Indonesia: The Old Order Reviving

— Malik Miah

DEMOCRACY SUFFERED A blow in Indonesia on July 23, when President Abdurrahman Wahid was removed from office by an alliance of discredited New Order forces and the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP), which betrayed the interests of the people who voted for it as a party for democratic change.

Wahid's vice-president, Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of the country's founder, Sukarno, was put in power. Sukarnoputri's party, PDIP, had won the largest number of votes in the 1999 parliamentary elections. But she was denied the presidency by the alliance of the armed forces (TNI), Golkar (the former dictator's Suharto's party) and right wing Muslim parties. They didn't trust her mass base that wanted fundamental changes in the corrupt system.

Wahid was the compromise choice by the ruling clique that was on the defensive. His party, the National Awakening Party (PKB), came fourth in the election but Wahid was a well-respected Islamic religious figure and longtime critic of Suharto.

Counterrevolution Begins

Much has changed since that historic vote. Wahid turned out to be too erratic and unable to stabilize the economy and political crisis in the archipelago. His tendency to maneuver within the elite circles and refusal to mobilize his natural supporters to fight the remnants of the New Order set the stage for a constitutional-led political counterrevolution.

In her brief inaugural speech following her appointment as president by the MPR (People's Consultative Assembly) Sukarnoputri said, “Democracy demands gracefulness, sincerity and obedience to the rules of the game. I am calling on all parties to accept this democratic process gracefully.”

In all major social upheavals throughout history a tug of war erupts between the major social and class forces for power. The old ruling classes never give up power without a fight. Their power must be taken away.

Indonesia is no different. The failure by Wahid's government to put Suharto and his family on trial symbolized the weakness of the mass movement and the strength of the reactionary forces. The democratic revolution that began in 1998 with Suharto's downfall is now in retreat.

The students and urban poor who led the mass revolt were not organized and strong enough to counter the power of the army and entrenched apparatus. While continuing to demand more drastic democratic reforms, the people's leaderships were too divided.

The independence forces in the provinces of Aceh and West Papua (Irian Jaya) were better prepared. The central demand calling for a referendum on independence united most nationalists as it did in Indonesia's occupied East Timor before the UN-organized referendum in 1999. Military repression has been unable to stop the growth of these regional struggles.

Unfortunately, the more radical democratic forces in Indonesia have not had the time to forge alliances and build structures in the urban and rural areas to take on the new ruling clique in Jakarta. The race to get better organized clashed with the reality of the ruling elites' decision to consolidate around a more trust worthy leader as president. The ruling class (all its factions) decided to move against Wahid, who vacillated in defending their interests. Even the ultra-conservative Islamic groups that in 1999 said they would never support a woman as president (even threatening jihad) supported Megawati.

International Support for Megawati

President Bush immediately called Megawati to express U.S. support. So did the leaders of Australia and other imperialist powers. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld indicated that Washington was ready to resume close military ties that had been suspended since the 1999 army-organized terror campaign in East Timor.

The stock market rose thirteen percent the next day. The IMF discussed releasing more funds. Megawati's new cabinet is composed of economists and other so-called non-politicians who pledge to live up to the IMF mandates to achieve economic stability. She supports lifting subsidies to farmers and taking other actions to give relief to bankrupt conglomerates.

How Megawati rose to power therefore did not generate many cheers in the streets or countryside. The students, urban poor, workers and farmers do not see the constitutional change in the presidency as their victory. The New Order forces are in new disguise and control the army, police, courts and other state institutions.

Suharto himself lives comfortably in Jakarta while his criminal son Tommy remains free. Tommy is the only member of the Suharto family to be arrested and convicted of corruption. The Supreme Court justice who convicted him was later assassinated. Most observers suspect Tommy's hand in the murder.

Wahid's dismissal was not a surprise. As it became clear he was not the one to protect their privileged interests, the ruling clique took steps to neutralize him “legally.” Because Wahid did play by the “rules of the game,” written by Suharto, he was doomed. He rejected all attempts to use extra-parliamentary means to fight his enemies.

The question by July 23 wasn't if Wahid was going, but how he would leave the presidential palace. He stayed a few days, then left quietly for medical treatment in the United States. Since he wasn't removed from office for corruption or other crimes, Wahid is free to rejoin the opposition.

Reformasi Total Not Dead

The movement for reformasi total, the full program of democratic reforms demanded by students who led the May 1998 revolt, has been set back by the political counterrevolution. The people's movement has not yet been crushed.

The independent media is still alive and very vocal. No political or opposition groups have been banned. Left political books, including by Marx, are available. Unions are still legal. NGOs continue to organize. Chinese Indonesians are free to speak their language and practice their culture.

