Indonesian masses demand change from new President

Abdurrahman Wahid or Gus Dur as he is popularly nicknamed, became the third ever Indonesian president amidst great hopes for economic, political and social change. His government is a compromise between the so-called "reforming" bourgeoisie and the interests of those capitalists/military layers who benefited most from the Suharto era. Even if the opinion polls indicate a high degree of support and confidence in the new government, very rapidly the masses will take their fate in their own hands, because this government will be unable to resolve the urgent questions facing the poor masses. Although the economic situation stands first in people’s preoccupations, the most immediate threat to the new government comes from the risk of disintegration of the Indonesian Archipelago.

The centrifugal forces which have reappeared following the end of the Suharto regime are now blowing across the peripheral islands like Malukka, Kalimantan, Irian Jaya and of course Aceh. The impatience of the people of Aceh is very visible. Aceh is a rebellious province in the North of Sumatra where an independence movement has been simmering since the '70's. Since 1989, Aceh has been living under martial law. This has left more than 2,000 people dead and 150,000 displaced. With the example of the independence of East Timor in mind, the Acehnese also want an immediate referendum. Almost 1 million people demonstrated at the beginning of November in Banda, the capital, to demand a referendum on independence.

Gus Dur has blown hot and cold on this question. At one moment he declared his support "in principle" for a referendum, but later claimed that he cannot believe the Aceh people really want to opt out of Indonesia. His solution lies in a combination of political decentralisation, tax paybacks and partial military withdrawal. The separation of Aceh would raise the prospect of a rapid dissolution of "unitary Indonesia". This will not be accepted by Jakarta. Aceh is economically also very sensitive. A highly industrialised area, investments in gas and oil extraction are heavily concentrated there. The Suharto clan’s interests have fused with those of the Aceh Mafia. Suharto's son Bambang Triatmojo, with his Singapore-based company, has a 20-year contract to deliver gas from PT Arun to East Asia.

With this contract, Bambang's company becomes one of the biggest sea hauliers in Asia, transporting 10 percent of the world's total liquefied natural gas. His company has also expanded into Gulf countries, like Qatar. The military intervention and human rights violations in Aceh are indeed related to the protection of those domestic and foreign capitalist interests.

East Timor shows the real attitude of the Jakarta oligarchy and the military towards the constituent nations of Indonesia. It is a policy of ruthless exploitation and repression in the name of Indonesian nation building. The United Nations intervention in late September has not stopped the country being ruined by the militias and the army. Basic infrastructure was virtually obliterated in the violence led by pro-Jakarta militias. 70% of all buildings have been destroyed and 75% of the population displaced as a result of a scorched earth policy. The militias still continue to intimidate the Timorese refugees in the Western part of the island.

The independence of East Timor will be of course very formal in a surrounding imperialist environment. It will be financially and economically completely dependent on Portugal, Australia, the IMF/World Bank and the oil companies. The National Council of Timorese Resistance, grouping all political forces, has a policy of submission to those interests. Nobel laureate Jose Ramos-Horta, the diplomatic face of the East Timorese independence movement, caused some nervousness in the oil industry when he said earlier this year that he wanted the Timor Gap Treaty (arranging the royalties between Indonesia and the oil companies) to be renegotiated. But he has since backed away from that stance and taken a more conciliatory approach. "The only thing wrong with the treaty is who signed the treaty," he said recently. "There is nothing wrong with the terms ... No mining company should have any concern whatsoever. In the end it's in our national interest."

But the new era opening with the election of Gus Dur will see the increase in the levels of organisation and activity of the farmers and workers’ movement which is still quite divided. It is the increasing political and social opposition of the workers movement in particular which will unmask the real nature of this government, as an attempt at cosmetic reform to stave off the revolutionary potential. The nightmare of national disintegration can only be averted with a new common cement in the form of a common social identity in the struggle for a democratic, voluntary and socialist federation of the Indonesian islands.

by Jean Duval
November 1999