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New left collaboration in Indonesia

Max Lane - May 2008

May 21 will mark the tenth anniversary of the fall of the dictator Suharto. The end of the dictatorship was brought about by a sustained campaign of mass mobilization peaking during the May 1997 parliamentary elections and then again in May 2008, after four months of intensive student protests. During the second wave of protests, there were threats that a deeper radicalization might begin with the most radical groups calling for the establishment of 'peoples councils' wherever mass protest was strong. Fearing that this radicalization may actually build a momentum, more and more of Suharto's elite support deserted him, until he resigned.

Between May and November, 1998 a race then began between those elements of Indonesia's economic and political elite who wanted an end to the rule of Suharto's clique and the radical wing of the protest movement. The radicals were trying to mobilize support for a revolutionary replacement of the old regime; the elite opposition to the Suharto clique wanted a transition organized without such an upheaval. In the midst of a scale mobilizations of hundreds of thousands in November, 1998, some of whom reached and occupied the surrounds of the national parliament, students forced key leaders of the elite opposition to meet and lobbied them to seize power in the name of the people. They refused deciding that the transition must take place through elections to be organized by the new President, Suharto's former vice-president B.J. Habibie.

When news spread that the key elite based opposition figures had adopted that position, the majority of the student leadership of the mobilizations dispersed. Most of them had conceived of a revolutionary change of government – i.e. one outside the existing legal framework – led by the elite opposition leaders, in some kind of coalition. Except for a small minority, they could not yet conceive of the popular movement and its leadership carrying out this task itself.

The voluntary dispersal of the movement for popular mobilization led to two major trends over the last ten years.

Movement fragmentation

First, it surrendered formal politics in the newly won democratic political space, represented by a limited though still substantial return to parliamentary democracy. The various factions and cliques among the propertied classes had the money and the ownership or access to media to set up political parties. Some still occupied positions in the three political parties permitted during the Suharto era or other permitted social and religious organizations. The Indonesian parliament today is overwhelmingly dominated by parties or religious organizations that were permitted to exist during the dictatorship, or are splits from such parties. Among all these parties, there is general support for the extreme neo-liberal economic strategy that has been pursued since the string of emergency agreements with the International Monetary Fund that begun in 1997 as well as for limiting political reforms in such a way to maintain their current dominance of the parliament.

Second, it surrendered popular mobilization to extreme fragmentation. Widespread popular protest, provoked by rapidly multiplying grievances caused by the implementation of neo-liberal austerity and deregulation, has persisted unabated over the last ten years but has not had any unifying focus or leadership centres. This fragmentation has been paralleled also by a fragmentation at the leadership level as well. Key groups which played a leadership role within the mass movement before 1998 have either disappeared or fragmented. The organization which played the most conscious and systematic role in advocating and stimulating mass protest before 1998, was the Peoples Democratic Party (PRD), which was founded in 1994. It has experienced its own process of fragmentation since 1998. At different stages almost all of its chairpersons have abandoned the PRD to join moderate opposition or even conservative parties. Many other leading PRD activists from the 1990s have shifted to doing progressive NGO work rather than party work. In 2007, the PRD was split, when what was then a minority were de facto expelled, eventually giving rise to two separate organizations. The 'majority', usually referred to now as PRD-PAPERNAS is prioritising an electoral coalition with one of the elite based opportunist parties, the Star Reformation Party (PBR). The others, now formed as the Political Committee of the Poor – PRD (KPRM-PRD), is prioritising mass movement building work (see interview with Zely Ariane.)

Other groups who had also some played leadership role in one way or another, such as PIJAR (a student activist grouping) and Forum Kota (a cross campus student alliance covering fourteen Jakarta universities) and similar groups have either dispersed or fragmented or a bit of both.

Steps towards a united front

Although fragmented, there has been increasing activity aimed at overcoming this fragmentation over the last year. There have been talks on establishing a joint newspaper and more recently the launching of Hands off Venezuela (HOV) in Jakarta on March 28, 2008 in which almost all of the currently active left groups are participating. Among the plans of the HOV groups are working groups which will study the experience of Venezuela and the thinking behind the concept of "Socialism of the 21st Century" and how it can be applied to Indonesia. Hugo Chavez's "Socialism in the 21st Century" may provide the entry point into deepening the ideological life of the Left which has suffered 33 years of total suppression of left ideas.

The most significant development to date has been the May 11 formation of the National Liberation Front (FPN), following an initiative of the Aliansi Buruh Mengugat (ABM - Workers Demands Alliance), to organize a joint action on May 21 against the government's planned rise in fuel prices. May 21 is also the 10th anniversary of the fall of Suharto. ABM is an alliance of left and progressive trade unions that have come together over the last 5 or so years. Some of the unions were formed by left activist groups, but most have sprung up from the workplace or broken away from old structures that had been controlled by the state before the fall of the dictator Suharto. It is a rather diverse mixture of initially enterprise based unions, which have then formed various more-or-less ad hoc federations which since stabilized.

Twenty-two organisations have put their name to the first statement issued by the FPN, which is still at the stage of being a united committee to organize actions, first on May 21 and then on June 1. Apart from the ABM itself, the organizations joining include the three main socialist left political groupings: the Union of the Politics of the Poor (PPRM), comprising members of KPRM-PRD and those working with them; the Working Peoples' Association (PRP), a socialist group started a few years ago and closely connected to the Congress of Indonesian Trade Union Alliances (KASBI); and the Indonesian Students Union (SMI) which co-ordinates with the Jakarta Workers Union Federation (FPBJ). Other key forces include the Indonesian Friends of the Earth group, WAHLI, the rural land reform oriented Agrarian Reform Consortium (KPA) and the anti-neoliberal globalization think tank, the Institute for Global Justice (IGJ).

The May 21 and June 1 street protest actions will be the first joint actions by these groups. A period of consolidation lies ahead, including building the united work in the provincial centres. There can be no doubt however that a anti-fragmentation dynamic has now began among the much more diverse left and progressive movement that has rapidly grown over the last few years out of the discontent that has been sustained since the fall of the dictator in 1998. This dynamic is propelled by the quickening frustration among the poor on the one hand, and the emergence of right-wing religious as well as right-wing nationalist and chauvinist initiatives to capture and lead this discontent. The new dynamic is possible as a result of the steady and quiet work that has been happening in building new, as well as renewing older, progressive political formations so that they each feel confident to begin a new process of engagement.

For more information and analysis on Indonesia visit Max Lane's blog at http://blogs.usyd.edu.au/maxlaneintlasia/