Made in Indonesia: Indonesian Workers Since Suharto (South End Press, 2001) (excerpts from final two chapters)

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From: Made in Indonesia Indonesian Workers Since Suharto by Dan La Botz (South End Press, 2001) . (excerpts from final two chapters)

The Origins of the PRD

Unlike Asian, European, or Latin American socialist and Communist parties that trace their lineage back to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the PRD has grown up as a new socialist party out of the experiences of the last 20 or 30 years. As discussed earlier, the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), which had been founded in 1920 and had been a significant force in Indonesia between the 1920s and the 1960s, was crushed by the reactionary terror of 1965 in which Sukarno was overthrown and at least half a million people lost their lives. Suharto and the New Order regime not only outlawed Communist organizations, but also outlawed Communist and socialist ideology. Communist books were burned, and new ones were banned. Between 1965 and the fall of Suharto in 1997, at least two generations of people were raised in Indonesia with virtually no exposure to leftist ideas. The Suharto regime largely succeeded in eliminating socialist organization and ideology from Indonesia. Because the PKI was destroyed, an Indonesian left had to be created on a new political basis. After 1965, neither Soviet Stalinism nor Chinese Maoism had any direct influence in Indonesia; nor did the followers of the dissident Indonesian Communist Tan Malaka, or any other Indonesian leftists for that matter. Communism was dead. When some 25 years later Indonesian student radicals began to find their way to socialism in the late I 970s and early I 980s, they did so on a new and independent basis.


Amir, one of the founding members of the PRD: “From work with peasants, the students began to turn to the working class. In 1993, we carried out a deeper analysis of labor issues. There were 4 million industrial workers in Jabotabek, which includes Jakarta and the suburbs of Bogor, Tangerang, and Bekasi. We saw that in 1993 there were 1,240 strikes nationally, about 80 percent of them in Java and about 60 percent in Jabotabek, the industrial suburbs of Jakarta. There was a time when one strike involved thousands of workers, and the capitalists lost billions of rupiah per day. In 1993, there were 87 million workers, including agricultural workers, in the entire country. So, seeing this level of worker resistance, we deployed most of the prepared comrades to industrial areas.” The students were radicals and many of them were revolutionaries. Many had spent years studying the great debates of revolutionary literature from Misbach and Lenin to Mao and Sison. Still the students were completely unprepared for their en counter with the workers. “We were quite frustrated by the level of consciousness of the workers,” Amir remembers. ‘We seldom found books in the homes of workers. It was hard to find even an old magazine.” “That’s why in the beginning we chose to work with workers who had lived longer in Jakarta. Jakarta, with its pornographic and violent films from Hong Kong or the United States, with its prostitutes, tends to liberalize workers. The positive aspect of all of this is that it breaks down all of the taboos of the village. Here workers become more mobile, more open, and braver. In Jakarta, workers are merged with other ethnics from other areas. After awhile, they don’t pray anymore.” The radical students decided that they had to teach the workers about socialism. If the workers were to become part of this revolutionary process, they also had to be politically educated and trained.

The students had to explain to them the nature of imperialism and capitalism, the history of the world socialist movement, the struggle for independence and for social justice in Indonesia, and the history of the Indonesian labor movement. :So we created intensive classes for the workers. We brought the students to the cities, to the workers’ rooms. Sometimes the neighbors were suspicious, because the students didn’t look like the workers who lived in the neighborhood. Social classes here, you know, are really materialized. Workers have different clothes and different faces. The worker’s face is a village face. The student’s face is a clean, more expressive face. Students engage in more joking, but the working class has what we call a budqya baa, a silent culture.” Recapitulating the experience of the students, the workers’ socialist study classes soon turned to activism. ‘We began with small strikes in the factories. Then we organized PPBI, the Center for Indonesian Labor Struggle, a sort of labor federation. The workers chose Dita Sari as their chairwoman,” Amir explains. “That was a time when students held demonstrations at the factory gates. Many times when the students demonstrated, workers joined them, and then the military repressed them both. We opened democratic spaces, and then the parasitic politicians used them.”


The Founding of the PRD

By 1994, (PRD member) Hendrik Kuok explains, the student radicals had created three organizations: SMID, STN, and PPBI. “We then brought all three of these—the student, peasant, and labor organizations, together in the People’s Democratic Union, which we founded in 1994. We organized and carried out a debate within the People’s Democratic Union around two points: first, the idea that students needed to unite with the - people, with workers and peasants; and, second, that we needed a political party. Out of that discussion we trans formed the People’s Democratic Union into the People’s Democratic Party.” About the time of the founding of the PRD, the struggle against Suharto had begun to heat up.


