Indonesia: A revolution begun

The dramatic events of May 1998 in Indonesia have had, and will continue to have, enormous repercussions in Asia and throughout the world. They constitute a revolution begun. The removal from power of the longest ruling despot in Asia by a mass movement in itself was a revolutionary event.

"In ordinary times,…history is made by specialists in that line of business – kings, ministers, bureaucrats, parliamentarians, journalists," writes Trotsky, who together with Lenin, led the successful bid for power by the working class of Petrograd in October 1917. "But at those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new regime" (Preface to History of the Russian Revolution).

The resignation of President Suharto came just two months after a hand-picked Assembly had accorded him a seventh five-year term as head of one of the most brutal regimes in history. Students in their thousands had occupied the very parliament building where he had been ’re-elected’ and declared their determination not to move until the dictator had gone.

The apparently all-powerful edifice had crumbled. The army had been riven with division. The head of the tame Golkar ruling party, now rapidly disintegrating, had been urging Suharto to step down before the masses took things totally into their own hands. Ex-generals and government ministers had been adding their voices to the millions demanding an end to his rule. Now nothing will ever be the same in Indonesia. The floodgates had been opened.

Today, a month after the famous three-minute resignation speech of Suharto, the vast network of his crony capitalism is still unravelling. The speed and scope with which this has been happening is a measure of the intensity of the revolutionary forces unleashed by the economic devastation.

The wave of strikes and workers’ demonstrations that has followed the downfall of Suharto have already begun to change the class character of the revolutionary process that has been set off by the victory of a movement led primarily by students. A period has been opened up which puts the programme of socialism firmly on the agenda. The long-suffering population of Indonesia is beset by a myriad of social and economic problems that cannot be solved on the basis of capitalism.

The background to this implosion of a once all-powerful regime was the economic catastrophe that had hit the country and the bitter ’remedies’ demanded by the IMF. It was also the main impetus to the mass protests that had been developing since the beginning of the year. The crisis, known locally as ’Krismon’ since its first expression was in the currency meltdown of 1997, now involves the biggest industrial collapse suffered by any of the stricken Asian economies.

While not one of the ’Tigers’ or Newly Industrialised Countries, Indonesia enjoyed at least two decades of relatively healthy growth – around 7% per annum. Now it is the country that has been hardest hit by the generalised crisis in East Asia – a crisis of over-borrowing and over-production. The economic crisis in Indonesia rapidly sparked off a social and political crisis. Under Suharto, the working population of the world’s fourth most populous country was being asked to shoulder the full burden of the collapse. The currency had fallen by 70%, prices had more than doubled and factories were closing their doors to millions of workers. Life became intolerable and the insatiable greed of the ruling clique became insupportable. An explosion of revolt was inevitable.

The Asian crisis is far from over. It now threatens to drag the world economy into an actual slump of ’29-31 proportions. (See CWI statements on the global economic crisis) Japan has gone into recession and currencies and shares continue their downward slide, with little respite. Similarly, the economic, social and political crisis in Indonesia is far from over. Its depth rules out the perspective of a period of stable democracy under capitalism. The situation remains very much as the London Financial Times described it two days after Suharto’s resignation: "An Unfinished Revolution".

Nature of Revolution

Revolution is not the same thing as insurrection. It is not one act, planned and organised by a revolutionary party but a process that unfolds over a period of time. It is marked by key events which can be seen as turning points or ’points of no return’. The downfall of Suharto, was a one such event – world-shaking in its repercussions but part of a process which will still take many new turns and twists. It was the culmination of a largely spontaneous and barely coordinated movement which, nevertheless, demands a painstaking analysis. (This statement should be considered in conjunction with material that has already appeared in Socialism Today – the journal of the British section of the CWI.

Two of Lenin’s four famous conditions for the successful overthrow of capitalism and landlordism had developed to breaking point. Irreparable splits had opened at the top of society and there was a ferment of revolt on the part of the middle layers. These were a reflection of the enormous pressure that had built up against the old order (ruling in the name of ’New Order’!).

The other two factors – the preparedness of the working class to enter a fight to the finish and a revolutionary leadership known and trusted by a large section of the masses – were only beginning to develop. The majority of industrial workers remained observers and supporters rather than active participants in the movement. The ’subjective factor’ – the most crucial – is the party which understands clearly the line of march of events and can harness the revolutionary energy of the masses for a concerted bid for power. Without it, a revolutionary crisis can end in counter-revolution or at best a period of stalemate – of inconclusive but bitter struggle between progressive forces and those of outright reaction.

Many of the elements of revolution were present in the movement that resulted in the resignation of one of the world’s most powerful and richest men. Although this did not, in itself, constitute a social revolution, the prerequisites for one will undoubtedly mature over the coming months and years.

Splits at the top

A crisis in society is reflected in a crisis of confidence at the very top and divisions of opinion on how to proceed. Things reach the point where a ruling layer cannot continue to rule in the old way. Its frailty becomes exposed often as the result of some natural or man-made calamity – famine, war, political scandal or even a panic run on a country’s banks. Then some of its representatives will start to demand the most brutal measures to stem the tide of revolution. Others will be in favour of reform or concessions in order to stay at the helm and avoid total shipwreck for their system.

