Era of turmoil in Indonesia - Exclusive interview with Indonesian socialist

The following is an exclusive interview with an Indonesian socialist activist, who spoke to me about the new era of turmoil which Indonesia has entered and the potential for the Left.

The following is an exclusive interview with an Indonesian socialist activist, who spoke to me about the new era of turmoil which Indonesia has entered and the potential for the Left.

What is your balance sheet one year after the first bourgeois-democratic elections since the overthrow of the dictator Suharto?

Indonesian capitalism and the new so-called democratic government are in an impasse. First of all the government has not been able to fulfil the people's demand for a trial of Suharto. The newly elected President Gus Dur has made some efforts to prosecute the old dictator for corruption. At the same time he has also promised to pardon Suharto if he is found guilty, just as with the other corrupt leaders, if they return the stolen money to the state.

Prosecutors plan to bring Suharto to court in the second half of August. However, Suharto's lawyers claim this is impossible because of the permanent brain damage their client has suffered as a result of a stroke. His doctors claim that for a year he has not even been able to answer the questions submitted to him. At the same time the Attorney General in charge of prosecuting the old dictator is under constant death threats. Recently his office was destroyed by a bomb after he made a new attempt to force Suharto to obey his injunctions. Stakes indeed are very high. The amount of wealth accumulated through nepotism and corruption by Suharto and his cronies is estimated at some US$ 16 billion.

But the incapacity of this government to eradicate corruption does not stop at Suharto's case. The two main protagonists in the Bank Bali scandal involving US$ 72.8 million, which was siphoned into private pockets, have been released without any charges by a corrupt court. Until now no one from the old regime suspected of corruption and embezzlement has been put on trial. New cases are also coming to light like the one from the personal masseur of Gus Dur who disappeared a few months ago with US$ 4.7 million from BULOG (the National Rice Distribution Agency). It comes as no surprise that more and more people become cynical about the outcome of the trial of the generals involved in the last years’ massacre in East Timor or the officers involved in the abduction, torture and killing of the women’s union organiser Marsinah in East Java.

On the socio-economic front Indonesia is at its grimiest. The country is now relying more and more on world imperialism through the funds of the IMF and the World Bank. After the worst economic slowdown in 30 years, the economy recovered slightly - but only temporarily. Nobody should be lulled by the capitalists' blind hopes for a new "Indonesian Renaissance". National bourgeois analysts admit in desperation that this crisis will go on for 20 years! Despite a 36% rise in exports in the first four months of this year and a 3.2% year-on GDP growth in the first quarter, the Indonesian economy is not inspiring much confidence at home or abroad. In the last two months the Rupiah has lost 30% of its value.

The national debt is now nearly equal to the total GDP of the country. In other words it can never be paid back. The Indonesian banking system collapsed in 1997 as a result of the fantastic private sector debt. The IMF, this vampire doctor, demands that the indebted companies and banks should negotiate a plan of repayment. But those local bloodsuckers give the responsibility to the government who will pay for the rescue of their companies. Under the pressure of the IMF the government was pushed to cut the budget of the public services, such as education (via privatisation of some universities) and social services. The price hikes in electricity (+10%), telephone (+25%) and fuel (+30%), is a bitter consequence of the IMF's policies along with the newly introduced taxes on certain goods. It is not finished yet.

The privatisation of state enterprises and their downsizing has caused massive unemployment. In the private sector more than 40% of textile and garment workers lost their job and so did 70% of construction workers. Total unemployment has soared to nearly 40% of the workforce. It is believed that 80 million people are living below the poverty line although the official number is only 36.7 million.

The effects on the general welfare are staggering. Life expectancy has sharply decreased in the last 2 years. Indonesia is reported as one of the countries with the highest incidence rate of tuberculosis, death mortality and the worst health service. Hundreds of children die of disease and malnutrition every day. More and more children are forced to work at an early age. More than 1/3 of children have ceased to go to school because of poverty.

Meanwhile the ministers and the so-called peoples representatives of the capitalist parties are engaged in infighting. As hungry coyotes they are trying to bite each other in a desperate struggle for a part of the loot and access to some kind of influential position where they can increase their personal privileges. Their shameful attitude was revealed in the latest parliamentary session of August where they were more busy discussing Gus Dur's style, mismanagement, etc., than how to solve the pressing needs of the workers, the poor peasants and the urban poor. It is clear that the people cannot expect anything from these bourgeois politicians.

What is the role of the military in this process?

