Wednesday, January 27, 1999

Rage against the regime: Students fight for democracy in Indonesia

Chris Latham

Last May mass demonstrations toppled one of the most brutal dictators in the world -- President Suharto of Indonesia. Having held power for over 32 years, with the full backing of most of the world's rich and powerful countries, Suharto was thought invincible by many.

Protests engulfed the whole of Indonesia, sweeping every campus, in every city and town. Students took to the streets, in defiance of military orders not to leave campus, to demand that Suharto resign.

The support for the student movement was grew daily. Scared by the massive demonstrations and the possibility of losing control, one by one Suharto's cronies began to call for his resignation. Finally, Suharto handed power to his vice president, B.J. Habibie.

Despite the change of the regime's face, not much else has changed. In the months since the fall of Suharto, the lot of most Indonesians has continued to worsen. The poor bear the brunt of the economic crisis, while the rich continue to hold power and protect their wealth.

The plummeting value of the rupiah, Indonesia's currency, and austerity programs enforced by the International Monetary Fund caused an additional 6 million Indonesians to slip below the poverty line in the space of four months.

The prices of life's necessities have skyrocketed -- medicines by 500%, rice by 300%. Many factories have closed, and millions have lost their jobs. The average income of Indonesians has dropped by at least 60% over the last six months.

The `bailouts'

Meanwhile, the rich in Indonesia have survived virtually unscathed. Suharto, worth around US$60 billion before the crisis, was estimated by the CIA to be the richest man in the world. While many of his Indonesian possessions will have depreciated, billions more are stashed away overseas.

Despite repeated popular calls for Suharto's wealth to be expropriated to lessen the effects of the economic crisis, the Habibie regime refuses to act. Instead, it blocks access to Suharto's residence with tanks and barricades.

The purpose of the “bailout” of Indonesia by the IMF and World Bank is to service the debts of Indonesian big business to international banks, not to ease the suffering or feed the Indonesian people.

The bailout is not a free handout. The Indonesian workers and peasants will have to pay back “their” debts. The Australian government, a long-time friend of the regime, has contributed $1 billion to this.

The struggle continues

In November, the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR), a body stacked with the military and appointees of Suharto, met to plan a new election. Recognising that this body would reinforce the status quo, hundreds of thousands of students took to the streets to prevent the meeting and to demand “total reform”.

The military opened fire, killing 13 and wounding hundreds more.

In response, the students, workers and peasants surged onto the streets in their millions and occupied military bases, government buildings, radio and TV stations and airports. They demanded an end to the military's role in politics, the establishment of a provisional government not connected to the old regime, new elections and the arrest and seizure of the assets of Suharto, Habibie and Wiranto (head of the armed forces).

Many of the activists who had been part of the campaign to topple Suharto had argued in the months after his resignation that the movement should give the new regime a chance.

The radical wing of the movement, led by the People's Democratic Party (PRD), argued that the overthrow of Suharto would not overcome the problems facing Indonesian society. It put forward demands to meet the needs of the people and called for the resignation of Habibie.

The PRD is also the first Indonesian group to support the East Timorese people's struggle for self-determination.

The PRD argues that, for the movement to succeed, it must involve all oppressed sections of the population. During the November events, based on the agitation of PRD members, thousands of the urban poor and peasants were drawn into the mobilisations. This demonstrated that students can reach and politicise broader layers of people with the right demands.

Building solidarity

Resistance has always opposed the Indonesian occupation of East Timor. Resistance was one of the first organisations in Australia to build solidarity with the movement for democracy in Indonesia.

As a socialist organisation, Resistance opposes the imperialist policies of Australian governments, both Labor and Liberal. Canberra has supported the suppression of the rights of the East Timorese and Indonesians to protect the interests of Australian big business. Resistance supports and publicises the policies and activities of the radical PRD.

Resistance has called an international day of solidarity with the Indonesian student movement for May 22. The action coincides with the anniversary of the May 21 overthrow of Suharto.

Protests around the country, and the world, will mobilise support for the Indonesian and East Timorese movements against the Indonesian dictatorship. In Indonesia this year, more than 20 student activists have been shot dead and scores more wounded or detained. Thousands of East Timorese students have been killed or jailed since their country was invaded.

In both countries, students have vowed not to end their protests until the military are out of politics and full freedom is won.

The May 22 protests will demand: free the political prisoners; free the detained student activists; end all ties to the Indonesian military; and withdraw recognition of the Indonesian occupation of East Timor.

Activist tour to Indonesia

Resistance is coordinating an activist tour of Indonesia, jointly sponsored by the Student and People's Committee for Democracy (KOMRAD) and the student group Students in Solidarity with Democracy in Indonesia (SMID).

The tour will be a chance for students from Australia and New Zealand to travel to Indonesia and stay with activists of the democracy movement. Meetings will be organised with students, East Timorese activists, high school students, women, trade unionists, the urban poor and gay and lesbian organisations.

It will be a chance to share experiences of struggle in Australia and learn from the movement in Indonesia.

Resistance is inviting interested students to join the tour. It will leave Australia in early April and last 10 days. The cost will be approximately $1200. Places are very limited. Phone Chris Latham at (02) 9690 1230 or fill out the clip-off below.

From Green Left Weekly issue #346


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Revitalising Labour attempts to reflect on efforts to rebuild the labour movement internationally, emphasising the role that left-wing political currents can play in this process. It welcomes contributions on union struggles, internal renewal processes within the labour movement and the struggle against capitalism and imperialism.

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