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Budiman Sudjatmiko: the quiet revolutionary

Far Eastern Economic Review - June 22, 2000

Michael Vatikiotis, Jakarta – In Indonesia, one needn't look far to find a fertile breeding ground for left-wing sympathies: Farmers protesting over the price of rice, workers seizing their factories, students marching daily against corruption. In this atmosphere of instability, the tiny People's Democratic Party, or PRD – with only 2,000 members, apparently little more than a faint blip on the Indonesian political landscape – is thriving by helping to organize protests nationwide.

Talking recently at the party's modest Jakarta headquarters, PRD founder and leader Budiman Soedjatmiko quietly predicts that student protests planned for that afternoon outside the house of former President Suharto will result in a violent clash with the security forces. It's a prediction made with an insider's confidence: The PRD has supported the organizing student body's endorsement of violence, his party aides say. Later that day hundreds of students do indeed battle with security forces, and dozens are injured.

Still, Budiman makes it clear that activists are not the root of civil unrest in Indonesia today. "The reform movement failed to achieve its primary target – to abolish the system and machinery of Suharto's New Order," he says. "That's why the political situation is still unstable."

But where there is mass action, says Budiman, the PRD will take part. "We are actively involved in mobilizing the workers." A party newspaper chronicles party involvement in labour disputes throughout the country. Members are concentrated in Central Java and North Sumatra.

This is not the first time Budiman and the PRD have helped shape Indonesian politics. By siding with Megawati Sukarnoputri's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, or PDI-P, the party's young activists helped bring protesters onto the streets and popularize Megawati's image as a symbol of reform. She went on to win the highest number of votes in the elections a year ago.

While the PDI-P boasts no ideology, the PRD is an avowedly left-wing party with a published manifesto that espouses "democratic socialist" principles. Budiman speaks with deep conviction about the inevitability of labour unrest and a popular backlash to growth – if growth is based primarily on market principles and regulated by the International Monetary Fund. To support his argument he cites political trends in Latin America, where he says liberal democratic governments have faced a popular backlash and "people have reacted and moved towards centre-left, populist parties."

Whether or not his argument is convincing, he makes sure it is heard. In mid-May he met Jakarta's IMF representative to protest at the fund's support for the government's removal of food and transport subsidies. The fact that Budiman was received at all indicates he is taken seriously.

Budiman is confident that his party's role in Indonesian politics will grow. And in a country where most political leaders don't hit their stride until their 40s, the 30-year-old is not in a hurry. If he is right, continued economic hardship will breed popular dissatisfaction with what he calls President Abdurrahman Wahid's neo-liberal capitalist approach to development, and the PRD or another grassroots organization may become a crucible for popular political action.

"In the near future we will succeed in spreading acceptance and understanding of what it means to be Left," Budiman says, referring to what he says is the precondition for the PRD to become a full-fledged mass party. "Not now, not this year; in the next 10 years, maybe."

Images of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro

Budiman cultivates a revolutionary image. For an interview he wears a clean white T-shirt bearing the image of Bolivian revolutionary Che Guevara; he sits beneath a portrait of Fidel Castro. Growing up in his grandfather's house outside the West Java town of Cilacap, he felt "close to the farmers," he says. In fact, his grandfather was a village headman and local government official, while his father was an assistant factory manager for the American tyre company Goodyear.

Nevertheless, Budiman knows repression. He has been in and out of military custody from the time he began organizing student demonstrations in the late 1980s. He relates the fact with pride, referring to the legendary Indonesian communist leader Tan Malaka, who wrote in 1947: "Whoever wants freedom, must be prepared to go to jail."

Budiman established the PRD in 1994 with a founding membership of 170. "It was the first political organization that declared open opposition to Suharto's New Order," he boasts. The party joined with the labour and student organizations that launched the first protests in the campaign to bring Suharto down.

Despite its popular message, the PRD had some trouble gathering broad support – its militant approach worried some middle-class intellectuals who opposed the Suharto regime, but wanted to see a peaceful transfer of power. By 1995, Budiman and his colleagues realized that working outside the established framework of politics was not getting them very far. So they hooked up with Megawati's PDI-P – and that got them into trouble. Budiman and most of the PRD leadership were jailed for helping to organize public protests against the government's rejection of Megawati's party leadership in July 1996.

Once in prison, Budiman worked hard to keep the party together. When anti-Suharto protests began in earnest after May 1998, the PRD was deeply involved in student organizations like Forum Kota, which spearheaded many of the demonstrations. The security forces cracked down on the PRD again. Ten of the party's top cadres disappeared, and were held in underground cells at the Special Forces headquarters outside Jakarta. Six have been returned; three are still missing. Of the 10th, Budiman says: "We found one of them, stabbed to death and tossed in the jungle." Despite the crackdown, the PRD survived. Budiman was offered a government amnesty but refused to accept it, demanding to be declared innocent. From his cell in Jakarta's Cipinang prison he ran a campaign for PRD candidates in last year's parliamentary elections.

The party didn't come in last, but won a paltry 80,000 votes – in polls at which 90 million people voted for 48 parties. For Budiman, taking part in the election was never about winning votes. "It was an opportunity to use the publicity to make people aware of our party," he says.

The young leader was finally cleared of all charges and released in December. The three-year jail term doesn't seem to have made much of a mark on him, nor has it made him afraid of speaking his mind. He calmly predicts continuing political turmoil. "Gus Dur is the best among the worst," he says, using President Wahid's nickname. Budiman foresees a growing political effort to oust Wahid which, if successful, would bring conservative political forces and the army back to power.

"The army can come back because there is no change to their doctrine, no change in their political status," he says. "We will have to force them out of power."