After the resignation of Suharto, the military were forced to withdraw from civilian and political affairs. Gus Dur is attempting to put the generals under civilian control and is leading to a new backlash. More and more high-ranking officers are dissatisfied with the policies of Gus Dur, in particular in relation to the question of the disturbed provinces of Aceh and Irian Jaya (West Papua) who want to separate from Jakarta, as well as the civil war raging in the Moluccas. In recent months the army has stated repeatedly that their priority is to defend the national unity and territorial integrity of Indonesia. They threatened to "act" in order to avoid further instability. Some military even pointed recently to the military coup in Pakistan if the government proves incapable of maintaining the country together.

In the short term it will not be easy for the military to fully regain its famous "Dual Function". In this process it has still to deal with its most dangerous enemy: the mass protest in the streets and the upsurge of working class actions. The army is still very divided by internal rivalry between its different components. Nevertheless they have succeeded in manoeuvring the government to declare a civil emergency in the Moluccas that has come under their control now. A few weeks after this civil emergency have been declared the Defence Minister raised publicly the need to modernise the Armed Forces and to increase the number of troops by two and a half times to be able to deal with intensified social unrest and other threats to national stability.

How are the left forces developing in this situation?

The reactionary character of the even the most democratic capitalist elements is becoming clear to a larger layer of people. This creates a lot of discontent. A growing number of workers and poor peasants are not waiting anymore for this government to solve their problems but are taking the initiative into their own hands. The people are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with their conditions and want a real transformation to make their life better. This explains the surge in working class activity and the recent movement of poor peasants demanding genuine land reform. For instance in the first four months of the year, the Greater Jakarta Police reported some 600 strikes, 224 of them in the month of April alone. This situation is favourable for the development of the left.

The PRD, the Peoples Democratic Party, is still the most attractive group for left wing activists. Although they got a very low vote in last elections they still represent the only left working class party on a national level today in Indonesia. Its main leader, Dita Sari is the chairperson of radical and independent trade union, FNPBI. As a party it has started a campaign against the IMF. But its main weakness is its refusal to raise socialist ideas in the current phase of the struggle because it describes its political task as those of the "democratic revolution" and that the level of workers' consciousness is too low to accept socialist ideas. The PRD's refusal to combine slogans that mix today's consciousness with propaganda for a socialist strategy reflects the blindness of the party's leadership before the permanent character of the revolution. Although they promote the strategic concept of "uninterrupted revolution", they fail to grasp the nature of the revolution that is in front of us. Their argument is that it is first necessary to "clean the feudal remnants and finish off the dictatorship and then immediately after it to start the struggle for socialism."

The problem is not of timing but of the incapacity of the bourgeois to participate in wiping out those feudal remnants (the subjugation of the peasants to the landlords and the state and big land estates, the lack of land for the tiller and the domination of the Sultans etc.) and struggling against the imperialist domination of Indonesia. If the PRD leaders persist in their wrong policies they will act as a break on the revolutionary process in the same way the PKI leaders disoriented the workers and peasant masses in the 50s and 60s.

Besides the PRD we see the rebuilding of the Indonesian Socialist Party (PSI) taking the form of all kinds of networks amongst workers, peasants, students and NGO. Until now the young people involved in this project and older cadres have not openly declared the party as such, but there is no doubt this will happen in the future. They could become a serious challenge to the PRD in the next years.

At the same time we discover how the international reformist trade union bureaucracy of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), the American AFL-CIO, the Australian Labour Party are pumping lots of money into all kind of projects and initiatives in an attempt to prevent Marxism gaining a solid ground amongst left wing activists. The phenomenal number of NGO's in Indonesia (more than 4,800 to date) is also part of that attempt to deviate the tremendous hopes for social change along reformist and social democratic lines.

The PDI-P (the Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle) led by the Indonesian first president daughter Megawati Sukarnoputri received massive support from the workers, poor peasants and the poor youth of the cities in the last elections. The bosses, old cronies of Suharto and generals for their part have turned to this party with the hope that it would serve their interests once in came to power. They were right. Workers and the poor in general are very disappointed by Megawati's party which pretended to be the champion of the poor. In the future this party will face a bitter internal struggles reflecting opposing class tendencies within its ranks. A bourgeois party like PDI-P with massive workers' support will in the future inevitably split along class lines.

Very important today are the myriad of small discussion and political groups composed mainly of students which have risen dramatically in the last year. Most of them are from the left and discuss all the brands of socialist ideas. The popularity of socialist ideas at universities but increasingly also amongst the workers is a very important symptom of a profound political turmoil. This fact has not gone unnoticed to the capitalists themselves who paradoxically are trying to make money out of it by printing all kinds of books on Marxism - but of course never distribute the original works. It is now commonplace to find left or "Marxist" books in the bookshelves of important supermarkets!

The most urgent task is now to re-equip a new generation of young activists and cadres with the genuine ideas of Marxism, as outlined by Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. This is the task that we have set ourselves in the workers, peasants and student movement of Indonesia.