The PRD During the Crisis

The years of political crisis, 1996 and 1997, presented the PRD with a whole new series of challenges. In 1996, a dispute erupted within the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI) between the old guard, loyal to the Suharto regime, and the supporters of Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of former president Sukarno, who was fighting to take leadership of the organization. On the morning of July 1996, gangsters organized by the military regime attacked the PDI headquarters on Diponegoro Boulevard in the Menteng neighborhood of Central Jakarta. That afternoon there were riots throughout Jakarta, and many people were killed and injured in the melee. The government blamed the PRD for organizing the riot, and even went so far as to accuse it of at tempting a coup d’etat.


The riot was used as an excuse to ban various political organizations and arrest prominent political figures, such as Muchtar Pakpahan of the SBSI labor federation. The PRD, which had defended Megawati and her supporters in the PDI against attack by the government, was banned, as were its affiliated organizations (SMID, STN, and PPBI), and nine of its top leaders were arrested. The military also arrested or kidnapped and tortured many other PRD members, and generally terrorized the organization, its members, and its supporters. The PRD suffered more repression than any other opposition group in Indonesia. Two of its members, Gilang and Yusup Prizzal, were murdered. Four other members are still missing and presumed murdered: Herman T-Iendrawan, Bimo Petrui, Suyar, and Wijui Thukul. Another 14 PRD members were imprisoned by the Suharto government, and most were only released two years later. Many PRD members who were imprisoned suffered torture.

Ironically, the repression also brought political influence. Magazines put the photo of PRD leader Budiman Sujatmiko on their covers, bringing national notoriety to the party for the first time. Amir recounts, “After that, we had to organize underground again. Many of our members ran away at that time, though later they came back. We had only between 20 and 30 leaders of our organization, and about 50 members, only 100 altogether.” So when the economic crisis hit Indonesia in 1997, the PRD had been reduced to a tiny organization of perhaps 100 activists operating underground and subject to the terror and torture of the police. “When the crisis began, we concentrated on work among students at the universities,” says PRD member Ma’ruf. SMID had been banned along with the PRD, so the PRD members had to either organize new student groups, or join those that other students had organized. “We were involved in student groups such as City Forum (Kota Forum) and later the Big Family of the University of Indonesia (KBU1). Finally, we organized the Committee of Students and People for Democracy in Indonesia (KOMRAD). The students also organized student committees on other campuses,” Ma’ruf remembers.

These organizations would be among the most active and most radical of the Indonesian student groups that helped bring down Suharto. “We also entered into the committees which had been organized by other groups to fight for our program. We wanted to focus on one set of national demands,” explains Dita — not Dita Sari, but another PRD leader. This Dita, less than five feet tall, was shot with rubber bullets and then beaten by several police men in an attack on a PRD demonstration. She is missing one front tooth, and the other turned black after she was struck in the face. From time to time as we talked, she winced with pain from the rubber bullet wound.

“Up to that point, because of the crisis, the students had only raised economic demands. In addition to the crisis, El Nino [the weather system] had caused a droughts and a bad harvest, and many people were actually starving. We tried to convince the student movement that this struggle was not only economic, but also political. Our demands were: overthrow Suharto; end dwingfungsi the military’s dual-function role; end the five political laws—that is, the laws governing political parties, elections, the parliament, mass organizations, and the referendum to change the constitution; higher wages; and meet the people’s needs for nine basic commodities, such as rice, cooking oil, and so on.

The PRD members — by then more had begun to return to the party, and new recruits had started to join — attempted to galvanize the broader student and popular movement into action. The PRD called for demonstrations of students, workers, and the urban poor. Students were urged to reach out to the unemployed, housewives, and mothers. The PRD called on students and workers to engage in sir-ins in public places and to organize strikes against the regime. The student movement grew in size from day to day, from hundreds to thousands to tens of thousands, and on a national scale to hundreds of thousands of student activists engaged in demonstrations. By May 1998, there were demonstrations of as many as 50,000 students in Jakarta, with many workers among them.

