[Marxism] from Jakarta

Tom O'Lincoln suarsos at alphalink.com.au
Sun May 9 07:37:27 MDT 2004

Written in a cyber café with a cranky computer, so apologies for typing

This is a summary of some discussions with activists in Jakarta and in the
West Java capital of Bandung, along with what I’ve picked up reading the
papers. This is my first visit in two years so I’m out of date. I’m making
this visit to Indonesia more of a holiday so my discussions are basically
with my friends and may not be representative of how the left as a whole
sees things. In addition to informal chats, I spoke to a group of 20
students in Bandung on the war in Iraq, and to a group of trade union
activists at the Trade Union Rights Centre in Jakarta on unions in

The Indonesian economy has improved over the past two years. I doubt if we
can speak of a crisis anymore, though it could happen again and the absence
of crisis does not mean the people don’t live terribly hard lives.
Inflation is under 6% although April saw an upward trend in the CPI.
Moderate economic growth is driven mainly by consumption and not enough by
investment, but they always say that and it hasn’t stopped the economy
stabilizing. Currency fluctuations are less these days. Growth forecasts
from the central bank for this year and next are around 4.5% in real terms,
and they’re hoping for 6% over the coming decade, though for that to happen
investment must improve. Tourist visits are also up to the highest levels
since the crisis of the late 90s.

The political situation is still pretty hot. At the end of April and start
of May, there was a renewed flare up in the conflict in Ambon. Previous
fighting between Muslims and Christians had been settled 2 years back, but
suddenly there were mysterious snipers on the rooftops and the conflict
resumed. Despite the inflammatory behaviour of the Christian-based Muluku
independence movement (which has a reactionary history going back to the
fifties) it’s entirely possible the main culprit is the military or police,
who show no sign of identifying the snipers.

The police are definitely the culprit in Makassar, where they opened fire
on a crowd of students and injured 61. They seem to have attacked two
crowds in fact, the first less violently. The shooting was apparently
directed at supporters of Abu Bakar Bashir, who is accused of being
spiritual mentor for the local sub-branch of Al Qaeda. I’ve spoken to
people who say the whole situation was provoked to set up Bashir. Could be.
The students responded with impressive defiant demonstrations.

Bashir doesn’t seem to have much support, though his supporters are game.
They fought the cops when he was re-arrested the other day and tonight they
were on TV demonstrating in Solo (Central Java). I continue to think the
real culprits behind the Bali and Marriott bombings were the military, and
that Bashir is really a harmless though loopy figure.

Finally there has been a mysterious bombing in the Sumatra city of
Pekanbaru. One of my leftist friends thinks most of these events are being
engineered in order to push people towards General Wiranto, who has become
one of two main presidential candidates in the coming poll. The other is
the current president, Megawati. Wiranto’s emergence has caused some

There are three candidates attracting interest. Wiranto is obviously one.
He has the organizational weight of the military behind him and his party
(Golkar) did best in the recent parliamentary elections. But even so, their
vote actually slipped slightly from 22% to just under 21%. The big swing
was away from Megawati (from 33% to just under 20%), caused quite obviously
by disillusionment with her performance. Two parties did surprisingly well:
one was the Muslim-based Prosperous Justice Party which is fundamentalist,
but which drew votes mainly on the basis of its anti-corruption program. In
order words, we don’t seem to be facing an Islamist surge. The other is the
Democrats, whose leader Susilo Bambang Yudohyono is also from the military
– he too seems to have got votes on an anti-corruption basis.

Bambang is discussed as a possible president but his party’s vote seems too
small to me. Only Wiranto and Megawati have the initial large voting base
to get into the second round. After that somehow I suspect most forces will
tend to back Megawati and Wiranto will fail. Time will tell.

The left is marginal and splintered; which is not really news. What’s more
discouraging is that the unions haven’t grown in terms of their membership
base. There are more unions, but only because they’ve split left right and
centre. It’s not clear whether the overall union membership has shrunk, but
it’s unlikely to have grown. One interesting pattern in these splits is a
trend for rank and file workers to want to shrug off tutelage from NGO or
political party types. Thus one of the more impressive independent unions,
the Greater Jakarta Labor Union (SBJ) has seen its worker base revolt
against NGO elements who were instrumental in its founding, and the FNPBI
led by Dita Sari has similarly seen its most important rank and file worker
militant lead a split. I have no definite views on which side of these
splits is superior. My main reaction is that the splits are just plain bad
splits between industrial trade unionism and politics. We need both after

This dichotomy was reflected in the May Day actions (if I’ve heard
correctly – I didn’t get here till 2 May). The actions were small and
divided in both Jakarta and Bandung. There were two coalitions in Jakarta,
one of them raising radical politics (led by Dita Sari) and one of them
focusing more on bread and butter issues. Perhaps something along these
lines was bound to happen. The phase where ex-student activist and NGO
types helped the unions to form was bound to involve contradictions which
are now working themselves out.

Still, the unions are still there, the left is still there, the students
still demonstrate, the fight goes on. I will try to write something again
after I’ve visited some cities in Central Java.

More information about the Marxism mailing list