The splits at the top of Indonesian society became plain for all to see as the regime lurched between repression and concession. At first it reacted to revolt from below in its habitual manner with the deployment of brute force to repress the movement. Then it switched to appealing to student leaders to come and ’dialogue’ with representatives of the government – ministers, generals, civil servants – gathered together on April 18 in a North Jakarta circus building. The students preferred not to attend!

There had been more than two months of almost daily demonstrations on the campuses demanding an end to price rises and to the corrupt regime of the Suharto family. Some army commanders (who also control the police) began declaring that students had the right to demonstrate even outside the campuses, they represented the true conscience of the nation and so on. Others continued to order their troops to come down hard – to use tear-gas, rubber bullets and water cannon on occasion with fatal results.

The fraternisation by student demonstrators, putting roses in the barrels of the soldiers’ guns, was obviously a deliberate imitation of the actions of the masses in Portugal in 1974 after the mass defection by the army from the similarly crumbling dictatorship of Caetano. As time went on, it was only the most battle-hardened divisions like the hated Kostrad division, headed by Suharto’s son-in-law, Prabowo Subianto, who were prepared to fire on peaceful demonstrators. General Wiranto, commander of the armed forces – ABRI – was only too aware that sooner or later the ranks would refuse to obey orders to defend the Suharto regime from the masses.

This was not 1965-66, when over a million sympathisers of communism were slaughtered by the army under Suharto’s command. Nor was it 1989 in Beijing, China, when innocent students pleading for democracy were mown down by the tanks of a then-powerful Stalinist dictatorship. "We didn’t want a Tiananmen Square in Jakarta", said tank platoon leader, Lieutenant Misyanto, assigned to guard the National Monument near the presidential palace that day. "I warned all my soldiers, ’Don’t shoot our people.’ And they knew we wouldn’t". (Newsweek June 1).

Lenin points to the need for the forces of the state to at least be neutralised, and, at best, won over to the side of the revolution through appeals to the ordinary soldiers who are themselves drawn from the ranks of the working class and the poor. Although in May of this year in Indonesia, as yet, there was no threat to change the nature of existing class property relations, nevertheless a revolution was underway in that ordinary people demanding change were about to depose a dictator. Before the end of April, ex-generals were already coming out openly for Suharto to step down. General Wiranto himself, one of Suharto’s closest defenders in the past, was now working out how to effect the final ’coup de grace’ that would allow state power to be transferred into more reliable hands from the point of view of the capitalist class

Middle Layers

The second condition for revolution that Lenin outlined was a ferment in the intermediate layers of society, becoming disaffected with the rulers but unsure who can offer a way out of the crisis. The students themselves are from this layer. They certainly lacked nothing when it came to revolutionary ardour. They invaded radio and TV stations, burned effigies and stamped on portraits of the dictator. They were fearless and prepared for a fight to the finish. Even now, a month after Suahrto has gone, students are still seen demonstrating outside the parliament building. Only today it is Habibie’s resignation they are demanding along with immediate elections and ’total reform’.

In mid-April, in Indonesia, broader and broader layers of the population were expressing their support for the demands of the students and participating in the protests. Professors, teachers and other academics were taking the platform at university demonstrations to declare their allegiance to the students’ cause. Earlier in the year, famous artists, actors and writers had held their own protests outside the parliament building, demanding fair elections and no re-election of Suharto. They had been attacked by the police and a number of them arrested. The coming over to outright opposition on the part of such ’professional’ layers can be an important indicator of a ’revolutionary’ change in attitude, especially since dictatorships tend to insist on 101% loyalty from this layer.

This is by no means the first time in history that a movement of revolt led by students and intellectuals has shown the capacity to bring down governments. In 1960 in South Korea, for example, an almost exclusively student uprising brought down the US-backed regime of Sygman Rhee. However, not going further and involving the working class in a struggle against private ownership of industry and land, the way was left open for another bloody dictator, Park, to take his place.

Working class

The movement in Indonesia this year also, in large part, lacked the third objective factor necessary for a successful social revolution. It is the entry of the working class into all-out action as a class. No longer prepared to live in the old way, they decide to engage the ruling class in a fight to the finish. In France in May 1968 a movement amongst students, viciously repressed by the CRS riot police, unleashed a 10 million strong general strike which came near to ending the rule of capital in Europe. In this respect, the May events in Indonesia 30 years later lacked that decisive element that can give a socialist character to a movement in a way no other class can.

There are a number of reasons for this. Not least was the fact that the majority of even the most active and ’conscious’ students did not expect the working class to join in and did not make a call for a political general strike. They have traditionally felt it is their responsibility in society to fight on behalf of the oppressed and poverty-stricken for justice and a better deal. They featured in their struggle the issues that most affected workers like the drastic increase in the cost of the nine basic necessities of life. They invited workers to the campus demonstrations, which they attended in ever larger numbers. Nurses and doctors who came to express their solidarity and listen to the rousing songs and speeches were joined by bus and taxi drivers and workers from the textile and shoe factories.

In discussions with international visitors, Indonesian workers would make it clear they knew exactly who their enemy was; their boss was often a relative or at least a crony of the old dictator. They thought opening their companies’ books to inspection was a nice idea but the bosses would never agree to it. They also liked the idea of social ownership and democratic control by workers’ representatives – the socialist alternative to making the workers pay for the bosses’ crisis. They saw their struggle for more pay than the 5,750 rupiah minimum wage as a struggle against the whole gang.

