No turning back

Indonesian regime fails to buy off masses

A week is a long time in politics. For the tottering ruling regime in Indonesia, the past seven days must have seemed an excruciating eternity. As they try to divert the burgeoning mass revolutionary movement into safe constitutional reform, splits and schisms are emerging above. It is time for the masses to regroup, debate and move forward.

Suharto has gone. The hated dictator who systematically depoliticised Indonesia through cronyism, corruption and nepotism has stepped down to prevent a popular uprising against the entire ‘new order’ regime, which came to power in an anti-communist bloodbath three decades ago. It was obvious that the withdrawal of support from the US State Department was a crucial factor in the timing of Suharto’s resignation. Yet it is clear that his replacement, former vice president Jusuf Habibie, personifies the regime’s continuation.

The ‘reform’ cabinet that Habibie unveiled on May 22 is stacked with Suharto stooges. Only the most unacceptable figures have been removed, such as Suharto’s daughter Tutut and his billionaire crony and golfing buddy, Bob Hasan. If anything, the military’s role is strengthened. The ministers of defence, home affairs, security and political affairs, information and transmigration are all military men.

Habibie’s problem is that his government is seen as a stop-gap administration by almost everyone: from the US state department, to The Guardian, and from islamic leader Amien Rais to the students. While announcing a range of limited reforms, his political goal seems to be his own personal survival as the real power struggle amongst the ruling elite begins.

All the changes announced so far remain incredibly vague. They include a suggestion of electoral reform. However, the new president has stated his desire to remain in office until the end of Suharto’s term, which is in 2003. Habibie has said he may allow the formation of new political parties. He has legalised the unofficial Indonesian Prosperity Labour Union (SBSI) and released its leader, Sri Bintang Pamungkas. Other prisoners have also been released, but those who most threaten the regime’s continuation remain inside. Xanana Gusmao, leader of Fretilin, the East Timorese resistance movement, is still imprisoned. As are political prisoners from the 1965 counterrevolution. Eight leaders of the illegal Peoples Democratic Party (PRD) have been in jail since 1996. A government spokesperson has indicated that such people are not to be released.

Habibie is committed to the IMF’s restructuring package drawn up in response to the financial turbulence in Asian markets. No doubt some elements will be eased in an attempt to buy off mass resentment. There are concerns in the bourgeois media that the masses’ response to the economic and political crisis may spread to other affected countries. Let us hope they all catch the Indonesian ‘disease’.

The other plank of the Habibie ‘reforms’ is a supposed commitment to curb the economic privileges of the Suharto clan. This has already affected lucrative deals. The contracts to supply Jakarta’s water for the next 25 years, finalised by Suharto’s son without any tendering process, have been scuppered. One of the contractors was to have been Thames Water. Arms contracts must now also be up for question. With the UK government up to its bloody neck in supplying weapons to this regime, a key focus for any solidarity movement here must be the role of British imperialism in the region.

As expected, a close look at Habibie’s personal financial empire shows he has not been doing too badly out of the regime himself. More than 80 Habibie family companies have stakes in sectors ranging from construction to real estate, chemicals, transport, telecommunications, farming and engineering. While Indonesian law prohibits direct business holdings by government leaders, this does not apply to family members.

Most important of these companies, the Timsco Group, is headed by the new president’s younger brother, Timmy Habibie. Also involved are Habibie’s sons, Ilham Akbar and Tereq Kemal, along with younger sister Sri Rahayu Fatima and various in-laws. Nephew Didit Ratam is tied up with the Suharto family in oil and gas exploration.

The move by the regime to head off the mass movement seems to have bought it some time. But at what cost? The whole credibility of the past 30 years is called into question. Merely changing the president will not sate the masses’ hunger for change. There has been no substantial shift in the way the country is ruled and people are crying out for more. Most common is a call for the stripping of Suharto’s wealth. But where will the demands end? As every concession is given, so in the eating grows the appetite of the until now quiescent masses.

While for the moment the movement may have lost some steam, no one believes that it is over. Attempts to divert it into safe constitutionalism will not succeed easily.

A space has opened up for mass revolutionary ideas. There may soon be the opportunity to stand candidates in what will undoubtedly be phoney elections. Revolutionary organisations would have to consider carefully whether to put up candidates or boycott such a poll. It would depend on the momentum of the mass movement.

But any opening up of legal opportunities should in no way divert - on the contrary it should serve - the practical drive to arm the working class and prepare it for insurrection. A revolutionary situation is either resolved through revolution or counterrevolution. While it has not yet arrived, the decisive moment is approaching.

At present ‘the democracy’, the movement itself, seems largely spontaneous. No clear differentiation of class forces has emerged. Everyone called for Suharto to go: Clinton and Albright, the head of Golkar, the ruling party; Amien Rais; and the students. Government forces and purported reformers are aware of this and are at pains to prevent a conscious element taking a lead.

