Riots in Indonesia

by Pete Brown
(from Communist Voice #11, Dec. 15, 1996)


. Riots shook downtown Jakarta, Indonesia the weekend of July 27-28. Young political activists faced off with the local police, and thousands of youths then went on a rampage, burning buses, banks, car showrooms, and a six-story government building. Dictator Suharto then sent in the troops; when they were through "dispersing" the crowds, the protesters had lost five dead, about 30 seriously injured and hundreds arrested. There were also scores of protesters missing and unaccounted for.

. What caused the riots was Suharto's attempt to impose his own choice of leader on the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI), a party Suharto allows to exist but doesn't want to function independently of his control. The PDI leaders themselves didn't want anything to do with rioting or even directly criticizing Suharto. But the protests apparently became a focus for mass anger against the repression suffered by the Indonesian masses in decades under Suharto's dictatorial rule. This is the first serious riot in Jakarta in over a decade, and the first case of youth and students rioting in the capital since the 1970s. It indicates that the frustrations of languishing under Suharto's repressive rule for 30 years is beginning to reach a boiling point.

The masses beginning to get in motion

. The riot was sparked by the government's attempt to clear demonstrators away from the headquarters of the PDI. The demonstrators, mostly young people, had been outside the headquarters for a month protesting against the takeover of PDI by a new leader in a "special" party election engineered by Suharto. The protesters were trying to prevent the new PDI leadership from entering and taking over the headquarters. At the same time, they were demonstrating in the streets. A constant, round-the-clock "democratic forum" was being held inside and outside PDI headquarters, with speeches by leaders of popular organizations and calls for "people power" reminiscent of the anti-Marcos movement in the Philippines.

. The new leadership of PDI finally tried to force entry into the building on July 27, with the help of Jakarta police. But the demonstrators outside forced them back. The next morning Suharto sent in army troops backed by at least one tank. But still the young activists fought back. Thousands of them went on a rampage in the downtown area nearby, trashing a number of banks and government office buildings. Rioting went on throughout the day and night.

. When push came to shove, Suharto's troops followed orders and dispersed the crowds. The army's firepower enabled the troops to scatter the protesters. But the protesters gained a certain moral victory just by standing up to the troops as long as they did and showing the world that there's a definite stratum of opposition to Suharto right in the center of his national capital. The Indonesian press, heavily controlled by the government, tries to create the illusion that everyone in Indonesia is united in love and respect for their great leader, Suharto, but events like this show that what unites the masses is actually hatred for Suharto's regime.

Suharto controls the parliamentary "opposition"

. The July protests stemmed from Suharto's plan to rid the PDI of its leader, Megawati Sukarnoputri. Sukarnoputri is the daughter of Sukarno, Indonesia's leader during its independence struggle against the Netherlands (1945-49) and after 1950 the new country's first president. Sukarno was president until he was overthrown in a military coup led by Suharto in the mid-60s.

. Sukarnoputri was elected leader of the PDI at a 1993 convention. Surprisingly, she made some effort to turn PDI into an opposition party. She highlighted exposures of Suharto's crony capitalism, especially the way he uses government contracts to enrich his own family members. The vote for Suharto's party has been dropping, and Sukarnoputri planned to run for president in next year's election. This would have been the first time PDI has put up an opposition candidate.(World Press Review, Sept.)

. To forestall this, Suharto arranged to have a special convention of the PDI called in late June. This convention elected a new party leader, a man named Suryadi. So the issue was joined: do the parties outside Golkar (Suharto's party) have the right to elect their own leaders and run opposition candidates, or are they merely creatures of Suharto, extensions of Golkar?

. As a matter of fact, all of the legal electoral parties in Indonesia are creations of Suharto. To help keep things under his control, in 1973 Suharto reduced the number of legally recognized parties to just three: his own party, based on the military -- Golkar; PDI, a merger of previously existing secular-nationalist and Christian parties (with any independent opposition trends submerged); and the United Development party, a similar "merger" of previously existing Islamic parties. In parliamentary elections Golkar regularly gets about two-thirds of the vote, while the other two parties get a little over 15% each. PDI and United Development are not allowed to campaign at all outside the cities, in the rural areas where the mass of the Indonesian population lives. So Golkar has a complete political monopoly on the rural masses. Aside from the seats won by Golkar in this lopsided electioneering, 20% of the seats in parliament are set aside for representatives of the military.

. Voting for president is even more directly controlled by Suharto. The only people involved in voting for president are the 500 members of the presidential electoral college. Each of the parliamentary parties has some representatives in the college. But of course Golkar dominates;and many members are "special" electors directly appointed by the sitting president, Suharto. Theoretically any member of the college can nominate a candidate to oppose Suharto, and a vote would then be taken. But so far no member of the electoral college has ever had the temerity to oppose Suharto's insistence on consensus; so Suharto has been unanimously elected president since the system's inception.

. To get an idea of how thoroughly the military dominates this system, it must be borne in mind also that many military officers wear many different hats, serving as political or economic leaders as well. This is in accord with the doctrine of "dual function" which goes back to the days of Sukarno. Military officers are often appointed or elected to regional or local political offices; they're also selected to head state-owned economic enterprises.

. In recent years PDI has been chosen by some dissident elements to try and express their dissatisfaction with Suharto. We're talking here about members of the ruling class, bourgeois elements who are tired of Suharto dominating everything. Some of these are middle bourgeois anxious to expand their possibilities. Some of these are military officers who have been left behind by Suharto's transition to crony capitalism, a system in which Suharto and his close friends rake off millions and millions of dollars from government contracts and bribes. Among these elements Sukarnoputri and her younger brother, Guruh Sukarnoputra, are looked to as a possible alternative to Suharto's complete dominance of the political scene.