By November 1998, after the fall of Suharto, the demonstrations against the proposed People’s Consultative Assembly had grown to as large as 100,000. The PRD, while only one of many organizations involved across a wide political spectrum, played a dynamic and at times central role in the student demonstrations. No other group manifested the same consistent opposition not only to Suharto, but also to Golkar, the military, and the whole system of military state capitalism.


Mass Movements and Politics

The biggest challenge for the PRD was charting its course as it became clear that Suharto would fall and that Megawati would be the leading political candidate for president. No doubt because it was so deeply involved in the massive student movement - and what soon became a broader social movement of students, workers, the middle class, and even elite opponents of the regime - the PRD was subject to all sorts of political pressures from more conservative political forces. That it was subject to such forces is a testament to its non-sectarian and activist orientation; purist sects never face opportunist pressures because they fear moving with the real movement. The pressures of the real movement pushed the PRD toward Megawati and her wing of the PDI, the future PDI-Struggle (PDI-P). This was almost a natural evolution. In July 1997, the PRD began politically defending Megawati and the PDI against the attack by the military. This defense of democratic rights was quite remarkable, since Megawati had never said a word nor lifted a finger to support the young PRD activists who had been tortured to defend her rights.


People’s Councils


The essence of PRD politics in the crisis was the call for “People’s Councils.” At student, worker, and peasant meetings, in leaflets and pamphlets distributed at demonstrations and strikes, the PR)) argued: “An independent and sovereign People’s Council must be established at all levels: the hamlet, village, sub-district, city, regency, province, and nationally. People’s Councils must also be established on campuses, schools, factories, and offices.” Ma’ruf explains the significance of the People’s Councils demand at that time: “We called for the organization of People’s Councils, which was really a call for a transitional government. We didn’t want the old regime to run the elections for a new government. We wanted a transitional government to run the elections, and we rejected the idea of an elite transitional government made up of the old political parties and the military. We called for a real democratic transitional government made up of people from many sectors of society. We called for the organization of councils on the campuses, in the kampongs, or the villages, and in the factories.”


The PRD’s call for People’s Councils seemed to fall some where between the idea of parliament and the idea of soviets. Not well defined, not clearly linked to putting power into the hands of workers and peasants, and with too few cadres to really create them, the PRD’s call for the councils never really took off. In 1998, with the entire nation oriented toward elections, the call for organizing councils found little response. Perhaps it would have resonated more broadly had there been a political impasse or had the economic and social crisis deepened.


Ma’ruf told me in July 1999 that the next step for the PRD was party building: “Today we have about 800 cadre members, full members. We have to concentrate our work among students, though in the long term we want to organize workers. But we need more students, more educated people in order to reach those workers. Though about a third of our leaders are women, right now about 20 percent of our members are female. We publish only about 1,000 copies of our 20-page paper. But during the elections, we put out ... 100,000 pamphlets and some 600,000 leaflets.” In 1999, one observer estimated that the PRD had 800 members, 8,000 sympathizers, and the capacity to mobilize perhaps 80,000 students across Indonesia. In addition, it had activists and sup porters in the peasant and labor unions. When I visited the PRD almost a year later, in June 2000, the party had grown tremendously and claimed to be more than 10 times larger than it had been a year before. Wilson, one of the PRD’s top leaders, explained; “Participating in the election really had an amazing impact on our party. Imagine, we had been an illegal party, and then suddenly we became a legal party. We were in the newspapers, on radio, and on television. Our best known leaders like Dita Sari and Budiman were on television talk shows. Even the Indonesian state radio, Radio Republik Indonesia, interviewed our party leaders. Before the election, we had about 15 or 20 branches and maybe 1,000 members. Today we have 54 branches and 10,000 members. We have found it amazing that there is a great sympathy for socialist ideas in many areas where we would never have expected it, including in the most fundamentalist Islamic areas. We receive messages all the time from students or activists who say, 'We want to start a PRD branch.' For example, we have a PRD branch in Aceh, one of the most fundamentalist areas. It’s only 15 people, but we have a branch there. We have a branch in West Kalimantan, Borneo, where three years ago you could not imagine a socialist organization existing.”


