APSN Banner

Interview with Indonesian activist Muhammad Ma'ruf

In Defence of Marxism - July 1, 1998

In July we interviewed Muhammad Ma'ruf, chief-editor of Pembebasan-Liberation, paper of the Indonesian PRD.

What is the meaning of the May unrest in Indonesia which led to the downfall of Suharto?

MM: The May uprising was the result of the intensification of the contradictions in Indonesian society which were directed against the power of the dictatorship. It was an anarchistic uprising, in which the people's movement lacked leadership. The bourgeois opposition could not give leadership to the people's unrest. The left-wing groups tried to organise the people but the subjective conditions for doing this were very small, for historical reasons. The anti-Chinese attacks are the result of the depoliticisation of the people for 32 years. The people have no perspective and don't know how to fight the oppression of the dictatorship and of capitalism. The IMF has a responsibility in this anarchy. Its program of cuts in subsidies for food and electricity made the people very angry. It changed the situation from bad to worse. The military also has responsibility for this, because they provoked people to attack Chinese ethnics in order to turn the anti-government uprising into a racialist riot.

Rioting is actually part of the insurrection....The process of revolution is not finished. It has just started to develop. The May riots are just one of the many steps in this process. New riots can happen again at any time.

The PRD intervened in these events, how do you evaluate its role?

MM: We started to intervene 1 year ago. For 2 years we felt the unrest amongst the urban poor and saw the potential for insurrection. Our aim was to lead the people and to develop the unrest into an insurrection. We deployed our cadres from the campuses to the slum areas. But we are still small and could not give the necessary leadership for a mass uprising. But our intervention was very important along the lines of transforming the unrest not just in rioting but into an insurrection to overthrow the dictatorship. Our demands are for the release of all political prisoners, for the nationalisation of crony capitalism, the repeal of the "double function" of the army, the withdrawal of the 5 repressive political laws and for free multi party elections. We refuse parliament and struggle for the organisation of people's councils that will be the base for a transitional government of those who participated in the liberation of the people.

Suharto has been replaced by Habibie. Does he represent any change?

MM: Habibie is not different form Suharto. He is a loyal servant of Suharto. His appointment is a concession made because Suharto is refused by the people. Everywhere people say: "Suharto is a robber, the 3rd richest man in the world but also with the poorest people in the world". We should have no illusions in this new government. Habibie is part of Suharto's scenario to intensify the internal contradictions in the regime to win back his position and that for his family-clique. Not one member of this new government is committed to the interests of the people.

But the Habibie government and its Ministers are taking economic and social measures to alleviate the conditions of the people like the distribution of cheap rice and cooking oil. The IMF is authorising new subsidies to basic food and so on.

MM: Not one of these figures and their measures can bring salvation. Habibie can do nothing. His stupid call to fast two days a week amidst the threat of starvation to save on rice consumption proves he has no perspective to solve that problem. The IMF can't change the economic conditions either. All faces of capitalism can bring no solution. The only government which can solve the economic catastrophe is a government that is 100% supported by the people and that puts into practice an economic programme that is 100% controlled by the people. You know, Indonesia is basically a very rich country. We have big reserves of timber, tin, nickel, rotan, rubber, oil and so on. These resources have to be controlled and managed by the people. We can rescue ourselves without IMF loans. The IMF measures will maybe strengthen the Rupiah to the Dollar, but they will not change the conditions of the workers. The IMF can not bring a democratic government either. The military are still in control in Indonesia. The IMF knows that its neo-liberal program will provoke new people's unrest and that they will need the military to suppress it. The conclusion is that we should not believe or trust any bourgeois leader to change for the better the people's conditions.

We would agree with that, but are there no illusions amongst the students and the workers in this government?

MM: One day after the appointment of Habibie, the students started to campaign against him. Through different Muslim organisations Habibie tries to engineer so-called "mass-action" to support him but the workers unrest in particular is increasing everywhere. These last weeks there have been 4 demonstrations each day in Indonesia. All of them were political and are directed against government leaders at regional and local level. Unrest is everywhere in Indonesian society, but the military are also omnipresent. That leads to violent clashes. The government is attacked from many lines and not the least from East Timor. The masses in East Timor demand self-determination through a referendum. The government just want to give them an autonomy status. The refusal to grant a referendum on that question and to release East Timor political prisoners led to new uprisings in the capital. The same is happening in East Papua. Of course the government gives some political concessions. For instance it repealed 3 of the 5 repressive political laws, it intends to limit the political role of the military but without touching on the "double function" of the army, it promises free multiparty elections but refuses to legalise Marxist parties. Some political prisoners are released but not all of them. They refuse to nationalise crony capitalism, they just intend to "audit" it. Through all these measures the government wants to create illusions. Our role in the actual situation is to try to lead legally where this is possible despite our illegal situation. If we don't do that the movement will be led by the bourgeois democrats. We intervene to organise mass actions around the people's demands. Megawati, the ousted leader of the PDI (Democratic Party of Indonesia), daughter of the former president Sukarno and a typical bourgeois democrat, never gave leadership to the masses. During the May uprising, she said nothing and did nothing. She is stagnant. That is the real attitude of Megawati.

