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Issue 31, October 1998

Indonesia: workers' movement emerges

'THE PRESENT situation is confused. The movement for democracy has come to a standstill and is divided'. This honest description of today's situation in Indonesia is given by student leaders in Surabaya. These are the same student leaders who took part in a movement that wrote a new chapter in world history. The fall of Suharto's regime was, without doubt, a historic achievement, with repercussions far beyond the country itself. The revolutionary masses won one battle but they have still to win the war. The old regime has been wounded but has not been smashed. It is an uncompleted revolution.

The military machine is largely intact and is regrouping its forces. A battalion of 1,000 soldiers, for example, has been reported as 'missing'. Probably this means that this particular battalion is hiding in secret and is waiting to act. An additional 12,500 soldiers were brought to the capital, Jakarta, as a response to rumours of new riots linked to Independence Day on 17 August. The army is more or less the only unit in society that is functioning on a national scale. The severe economic crisis, in combination with strikes and an upsurge in the struggle in the provinces, at the same time as the movement for democracy is paralysed and the country is in a state of disorder, has meant that a section of the military has started to think about the possibility of a coup.

Suharto's resignation was followed by a flood of demands from all the people that have suffered from his repressive regime. Oppressed nationalities demanded the right of self-determination, the rural poor occupied land and golf courses owned by Suharto and began to cultivate the land. Demonstrations outside government buildings were organised demanding subsidises and rights.

However, there is no force that is able to coordinate the struggle. The students and the prominent bourgeois politicians, who were at the head of the movement against Suharto, cannot take the struggle forward. Tiramdunga, who is running an NGO-institute that is involved in the movement for democracy, made a sober assessment of the situation when he commented, 'it can only get worse'.

Habibie and the Islamic fundamentalists are the ones who have got money and time. The election of a new assembly is set for November and a new president is going to be appointed in March. So far, 56 new parties have been formed. But all political parties have to base themselves on the 'national ideology' - Pancancila - and the regime's 'flexible' interpretation of that ideology. Sukarnoputri Megawati, daughter of the former president Sukarno and well-known bourgeois politician, was only able to hold a conference of the section of the PDI she leads after a tug-of-war struggle with the regime. The PRD, a left party, is operating in a 'grey zone' - many of the leaders are imprisoned, but the party is not illegal anymore.

  The government has introduced laws that further undermine the already restricted democratic rights, such as a law against demonstrations and anti-trade union legislation. However, the people are no longer scared, which means that they are taking action even if they are formally-speaking breaking the law. Some elements of dual power can be observed.

Every sign of change to the better - towards reformasi - has come about as a result of weakness on the part of Habibie's regime and is due to the fact that the government is utterly incapable of ruling the country in the way they want. The regime is not capable of solving any of the problems that fuelled the revolt against Suharto. This poses the question: could the crisis be overcome by any government that tried to operate within the limitations set by the capitalist system?

'What we want is a leader that is dedicated to the people and to the struggle of the people', says Disa, a student activist in Jakarta. When I ask her who, she replies, 'Megawati'. There are many like Disa amongst the most radical students. For them Megawati is a person who gives cause for hope. Megawati and Amien Rais are, apart from Habibie, the two most well-known politicians thirsting for power. But neither of them is committed to break with capitalism and its international institutions - the multinational corporations and the IMF.

National independence for East Timor and Irian Jaya would not only go against the interests of Habibie, but also against the mining company Freeport, which needs a strong and efficient state apparatus to hold down the workers. The situation is the same for the other islands that are rich in raw materials. The imperialist corporations - the inheritors of colonialism - will not allow their wealth to vanish just for the sake of national independence.

An extensive agrarian reform would challenge the capitalist conglomerates which own the land. It would challenge the dumping of industrial waste, the concentration of production for export, and tourism for the wealthy. None of that would be possible under capitalism. And even if a new regime was forced to allow trade union organisation, workers would still be repressed by market forces.

Yet the nucleus of a new regime exists within the working class, which also is the force that is capable of turning back the existing momentum of development in society. At the same time as yesterday's leaders of the movement for democracy have become pessimists, the working class is on the move. It is more organised and has a stronger class consciousness than before. The Committee for a Workers' International (CWI) has raised the idea of a national day of protest action as the next stage in the movement, with a general strike at the workplaces as a backbone, to unite the different movements against Habibie's regime.

Workers conduct daily strikes and demonstrations with demands for a living wage and for freedom to organise. Their wages are simply too low to live on. After the recent rise in the minimum wage, it is still only 198,000 rupiahs in Jakarta - less than 10 - and 122,000 rupiahs in Surabaya. It is not enough for a family to make a living on, especially not in the more expensive cities.

Rammed from Jakarta, an organiser of one of the many workers' groups that have been created during the year, describes the situation: 'We have an underground organisation. If we create a group in a workplace, we try to gather 10-15 employees for discussions. Then we formulate demands together and discuss what to do to get them through. After that follows a preparation period, when we test the demands and look for the response.

'The result is often a strike after a couple of months. Then we evaluate the outcome. If we get through our demands - it's often the case that at least one of our demands is met - and the organisers are not sacked, then we consider it a success. It's often the case that the organisers are sacked and that the group disappears. But it's quite easy to get support in the workplaces. We have quite a serious situation now, when many plants are closing down'.

The workers are more class conscious and self-confident now than in May, and they have the feeling they have more support than before.

Anton Wallin
A recent visitor to Indonesia


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