Yudha Kartohadiprodjo, Jakarta – At a quick glance, Budiman Soedjatmiko, 29 years old, could be mistaken for a compliant yuppie waiting for the next business deal or a young university lecturer waiting to teach.
Bespectacled and usually dressed in a light colored, short-sleeved shirt, he displays a calm composure while warmly greeting friends. But compliant he is not.
Budiman, chairman of Democratic People's Party (PRD), refused to make a deal with the government. Mostly he talks on behalf of laborers and farmers.
Quick with answers, Budiman's tone is dominated by his idealistic spirit. Budiman quit Gadjah Mada University's School of Economics after his third semester and decided to dedicate his life to politics at time when the New Order was at its peak.
Back in 1994, he and PRD demanded the introduction of a multiparty system, the elimination of the military's dual function and amendments to the Constitution. The same demands were later echoed by many other reformists.
The ideology he believes in, social democracy, caused him and his friends to be branded communists at a time when an Army general claimed to be able to sniff a communist "from a rhyme sang across the wall".
The price they had to pay then, and are still paying, was being blamed for instigating riots on July 27, 1996 near the Indonesian Democratic Party's (PDI) headquarters in Menteng, Central Jakarta. He was arrested three weeks later. His friends were either kidnapped or went underground.
Currently Budiman being is detained with other six party leaders, serving sentences ranging from four to 13 years – Budiman is serving the longest term. All of them have rejected an offer of clemency by President BJ Habibie, saying that all political prisoners in Indonesia must be released. Now, from the bare visiting hall behind the walls of Cipinang Prison, Budiman controls his party. Sitting on shabby brown benches, Budiman holds political forums with visiting party members during prison visiting hours.
Among visitors on the day this interview was Dita Indah Sari, a party cadre who was recently released from Tangerang Women's Prison.
Despite his militancy, softer sides of him were evident as he spoke about literature and music. His readings range from Bung Karno's Di Bawah Bendera Revolusi (Underneath the Flag of Revolution) to poems by Pablo Neruda.
If given the chance to change the education system, Budiman says he would introduce literature at elementary level so that "through such exposure, I wish to raise our humanistic senses". The following is an excerpt of his interview with The Jakarta Post:
Question: Being detained in prison, are you aware of the problems outside?
Answer: Well, I receive weekly reports from other party leaders and other activist friends, who visit me regularly. We hold discussions and forums here (indicating the prison's visiting hall). Being inside enables me to see issues in a bigger picture. In contrast, while I was outside I had to make decisions on the spot.
You rejected the offer of clemency from Habibie, stating that release is not everything without exoneration. What is the reason behind this?
In seeking justice, I am also demanding freedom for all political prisoners. For me this is also a humanistic struggle. A struggle to uphold human dignity, with freedom as a main component. I am not saying that being free is bad. Everybody needs freedom, yet freedom without justice is nothing
Do you surmise that politically your views are more likely to be heard while you are still imprisoned?
For me, the release of other political prisoner is also important. If we do not voice our demands now, and from outside, the demands will barely be heard. We place ourselves as people who are interested in being released as well as people who fight for others' release.
You have a party called Democratic People's Party. Yet it only gained 70,000 votes, less than some newly established parties. Where are your people?
Parties like Masyumi or PNI (Indonesian National Party) are based on existing political thoughts, while others relied on our culture that relies on polarized thinking. So, they already have a captive market. As a party, we are based on a new social paradigm. We have been consolidating our members since our declaration in 1994. In 1996 many of our bases were destroyed and many of our leaders were arrested. In short, when we were still building our foundation, the party was repressed by the New Order regime. Being able to survive repression, however, shows that we have a longer track record than others and have been tested by history.
And it seems the repression you've experienced has not stopped. How do you view the incident in front of the General Elections Committee's headquarters last week?
I suspect it was a panic reaction from the status quo that is still in power. We have demonstrated without any incidents lately, yet something suddenly happened when we strongly demanded that Golkar be disqualified.
You were among the first people to demand a multiparty system. Yet, the chaos outside the General Elections Committee's office somehow reflected how a misinterpretation of democracy led to protracted vote-counting.
Well the question is: what do these people want from being on the committee or by holding the election. Is it merely to get electoral seats or financial reward?
I think the PRD is beyond all this. We declared ourselves long before such a committee was possible and we have stayed consistent in our struggle. What we stress the need for is honesty and for the process of democracy, not merely to get a quick result. A dictatorial system might be efficient, yet it is undemocratic.
So what is next for your party?
First, we do not endorse those parties asking for "free" seats in the legislature. Although we want the allegations of electoral fraud to be followed up, we feel that asking for a seat without gaining enough votes is undemocratic. We will maintain our struggle as an extra-legislative force and carry on with our agenda. Meanwhile, we will continue to develop our organization through political and rights education and push for our participation in the next election in five years.
One of your criteria for a good leader is consistency. Do you see Megawati as having this trait?
Actually, Megawati is quite consistent. She carries on her struggle, although at times she seems to be quite unresponsive. A good party leader does not have to know every minute problem in society, yet he or she has to be aware that those problems exist.
Before the incident in 1996, why were you trying to disseminate your views through the press, even though you knew the press at the time was not as open as it is now?
The irony is that we learned that the government was coming down hard on us through the media. For three days prior to the incident Angkatan Bersenjata daily condemned our activities in its headlines, and at certain places the newspaper was distributed free. We were trying to anticipate a worst-case scenario, by broadcasting our real intention. Unfortunately, we were not fast enough.
What kind of society are you looking for and how can we attain it?