Workers wholeheartedly supported the students and their fight to end ’KKN’ – Korupsi, Kolusi and Nepotisma. "The cabinet is not a family business", declared a banner at the students’ makeshift camp at the University of Indonesia. Here, on May 1st , 30 factory delegations from the nearby industrial area of Tangerang attended a four-hour forum on the campus. The next day they participated in a joint student and worker rally. Many of them were already preparing strike action.

Workers are decisive to the victory of socialism because of the way their consciousness is formed – in the process of collective work and collective protest. They see an injury to one as an injury to all. History shows them as the most progressive class in society. Their collective experience and consciousness give them the capacity to build a new society – to draw up plans in accordance with the needs of ordinary people and organise production cooperatively.

The Indonesian working class has shown its combativity and preparedness to struggle on many occasions over the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. In March of this year there were already some big strike struggles in progress – of building workers, bank-workers, transport workers and civil servants. But this May, while longing to escape from their invidious position, teetering on the edge of destitution, they undoubtedly feared the consequences of entering into a political general strike.

Weighing on their minds and holding them back must have been the fear that this would lead inevitably to sackings but no new jobs would be available for them. Secondly they must have dreaded that coming into a head-on conflict with Suharto’s military regime would mean a repetition of the bloodbath of 1965-66 that had brought him to power. A workers’ party with a revolutionary leadership would see it as its main task to counter these fears and conduct a massive campaign to give workers the necessary confidence to fight. It would point to all the factors which indicate how weak the enemy really is and all the factors which serve to unite the movement against it and give it strength.

Now that the predominantly student movement has broken the log-jam, it has given workers a huge access of confidence. One demonstration in Yogyakarta towards the end of May was over a million-strong. Tens of thousands of workers have moved onto the scene. In the industrial city if Surabaya, in the first week of June strikes and workers’ marches were a daily occurrence. Elsewhere, strikes broke out in a number of important companies including Geruda, the crisis-ridden national airline. Workers took to the streets demanding wage rises and an end to redundancies. This wave of labour protests and strikes, seen as just a prelude to even greater unrest by Jakarta currency traders, prompted one of them to comment to a journalist: "This is more serious than the student protests!".

Urban Poor

In the early stages, workers clinging to jobs may hesitate, pondering all the issues and weighing up the risks of getting involved. But the most down-trodden sections can erupt into action before them. A sudden price rise that makes the difference between surviving and going under can be what propels them into action. They will lash out, wreaking revenge on a system to which they feel no allegience, which gives them nothing.

The small traders, small farmers and the vast layers of urban poor can constitute some of the most fearless fighters. They have often built quite powerful organisations and identified their struggle with that of the students and workers. They suffer daily harassment by the forces of the state as they are often forced to cross the borders of legality in order to scrape a living or build some kind of ramshackle home.

It would be wrong to idealise the urban poor as a homogenous revolutionary force, without recognising its backward, lumpen and openly racist layers. Some of the hunger riots started with raids on food shops but developed into violent attacks on all shops and shop-keepers – who are predominantly ethnic Chinese. On many occasions – some say actually goaded by the police – the anger of the most desperate was directed against all Chinese. The student activists involved in organising amongst the urban poor, strongly condemned any manifestations of racism and tried hard to counter it in their leaflets and propaganda.

It was clear, however, that many of the buildings torched in the explosion of anger on 13/14 May were picked out as special targets. 120 branches of the Bank Central Asia, in which two Suharto children had substantial shares, were burned to the ground. Looters trashed and looted warehouses belonging to Suharto’s youngest son, Tommy, and gutted a mansion belonging to one of the president’s closest business associates, Liem Sioe Liong, leaving behind an angry message scrawled on a wall : ’THE SMALL PEOPLE HAVE SUFFERED’!

Supermarkets became targets for people who had no hope of buying the basic necessities of life to feed their families. One newspaper reported a woman taking a basket of groceries from a shopper, saying "You can afford to get another one of these, I cannot even buy one!"

The ranks of the urban poor have been swelled by ’refugees’ from the countryside where agro-businesses have been forcing the poor farmers off the land. They will include millions of industrial workers thrown out of work by the economic collapse in a country with not even a rudimentary social benefit ’safety net’. These workers will have brought with them the habits of thought engendered by capitalist production.

In any revolution, uprisings by the urban or rural poor can act as a spark for a more general movement of the working class. It can embolden the working class and inflame their fighting spirit. The working class – and in particular, its vanguard – if it adopts a clear class programme, can in turn inspire the ’small people’ with the prospect of getting out of their misery. Taking land into public ownership would be the only way to free them from the exigencies of the land-owner and ensure low rents. Nationalising banks as well as industry would lay the basis for providing cheap credit and basic supplies so that they could begin to live like human beings. If not, of course, layers of the urban poor can become prey for reactionary demagogues who can whip them up and use them as foot soldiers against the organised working class and the socialist movement.


Elaborating a programme that accords with the needs of the situation is precisely the role of a revolutionary party. The fourth essential ingredient for a successful revolution against the dominating class is a leadership, like that of the Bolsheviks under Lenin in 1917, which is already known and trusted by a significant layer of the working class and understands in advance the course that revolution can take and what is at stake at every turn of events. It must be able to fashion, in a dialogue with the masses, the correct slogans of the hour that will lead to the overthrow of the oppressor class as a whole. A revolutionary party must play the role of mid-wife to the birth of a new society.

