This work is licensed under a Attribution Non-commercial Creative Commons license
By Choo Chon Kai
Indonesia has a rich history of peoples’ resistance. The resistances against Japanese Occupation and Dutch Colonization, are the struggles that brought together ordinary people from diverse cultural background on islands in Nusantara that spread from Hindi Ocean to Pacific Ocean.
The rise of Suharto regime, with the support of US imperialist power, with the price of million deaths for alleged being communists, had put the country under a new kind of colonial rule, in the name of “New Order”, by corporations from the west for over 30 years. The economic and political crisis in 1997, finally ended the Suharto’s dictatorship, with massive uprising of ordinary people in 1998.
The democratic space in Indonesia has opened up since 1998, with the evidence of mushrooming of political parties, labour unions, civil society groups and all sort of mass organisations. Freedom of expression, free press and freedom of association, which is unthinkable during Suharto’s era, now is guaranteed.
Yet, the downfall of Suharto’s “New Order” regime, did not end the suffering of the majority of 230 million people in Indonesia. The multinationals continue to exploit the country’s wealth through international financial institutions like IMF. The government of Indonesia allocate more money to repay foreign debt than to education and healthcare. Disparities among the rich and poor are so obvious, especially in capital city of Jakarta. Nearly 40 million people are unemployed or without a permanent job.
Fragmentation of the social movements
Social movements from below, especially student movement, played a significant role in overthrowing Suharto’s “New Order” regime during Reformasi in 1998. The post-Suharto era, saw a drastic change in democratic freedom, but the majority of the population still face the problem of poverty, violence, exploitation and oppression every day. The free market model did not bring prosperity to its majority population.
Every day on the TV screen in Indonesia now, you will see conflicts and mass action going on in different parts of the country. Retrenchments, price hike, evictions, are among the problems confronting the ordinary population day to day.
And in recent years, the democratic space is facing threat, with introduction of new laws that restricted political participation of the ordinary people, and emergence ideas of theocratic state and violent action against groups which are not in the same line.
Ongoing crises have posed new opportunities and challenges to the social movements in Indonesia. Neo-liberal imperialistic attacks and failure of the government of the day to deal with social crises, have led to the consciousness of ordinary people to fight back. The number of mass actions has not been gone down, and the demands become more diversed. This is the sign showing that elements of the society that impacted from imperialist economy have become wider.
Yet, most of the mass actions taken place are still influence by reformist consciousness which can be settled through buyoff and concession. The danger is these people may subordinated again by the traditional political elite.
Another fundamental huge problem faced by social movements in Indonesia, is fragmentation of these movements. The unclear political orientation of most of these struggles, made them have the characters of spontaneity and not reaching further to political demands, and at the end swallowed by elite politics, whether in terms of demands, methods or compromises.
Social movements in Indonesia still divided in a wider differentiation. Majority in the social movements still have no political orientation, or hesitate in making their political stance or taking a political line, while some other elements in the movements allied themselves with centrist political parties. Such conditions have made the masses driven by elite politics.
The mushrooming of social organisations with variety, is a positive side of the opening up of spaces for political participation of the grassroots, but the negative side is that fragmentation of these movements made them hardly pose any challenge to the current political elite which control the power. Though some of these groups/movements shared the similar demands, but they could hardly unite under some common banners.
Extra-parliamentary struggle and electoral approach
The struggle which overthrown the “New Order” regime, was an extra-parliamentary one, with the combination and mobilization of students, workers and urban poor. The fragmentation of these movements in the years after 1998, and manoeuvre by opportunist politicians, extra-parliamentary struggles could hardly make any breakthrough in recent years, in improving the life of the downtrodden majority.
When addressing to a crowd of urban poor and workers gathered outside the presidential palace on 29 August 2007, labour activist Dita Sari said, “This is not the time for us to merely demand our rights, but for us to take the power.” Taking power by the workers, urban poor, peasants, students and those who are oppressed is the centre question confronting most of the people in the social movements. “Poor peoples’ government” (Pemerintahan rakyat miskin) is a slogan thrown out few years ago by the radical section of these movements.
But, how to take power? It seemed the mass movements have missed the chance to seize power through extra-parliamentary when Suharto was overthrown. Extra-parliamentary struggles, included mass mobilizations, strikes, road-blockade and other forms of civil disobedience, have been facing many obstacles in recent years. Without a strong and united movement, most of the actions ended with concessions among political elites. While there are mass actions taking place every day in every corner of the country, the major decisions are still stamped through in the House of Representatives (DPR). Some politicians even make use of mass action as stepping stone to gain political influence in mainstream party politics and for their self-interests.
In such complex and difficult situation, some sections of social movements are trying to use electoral approach to make new breakthroughs. Yet, this is not an easy way as well for the social movements and the way for ordinary people to seize power.
A new political party, The National Liberation Party of Unity(Papernas), which established in 2006, has been threatened by fundamentalist groups and military-linked right-wing mob, with violent attacks. The founding congress of Papernas in Yogjakarta in January this year, was threatened with violent attacks, and several people from the urban poor communities were injured when attacked by right-wing mob during a mass gathering of Papernas in March this year.
Other obstacles included the unjust election laws that in favoured of well-established big parties like the New Order party, Golkar. The strict requirement of the election laws, which is now subject to amend for stricter requirements, has forbidden new party like Papernas to emerge.
Papernas is an attempt by Democratic People’s Party (PRD), a revolutionary party founded by the radical forces which taken part in the mass struggles since 1990s, to unite mass organisations and civil society groups to provide an electoral alternative in the 2009 presidential election. Papernas has put forward a program of “Tripanji” (three banners – 1. Repudiation of foreign debt, 2. Nationalisation of mining industry, 3. National industrialisation), to pull together anti-imperial forces of the country to ride on the election momentum. The party has nominated Dita Indah Sari, a prominent labour activist, to become its presidential candidate.
Though ordinary people cannot take over the institutions of the state through election, the progressive mass movement is still possible to use such “bourgeoisie arena” to widen its influence and to demonstrate a possible alternative for the poor in the country.
Resistances go on, alternative needed
The mass movement in Indonesia, like peoples’ resistances in elsewhere, for sure is a vibrant and energetic one. Without the broadest possible unity of working people and the poor, it would be impossible to make any meaningful change. This is the challenge that confronts the progressive forces in Indonesia today. The mass movements, movements of workers, urban poor and peasants have to unite under a broad common platform with clear political programme, in order to pose real challenge to the political elite who run the country at the moment.
The mass movement may just dragged along by the ups and downs of every political momentum, if there is no united front among these movements with clear political program – a program for the poor people to take over power. Resistances may just go on, as repressions would never stop as long as the current system exist, but the ordinary people need more than just react to oppression but a new kind of possible alternative for the future.
This work is licensed under a Attribution Non-commercial Creative Commons license