some success in organising women workers, particularly in electronics and textile factories in Semarang.

"I think the very worst conditions", Topatimasang said, "are in the plantations in the remote areas. But nobody knows what is happening there. Three months ago, I visited a tea and palm oil plantation in West Java. The women were working from six in the morning until six in the evening, walking five kilometres from their homes to the estate — there is no transportation."

Military repression

Topatimasang said the government responds to dissent "in many cases with violence. As a human rights group, when we have a campaign, against political imprisonment for example, maybe at

first they'll just ring up with a warning from the local military officer — this is the first step. The second step [may be] kidnapping our members. The next step is interrogation, torture — INFIGHT has experienced all these forms of suppression.

"In recent years, especially the last three years, they have been less hard. This is because, firstly, it is near to a general election. Secondly, international public opinion has put strong pressure on the government. So, in the last three years, the pressure from the government has become less. But that's a temporary condition."

The militarisation of society is justified by the regime with a theory known as "the dual function of the military". "The basic doctrine is that the military forces in Indonesia have, besides their basic function, what they call a social and political function.

"They derive it from our national history, because the Indonesian military was formed from the militia in our independence war against the Dutch. They use that historical fact to legitimate their social and political function. But while this may have been true in the first years of our independence, now it is just an instrument to taking power in all sectors of our lives, making civil society secondary.

"The president, the head of parliament, the majority of ministers and provincial governors are all from the military. The military is also moving into the civil service and the private sector — retired officers and active officers. The majority of retired officers are put in charge of state-owned corporations. The active officers are usually in a public service role. It's common knowledge that many generals and colonels are shareholders in private corporations — even illiterate peasants in the villages know it."


Corruption is endemic. "Many big joint ventures are really not public corporations in pure liberal economic terms", Topatimasang explained. "The government decides who from the Indonesian side will take the holding in the joint venture — usually their family! The director is a son, on the board of directors is an uncle."

He added that much of the funds for joint ventures are loans from international agencies, contributing to Indonesia's foreign debt: "From the International Monetary Fund, World Bank or Asian Development Bank come 'soft loans' or 'long term credit'. But in fact they are tight loans at the commercial interest rate.

"Our debt service ratio is about 32 or 33%. Better than the Philippines, for example, but we have a larger amount of total debt

than them, maybe ten times as large. I think in the next few years much of our domestic production will go to servicing the foreign debt."

The government has declared 1991 Visit Indonesia Year. One effect of tourism has been resort developments that have brought ecological destruction and the removal of tribal people from their land. "In Lombok we organised with the students a protest against the construction of a big hotel at Senggigi beach that will destroy the ecology of the shore and marine life", Topatimasang said.

He pointed out that the effects of tourism in Indonesia were an issue of particular concern to Australians. "The majority of foreign tourists in Indonesia each year are Australian, especially in Bali. One of the big investors in mining and in forestry exploitation is now Australia, robbing many tribal people of their land, yet most of the Australian tourists in Bali know nothing about what really happens.

"It would be interesting to have a campaign among the Australian tourists in Bali — a pamphlet or something, to inform them about the real situation and who benefits from the foreign exchange that they bring!"