The PRD would like to be involved in broader coalitions with other organizations, but has found that difficult. “We have had a big problem working in coalitions. The problem is not with us, but with the NGOs that don’t want to work with the PRD. For example, in the big anti-debt coalition here, the NGOs excluded us. We are not sectarian, but the NGOs are very childish. They fear that because we are a party, we will monopolize the movement and dominate them. But we do work in coalition with some groups. We have a lot of contact with Islamic groups and student groups. Many students are opposed to neoliberalism, and we can work with them. But there is still an anti-partisan consciousness among the students. They sometimes reject us, saying that we will try to control them. We do have a coalition with the Liga Mahasiswas Nasional Untuk Demokrasi (LMND), the National Student League for Democracy. LMND is made up of 29 student unions around the country and has an anti-militarist platform, and we work well with them.” In fact, the PRD helped to create the LMND, and a PRD member leads it, so this is not exactly a coalition activity.

The PRD remains quite involved in union organizing activities, Wilson told me. ‘We send organizers into the industrial areas and factories to set up unions. We organize workers, but they choose their own unions. We work closely with Kobar and with the FNPBI, but in the end the workers have to choose the union they want.” The STN, the PRD’s peasant union, is still organizing, but, said Wilson, “It is not growing as fast as the student movement or the workers’ movement.” The PRD has no women’s group, a surprising fact in any leftist organization after the international women’s movement in the I 970s and I 980s. Wilson explained, :We still have no women’s organization. Right now, our priority is on workers, peasants, students, and the urban poor. We concentrate on work ers and students. Maybe when we have more cadres we would also set up a women’s organization.” The PRD’s reluctance to organize women as women on feminist issues seems anachronistic and is in contradiction to its labor organizing among women.


Party and Class

In the practical struggle for socialism, one key factor determining whether or not a social revolution terminates in a socialism run from above or a socialism created and controlled from below may be found in the relationship between a socialist party and the working class. The question is: does the socialist party (or parties) have a dynamic and democratic relationship to the working class such that the party represents a genuine leadership (the historic term is “the vanguard”) of the working class, and not a substitute for it? There can be many measures of that relationship: the party’s real rootedness in the working class; the role of party leaders in working-class organizations such as labor unions; the ability of working-class organizations to influence the party; and the ability of the party to mobilize the working class in economic struggle, in electoral contests, and in a direct challenge to the existing regime.

A socialist political party also establishes its relation ship to the working class through the strategy of the united front, that is, entering into alliances with other political parties, labor organizations, and social movements in the fight for common goals; in the larger national framework. Only if the party represents a genuine leadership of the working class with organic and democratic ties to the labor movements and the poor can one hope that a revolution will lead to a democratic socialist society.

The party relationship, however, is only one check on the creation of an authoritarian socialism. Perhaps even more important is the role of democratic institutions of power through which the working class (and, in countries like Indonesia, the peasantry) can run a society. Historically, in situations of deep social crisis workers created their own institutions of struggle and power such as the neighborhood committees of the Paris Commune and the workers’, peasants’, and soldiers’ councils of the Russ Revolution. Workers created representative leadership bodies through which working people could elect a leadership and, if necessary, recall and change their leaders at will.


Socialism is an abstraction and an ideal that has always been fought for in a world of concrete realities. The fight for working-class democracy necessarily takes place in hierarchical and authoritarian societies and in the midst of struggles that inevitably engender new power relationships. The history of the fight for socialism in Indonesia has been a tragic one, largely because the Dutch colonists who prided themselves on their parliamentary democracy at home ran a police state in their East Indies colonies. The Dutch used spies, police repression, exile, and imprisonment to control their subjects. On the broader political playing field, they encouraged racial and religious competition and conflict, leaving a legacy of hatred and violence. The imperial and colonial experience inhibited, undermined, and distorted the struggle for democracy, socialism, and humanitarian ideals, creating a less than ideal environment for the socialist experiment.

European immigrants and labor unionists introduced social ism to Indonesia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The revolutionary socialist version of socialism, socialism from below, arrived with Henk Sneevliet and other Dutch socialists at the outbreak of World War 1. Sneevliet and the Indonesian Semaun led the founding of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), the first in Asia in 1920. Under Indonesian leaders such as Semaun and Tan Malaka, the PKI had remarkable success in making inroads among Muslim workers, particularly railroad workers, and seemed well on its way to building a powerful national party, despite the repression of the Dutch.


