Witness to revolution: Indonesian activist tour returns

May 5, 1999

Eight young people — university and high school students and young workers — recently returned from a 10-day tour across Indonesia. They saw first-hand the unfolding struggle for democracy. JO WILLIAMS and BRONWYN JENNINGS recount the experience.

Stepping off the plane and entering the airconditioned and elaborately decorated Jakarta airport terminal was our first look at life in Indonesia. This sanitised image was very quickly replaced as we drove across town, through urban poor areas and the suburbs of west Jakarta, the key sites of the mass riots last May.

We were confronted with intense poverty, families living surrounded by rubbish and filthy water. We saw streets lined with buildings with boarded up or smashed windows, and burnt-out shopping complexes, where dozens of Indonesians died in the looting frenzy.

At every intersection children begged for money; others attempted to make a living by selling everything from bottled water to newspapers. The effects of the economic crisis are becoming more and more stark as unemployment, homelessness and poverty increase.

Our group reached a street lined with huge, glamorous homes and offices occupied by government and military officials. In the middle was a palatial white mansion, complete with fountains, chandeliers and guards. This is the Presidential Palace — home of B.J. Habibie. Indonesians refer to this area as "revolution street" because almost all of the mass demonstrations in May and November made one or another of the buildings on this street their target.

The stark contrast between wealth and poverty in Jakarta is distressing. Distress, however, soon became inspiration as we set out to meet with those actively fighting to change this situation, fighting for democracy and justice.

We were met at the airport by Dhyta Caturani, a 24-year-old leading activist in the radical People's Democratic Party (PRD). She helped organise the mass student demonstrations in May and November. Dhyta courageously travelled to East Timor this year and stayed with the Falintil guerillas fighting against Indonesian rule. She was our guide for some of the tour.

Our delegation met with university student organisations, high school students, political prisoners, farmers and peasants' councils, trade unionists and striking workers, political parties, buskers' unions, women's organisations, anti-discrimination organisations, student newspapers, radical artists and East Timor and West Papua activists.

The meetings enabled us participate in discussions about the way forward for the struggle in Indonesia and to see these people take to the streets with their demands.

We also had the opportunity to share with these activists our experiences organising in Australia.

One of the most inspiring experiences of the tour was being in the thick of the discussions taking place within the radical wing of the student movement. Debates centred on how best to implement the national demands and program which were adopted at the National Student Congress held in Bali in March. It was exciting to hear of the students' plans for national mobilisations and a massive education program to dispel illusions in the "democratic" nature of the coming elections.

Even more amazing was participating in actions and witnessing the courage and commitment of the young leaders of the democracy movement. We were proud to address rallies and offer messages of support and solidarity from the people of Australia, and vow to continue to campaign vigorously against the Australian government's support for the regime.

The 10 days reaffirmed for us the need to take an active role in supporting the rights of workers and ordinary people, not only in our own country, but across the world. The young leaders of the struggle for democracy in Indonesia and freedom in East Timor are directly challenging the brutal Suharto-Habibie regime, and organising the people to join them. The tour was an inspiration, deepening our commitment to international solidarity.

As we were leaving, Dhyta explained: "The movement has already brought down one dictator, and now we intend to bring down the rest of the regime. In this crucial time for the democracy movement, unity with Australian activists is essential. We call for your support. Your government is profiting from the blood of Indonesian and East Timorese people. We hope to build people to people solidarity against this treachery".

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