Where now for Indonesia's democratic movement?


By James Balowski

JAKARTA — Spending a day at the People's Democratic Party (PRD) headquarters in East Jakarta watching the stream of activists coming and going, it's easy to forget that just three years ago, the party was banned, its key leaders jailed and the remainder hunted by the military and forced underground.

Since then, the ban has been overturned, the PRD has become a registered political party and was even able to participate in the May general elections. I spoke with several members of the KPP-PRD (the PRD's Central Leadership Committee) about the next steps.

Coen: The formation of the new government — with Gus Dur [Abdurrahman Wahid] as president and Megawati Sukarnoputri as vice-president — has brought with it a totally different political environment. On the one hand it has created more democratic space, but at the same time, it has made some aspects of our work far more difficult and complex. Gus Dur and Megawati have a significant base of support among ordinary people, and many consider the new government to be legitimate and representative.

There is also the question of the separatist movements — or more correctly, the national liberation struggles — which are emerging not just in Aceh but in places like Riau, Kalimantan, Sulawesi and West Papua.

One thing that hasn't changed is the military's role in politics, which remains essentially intact. Although the new government appears to want to bring the military under tighter civilian control, it still holds 38 seats in the parliament, and its territorial command structure remains in place. In places like Aceh it is still playing a very repressive role, and although it is perhaps more cautious than before, we can expect it to continue to be used to suppress internal dissent.

Economically, the country is essentially bankrupt. The banks are insolvent, the construction industry is stagnant, and many companies are unable to pay their debts. Private and state debt is a major burden and is impacting on many aspects of ordinary people's lives.

Wignyo: Although we are now considered a "real" political party and can openly present our program and policies to the people, we have to find ways to criticise the government effectively, to reach out and talk to the people and present an alternative program.

Wilson: We also need to force Gus Dur to prove himself to the people. By campaigning around specific demands, such as for the trial of former president Suharto and his cronies, we can expose the true nature of the new regime. We can show the people that it is not, and has never been, committed to reformasi total.

Although many people are prepared to give Gus Dur a chance, the sentiment for real reform, which was popularised in the anti-Suharto and anti-Habibie demonstrations, remains very strong among the masses.

Hendri: Many people are disappointed that the supposed opposition parties, which they believed were representing their interests, are working together with Golkar, the very party which Suharto used to maintain his rule for 32 years!

But we still have to convince people that the PRD represents a real and viable alternative. Because we are still small and have few resources, limited access to the mass media and so on, building the party and increasing our influence remain our greatest challenges right now.

Coen: We still have some very real organisational limitations. For example, although we have Pembebasan [the PRD's newspaper, Liberation], financial constraints mean that at most we can print only around 2000 copies of each issue. Building the party paper is one of our major priorities, so as to promote our ideas and program, and to educate our own membership.

Hendri: It used to be much "easier", fighting Suharto, fighting the military. Under the new government the issues are less obvious, less visible. For many in the democratic movement — especially the student movement — this has led to a great deal of confusion. Sometimes it is almost as if they would like Suharto back, to have something obvious to fight against.

Wignyo: The student movement is very disoriented at the moment. It still sees itself as the "moral force", whose role is pressure the bourgeois opposition — who, of course, are now the government.

Even though the student leaders recognise that the new government is not fundamentally different from the previous one, they have failed to understand that merely being a moral force in society is not enough.

The movement must seek to build itself into a national organisation which can present a real political alternative. Initiatives of this kind have already started with the formation of the National Student League for Democracy [LMND].

Part of the reason for this confusion is that since the mass demonstrations of February 1998, the main focus of the student leadership was agitation, but without any propaganda to provide a deeper political understanding.

So, for example, when it came to concepts like the formation of a transitional government, organisations like Forkot [City Forum, a Jakarta-based student coalition] had great difficulty explaining it to the students. There is also a lack of theoretical understanding: they have had almost no opportunity to read books on the democratic movement in Latin America, for example, or the experiences of student movements in other countries.

Coen: We also need to take up specific issues that go beyond the student movement itself, broader political and economic issues such as women's liberation, the environment and culture.

Issues such as the national liberation movement in Aceh must also be taken up. The PRD fully supports the Acehnese people's right to self-determination, to hold a referendum and independence if that is what the people choose. This is not just because all people have the fundamental right to democracy, human rights and to determine their own future, but because, by supporting such campaigns, we can counter the nationalistic sentiment being promoted by the Wahid government in the name of maintaining "national unity".

Hendri: The neo-liberal agenda will result in many more workers being laid off, more state enterprises being privatised, more banks being closed down. A major challenge for the PRD and the labour movement is to support the formation of a strong trade union which can defend workers in the face of this austerity. One such initiative has been the formation of the Indonesian National Front for Labour Struggle [FNPBI] earlier this year.

This is very difficult. Workers are afraid to organise, frightened that they will lose their jobs. Often they are just thinking about how to survive on a day-to-day basis.

Wilson: Another challenge we face is integrating the thousands of people who signed up to join the party during the general election campaign. Having worked as an underground or semi-legal party for so long, we have little experience of how to do this. The first step, which has already begun, is to compile a national membership list.

Mugianto: Our organisational limitations mean that it has been hard to follow up recruitment with education, training and the integration of new members into our political work. We are now mapping out an internal party education program to train our own members through nationally coordinated "train the trainers" schools.

We are also organising external education through conferences, seminars, round table discussions and so on.

Hendri: One of the effects of the increased democratic space is that ideas such as socialism and Marxism, which were previously taboo, are now starting to be discussed, but still only in academic circles. Books such as Capital are now sold openly in bookshops. But among broader layers of society, the concept of socialism is still very distorted.

So while our political program is argued from a socialist perspective, we are still calling for a transitional program as outlined in our 1996 Manifesto. We believe that we still need to propagandise around concrete issues such as working conditions and wages, the role of the military in politics, bringing those responsible for human rights abuses to justice and so on.

It also has to be remembered that although there has been some relaxation of the laws regarding Marxist ideas, it is still illegal to openly promote or campaign for socialism.

Wignyo: The priority at this stage is to advance the democratic movement so that it is capable of winning political power, to convince the student movement and the people that they cannot just rely on the present government, the bourgeois political parties or the parliament to carry out any real political reform.

They must form their own independent organisations and link up with broader layers of society. This will be a long journey and, for the PRD, perhaps the greatest challenge we have faced so far.

[Wignyo and Wilson head the PRD's Department of Literature, Hendri Kuok and Mugianto head the Department of International Relations, and Coen Husein Pontoh is the head of the Education Department.]