According to a report in the Green Left Weekly, newspaper of the Democratic Socialist Party in Australia (May 27) during the occupation of the parliament, moderate student leaders “set up security to check that people entering the parliamentary compound had student ID cards. This was carried out with the agreement of the armed forces on guard at the parliament.” Such a move was to prevent more radical people and their ideas influencing the occupation.

The report continues:

“A statement on behalf of the People’s Democratic Party (PRD) was read out to the students, [yet] moderate activists tried to hinder the distribution of PRD leaflets calling for the overthrow of the government through a people’s uprising.”

On the other side of town, a self-appointed, 50-strong ‘reform’ committee, calling itself the Peoples Council, has been established to act as ‘watchdog’ in relation to the Habibie administration. It is full of ‘new order’ types, and includes Amien Rais. Other figures are: Emil Salim, a former Suharto economic adviser and minister; retired general Rudini; islamic scholar Nurcholish Madjid; lawyer Adnan Buyung Nasution and academic Sudjana Sjaafei; Arifin Panigoro, a leading member of Golkar; Frans Seda, a former minister of finance; and Muhammad Sadli, another Suharto economist. Clearly a putrid lot.

Splits at the top are likely to deepen over the coming period. Armed forces chief Wiranto has just sacked his two main rivals in the military, including Suharto’s son-in-law. No one believes Habibie will be able to contain either a power struggle at the top or rebellion from below. He is there to buy time.

For perhaps the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Gulf War we are witnessing a genuine mass democratic revolution. The Zapatista uprising in 1994 may have reminded us all, not least US imperialism, that revolt was not only still possible, but immanent in the very system. However, that movement did not grip an entire country, let alone threaten to export itself across a very fragile region.

Regimes in Malaysia, South Korea, Burma and beyond are clearly worried. The Chinese government blocked the live CNN broadcast of Suharto’s resignation.

What lessons to learn, what way to move forward? The only visible leftwing group with a national programme and organisation in Indonesia is the PRD. It has strong links with the Democratic Socialist Party in Australia (once affiliated to the United Secretariat of the Fourth International). While small at present, the PRD’s orientation to the mass movement is likely to see it grow substantially. All manner of other left groupings and programmes are likely to be thrown up as the regime is forced to give concessions.

Given its influence with the PRD, of concern is the DSP’s abandonment of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution in the early 1980s in response to the victory of the Sandinistas and other Latin American struggles. The DSP comrades now seem to favour a two-stage theory for the underdeveloped world. This should sound warning bells for us all - Trotskyite or non-Trotskyite.

Even so, it would be patently stupid to dismiss the PRD, a party only formed in 1996. A solidarity movement in Britain will need to engage with it. Yet it must be clear that solidarity entails the right to criticise. Solidarity cannot solidarity be diplomatically tailored to the needs of one organisation such as the PRD. Especially given its lack of revolutionary clarity.

The PRD currently calls for the overthrow of the regime and its replacement by a constituent assembly. But recent pronouncements point to confused thinking. A statement released after Suharto’s resignation sets out seven action points:

“1. withdrawal of the 1985 five repressive political laws [allowing only three parties]; 2. abolishing the dual role of the military; 3. the accountability and trial of Suharto; 4. nationalisation of Suharto’s and cronies’ companies; 5. nationalisation of the wealth produced by corruption; 6. holding new elections which are multi-party, free and democratic; 7. freeing of all political prisoners.”

In a recent article in Green Left Weekly, ‘What kind of transitional government?’ (May 27), Edwin Gozal, Asia Pacific representative of the PRD, calls on Indonesians to reject Habibie as president and to push the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR), the Indonesian upper house, to hold an extraordinary session within one month. The MPR is the hand-picked body which appoints the president. This call falls far short of the immediate demand for a constituent assembly and fails to reflect the mood of the most militant sections of society.

Further the article says: “If the MPR refuses to hold an extraordinary session, the PRD calls for a general election be held within three months. This general election would have to be supervised by a transitional government composed of the different forces and individuals which have and are playing a critical role in the struggle against the dictatorship. They include the students, workers, urban poor, human rights activists and radical academics.” This is a call for the formation of what the PRD calls an Independent People’s Council - in short a constituent assembly. The PRD is agitating for such a body to implement its seven action points. Yet it wants the MPR to initiate it.

Of course, tactics for day-to-day struggle on the ground are difficult to appraise from such a distance. But a programme relying on organs of the Suharto regime such as the MPR - which only a few months ago re-appointed him for a five-year term - alongside the formation of a constituent assembly seems jumbled and opportunist. While subjectively the tactic may be designed to further expose such conciliatory leaders as Rais, the danger is that if such a programme were popularised, it could easily be taken on board by the ‘new order’-dominated Peoples Council or some other counterrevolutionary body.

It is crucial that a solidarity movement in Britain not only delivers material support to the Indonesian mass movement, but acts as an inspiration for our own struggles. The Indonesian revolution shows us what is actually possible once the masses start to move. It points a way forward in the worldwide struggle against imperialism, oppression and exploitation.

There are lessons for us all in this carnival of the oppressed.

Marcus Larsen