What is the most important lesson of the PKI experience from the l920s to the 1960s? As long as the PKI drew workers and peasants into alliances where they were subordinated to nationalists, there was no hope of a democratic movement for socialism from below. The interests of the working class and the peasantry were subordinated to the interests of national and international capital or to the interests of the Communist states. At the same time, such alliances directed the labor movement into the struggle for power within a bourgeois framework, rather than attempting to rupture that framework and create new, more democratic, institutions as the expression of the power of the laboring majority.

Only when the working class exercises complete political independence can it possibly build the mass movement from below necessary to overthrow capitalism. Suharto’s 1965 coup and the massacres of between 500,000 and I million Communists and their sympathizers destroyed the PKI and its labor unions and peasant leagues. Suharto’s New Order regime cut off virtually all political and intellectual contact with Communist China and the Soviet Union, and only a tiny percentage of the Indonesian elite had any opportunity to learn anything about European social democracy. Only student exiles in Australia, the United States, or Europe were likely to learn about the traditions of revolutionary socialism from below, which had been reduced to tiny currents among intellectuals and activists in those countries.

As already described, the People’s Democratic Party (PRD) student activists started from scratch, taking some inspiration from the Maoist Communists of the Philippines to recreate a revolutionary socialist current. (...) The PRD has just begun the process of creating a revolutionary party in Indonesia, and has still to develop that dynamic relation ship between party and class that marks a healthy development in the creation of socialism from below. Whether or not it will actually accomplish the task of creating such a relationship remains to be seen. In my interviews with PRD leaders, I was struck by the fact that they remained in many ways a student group that has yet to come to grips with its relationship to workers, unions, and the working class. The young intellectuals and students who created the PRD have to be admired for their success in organizing several mass organizations, such as Students in Solidarity for Democracy in Indonesia (SMID), the National Peasant Union (STN), and the National Front for Indonesian Labor Struggle (FNPBI). Through these organizations they have begun to develop a broader social base within the Indonesian society and in the working class. The old style of labor organizing, based on responding to worker strikes or appearing at factories to call workers out, has given way to taking responsibility for leading workers’ organizations that determine when to strike.

The PRD as a party can now give a lead to the working class, but finds it must do so through discussions with small contingents of worker leaders and activists. The PRD’s early role as a group outside the working class has been changed, and it is now a small force within the working class. While this represents an advance, it is little more than the first step. In the past, the Suharto dictatorship’s severe repression made it difficult to organize democratic party conferences or other public discussions of politics in Indonesia. While Indonesia remains far from a democratic society, the repression has eased up, and the PRD can now organize public events and debates. To take advantage of this opening, which is possibly a temporary one, the PRD understands that it will have to create a strong organizational structure, a real national newspaper, and regional newspapers. Only with a party press and party radio stations will the PRD be able to have the dynamic democratic relationship with the working class on which genuine socialism is predicated. At present, with its weak infrastructure and lack of economic re sources, it does not yet have even the organizational basis that would make such a relationship possible. Socialism from below and the democratic relationship be tween party and class also depend on the strategy of the united front. To influence other organizations social movements, and political parties, the PRD has to be able to enter into alliances with such groups around specific economic and political issues. Activists tend to learn through experience, and it is only by going through experiences with other organizations that the PRO can test its positions and see if they prove correct in practice. When it does, it will win others to its views.

Party and Class


How does a revolutionary workers’ party take leadership of the labor unions, and the working class in general, and how does it give leadership to the farmers? I think that there are two answers to this question. First, such a socialist party must be the most consistent fighter for the democratic rights of all people, including the rights of workers and farmers, oppressed nationalities, minority religions, women, and gays and lesbians. A left party must be the spokesperson for all of the oppressed of society, what Lenin called “a tribune of the people.” Second, a socialist party must speak to the needs and the economic and social interests of workers, farmers, and the poor. By taking up the fight for the interests of the majority, and by setting that majority in motion, a leftist party becomes a force for democracy in society. If such a party consistently leads the fight for democracy and becomes the leading party of the workers and peasants, it will enter the struggle for political power. If it succeeds in taking power, such a party will not surrender it to the Indonesian bourgeoisie, but will have to create a workers’ government and begin the transition to socialism. The party’s ability to engage in united front activities with other parties, labor unions, and social movements will largely determine its ability to gradually become the hegemonic group within the working class and then within society. Of course, there may be more than one, and in fact there may be several working-class political parties and other parties, that would have to be recognized within the context of some new representative institutions. Socialism from below suggests a multi party democracy where workers and their representatives could choose from alternative political programs.