In Indonesia this May, as in the course of so many revolutionary upheavals in history, the subjective factor was not sufficiently developed to be able to see that task through. There was no shortage of personal courage displayed on the part of the numberless student fighters. They showed themselves totally dedicated to the struggle, adopting the slogan "Democracy or death!" They tried to link up on a national level but were severely hampered by their own inexperience and by heavy state repression. They bravely faced the massed ranks of heavily armed troops whenever they tried to take their demonstrations beyond the bounds of the campus. They made direct appeals to them with leaflets: "Remove your uniforms; join with the people!"

But their movement, like every serious opposition to Suharto, had suffered a debilitating level of surveillance and persecution over a long period of time. Many of the leaders of SMID (the most radical of the Suharto-era student organisations) and of the youthful PRD (the left-wing People’s Democratic Party) had either been arrested or ’disappeared’ (kidnapped). Inside these organisations there were undoubtedly many who aspired to revolution and to socialism. Along with the union federation in which many ex-students had become worker-organisers – the PPBI – and the organisation of small farmers – the STN, the SMID and the PRD had been banned and the members driven underground.

The leader of a moderate union federation – the SBSI – Mukhtar Pakpahan had also been jailed. Only three stooge government-approved parties were allowed to function and a ’yellow’ union – the SPSI. In a country that is nearly 90% Muslim, certain cultural and religious organisations were actually fostered by the regime. It would use one or other of them, in a cynical and sometimes ruthless manner, to counter opposition movements that might raise their heads – be they ’communist’, ’socialist’ or even from within the Muslim ’fraternity’.


The radical liberal bourgeois elements of the Indonesian Democratic Party around Megawati Sukarnopoutri had also been hounded by the military and accused of subversion. Megawati herself had been ousted from the leadership of the PDI by a military operation in July of 1996. In the battles which followed, over 100 people, including members of the PRD were killed and many seriously injured. Megawati, was seen by a large layer of the population, and many on the left as the only figure who might be able to head a post-Suharto government. Her popularity stemmed from being the daughter of the first president of Indonesia, Sukarno – ousted by Suharto after the murder of (coincidentally) six generals in 1965. (See account in ’History of PKI’ by Australian CWI member, Paul True.)

Today Megawati’s support may well be ebbing. Although she spoke out vigorously for democratic elections at the time of the rigged ’Popular Assembly’ in March, at the height of this year’s protest movement, she remained remarkably silent. Only after the murder of the six students at the prestigious Trisakti University on May 12 did she feel compelled to appear in public to condemn the regime. She continues to say very little and "seems to want to wait for power to fall into her lap" (Economist June13).

A fellow opposition figure, obviously anxious to fill Suharto’s shoes, is Amien Rais. He heads a 28 million-strong Muslim organisation – Muhammadiya – which, under Suharto was not allowed to develop into any significant political force. Rais personally seems to have survived without serious persecution, probably because his opposition to the regime was, at best, luke-warm. He had many times let the dictator off the hook by lending him his support at the last minute. (Now he is calling for the people to give his chosen successor a chance!). Even during the process of choosing a president in March of this year, he withdrew his own candidature in favour of Suharto.

Once it became obvious to the world’s bourgeois that Suharto was no longer capable of protecting their investments and loan repayments, they looked to Rais as a safe alternative. When a final show-down was planned for May 20, with mass demonstrations around the country and a march on parliament in Jakarta, he called for a million of his members to come onto the streets. Then, on the morning of the day itself, he called his supporters not to participate. His excuse? A supposed ’tip-off’ from an inside source that the military deployed on the streets of the capital city would not stop at a bloody reckoning. And this at a time when the army was almost totally unusable against a mass movement. The shootings at Trisakti had been followed by an explosion of anger in which hundreds of people had died. The ranks as well as the tops of the army were now sick of defending the regime.

People’s Democratic Party (PRD)

Big demonstrations still went ahead in major cities like Surabaya and Yogyakarta as the masses came onto the streets. The students around the PRD and its tireless full-time workers correctly urged workers to down tools and join the struggle to bring down the dictatorship. Mobilisation for a general strike is an essential part of preparing for a revolutionary overthrow. On one day they distributed 100,000 leaflets.

Moderate students in the leadership of the movement opposed such a move, blocking the distribution of material making such calls for joint action with workers. They checked the credentials of all those going to the parliament building and allowed only students to join the occupation. They greeted Amien Rais and other ’democratic’ leaders with enthusiasm but the more far-sighted activists around the PRD were arguing for a thorough-going form of democracy – elected committees at every level of society to link up in a struggle for "total democracy".

Throughout the movement, the forces of the PRD had earned enormous respect for their energy and self-sacrifice. The youthful activists of the PRD indeed regard themselves as the most ’consistent democrats’ in the mould of the illegal revolutionary Social Democrats of Russia before the 1917 revolution. Like them, they have close links with workers in important factories and a fine record of helping to organise strikes and demonstrations for better wages and conditions. Dita Sari and other trade union activists are in jail for such activity and deserve all the support they can get in their struggle for liberty and for a just society.

A revolutionary party must inscribe on its banner all the basic democratic rights. It must take up all the demands of the movement for freedom of speech and assembly, freedom to organise and to stand in elections, a free press and democratic and fair elections. These rights are a key aspect of the struggle. Conquering them would represent a huge advance for the workers’ and students’ movement. Democratic rights are not an end in themselves but facilitate the organising of an effective fight against capitalism. In today’s economic and social climate, it is going to be an uphill battle to gain even partial democratic rights in Indonesia but advantage must be taken of every opening for building fighting organisations of labour.

