Indonesian unionist in Australia


DITA SARI, the general secretary of the Centre for Indonesian Working Class Struggle (PPBI), is completing a visit to Australia to attend the Indian Ocean Trade Union Conference in Perth and to address several public meetings, including the December 2 Sydney public meeting in support of East Timor. She was interviewed for Green Left Weekly by STEPHEN ROBSON and WENDY ROBERTSON.

"When I started college in 1991", Sari said, "I was like most other students: apolitical and wanting only to enjoy life". Her political awakening started in December 1992, when she attended a demonstration on campus about human rights, it was organised by the still underground Student Solidarity for Democracy in Indonesia (SSDI).

"I realised that although it was a student demonstration, it was not just about the rights of students, but rights for all people. Education is a human right although in Indonesia it is so expensive that poor people can't send their children to school or university. I started to realise that the issues revealed by the students must also be the issues of the people."

PPBI is part of a broader umbrella group, the People's Democratic Union (PDU). Other member groups include SSDI, the National Peasants Union (STN) and the People's Cultural Network.

Labour militancy is on the rise in Indonesia. "We have had 800 strikes during the past three years", Sari said. Many of these strikes were spontaneous. Sari indicated the PPBI is looking to lead these strikes "into more political action than just asking for wages. We want to give a more political and revolutionary direction to the struggle."

There have been strikes that PPBI has not been involved with. In the Medan strike which erupted in riots earlier this year, PPBI was not involved until the preparation for the action had started. Sari labelled the issue in the Medan riots as racism. "They killed the Chinese capitalist because he is Chinese, not because he is a capitalist."

Before strike action, workers need a political education in when to use the tactics of strikes. "Since we weren't involved in this preparation, the military can provoke easily. So it was a little bit spontaneous; it wasn't arranged well and the demands were too high."

Following a recent strike by 3000 workers in Jakarta over three days, the PPBI now views transportation and manufacturing as priorities to organise.


Building a student movement is also important because the students developed "their theoretical understanding and analysis and they have had radical experiences in the past. They have built many committees with peasants in struggle."

For three years from 1987, students were very involved in building alliances with peasants committees at a time when the government seized land from the peasants. This was a radicalising experience for the students.

Speaking of both the student and workers movements, Sari argued, "We have to unite them, the theoretical understanding of the students and the militant experience of the workers. Alliances between students and workers are getting wider, and the number has increased."

In many cases the alliances are built following unionisation of a factory and subsequent strike action. "If the capitalists do not meet their needs after several days of strikes, then we organise an alliance with the students because maybe if we get an alliance with the students we will be stronger. The masses realise they are not alone."

Because of repression, the movement has been operating underground for seven or eight years, Sari explained. But it is important to try to bring the struggle out into the open, to fuel the radicalisation.

The movements are taking some time to adjust to activity on "the radical democratic level" because they have little experience in open work. Now the "people's organisations" were not just in contact with working people but also with other political tendencies. "You have to make alliances with bureaucrats and politicians who may not support the people's organisations", Sari explained.


The opposition to Suharto is growing rapidly. Sari identified those who want to reform the political system, as tending to focus on Suharto the individual, rather than on foreign and domestic capitalists as a whole.

PPBI attempts to give "democratisation issue a class meaning. It's not just because of Suharto. It's not just because of the military, but also because there are the oppressor and the oppressed. There are the capitalist system and the workers."

There is a reformist current that sees the struggle as "just for democratisation". "We have to deal with them in order to enlarge our joint power, to enlarge the alliance."

Some of the reformists do want to build independent trade unions. They have experience and training in this area. As long as independent unions existed, Sari thought the reformists could be pushed "to be more radical". However, with the government-controlled "yellow" unions, she didn't think this possible.

Sari has also recently had some experience with government-run unions in Australia. At the Perth conference she tried to get support for a PPBI petition in support of the demands of the East Timorese students who had occupied the US Embassy in Jakarta. Conference organisers would not allow her to read the statement at the opening session.

"Delegates from many of the countries in the Asia-Pacific and around the world agreed to sign the petition. Many groups agreed including COSATU [Congress of South African Trade Unions], KMU [Philippines], the unions from Nepal, South Korea and Thailand.

"Not all of the Australian trade unions wanted to sign the petition. When I spoke I called on the ACTU to pressure the Australian government to stop training Indonesian troops and supporting the Indonesian government in general and in its occupation of East Timor. The ACTU didn't respond at all."

Some other Australian unions were supportive. "The Maritime Union is very supportive. Their good record on Indonesian solidarity goes back to the fight for Indonesian independence from the Dutch. Also workers from the CFMEU and the PKIU are supportive. The CFMEU want to put a motion to the ACTU about repression in Indonesia and East Timor." When Sari met with the shearers breakaway union in Victoria, they understood how difficult it is to have an independent union and supported the PPBI.

"I believe that inside the ACTU there are still some progressive unions that represent the interests of the working class and society. The ACTU couldn't take a clear position because of its close links with the Australian government."

Women workers

"There is a very good sign that in Indonesia women workers are on the move" Sari said. "Women are becoming an increasing percentage of workers on strike."

Women workers suffer from the bad conditions of all workers: wages of less than $1.50 a day, no health insurance and no transport or meal allowances.

"In north Jakarta we organised a committee of workers in a slum area. Most of the bravest, militant and disciplined organisers there are the women. It is a very hard area; many unemployed people make trouble for the workers, asking them for money and harassing the women as they walk past. The women have to be strong both emotionally and psychically.

"Secondly, north Jakarta is closer to Jakarta, so the more liberal and free culture of the city lessens that patriarchal consciousness among the workers; most of them come from villages where women are very tied to the family.

"Thirdly, the women in the area are organising because they have nothing to lose. Most of them come from poor peasant backgrounds. Many hundreds of women come to the city to look for a better life, but still they receive a bad one."

Future prospects

Sari was optimistic about the union movement growing. She pointed to the strong grassroots base that had been built, so that if there was a crackdown, others could continue the work.

The workers need to "get to know you, become familiar and realise your program".

A crackdown can have an impact on the radicalisation process. "Sometimes if you don't have enough consciousness, you retreat because you are afraid of being beaten again by the military." In other cases, "it makes you stronger".

In Sari's opinion, most of the time their comrades came out stronger. "Through the repression we can select the militants, the most militant."

The first demonstrations were attacked by the military. PPBI broadened the issues after that: "not just the undemocratic government but the military state, the repression. It depends on how you respond whether you can make the political benefits."

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