What is the relationship between the struggle for democracy and the struggle for socialism.

MM: We are in favour of an uninterrupted movement, an uninterrupted revolution. The struggle for democracy means a freeway for socialism. A strategic demand for the actual situation is the building of people's councils at every level. The nationalisation of crony capitalism will have to develop to the nationalisation of the whole economy. Of course the objective conditions for socialism are difficult. The workers movement is not well organised and the workers consciousness is still low. But we need to develop anti-capitalist consciousness. In our program we are preparing for socialism. In our propaganda we can make no illusions in bourgeois democracy. We cannot separate socialism from the democratic struggle. We must propagate socialism widely. For instance with the nationalisation of crony capitalism the workers will gain experience on how to nationalise all capitalism. The people's councils will be the instrument to put a socialist program into practice.

How can the international labour movement assist your struggle?

MM: The Indonesian labour movement is part of the international labour movement. We must support each other. The May uprising and the overthrow of Suharto gave inspiration to the labour movement in other countries. The people's resistance in Indonesia means an attack on world capitalism through for instance the multinational companies who settled in our country. The workers' demonstration in your countries also support our struggle, because demonstration you made weaken the capitalism. Workers in capitalist countries' demonstration is big support for workers in our country. Maybe we can get victory, but it will be defeated by international capitalist reaction, if workers in others countries movement is not strong. The labour movement in your country should demand that your government stop supporting Habibie and the military intervention in political affairs and against continued political repression. You should organise pressure for these demands also in front of the embassies.

The Indonesian progressive movement: An update

Links Magazine - January 1995

This article originally appeared in Links - International Journal of Socialist Renewal, Issue #4, January-March 1995

By Max Lane

In May, 1994, some 150 delegates gathered to form the Peoples Democratic Union (Persatuan Rakyat Demokratik) [1]. These activists were drawn from among students and workers who had been active in campaigns based on campuses in Yogyakarta, Semarang, Surabaya, Solo, Bandung, Jakarta, Medan and Menado and in the sprawling industrial estates around Jakarta, Semarang, Solo and Surabaya. The well-organised and national character of this activist formation won support from progressive intellectuals such as writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer and publisher Yusuf Isak, and also forced recognition from the moderate liberal opposition to the Suharto dictatorship.

For example, figures such as Adnan Buyung Nasution, from the Indonesian Legal Aid Institute Foundation (YLBHI), and Moktar Pakpahan, from the Indonesian Workers for Prosperity Union (Serikat Buruh Sejahtera Indonesia, SBSI), also attended the press conference that publicly launched the PRD. The launch also received substantial press coverage, until the dictatorship banned the country's three major weekly news magazines in April.

Since its formation and the flurry of activity at the time of its launch, activity in the PRD has begun by establishing and consolidating branches in several major cities. In some cities, such as Yogyakarta, meetings to form PRD branches have been raided by the military and activists arrested. A debate has emerged within the national leadership over the issue of how fast to move ahead in offering leadership to the opposition movement. Although no documents are yet available, it appears this debate has a moderate-radical axis and is related to differing assessments of the potential for radicalisation among workers and students, and the tactics needed in relating to the elite opposition to the dictatorship.

While this debate continues within the national leadership of the PRD, it appears to be overtaken by developments on the ground. There have been two closely interrelated developments. First, there has been a marked decline in political initiatives by the liberal opposition to the dictatorship, including its allied student organisations. Secondly, the organised worker and student support base of the PRD represented by the Students in Solidarity with Democracy in Indonesia (Solidaritas Mahasiswa Untuk Demokrasi di Indonesia, SMID) and the Centre for Indonesian Working Class Struggle (Persatuan Perjuangan Buruh Indonesia, PPBI) have escalated their activity independent of the PRD. They have spearheaded an increase in campaign activity around a number of issues, including worker rights, wages and conditions, press freedom and East Timorese independence.

The formation of PPBI

The PPBI was launched at a congress in Ambarawa, Central Java, on October 22-23, 1994. Some 100 delegates represented workers from factory committees based in the major towns of Jakarta, Tangerang, Bogor, Yogyakarta, Semarang, Solo, Salatiga, Surabaya and Medan. The congress adopted the general slogan: "Fight against oppression; gaining prosperity for workers".

The PPBI adopted both a general programme and a programme of specific demands. The key elements of the general programme included: the struggle for wage and allowance increases; improved conditions and health standards; the end of the governments cheap labour policy; the return of workers' rights to establish their own organisations; workers' rights to free assembly, free speech and to strike; repeal of all anti-worker regulations and laws; the ending of military intervention in industrial affairs; direct involvement of workers in all policy formulation affecting workers; ending all discrimination against women workers; and ending child labour.

Specific demands include the establishment of a national minimum wage of Rp5000 (US$2.50) per day, the repeal of ministerial regulation 01/84 which allows only the government's yellow union, a new progressive tax system that applies only to incomes above Rp1,000,000 (US$500) per month, and the implementation of minimum redundancy payments. PPBI is also calling for the establishment of a democratic and independent court system that will strictly implement sanctions against capitalists that violate workers' rights.