A collapsing Indonesian capitalism will not allow workers to reap significant tangible results from a so-called democratic system. Unemployment is reaching the figure of 15 million. 31 million already work less than 35 hours and 7 million less than 14 hours. Production is forecast to drop by 20% this year and inflation reach 85% on average.

The IMF ’bail-out’ is not aimed at improving the lot of the mass of the population but protecting the incomes of the international lenders and investors. (The latest version agreed with Habibie even ’builds in’ a massive budget deficit and double digit ’negative growth’.) Likewise, Japan’s additional billions are aimed at ensuring her vast exports to Indonesia can still be financed. New arrangements for the repayment of Indonesia’s massive $80 billion foreign debt are "not enough to stop the economy’s collapse" comments the Financial Times of 5 June. "The outline of this deal had been around since January. Meanwhile the economy has deteriorated to the point where debt rescheduling may no longer be a sufficient cure".

In this situation, the bosses will demand sacrifice, sacrifice and yet more sacrifice from the rest of the population. The movement can force concessions from a regime still reeling from the force of the revolutionary upheavals but the achievement of thoroughgoing democracy or ’total reform’ cannot be assured as long as capitalism survives. Basic democratic rights will be only partially granted and a constant battle will be taking place to remove them. Real democracy can only exist where exploitation of the majority by the minority has been ended. Even in ’advanced democracies’ in Europe or the USA, ordinary people are not allowed to participate in decision-making on a day to day basis. They can vote once every few years for someone who will do the deciding but will have no control over that representative.

Real participation and control would mean the regular direct election of representatives to committees like those envisaged by the PRD – in the workplace, the college, the office, the village, the depot and even the barracks. To be truly democratic, the delegates would need to be removable at any time that the people who chose them decided. They should not receive any extra pay or privilege for doing this job and would therefore not have a material reason for resisting being removed! There would need to be elections from these committees to local and regional and national bodies where broader decisions would be taken about how to run society and the economy would be made. This is basically what the soviets were and how a government of workers and peasants or a socialist government would be elected.

The democracy fighters around the PRD correctly argued for the formation of councils to conduct the struggle and an Independent People’s Council to replace the phoney People’s Assembly (the MPR). Such bodies, provided they were free of representatives of the exploiting classes, could become the vehicles for taking control in society and for constructing a new, classless society. That must be the goal of the movement. Such structures are not compatible with bourgeois rule. To be totally consistent, honest ’pro-people’ revolutionaries cannot separate a struggle for democracy from a struggle for socialism. Capitalism, in whatever form, is a dirty, exploitative business and can only be protected by excluding the masses from real decision-making.

Democratic Capitalism

The students’ demand for an end to corruption, collusion and nepotism was honourable and truly reflected the aspirations of the whole movement. Corruption in Indonesia was second only to that of Nigeria. Collusion between big business and the Indonesian military dictatorship was an international as well as national phenomenon. Nepotism was blatant in the inclusion of a number of Suharto’s family in high office and in their ownership of one fifth of the country’s wealth. By some estimates, his immediate family was worth more than the $43 billion promised for Indonesia by the IMF – $46 billion according to an estimate by a US researcher!

As the full extent of this web of wealth and power is revealed, the anger of the impoverished mass of the population is further inflamed. Now they demand the resignation of Suharto’s close friend and successor – Habibie. His regime is a regime of crisis. As a worker on one of the numerous angry demonstrations taking place throughout the country exclaimed to an International Herald Tribune reporter – "Money, money, money. No work, no Habibie!" (9 June). The new president could still go down in the history books as ’Habibie the Brief’!

Habibie’s family members have been rapidly divesting themselves of their directorships and the wife and sister of army Commander Wiranto have resigned as representatives in the so-called parliament. Wiranto is having difficulty holding to his promise to protect Suharto and his six billionaire children from the revenge of the masses. In this task he has found an ally in unlikely quarters. Megawati Sukarnopoutri is appealing for them to be left alone! She and her family – particularly her father – have suffered enormous persecution at the hands of Suharto and his military but she does not want to see the movement get out of hand. She is showing her true colours as a staunch defender of the existing system, even though in the guise of reformed market capitalism.

As they chant rhythmically for ’re-for-ma-si’ and an end to crony capitalism, many of the students imagine there is a clean, democratic form of capitalism under which everyone can share in the prosperity of society.

This is an illusion. It has not been the case in any of the advanced capitalist countries during boom periods. It is hardly likely to apply in a country which is considered by most bourgeois observers to have "gone down the pan", as one of Jakarta’s corporate lawyers put it (London Observer 6 June). In 1994 Suharto was awarded an international prize for eliminating hunger and his survival as the longest-ruling head of state in Asia is partly explained by relative improvements of this kind.

Today, reports indicate that at least 58 million of the 200 million population are not assured of the minimum subsistence of two meals a day and in some parts of the country there is actual famine.

Any capitalists who take over from the ’cronies’, will still be trying to make a profit out of the sweated labour of the working class. In the context of economic collapse and an aroused working class, they will be trying to get the working class to accept worse conditions.