The change that we want focuses not on the formal sense, but in terms of society. What we want is a total transformation of how society conducts itself. A change in culture, not in institutions. To achieve this we ask for amendments to the Constitution, to the law and suggest increasing the level of education of the people. In short, the transformation should be a cultural movement.
What was an early experience that influenced you the most?
I lived with my grandparents during my adolescence in the small town of Cilacap, Central Java. All the kids I played with came from the lower class, from the son of a barber to the son of a farmer. From the interaction, I felt the social injustice and what life in the lower class is like, which touched my senses. On the other hand, my grandfather had a big influence on me. As an independence fighter and local politician he told me heroic tales and stories about politics. He had a room full of political books and at times I sneaked into this room and read some of them. I was more fortunate than my peers were, to have a grandfather who gave me political education. From him, I learned how to dedicate my life to other people's needs, for my surroundings.
Nevertheless, why through politics?
Because I learned from history, that politics is one of the most effective agents to make a change in a society. Most of our founding fathers were politicians. A non-governmental organization can be a place for struggle, but in the end, a struggle is more effective and optimal only through politics.
Then why did you choose Yogyakarta, not Jakarta to jump-start your political career?
There is a pun among young activists that Yogyakarta is the place for ideas while Bandung and Jakarta are for politicking. By the time I had to enroll in university, a solid network for a student movement in Yogyakarta already existed. I also applied to the University of Indonesia, yet upon visiting the campus I felt that it was somehow quite tame then. It would be a nearly impossible task for me to start a student movement from that campus alone. So I went back to Gadjah Mada and joined my friends there.
You talk about political education, yet you dealt with people with a low educational background. What is your approach?
I saw how powerful the grassroots movement could be. While I was still freshman, a friend took me to see the resistance movement in Kedung Ombo and I saw with my own eyes how strong, and yet simple, these people were. It would be hard if we did it through a cognitive approach; so it has to be done through be psychomotor approach, which eventually will increase people's awareness. Our goal is not merely to build their political vocabulary, but toward building political awareness among them, on the problems they face daily. A farmer should know what his daily problem is, what his rights are, as should a laborer. At the very least, I want them to be able to defend their rights so they will not become political objects again. What we are trying to do is to disseminate information on and popularize politics, to bring politics down to earth.
A struggle that is close to the struggle of the lower class, farmers and laborers, is at times branded as a rise of communism here. Can you explain the origin of social democracy?
Social democracy is an ideology that emerged as a resistance force against the expansion of capitalism in Europe during the Industrial Revolution. It is a significant thought that influenced all labor movements in the world. The revolution brings forward both the dominance of the bourgeoisie class and the exploitation of the working class through the control of capital. Social democracy is meant to defend the working class from this exploitation. The thought expanded throughout the world and it is actually a thought outside of communism but closer to socialism. Three of the strongest European countries: Germany, Great Britain and France, have been under the leadership of socialistic parties from time to time. However, we place ourselves as a social democratic party from the developing world. In a society that is still rather undeveloped, in terms of civilization, PRD sees itself not only as an electoral, political machine but also as a part of a social movement.
So what would be the distinctive characteristics for this thought in a less developed country?
First, it has to be patriotic. For example, to take a stand against multinational corporations. With the emergence of globalization, we are concerned for the fate of the working class. Second, a social democrat in the developing world is faced with a culture that is not fully industrialized. So there is still village conservatism, where the flavor of rural life still dominates. Because of that, we focus on resisting the return of the feudalism that is still reflected through polarization and communalistic life. The consolidation of our political base will focus more on the aspirations of farmers, and not only on laborers as in advance countries. At this time when democracy is threatened by an attempt to maintain the status quo, the two forces can be a strong fortifying force.
As capitalism reaches a more advance stage – as in America – does not the role of the workforce, represented by labor unions, diminish?
We have to remember that this is a social movement. As capitalism advances, problems in terms of labor, such as working hours and lay-offs, always emerge. In my view, Indonesia is still a long way from lessening the gap between owner and worker. We are still far from the phase where workers can become part owners through stock options. Why? Because in Indonesia workers are mostly unskilled, have a low education and are characterized by collectivism but not individualism. With this culture, we are still far from what you would call the aristocracy of labor.
You said that militancy and consistency are closely related. Why is that?
Consistency is how we hold on to our principles without losing flexibility on how to act, while militancy shows that we are really consistent with what we are doing. There are things that we can, and cannot, negotiate. For example, our stance against the military's dual function. The minimum requirement for good democracy is the supremacy of civilians. If we fail to achieve this, we fail to attain other democratic principles. This can not be compromised. On the other hand, with our militancy, we have been able to survive oppression by going underground. Not many political parties in Indonesia have experienced this.
What are you currently reading?
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Earnest Hemingway. Goenawan Muhammad gave it to me during my trial, but I have not been able to read it until now.
I learned that one of your early idols was Che Guavara. What did you learn from him?
Well, he was my idol when I was in high school. I had his poster and books all over my room. What I learned from him was his consistency. He was faithful to his struggle, yet not afraid to use force. Then there was also a human side to him. He was loving and caring toward children.
Maybe also because he died young before he had the chance to wither away. You are not planning to be like, are you?
Nope. Yet, through this struggle I've learned many things that cannot be explained rationally. For example about love. I didn't have a girlfriend before I went to jail, and now that I do have one I've learned it is hard to be apart for so long. It's the same with my longing for my family. I cannot explain these things rationally. (In the meantime, Budiman's girlfriend Catherine patiently waited for him to finish the interview)
How would you best describe yourself, or how would you like to be remembered?
I am a man who thinks through analysis, reflection and evaluation and therefore I have to act. I have to act because truth and justice happen only if we do something about them.