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A leading critic of Indonesia's President Suharto finds himself a victim of intense judicial pressure

Time Magazine - February 10, 1997

Michael Shari, Jakarta – Indonesian labor leader Muchtar Pakpahan looks remarkably calm for a man who could soon face a long prison sentence or even the death penalty. He's on trial in Jakarta for insulting President Suharto – a capital crime – and no one has ever been acquitted on that charge.

The stocky, 43-year-old Sumatran seems lost in concentration as his white-haired, black-robed lawyer exhorts Judge Djazuli P. Sudibyo to let witnesses withdraw their testimony on grounds that prosecutors forced it out of them. Pakpahan doesn't blink when the judge responds by threatening to jail the witnesses for perjury and banish the defendant from the courtroom.

Pakpahan is not the only critic of Suharto to run afoul of a legal system that was designed for Dutch colonial rule but has also helped keep the President in power for 31 years. As the 75-year-old leader strives to prolong his rule, many who oppose him are paying a price. Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of Sukarno, Indonesia's first post-independence leader, is being questioned by police for holding an illegal "political meeting" at her house Jan. 10. Aberson Marle Sihaloho, parliament member from Megawati's Indonesian Democratic Party, went on trial Jan. 29, charged with subversion for defaming Suharto and making "slanderous remarks" about the army. Student leader Budiman Sudjatmiko is on trial for allegedly conspiring to overthrow the government

The pattern of judicial pressure doesn't intimidate Pakpahan, who has long known hard times. Branded a communist as a boy because his father was suspected of participating in an ambush against army officers, Pakpahan had to work his way through the local law school pedaling a tricycle taxi. Since founding the Indonesian Prosperity Trade Union–known by the local acronym SBSI and deemed "illegal" by the government–in 1992 (it peaked two years later with 500,000 members), he has been tailed by secret police, detained in jail and seen his signature forged on leaflets calling for the mass murder of the country's ethnic Chinese minority. One night, an army officer knocked on his door and told his daughter: "If you love your father tell him not to organize labor anymore. You'll feel sad if he dies."

Indonesia had no labor movement to speak of before Pakpahan got involved. The government recognizes only the Federation of All-Indonesia Workers Union and appoints its leaders. Army officers mediate in labor negotiations, and in 1993 a captain was court-martialed in connection with the murder of Marsinah, a woman who had died of wounds sustained from rape with a drainpipe after leading a strike at a watch factory. Yatini Sulistyowati, a labor leader trained by SBSI, considers herself lucky to have lost merely her job at a Jakarta biscuit factory after leading 600 workers on a strike last year. Manpower Minister Abdul Latief has declined to comment on widespread reports of workers' rights abuses in Indonesia, insisting that his ministry is doing its best with limited resources to protect labor rights.

Pakpahan's union has succeeded in bringing international pressure to bear on the government, which has responded by lifting the minimum wage. This year began with a 10% raise to about $2.40 a day in Jakarta–which buys enough food to supply 95% of the calories needed for adequate nutrition, according to Latief. Pakpahan wants more, as he told TIME in 1994: "If we're only talking about calories, then there's no difference between being a human being and a dog or a horse." In late 1994 Pakpahan was sentenced to four years in prison for inciting factory riots in his hometown Medan (though he was seen in Java at the time). After serving nine months he was released after winning a Supreme Court appeal. His jailers were happy to see him go; his cell had become an underground training camp for Pakpahan proteges.

Last July, Pakpahan crossed the line again. He joined forces with Megawati and other opposition figures in open defiance of a ban on political rallies. Security forces stormed Megawati's campaign headquarters July 27, triggering riots for which the government had to place blame. Pakpahan and 10 student leaders were arrested on subversion charges for their alleged role.

Even before his trial began Pakpahan suffered a setback: the Supreme Court overturned their prior decision concerning the Medan sentencing. His remaining time for that conviction will be added to the long term his lawyers say he is certain to receive in the current case. A witness, Berar Fatia, testified that prosecutors interrogated her for 13 hours until she broke down and signed a statement quoting Pakpahan saying: "There's so much cheating by Suharto. Suharto must be put on trial." Defense attorney Adnan Buyung Nasution denies Pakpahan made the statements, contending prosecutors "added" them.

The government's apparent objective is to get Pakpahan out of the way until after presidential elections in March 1998, says Tohap Simanungkalit, acting leader of the SBSI. That would give Suharto time to choose a successor. But keeping Pakpahan behind bars could be costly. sbsi membership has slipped to 230,000, but Pakpahan is a martyr to millions of workers. "Muchtar is the only leader of Indonesia willing to take risks for the struggle of marginal people like laborers," says Sulistyowati, the biscuit-strike leader. "We will remember him for all our lives." If Suharto wins reelection, some expect his first act could well be to have Pakpahan released.

[This article suggests that SBSI was the first independent trade union formed under the New Order regime: "Indonesia had no labor movement to speak of before Pakpahan got involved". Quite aside from the fact that in the years 1979/1982 and 1989/90 there was a massive outbreak of strikes in Indonesia, SBSI was actually the second independent trade union to appear. Although it now seems to be "inactive", SBM or Serikat Buruh Merdeka (Free Trade Union Setiakawan) was formed in 1991. SBSI was formed in 1992 by "dissident" sections of the leadership of the government controlled "yellow" trade union SPSI (now "renamed" FSPSI - the "F" being for "Federation"), Serikat Pekerja Seluruh Indonesia (The All Indonesian Workers Trade Union) after they were denied positions in the union's leadership. Outside of Medan and North Sumatra, SBSI has little or no mass base and although its demands and campaigns have often been quite good, they have on the whole, been limited to "normative" (to borrow the Indonesian term) labour demands. This article is very much in line with current US policy of promoting Mochtar Pakpahan and SBSI as a "critical" but acceptable alternative to the more radical position and program of PPBI (Pusat Perjuangan Buruh Indonesia, Indonesian Center for Labour Struggle) and the PRD - JB]