Foreign investors will only be ’persuaded’ to ’risk’ there capital if the price is low enough and if labour costs are held down. Private owners of industry and the banks will resist every demand for a bigger share in a shrinking cake – demands for sackings to be halted, wages to be raised, decent holidays to be established etc. They will not want strong organisations of the workers to be built and will support the continuation of heavy repression against them.

The experience of mass movements that have brought down dictators – the ’Edsa’ revolution in the Philippines in 1986, for example, or the democracy movement in South Korea in 1987 – has demonstrated that if capitalism survives their downfall, democracy is by no means assured.

The state is an ’executive committee’ for protecting the interests of the ruling or owning class in society. A capitalist class will allow only those measures of democracy that it has to tolerate in order to avoid being overthrown. It will never allow the majority in society to make the decisions in a truly democratic manner precisely because it is in the minority. The majority would decide to distribute wealth and property in a much more equitable fashion!

The struggle for genuine democracy is inevitably tied up with the struggle for an end to capitalist rule – for socialism. A struggle for ’total reform’ or for ’complete democracy’ without making this clear will foster dangerous illusions in capitalism. It must be seen by the activists themselves as a struggle for socialism. Nothing short of that will fulfil the aspirations of the workers and youth who are making a revolution today. These are important issues to be discussed out in the ranks of the PRD and the wider movement.


Some of the leaders of the PRD, including Budiman Sudjatmiko from inside prison, have argued that there are two stages to the revolution. The first aim is to ensure the coming to power of some coalition, involving figures like Megawati and Rais, as the forces of the proletariat are too weak and lack the necessary political consciousness to put their stamp on history. If these democratic leaders then betray the aspirations of the movement for democracy, he argues, the PRD would go into opposition. The party’s manifesto actually argues for becoming "the opposition of the future".

There is a big difference between discerning stages or phases in a revolution and arguing that the task of struggling for genuine democracy should be separated from the task of ending capitalist rule. Mistaking perspectives for programme can lead to disaster.

It is one thing to have a realistic perspective that, this time round, the forces of the socialist revolution may not be sufficiently strong to lead to victory. But it is another matter to, in effect, give up in advance and regard socialist demands as being premature. The very crisis in society demands an intransigent struggle for an immediate alternative. People’s Councils or coalition governments that involve advocates of free market capitalism will only draw those who represent the working class and urban and rural poor into a trap. They will end up demobilising their own forces and lending support to a regime that will, by its very nature, betray even their most modest demands and aspirations.

Lenin and Trotsky urged those who aspire to lead the working class not only to ensure its forces are kept separate and distinct from those of alien classes but also to avoid even temporary governmental alliances with them at all costs. The famous April Thesis was a strident denunciation of the idea that the representatives of capital should be allowed to make the running for years to come while the working class "matured". Lenin argued strenuously for an immediate struggle to win support for the idea of a workers’ government and not a coalition with the political representatives of the ’democratic’ bourgeois.

The Mensheviks ruled on behalf of a feeble and dependent Russian capitalist class was tied into the imperialist war. Without breaking with capitalism, it would be impossible to fulfil the demands of the workers and poor peasants who had made the February revolution – bread, peace and land!

The theory of permanent revolution elaborated by Trotsky even before this time had been that, under the leadership of the working class, the bourgeois democratic revolution in a backward country must ’grow over’ in an uninterrupted way into the socialist revolution.

The ’two stages’ theory, rejected by the leaders of the only successful socialist revolution in history, was adopted by the Comintern under Stalin. It was used as a theoretical cover for Stalin’s support for Chiang Kai-shek in the mid-1920s. This ended in such tragedy when the workers could have struggled independently and taken power in 1927.

It was applied again at the time of the Civil War in Spain and delivered the revolutionary proletariat of that country into the hands of the bourgeois democratic republicans. The latter, coming as they did from the same class stable as Franco, ultimately preferred the rule of fascists to that of workers and poor peasants.

Indonesian history holds one of the worst examples of the application of Popular Frontism – a policy which stems from the theory of two stages. It was collaboration with the bourgeois bonapartist government of Sukarno that was so fateful for the powerful Communist Party in the ’60s. It was because of this that it was then, in 1965, unable to mobilise independently against the forces of Suharto who carried out the horrific massacre of over a million of its members and supporters.

It is wrong to imagine that every layer involved in a movement against dictatorship is in favour of a just and fair society. Representatives of the capitalist class can fight for ’democracy’ and a clearing out of ’cronyism’ only in order to give themselves more scope for reaping profits out of the labour of the working class. Fighting for every democratic reform, revolutionaries can enter into only temporary alliances with pro-capitalist politicians and even then keeping their forces entirely independent and intact. The working class and other oppressed layers must be urged to develop their own forces and struggle independently for control over their own lives.

In Indonesia, concretely, this means no truck with the idea of a People’s Front involving avowed supporters of the capitalist order. Along with Megawati, Amien Rais is an open supporter of market capitalism. In an interview published in the Far Eastern Economic Review (May 14) he also explained that there was no alternative to the deal with the IMF, which he calls a "necessary evil".

The struggle in Indonesia today cannot be limited to democratic demands, in order to allow for a period of capitalist development. Capitalism can only continue in Indonesia by demanding yet more sacrifices from the working class, the peasantry and the urban poor. But it can be seen by the sweep of the movement still continuing, that these layers do not want to give up the momentum of their struggle for fear that reaction will once again get the upper hand. It is the duty of revolutionary socialists to draw up a programme that will accord with the needs and aspirations of the oppressed classes and lead to a lasting victory of the revolution already begun.

