Indonesia: the rise of a young working class

Belgian trade union activist Mark Slane visited Indonesia in July. These are his impressions on the development of the working class movement after the May events.

Belgian trade union activist Mark Slane visited Indonesia in July. These are his impressions on the development of the working class movement after the May events.

Driving late at night from the airport to the centre of Jakarta, the taxi-driver couldn't resist indicating me the place where a few weeks earlier the army shot dead several students from the elite Trisakti University. "Look at that bridge, from there they started to shoot at the demonstrators." Those killings were an indication on how the ousted dictator, Suharto, succeeded in alienating even the better off middle classes in the archipelago.

Even at one o'clock in the morning Jakarta doesn't stop being the "ever busy city." Fishermen drive to the different markets; columns of small traders push their "restaurants on wheels" back home or to a better place, little fires light up at the street corners, the urban poor don't sleep: they continue to sell papers (the best sellers are those who denounce the wealth of the Suharto family or who give an extensive list of Suharto's concubines . . . ), handicraft or produce songs on their guitars. Suharto being ousted, the street artists have been prolific in composing songs on the dictator which they describe as "the prince of the robbers." I don't know if Jakarta ever sleeps, but in any case it gets up very early. Very rapidly it starts to compete for the noisiest and most polluted city in the world (behind Mexico-City and Bangkok). Two million cars, buses and motorbikes drive every day through this megalopolis of 10 million people. The sudden economic recession apparently didn't stop this frenzy. Quite the opposite is happening. In a free fall economy (it already contracted by more than 10%) everybody is looking for a new field of activity. The most rapid developing sector is the so-called informal sector of small street trades. But this doesn't stop the increasing poverty: 40 percent is now living under the poverty-line (three dollars a month). By the end of the year it will reach 48% of the population. But the most important thing to remember about this figure is that all the gains of 20 years of economic growth have been wiped out in a few months time. It is only with daylight that you notice the military presence in the city.

Some 25.000 soldiers are discretely deployed in the city. They are ready to intervene. The population fears them, but they hate them even more as one military officer admitted to me. The fear is disappearing thanks to the heroic movement of the students, the urban poor and the workers during the May-events. Hunger and unemployment pushes the masses in every corner of the country to action. The student activists at Universitas Indonesia of the Committee for Peoples Struggle, confirm the politicisation of the Indonesian people. I met them in what they call the "Red House" established in the workers areas around the campus. That Red House is a centre of intense left wing student activity. A lot of them praise the role of the PRD against the dictatorship, for being the only party which didn't compromise with the regime. "Everybody now talks about reform; unrest is everywhere. Before the May events workers accepted unemployment and low wages, now they start to react. But it needs to be organised. If not there is a tendency to riot amongst workers which serves to legitimise of the use of violence by the military. A few days ago the military shot at a demonstration of steelworkers at Bekasi, in the industrial belt of Jabotabek"

"Don't be fooled by the democratic atmosphere, it is still an illusion. It is still the same regime, the military are still in control and are still very repressive". The difference with the period before the May events is that the military are increasingly powerless to stop land occupation, collective plunder and looting by the peasants, angry demonstrations against corrupt politicians - local Suhartos etc. All the people I discussed with agree on this point: Habibie, the new president represents a manoeuvre to maintain the status-quo. "Now Habibie proposes to distribute rice and cooking oil to the poor. This will not solve the real problems which remain political. The governments message is that we should all stop quarrelling and polemicising. The people are starving so they ask the students to channel their activity into charity. If we focus on that it will give a new opportunity for the regime to consolidate. Some students indeed only want to be something like a moral power, they limit their activity to the campus, this is not our strategy." The regime fears most of all the activities which tend to build a student and workers alliance. A few weeks before my arrival the military cracked down at a joint rally of 10.000 students and workers in front of the university campus in the centre of town. But this didn't alter the objective of the left students. The students activists have been instrumental in the setting up of KOBAR (Workers Committee for Reform Action) in the industrial areas of the capital. The student activists work and live in the working class areas and develop active propaganda campaigns. The difference with the students in South Korea, who in the eighties also helped in rebuilding the workers movement is "that they had only a trade-union perspective, they were economicists. We go to the workers explaining that the we also have to change the political system if we want to change our lives. The problem is the system which establishes economical, social and political power. We explain that we need a global system of the workers, we need socialism" They do not trust all the new friends of reform and of democracy, the liberal bourgeois democrats like Rais, Megawati and others "These people only struggle for themselves" was there correct judgement. Left-wing activists are also determined to dissasociate themselves from the Stalinist policies of the old and now defunct PKI (Indonesian Communist Party). They clearly reject Stalinism in the Soviet Union and China. "These regimes exploited the workers and are in reality counter-revolutionary" was a recurrent comment. All the students I met were clearly committed to a revolutionary change of society and therefore orientate to the working class. A few days after this conversation I could see they were engaged in serious business. KOBAR organised a successful demonstration of thousands of workers in the centre of Jakarta. There I could see this young working class uniting with the students. Most of the workers present were metalworkers, all teenagers, a lot of them young girls. They were all wearing their green, blue and yellow factory uniforms and the red scarves of KOBAR. The demonstration was in fact a rally in front of the Ministry of Manpower. During the rally, groups of workers who had walked for 2 or 3 hours from their factories were greeted with shouts, songs and poetry. A free speech forum gave the opportunity to young workers leaders to speak and raise their demands. A student leader told me "you feel how they get braver, especially the girls". That student leader lived for a week with some of these female workers. She explained me the following anecdote which is very indicative of the growing consciousness amongst workers: "During my stay, these women who never bothered looking at the news on television before the May events, now eagerly watched them. But they could not understand all the words - most of the factory girls come from rural areas and didn't have full education - so every night they wrote down what they couldn't understand and asked me what it meant. We had long discussions that way." This rally was very well organised and that prevented it from becoming a riot

It gave the workers confidence and the student leaders were personally thanked for it by literally hundreds of workers who wanted to shake hands with them. The military stayed quiet during that demonstration

This demonstration showed the rise of a new social force in Indonesian society: the working class. This is the force which if it stays politically independent will lead the whole of the Indonesian society to social and national liberation. A force which has been strengthened after the second wave of industrial expansion in the late eighties in manufacturing industry. It has very similar features with the working class in Russia in the beginning of the century: young, radical and free from reformist domination and routine

Now after the fall of Suharto, all the floodgates of suppressed discontent, frustration and poverty are open. Without illusions in the Habibie government the general attitude is still of wait and see. But increasingly peasants, workers and urban poor take their destiny in their own hands in a revolutionary manner. Those who thought that the dismissal of Suharto was the end of the matter are wrong. The process of the revolution in Indonesia and Asia just started. It will take a number of years before the masses, the best students and workers will rediscover through trial and error the program of revolutionary socialism and disentangle themselves from the Stalinist policies which led to such a bloody defeat more than 30 years ago.

July 1998