Indonesian peasants form people's councils

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Indonesian peasants form people's councils

By Jody Betzien and Ruth Ratcliffe

JAKARTA — Peasants and rural workers, who make up around 60% of Indonesia's population, are potentially a significant force in the nation's democracy movement. Since the early 1980s, peasants have been vocal in their opposition to the New Order regime. At the end of July, we visited peasant organisers in the village of Cipangramatan in the Badega region of West Java.

Badega has a strong history of activism. Throughout the 1980s there were mass actions demanding access to services such as electricity and sewerage. Peasants who did not have formal title to the land which their families had farmed for generations sought to obtain title through a non-government organisation-sponsored legal challenge. They were violently repressed by the military.

Those peasants who did possess title deeds were intimidated by the military and some were forced to hand over their deeds. Activists were threatened and attacked in their homes, and peasant leaders were accused of being members of the Indonesian Communist Party.

Seven Badega peasant leaders, singled out by the police during the 1980s for "provoking" the actions, were imprisoned for up to 18 months without charge or trial.

The legal case for land title was won in 1997. However, the authorities did nothing to implement the decision. Recently, many peasants who still do not have title deeds have been removed from their land by large corporations, then required to rent the land back.

The constant insecurity and low living standards have caused the peasants to keep organising and struggling. This year, the struggle became more organised in Cipangramatan, in the form of a people's council.

The people's council stands in opposition to the regime-sponsored local government body, the Committee in Defence of Village Life (LKMD). The LKMDs throughout Indonesia have been implicated in corruption, nepotism and repression. Through raising the peasants' economic and social demands, such as for sewerage facilities, organic fertilisers and land title, the people's council is seeking to replace the bureaucratic LKMD.

The success of the Cipangramatan people's council has inspired people throughout the region to set up similar bodies. The village bureaucrats in the LKMD have responded with threats and attempts to intimidate activists.

Political actions occur regularly in the region, attracting significant numbers of peasants. Very recently, the actions have raised political demands, such as calling for the disqualification of Golkar for vote rigging during the elections, alongside the peasants' immediate demands.

After being forced underground in 1996 by a Suharto regime crackdown on progressive organisations, the National Peasants Union (STN) re-formed last month at a congress in Yogyakarta. STN general secretary Fransisca Christianti told Green Left Weekly, "The aims of the STN are to nationally coordinate peasant protests, to use its national strength to win the demands of the peasants and to continue to raise the political consciousness of peasants throughout Indonesia".

The STN also aims to help peasants ease the hardships caused by the economic crisis. Initiatives in this regard include forming farmers' cooperatives so that peasants can obtain a higher price for their produce and coordinating with organics experts to enable peasants to produce their own organic fertilisers rather than being forced to buy expensive and environmentally damaging chemical fertilisers.

Christianti came into contact with the peasant struggle through the Indonesian Student Movement for Change (GMIP). As a member of GMIP, she travelled to Cipangramatan in December 1998.

"It was the confidence of the radical students to take action which inspired the peasants to protest for the title deeds they had legally won two years before", she told Green Left Weekly. "This action resulted in only a minority of the title deeds being granted. Nevertheless, the renewal of activism has meant ongoing actions and the formation of the People's Council."

Christianti added: "In order to struggle to achieve the democratic revolution we have to unite the strength of workers, peasants and students. The Indonesian people can be described as having high political consciousness when their struggle is not isolated to the issues of their individual sectors, but also extends to the problems of other sectors. We have to unite our movements. The people united can never be defeated!"