Fighting Programme – For Democracy and Socialism

Each day, more and more concessions are being made by a regime conscious of its fragility in the face of a population aroused. In themselves, they demonstrate what a revolution is good for and how a regime threatened with revolution will scramble to make reforms but none of the measures Habibie has taken until now goes far enough. His ’transitional’ government will continue to be racked by crisis.

Originally promising a general election for the end of 1999, Habibie has brought the date forward to May of next year, promising changes in electoral law. Invasions and occupations of town halls and other government buildings indicate that the electorate is not satisfied with the removal of Suharto from their lives. They want all the mini Suhartoes in the form of the local governors to follow him!

Such an aroused movement is unlikely to accept a year’s delay before people can freely elect new their representatives. They know reaction is waiting for the movement to cool and will try to use the time to regroup its own forces. They want to clear out the old stooge ’parliament’ and get a new constitution. An electoral commission, a ’triumvirate’ or even a constituent assembly put together by the old ruling layer will not satisfy their demands.

At the time of the March sitting of the hand-picked MPR ’Representative Assembly’ which voted Suharto back in power, demands were made for an alternative form of elections. Long before the mass protests developed this year, the PRD was making its call for People’s Councils. Direct forms of representation involving workers and other oppressed layers, students and ’professionals’ through workplaces, neighbourhoods, colleges would form a real alternative to the old state structures. The idea should be rejected of involving in such bodies even apparently ’progressive’ representatives of the bourgeoisie. They will end up defending the employers’ and land-owners’ ’fundamental’ rights to continue exploiting the labour of others. ’Independent’, ’sovereign’ bodies, to draw up a new constitution and so on, must be independent of the class that has ruled and ruined.

Immediate, democratic and free elections are needed to an assembly which can decide on a constitution that will guarantee the rule of the majority in society – a truly democratic government of workers’ and poor people’s representatives.

In response to one of the most vociferous demands of the movement, for Suharto and his family to be put on trial, Habibie has been advised by a former economics minister to set up a "Philippines-style government body to conduct a probe and deal with complaints "the sooner the better…Then we can say: Stop, people, we have a committee to deal with it"! But any such body will not see things in the same light as those who have been persecuted by the dictatorship. There are 1.4 million people whose identity cards brand them as ex-political prisoners.

There are tens of millions who have been exploited directly by Suharto and his cronies – in their factories, in their timber yards ot on their land. Rhere are scores of millions more who have suffered horrific deprivation as a result of the intolerable raxes and price rises that their greed for profit has dictated. "Almost all Indonesians now resent Suharto in one respect: they feel robbed". (Economist June 6)

Nothing is selling faster in Indonesia than photocopies of the latest revelations about the top family’s involvement in over 1, 200 companies. They were making vast fortunes out of everything from hotels to telecomms, cars, toll roads and cloves. A Suharto grandson was even trying to get a distribution monopoly for school shoes! Those who have lived in outright poverty to feed this ’King of Thieves’ and his brood will want them given the harshest of punishment. The other thieves around him will try to let him off the hook.

Suharto, his family and other cronies should stand trial before a people’s court made up of elected representatives of workers, students and other consistent opponents of the regime.

As demanded by the movement, all their assets, and those of the multinationals they did deals with, should be taken over by the state. Elected committees from the employees of their enterprises, banks and estates should have control over running them for the general benefit of society.

Friends, relatives and comrades of imprisoned opponents of the regime staged mass pickets outside the notorious Cipinang and other jails. One by one, their doors have begun to open.

First to be released were the moderate, pro-capitalist opponents of dictatorship – Mukhtar Pakpahan, leader of the SBSI trade union federation and another prominent ’dissident’, Sri Bintang Pamungkas, chairperson of the Indonesian United Democratic Party (PUDI).

Then came 16 East Timorese resistance fighters followed by three PRD/SMID leaders. All of this is welcome news but many hundreds more are left incarcerated for fighting against the Suharto regime.

All political prisoners must be released and all charges dropped. The truth must be told about the disappearances of activists. A tribunal of students, workers and other oppressed layers must be allowed to decide on the punishment of those responsible for their abduction and/or murder.

After decades of almost comical media censorship, and not so comical persecution of outspoken journalists, announcements have been made that all restrictions are lifted. However, any newspaper, radio or TV station must acquire a license from the authorities whose decisions are unchallengeable.As everywhere, ’freedom’ to publish depends entirely on having resources with which to put ideas and opinions into circulation.

The mass media must be free from all state interference. Writers, artists and ordinary people must enjoy the fullest freedom of expression provided they refrain from racism, sexism and the denial of the rights of others. For the nationalisation of all printing and broadcasting facilities and democratically decided access for all political groupings except fascists.

The defeat of a totalitarian regime is always followed by a mushrooming of parties and organisations. In Indonesia in June ’98, new ones are being formed every day – some out of the numerous splinters of the ruling Golkar Party. A ’workers’ party’ has been set up by the old regime’s stooge union federation – the PSPI. But, while laws have been abandoned that restricted political parties to three tame ones approved by the dictator himself, Habibie has announced that any new party must accept the Pancasila state ideology which rules out socialism and communism.