The people are watching Megawati closely. Is her capitulation to the New Order clique complete? Or can she be pressured to act in the people's interests? Even Gus Dur, as Wahid is popularly known, made clear that he hasn't left the political scene. He is still very influential among liberals and his Islamic followers especially in East Java.

Yet there is no doubt in the capital that the old guard is back in power, and the MPR is no longer a vehicle for positive change. A reactionary cabal leads the MPR, which arrogantly picked a new vice president between two Suharto-era cronies. Vice president Hamzah Haz is a leader of the Muslim Central Axis Alliance and chairperson of the Muslim United Development Party (PPP). He defeated Akbar Tanjung, the head of Golkar.

The TNI (claiming to be a professional body) actively participated in the MPR session that voted against Wahid and approved Sukarnoputri's rise to the presidency.

What Next?

Megawati -- speaking for change, while backing reactionary actions -- carefully enhanced her ties with the armed forces as vice president. She backed the military's strong-arm tactics in Aceh, West Papua and police actions in other islands of the archipelago; opposed the independence of East Timor and defended the high command after the TNI's forced withdrawal; and picked as the leader of the PDIP's youth section the East Timor militia thug Eurico Guteres, a person deserving arrest and prosecution for crimes against humanity in East Timor.

Dutch-era laws against “spreading hatred” against the government and other political laws are being used by the police to arrest opponents of the government.

The struggle for fundamental change is moving to a new stage where the popular forces will be tested as never before. The press remains the freest in Southeast Asia and the small labor movement continues to press its demands, as do radical students.

Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs), student groups, the radical leftist party, PRD, continue to demonstrate and demand that Golkar be disbanded, the military high command arrested, the Suharto family put on trial, and the MPR dissolved and a provisional government created.

The rebels in Aceh and East Papua are pressing their fights for self-determination. The people of East Timor too held their first democratic elections to establish a constituent assembly, which will write a new constitution.

What can be done to regain the initiative and put the ruling group on the defensive? The PRD is seeking to build a broad democratic front against the old powers and new ruling clique.

Because of the PRD's refusal to back down or give up its leftist ideas, the armed forces and state have targeted the group as “communist.” (It is still illegal to advocate “Marxism-Leninism.” Wahid had promised to repeal this anti-Communist order but retreated as he did on most issues.) PRD offices have been firebombed and activists arrested and beaten by gangs and the police.

Establish Resistance Posts

In an interview that appeared in the PRD's daily newsletter, Our Task, Budiman Sudjatmiko, the former political prisoner and outspoken chairperson of the People's Democratic Party, outlined the key tasks for the democratic movement.

“First,” he said in response to the question on immediate tasks, “I must reaffirm that the old forces of the New Order are back in power. It is important that I say this so there is no confusion.

“Second, the democratic forces must escalate their resistance. This is crucial if the New Order forces are to be destroyed. We must explain this to the people too. The people's resistance must be coordinated in organs of resistance, from the neighborhood to the national level.”

“Why not set up anti-New Order poskas [security and organizing posts] in strategic spots like markets, factories, bus terminals? We need these to consolidate any resistance.

“In the future, these poskas can be the basis for alternative institutions to replace the rotting state institutions -- alternative parliaments, government institutions.

“The people's protests must be continued as well. Golkar offices, parliament buildings, army headquarters, government offices all must be targets. These are the places where the forces of the New Order still nest.

“The people have to seize their sovereignty. There has to be an early election. And it has to be carried out by a provisional government; [whatever] we call it. There is no way we can trust either the executive or legislative that exists today, given how it is dominated by forces from the New Order.

“A provisional government must be constituted by all the forces that have consistently fought to destroy the power of the New Order forces.

“And so that any election is genuinely democratic, Golkar has to be put on trial first. Golkar has to be held responsible for all its crimes, institutional and individual.

“The generals too have to be brought before the courts. The army has to be returned to the barracks and the dual [internal political and external defense] function of the TNI/Polri [armed forces and the police] has to be dismantled in all its aspects.” (Translation and excerpts taken from the August 8 Green Left Weekly of Australia)

Process of Clarification

The process of polarization and political clarification taking place inside Indonesia -- learning who is a real reformer and who is a fake -- is a positive result of Megawati Sukarnoputri's alliance with the New Order forces.

It is leading to divisions in her party (already beginning) and new alignments in the broader democratic movement. The perspectives offered by the PRD and other radical democrats are getting a wider hearing, particularly as the political crackdown and military repression increases.

“It has been proven that we cannot lay our hope that the bourgeois ruling elite will accomplish reformasi total, that is destroy the remnants of New Order” said the PRD's Central Leadership Committee July 24th, the day after Megawati took power.

“It means that only the people themselves can smash the remnants of the New Order including their allies, the PDIP and Central Axis.”

from ATC 95 (November/December 2001)

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