The process of building deeply rooted factory committees has been ongoing for at least five years. Former students as well as young workers have been forming worker support groups in the first instance, and later, factory committees. These committees have been leading local factory struggles for wage improvements and the right to organise in many factories over the last few years.

PPBI is the third independent trade union-workers' organisation to be established in Indonesia. It already has a core of 300 organisers and an estimated active following of between 10,000 and 15,000 workers, and is rapidly expanding.

Weight of elite opposition

Soon after the PRD was launched, another major political development took place. In June 1994, the Suharto dictatorship banned the country's three major news weeklies, Tempo, Editor and the mass circulation DeTik. Most of the street protests against these bans relied for their core of support on activists from the student base of PRD, namely SMID. Other support was organised by the small group of militant political activists inside the YLBHI who have a wide network of contacts among the younger and more militant layers of the liberal democratic opposition. The attendance at the PRD launch and some later actions by more senior figures such as YLBHI director Adnan Buyung Nasution gave the impression that some kind of alliance was forming between the liberal democratic opposition to the dictatorship and the more radical forces represented by the PRD. However, such an alliance has not developed.

A key feature of the protests against the bannings of the newspapers was the lack of any real campaign by any of the liberal democratic opposition forces. This was despite the fact that, in many ways, these publications mostly reflected their own political views. Of course, all the various elite opposition groups, such as Petition of Fifty, Forum Demokrasi and the more vocal student group, Information Centre and Action Network for Reform (Pusat Informasi dan Jaringan Aksi untuk Reformasi, PIJAR), issued statements condemning the bans. Some PIJAR activists also attended the meetings. However, without the SMID-PRD forces, there would have been no mass campaign.

The absence of mechanisms such as fair elections and the fact that most of the liberal opposition has no strategy of mass activity means that it is difficult to measure the authority of the elite opposition leadership among the working masses and the middle classes. However, it seems likely that their credibility has been significantly eroded as a result of their inability to defend publications which were ideologically their own. One sign of this has been a decline in activity of PIJAR. In 1993, PIJAR and other allied student groups organised a number of street actions. In 1994, they organised fewer actions, mainly protests outside courtrooms during the trials of activists jailed for the 1993 actions and speaking tours on the issue of the repression of former political detainees. It appears that PIJAR activists are also involved in the formation of Peoples Democratic Alliance (Alliansi Demokrasi Rakyat, ALDERA) which involves mainly student and ex- student activists but is a more loosely organised grouping than PIJAR. So far ALDERA has only organised a couple of public meetings and, as yet, has no significant organised working-class participation.

While both PIJAR and ALDERA's initiatves have been relatively sporadic during 1994, as a result of their reliance on an alliance with the elite opposition groups, in the future they could emerge as another pole of attraction for radical opposition to the Suharto dictatorship.

The timid and ineffective response of the liberal opposition to the press bannings also provided the background to the debates inside the PRD leadership. An element of the thinking behind the formation of the PRD was that it could play a role in forming an anti-dictatorship alliance with the elite opposition forces. In a situation where the elite opposition was not moving forward (on the contrary, it was reeling from shock after the press bannings), it appears a significant section of the central leadership of PRD also opted for caution. Two examples illustrate this:

  • In late June 1994, the PRD postponed a hunger strike against the press bannings, in the Jakarta Legal Aid Institute grounds, apparently thinking that such an action was getting ahead of the other forces. Facing this hesitation, student activists went ahead and took the initiative to organise the hunger strike as a national SMID initiative, with PRD chairperson, Sugeng, invited as one of the speakers.
  • While the PRD founding congress voted for a resolution supporting self- determination and a referendum for East Timor, this was watered down in the subsequently published PRD manifesto to support for human rights and the democratic rights of the East Timorese people.

The pattern of SMID taking the initiative in terms of organising campaigns and political actions has remained since the middle of 1994. The main campaign has been aimed at building a student- worker alliance that can campaign for both democratic rights and improvements in economic conditions. There have been increasingly frequent joint student-worker rallies and demonstrations, both on and off campuses.

Since the end of October, more and more of these actions have been carried out jointly by the SMID and the PPBI. There have been joint actions in Jakarta and Semarang. The latest was a demonstration on January 10, 1995, of approximately a thousand workers and a hundred students in the Tangerang industrial area outside Jakarta in demand of wage increases for local workers. Several workers and students were detained, including some leaders of SMID. SMID-PPBI have also taken up other issues, such as support for self-determination in East Timor. A SMID-PPBI delegation visited Australia in December where they publicly campaigned on East Timor. The new PPBI bulletin, Workers' Banner, has also taken up the East Timor issue.

The SMID-PPBI combination could reinforce the radical forces inside the PRD (mainly based in the provincial branches in formation) and help win PRD back to a more radical perspective, as reflected in the PRD founding congress documents. Another possibility is that this SMID-PPBI combination may overtake the PRD as the main pole of attraction for the rapidly radicalising layers of students and workers, especially in the country's largest cities.


1. Max Lane, Winning Democracy in Indonesia", Links, Number 2, July-September 1994, pp. 19-35.