. Without outright banning PDI or its leaders, Suharto has been maneuvering to render them impotent. Sukarnoputri herself came to the leadership of PDI through a previous Suharto-engineered "special convention." During the 1993 elections Suryadi was head of PDI and was pursuing a fairly energetic campaign, by Indonesian standards. During that electoral season Sukarnoputra was also active and was being touted as a possible presidential candidate.So at that time Suharto insisted that PDI hold a special convention and rid itself of Suryadi and Sukarnoputra as party leaders. The party complied, but at the same time elected Sukarnoputri as new leader. Since then Sukarnoputri has emerged as a popular politician and possible presidential candidate in her own right. So this year Suharto arranged another PDI special convention to get rid of her. Again the party complied, and went back to Suryadi.

. This maneuvering has been somewhat effective for Suharto. He's gotten the PDI leaders squabbling among themselves, and pretty well ensured another unanimous-consensus selection as president in the next election. But a lot of Suharto's success is due to the pro-establishment character of his ruling-class "opposition." PDI leaders would like to carve out more of a niche for themselves in Indonesian politics, but they accept the basic premises of Indonesian party politicking, with its domination by the military and its restrictions on democratic rights. Sukarnoputri, for example, still adheres to Suharto's calls for "unity and stability" above all else. She denies publicly that PDI is an "opposition" party, and her campaign of protest against losing her position in the PDI is limited to lawsuits against Suryadi. She has publicly disavowed any public campaign to oppose Suharto's engineering her ouster. When push comes to shove, she maintains that adversarial-style politics are unacceptable in Indonesia. (Far Eastern Economic Review, Aug. 15)

Redbaiting the social-democrats . . .

. Suharto is putting most of the blame for the riots on the Democratic People's Party (PRD), a new group of youthful activists. The military is hunting down PRD leaders and charging them with subversion, a possible capital-punishment crime. Government spokesmen are denouncing the PRD as "communist" and "anarcho-syndicalist" and say its politics are "incompatible with Indonesian reality."

. PRD was formed just two years ago. It is avowedly social-democratic and has been active in supporting some labor strikes. For example, in early July PRD organized an agitational rally of workers in the industrial area of Tandes, East Java. This demonstration was notably successful, attracting over 4,000 workers from 10 different factories. Speakers at the rally were due to elaborate grievances common to workers at the factories. But the rally was broken up by the military when workers began chanting slogans that, according to the military, were "disrespectful of the state president."

. Many of the demonstrators outside PDI headquarters were in fact mobilized by PRD, which is largely based among youth and student circles. PRD activists urged Sukarnoputri to behave as a genuine opposition figure. They hoped to win her over from establishment politics to supporting democratic causes. As events showed, this was a vain hope. Sukarnoputri had no interest in unleashing a mass movement of protest.

. But as far as PRD itself goes, they too were embarrassed and upset by the rioting that took place. The leader of their student group says, about the violent outbreaks: "We tried to coordinate the masses so they would become calm, but we failed. . . . We don't need riots." (FEER, Aug. 8, p. 15) And PRD leaders are defensive about Suharto branding them as communists. They insist they're social-democrats, not communists.

. This doesn't stop Suharto from persecuting them, however. Since July Suharto has been orchestrating a countrywide denunciation of the riots, with diverse politicians and military leaders speaking out about the dangers of a "resurgence of communism." This is a dangerous charge in Indonesia, where Suharto came to power on the heels of a countrywide persecution of the old Indonesian Communist (actually, revisionist) Party, a persecution that involved the massacre of hundreds of thousands of working class and peasant activists. When Suharto declares that a group is to be regarded as equivalent to the "communists" of the 1960s, he is giving carte blanche to anyone to hunt them down and wipe them out.

. . . and steamrollering the liberals

. Not satisfied with rounding up youthful activists, Suharto also began rounding up more mainstream political organizers in the weeks following the riots. The military made a sweep of various civic organizations, arresting their leaders and charging them with an assortment of crimes such as "distributing illegal brochures." None of the charges are as serious as those lodged against the youthful PRD leaders, but the implications are clear: if you persist in contacts with groups like PRD, you run the risk of being totally smashed. Military leaders throughout the country are also calling in regional and local officers of PDI to pressure them to accept the party's special convention, its rejection of Sukarnoputri and replacement with Suryadi. Sukarnoputri herself has quietly accepted a high court's rejection of her legal protest, and announced that she plans no further legal challenges.

. Suharto mobilized his political organizations to show popular support for the military's suppression of the demonstrators. A couple weeks after the riots, Golkar held a large rally in downtown Jakarta to denounce the rioters and to praise the military. Golkar is able to mobilize thousands by ordering every government bureaucrat, clerk, teacher, policeman, fireman, soldier, etc. to show up and bring their families. Anyone who shares government largesse through contracts, etc., was also expected to come. Teachers were ordered to bring their students. Leaders of United Development and other mainstream Moslem leaders gave speeches denouncing the rioters, and in interviews they refused to say a word against Suharto, instead praising the military for upholding "stability."

. Suharto may not be able to keep the genie in the bottle, however. During June riots broke out again in East Timor, where Suharto's troops have been unable to suppress a movement for independence despite years of savage brutality. And the week after the riots in Jakarta, rioting also broke out in the province of Irian Jaya (western New Guinea). The riots in Jakarta take on added significance when seen in this light: not only are protests breaking out in far-flung parts of the archipelago against Javanese rule, but now, in addition, violent protests are beginning in the heart of Java itself. This may signify the beginning of serious cracks in Suharto's decades-old military dictatorship.

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Last changed on October 19, 2001.