The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, well known for encouraging emerging labour movements to accept the ideology of capitalism, have claimed credit for getting Habibie to ratify the 1948 ILO convention which allows workers to ’freely organise’. But they will want tame organisations to develop that do not challenge the bosses’ system.

The PRD and PRD-related organisations have not been un-banned and many of their leaders remain in jail. This leaves the field clear for pro-capitalist reformists like Mukhtar Pakpahan, already released from prison, to vie for the allegiance of a politically awakened working class. They will argue that there is no alternative to market relations and the role of trade unions is to bargain and negotiate within that system. Of course, unions can make big gains through negotiation when a capitalist economy is going forward but in a collapsing economy, there will be no gain for workers without struggle.

After decades of brutal wage slavery, the Indonesian working class needs fighting trade union and political organisations. They must be free to build them without interference from the state or organisations backed by imperialism

For the unfettered right to form political parties and contest elections. For the right of all workers, poor farmers and urban poor to organise. For the basic right to be in a trade union and to strike. For the democratic right to meet, assemble and demonstrate with no fear of harassment by the forces of the state.

A purge of some of the most notorious figures in the armed forces has been conducted. Suharto’s son-in-law, in charge of the hated Kostrad division, has been put out to grass at a military academy though not without turning up at Habibie’s presidential palace, in full battle gear, automatic pistol in hand and "accompanied by ’truckloads’ of special forces troops, according to sources inside the palace" (Far Eastern Economic Review 4/6/98).

A number of officers and men have been charged in connection with the Trisakti murders but many say they are not the real culprits. Snipers were deployed deliberately to provoke outrage. Army and police commanders are also widely rumoured to be behind racist attacks on the ethnic Chinese and much of the rioting, looting and arson, including that of 13/14 May in Jakarta when over 1,000 people died.

Recent mobilisations of the military show that they continue with their old practices. There have been bloody clashes with workers’ demonstrations in Surabaya and a big operation to prevent a joint demonstration of students and workers from the Jabotabek industrial region of Jakarta.

With the Habibie regime still under siege from the mass movement, the army tops will, at the present time, be wary of moving too far too fast to try and regain direct control over political life, for fear of provoking an even bigger and more radical movement.

But the military remains basically intact and still under the direction of a Suharto appointee, General Wiranto. It will not only continue to be used against opposition movements and oppressed nationalities. At a later stage, if the crisis remains unresolved, it could well step in – under the banner of ’national salvation’ or some such pseudo-patriotic slogan – to establish once more an open military dictatorship.

There will not be a real change in the behaviour of the state forces until they have been totally dismantled. This in turn is impossible without a revolution in class relations. But the removal of the army from its dominant role in politics is an essential demand of the democracy movement.

No more police state methods! For an end to the ’dwi fungsi’ of the army which allows them to dominate the political scene. Abolish the practice of appointing army tops to sit in parliament.

The ranks of the army and police must have the right to organise unions and be encouraged to elect committees to investigate the record of their officers and to remove them from their posts where necessary. They must have the right to elect officers and to refuse to be used against workers, students or national liberation fighters.

The eventual resignation of the old Javanese dictator has given new hope to the oppressed peoples of various nationalities in their struggle against direct rule from Jakarta. This is especially true of those that have suffered virtual genocide at the hands of the Indonesian army the Aceh of Northern Sumatra and the East Timorese. Dili, the capital of East Timor, has seen some of the biggest demonstrations since the Indonesian army invaded in 1975.

At a packed ’meeting’ with the Governor-general in June, shown on television world-wide, banner waving students and resistance fighters, singing and shouting their demands, would not let Jakarta’s representative get a word in edgeways! Habibie’s offer of ’special status’ for East Timor and his idea that the jailed liberation fighter, Xanana Gusmao, would accept UN recognition of integration into Indonesia as the price for his freedom are both non-starters. The radical Indonesian bourgeois, who fear the break-up of this 17,000 – islanded country, are showing themselves opposed to the basic democratic right of nations to self-determination.

Megawati Sukarnopoutri argues for keeping East Timor as the 17th state of Indonesia! Some ’democrats’ are even arguing for reintegration with the old colonial power of Portugal!

The PRD argues for a referendum in East Timor to determine what the people themselves want but under the supervision of the United Nations. A free vote of the East Timorese people to determine their future is the minimum they are entitled to. But there is plenty of evidence that the UN acts only in the interests of the big imperialist powers and cannot be trusted.

After the slaughter of one third of their number by the Indonesian army in the past 23 years, the population of East Timor is unlikely to settle for anything less than total independence.

End military rule in East Timor, West Papua, Aceh etc. Uphold the right of all nationalities to self-determination, up to and including independence. All forms of discrimination in the use of language must be abolished and the cultural and education rights of all ethnic and religious groups fully respected. Against all forms of discrimination – racial, sexual or religious – and against all chauvinist, nationalist and religious bigotry.

The removal of Suharto has also emboldened the working class. Just as in South Korea, after the removal of the dictator Chun Doo-hwan, workers have moved into strike action on a big scale. But South Korean capitalism in the late ’80s was enjoying phenomenal economic growth and workers were demanding their share of the wealth they had created. Today in Indonesia, industry is collapsing.

Marxists must support every struggle against redundancies and closures, for work sharing with no loss in pay and a living wage for all workers, including the unemployed and retired workers. Full retraining where required at the employers’ expense. If the bosses and the government say they cannot afford it, let them open their books o

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June 1998