Indonesia: towards revolution or chaos?

May 5, 1999

Picture By Chris Latham

The movement that developed last year in Indonesia, culminating in big upsurges in May and November, was based on concerns arising out of economic insecurity, and growing anger and rejection of the undemocratic and repressive regime.

The mass unrest was sparked by anger at Suharto's re-election to his seventh five-term as president. This occurred against a backdrop of increasing economic turmoil. Economic problems facing the people included massive price rises; the cost of essentials such as food, medicine and cooking fuel had exploded by 200-300%. Unemployment was on the rise as factory closures rapidly increased. These problems dissolved Suharto's last vestiges of legitimacy.

Suharto's resignation did not solve the problems. By October, 80 million people were below the poverty line, up from 20 million in 1997. The regime's inability to solve the economic problems combined with a growing recognition that the Habibie regime was no different from the Suharto regime.

Preparations began for protests against the November meeting of the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR), which would decide on the laws governing the general elections in 1999. These protests reflected recognition that the MPR was the same body that had elected Suharto in March, and would reflect the interests of Suharto and his cronies. The broad student movement also demanded the end of the "dual role" of the military (ABRI).

These mobilisations reached truly mass proportions in Jakarta, with more than 1 million students and urban poor on the streets. When ABRI attacked the mobilisations on November 13, killing 12 people, the response was even greater mobilisations the next day. By November 15, however, the movement dissipated, because of the illusions the movement had in parliamentary reform.

The movement hoped that the loyal opposition of Megawati Sukarnoputri, Amien Rais and Abdurrahman Wahid would take power on the back of the student and masses' mobilisations. These opposition figures had no intention of playing this role. This left a power vacuum that no section of the student movement was able or willing to fill.


Prospects for further upsurge

Since November, the economic crisis has worsened. Although the rupiah has now stabilised, prices have continued to increase. The International Monetary Fund now controls the bulk of the economy, and has embarked on a wave of closures to recoup and protect the investments of Australian, European, US and east Asian capitalists.

These closures have resulted in a new wave of sackings, throwing more people into poverty. In January it was estimated that the number of Indonesians living in poverty had reached 130 million.

There has been no shift in the role of the military in politics. Despite a new formal "separation" between the police and military, ABRI and the police continue to work together against student and other demonstrations.

For example, on April 13, when student groups organised demonstrations in Jakarta, the army was used to disperse them even though the students had gone through the legal processes prior to the demonstration.

The regime has confirmed that ABRI will have a reduced representation in the parliament, but it will still retain 38 appointed members. More importantly, there has been no move abolish the territorial command system, which places military bases and posts at every level of Indonesian society down to the village level.

Diverting public anger

Since May 1998, there has been growing ethnic violence. Then, violence against ethnic Chinese massively increased, including widespread incidents of rape of ethnic Chinese women.

This has spread to include violence between Christians and Muslims in Ambon and parts of Java. This violence is not spontaneous but the result of a systematic campaign by the regime to divert public anger to suitable scapegoats such as new settlers or ethnic minorities.

There is considerable evidence that the military have actively supported and defended these attacks, including film footage in May showing soldiers helping looters in Chinese areas in Jakarta. The expansion of this violence provides an excuse for ABRI to crack down in order restore "order".

An important part of this is the campaign by the far right to label the People's Democratic Party (PRD) and the radical student organisations such as the Student and People's Committee for Democracy (KOMRAD) and City Forum (FORKOT) as "communist". They have been accused of being involved in an anti-Islamic conspiracy and responsible for the rape, mutilation and murder of Muslim women.

This campaign taps into the popular hatred of "communism" in Indonesia, where the regime has been able to falsely portray "communists" as murderers and rapists. This sentiment was demonstrated in November, when the students taunted the military by calling them "PKI" (Communist Party Indonesia).

The regime has recently included laws banning Marxist-Leninism in the criminal code. These laws replace the anti-subversion law.

Under the new laws, campaigning for the replacement of the state ideology, Pancasila, with communism is punishable by 20 years' imprisonment. Publishing Marxist writings is punishable by 12 years' imprisonment. Publishing communist writings that spark mass unrest, following the teachings of Marx and Lenin and organising people under communist teachings are all punishable by 15 years' imprisonment.

The attempt to intimidate the PRD has also been stepped up. Mugianto and Aan, PRD members who were kidnapped and tortured by ABRI in March, have recently received phone calls from their kidnappers asking, "Do you remember me?".

Ending the dual function

The dual function of ABRI — that is, the military's involvement in politics — remains the biggest barrier to democracy. The masses see establishing democratic elections and curtailing the power of the military as the burning priority.

Only when the movement has won greater democratic space and people have learned through their own experiences the illusory nature of capitalist "democracy" will revolutionaries be able to win a hearing for socialist solutions to society's problems. The vast majority of Indonesian people see the June 7 elections as both democratic and a solution to their current problems.

The depth of these illusions can be seen in reports of rallies organised by political parties through urban poor areas, as opposed to those organised by students. During 1998, when students marched through urban poor areas, the urban poor would come to join them. In the past month, this has no longer been the case. At the same time, they are prepared to join political party rallies, showing that the urban poor have large illusions in the elections.

One important factor in breaking these illusions will be the experience of the elections themselves. The June 7 poll will be first real multi-party election in more than 30 years. After the election, no change in government policy will occur.

The major opposition figures Megawati Sukarnoputri (Democratic Party of Indonesia — Struggle), Amien Rais (National Mandate Party) and Abdurrahman Wahid (National Awakening Party), who are likely to play a role in the next government, have stated a willingness to support both the IMF austerity measures and the military's dual function.

The PRD has launched a campaign tying the struggle for democratic demands to the ending of the dual role of the military and meeting the immediate economic needs of workers, farmers and the urban poor. These demands include a 200% increase in wages with cuts to prices; providing land to the tillers; and the nationalising of Suharto and his family's assets.

In order to win these demands, it is necessary to build organisations that can mobilise and unite the people in struggle. This process also provides the possibility to generate increased confidence and a sense of empowerment.

It is important to win all oppressed and exploited sectors of Indonesian society to this struggle; failure to convince and win these sectors would mean that they could be used against the democratic forces.

Revolution or chaos? The answer to this questions lies in the strength of the democracy movement and its ability to lead the anger and frustration of the masses in a coherent struggle against the regime and the capitalist system it supports.

[Chris Latham organised the Resistance exposure tour to Indonesia and is an activist in ASIET].

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