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Issue 38, May 1999

Indonesia, one year on

LAST MAY'S magnificent mass movement brought down the hated dictator, Suharto, after 32 years of despotic military rule. His authority crumbled as Indonesia's economy experienced an unprecedented collapse, as part of the devastating 'Asian Crisis'. The students struggle against corruption and nepotism gathered momentum as public anger erupted over soaring price rises on basic commodities.

On May 21, with support peeling away, the one-time all-powerful tyrant, on the advice of his own army commander, resigned. The baton of presidential office was passed on to a diminutive and tragi-comic figure - his deputy, BJ Habibie.

The floodgates were open. Every long-held grievance and long-cherished dream amongst the hard-pressed population of Indonesia broke loose. Every day a new demonstration, a new strike; every day a new demand; every day a new land seizure and a new organisation or party! The threat of revolution frightened the regime into concession after concession but the absence of a revolutionary party with a programme to end the rule of capital left the job only half done.

In the first days of Habibie's rule, many political prisoners were released; but many remain in jail to this day (this includes leaders of the left-wing People's Democratic Party (PRD) which has been technically unbanned and relaunched). In the first weeks a wave of strikes and demonstrations won big gains, including a doubling of the minimum wage. But this by no means assured workers the bare necessities of life and the threat of mass redundancies hung over them as industry after industry fell victim to the slump. The capacity of the armed forces (ABRI) to terrorise the population had been broken. As more evidence came to light of past kidnappings, disappearances and atrocities against national minorities, offenders were put on trial. But the real culprits, like Suharto's son-in-law, Prabowo, were merely moved sideways and remain unpunished.

  Under a virtual siege from an aroused population, a number of banks and companies associated with the Suharto clan were nationalised. But, even a year later, most of Suharto's cronies still retain the bulk of their vast fortunes. In the first weeks, local as well as regional chiefs were forced by mass demonstrations to step down but new, truly representative forms of government, did not develop out of the citizens' and workers' committees that cropped up everywhere. Habibie was obliged to announce new elections with new rules, athough not as truly democratic as the 'reformasi' movement had demanded. Scores of new parties have been allowed to stand but, as leaders of the PRD protested in the course of a hunger strike recently, it is money and, quite probably, the army that will decide the outcome of the elections on June 7.

The fall of Suharto unleashed a resurgence of independence struggles in areas like Irian Jaya, Aceh and, most notably, East Timor. In all three areas, bloody repression amounting to genocide has long been combined with the plundering of local resources - gold, copper, oil, timber, coffee - by Suharto-linked and foreign-owned conglomerates. In Irian Jaya constant war has been waged by the Amungme tribe against the Freeport copper and gold mine. Oil-rich Aceh has suffered what amounts to genocide and the persecution of its people, even as they have sought refuge in neighbouring Malaysia.

Fearing what is called a 'Balkanisation' of Indonesia, Habibie has been forced to concede increased regional, even national, autonomy. But, in the case of East Timor, nothing short of independence will satisfy the majority of the local population after the slaughter of one-third of their number in the 23 years of occupation by Indonesian troops. Habibie has resigned himself to abandoning the '27th state', if autonomy is not endorsed in the army-supervised 'referendum' due to take place in July.

  Without a revolutionary purge of Suharto's Javanese-dominated army, however, it is obvious that there will remain large sections of it who are unwilling to let go of the past - past habits or past possessions. In East Timor many officers have made money in business there and don't intend to give that up in today's uncertain economic and political climate. Foreign politicians and businessmen, fearful of losing the chance of lucrative contracts for the exploitation of local resources, have been courting the still imprisoned leader of the independence forces, Xanana Gusmao. But local detachments of ABRI have been openly encouraging pro-integrationist militias who have killed and maimed scores of unarmed Timorese people since Habibie made his 'off-the-cuff' remarks about independence. On April 6, amid scenes reminiscent of the notorious massacre at Santa Cruz in 1991, hundreds of machete-wielding 'Red and White Iron' militia attacked around two thousand people seeking shelter in a church at Liquisa: at least 50 were hacked to death as government troops from the 'Mobile Brigade' watched. On 17 April, 1,000 militiamen killed at least 12 out of 126 refugees in the house of a local independence leader, Manuel Carrascalao.

Such blood-curdling massacres have forced Gusmao to call on his supporters to protect themselves with arms. In the same breath, however, he calls for a UN peace-keeping force to disarm the civilian population and supervise a transition of power, ignoring all international experience demonstrating the futility of depending on outside forces to protect the interests of oppressed nations. On a visit to East Timor, Indonesian defence minister and army commander, Wiranto, drew up a cease-fire declaration. Archbishop Belo, a witness to the recent outrages in Dili and elsewhere, refused to sign it; Gusmao accepted it as a first step to some kind of reconciliation.

The barbarism of the clashes in East Timor has been matched by the spate of killings in areas of hitherto peaceful coexistence among peoples of different ethnic and religious backgrounds. In Ambon and the surrounding 'Spice Islands', over 250 people have been slaughtered since mid-January. More than 50,000 settlers from Sulawesi, Sumatra and Java have fled the South Moluccan Islands. In West Kalimantan, despite the deployment of 3,000 additional troops, 16,000 people poured out of the Sambas district in just three weeks at the end of March. The fault-lines of a country glued together across 13,000 islands with 300 ethnic groups and 365 different languages are now exposed as much by mass poverty and fear for the future as by the lifting of 30 years of brutal repression by Suharto (under the euphemistic motto: 'unity in diversity'). Regional analyst, Rob Gifford, put a sober view to the BBC on 3 March when he said: 'Some of what has been described as religious violence may be attributable to nothing more than desperate acts by hungry people'.

  Throughout this tumultuous year, the Committee for a Workers' International (CWI) has maintained that the only way to reconstruct Indonesian society now is on a socialist basis and through directly elected and co-ordinated committees of working people and the poor. A workers' and poor peoples' government would have to have the declared aim of expropriating all the big owners of industry - local and foreign. It would nationalise all major banks and even the local operations of the foreign-owned multinational corporations. It would pay no debts to the foreign banks; they have milked the third world poor enough. It would use the land - still technically the property of the state - for building and for farming to provide, according to democratic decision-making and planning, for peoples needs and not for profit. It would encourage the maximum solidarity of working people but honour the rights of nationalities and minorities, including that to self-determination, up to and including independence.

Such a programme, if advocated with energy during the coming elections by a party like the PRD, would give heart to the more than 100 million people who are barely 'surviving' - ie without being sure even of one meal of some kind of cereal a day. Cannibalism has been reported in some of the remotest areas of the archipelago.

In the absence of such a political alternative to the partial measures of the government and the pro-market policies of the official opposition, the wheel of revolution will go into reverse. In the conditions of political and social instability, of a lack of investment and of still 'negative' growth and mass unemployment, the question is sharply posed of socialism or a further descent into barbarism.

Some of the most heartening news of the recent period has come from the industrial second city of Surabaya. There has been no let up in the strikes, demonstrations, factory occupations and pickets organised by the irrepressible workers of that city, with their demands ranging from higher wages to putting the former president Suharto on trial. This, together with new protests by students, insisting on genuine and not phoney democracy, indicates the spirit of resistance and revolt is far from extinguished. In celebrating the anniversary of the demise of one of the cruellest despots of this century, it is timely to revive the ideas of a struggle to end the system he defended - the struggle for socialism in Indonesia, South-East Asia and on a global scale.

Elizabeth Clarke

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