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Indonesian leftist makes Australian speaking tour

Direct Action - November 2009

James Crafti – As workers filed out from their shift at the Buana factory in western Jakarta, they were greeted by members of the Solidarity Alliance for Workers Struggle (GSPB) who handed them leaflets demanding wage rises and improvements to working conditions. Very few of Indonesia's mostly women industrial workers are unionised. Active unionists like the members of the GSPB make new contacts outside the factory gates, and conduct trade union business in workers' homes because bosses use anti-worker laws to stop union organisers from entering the factories.

This was just one of the images of Indonesia brought to life for Australian audiences in the recent Australian speaking tour of Indonesian political activist Vivi Widyawati. The national coordinator of the Jaringan Nasional Perempuan Mahardika (National Network for Women's Liberation) and a leader of the radical left Committee of the Politics of the Poor-People's Democratic Party (KPRM-PRD), Widyawati visited Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane in September and October.

Asked of her impressions from the tour, Widyawati told Direct Action she was surprised that people in Australia were unaware of the popular struggles across Indonesia for economic and social justice. She told Direct Action that "most people and activists in Australia don't know a lot about people's struggle and the political situation in Indonesia. While I was in Melbourne there were a few solidarity efforts such as solidarity with Palestine, Latin America, Cuba and Venezuela, and perhaps others – but for Indonesia it hasn't happened yet."

Indonesian 'democracy'

She added: "Many people in Australia still think that the quality of Indonesian democracy is already very good. In fact it's not. People were surprised when I reported on cases such as peasants getting shot, workers actions being broken up and that legal cases dealing with human rights abuses have never been concluded; that books are burned if they are considered to be communist or leftist books. These things are still happening.

"I was constantly asked 'how important is Islam in the oppression of women in Indonesia?' But women's oppression is not an issue of the domination of religion. While religion is one of the tools used in women's oppression, this itself is really a manifestation of the strength of patriarchal culture, which is everywhere, not just in Islam – it is also found in Christianity and elsewhere.

"Inside the Indonesian parliament Islamist political groups are strong. While not the majority, they continuously try to use political Islam to pass laws that discriminate against women and gain the support of non Islamist parties. Outside the parliament there are reactionary Islamist groups like the Islamic Defenders Front – the Front Pembela Islam (FPI) – that attempt to resist the women's movement and other people's movements, and they are not opposed by the government.

"Islamic fundamentalist groups in Indonesia such as FPI try to use Islam for the oppression of women – this is true. However, not only Islamist parties but almost all parties in Indonesia are involved in the oppression of women. For example, look at the pornography laws case. While these laws, that included restricting what clothing women can wear and introducing night curfews for women, were proposed by Islamist parties, non-Islamist parties supported these too."

Widyawati told audiences that the National Network for Women's Liberation – the main goal of which is to organise women to take action for their own liberation – is part of a broader people's movement that organises all sectors of Indonesian society from women, workers, urban poor, peasants and students to fight against their oppression in the face of capitalist domination of their country.

Widyawati's speaking tour included four public meetings organised by Direct Action and lectures to Indonesian language students at Sydney, Melbourne, La Trobe and Monash universities organised by Indonesian language teachers. Australia Asia Worker Links organised a number of meetings with unionists including addressing the Geelong Trades Hall Council and meetings with organisers and delegates from the Textile Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia, the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union and the Maritime Union of Australia. Widyawati gave greetings to the abortion rights committee in Brisbane and Students for Palestine Rally in Melbourne. She was interviewed on the Asia Pacific Currents show on Radio 3CR in Melbourne and also for SBS national radio. She gave a report to the national committee meeting of the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP). Direct Action Films is currently editing a short documentary on Indonesia based on Widyawati's visit and that of fellow KPRM-PRD member Zely Ariane in June this year.

Discussions are underway among key organisers and participants in the speaking tour in Melbourne around the idea of establishing an Indonesia solidarity forum – an ongoing grouping that can link with and support popular struggles of Indonesian people. According to RSP member Sam King, who coordinated Widyawati's speaking tour and translated for her in Melbourne, "the first task of an Indonesia Solidarity Forum would be to show working people in Australia what is going on in Indonesia and educate them about the massive social struggles occurring there. Second would be to support some of those struggles.

Australian solidarity

"In my view the Indonesia Solidarity Forum should be democratic in character. That means it should not just support Widyawati's group or any one section of the popular movements, but should support all democratic struggles. Democracy in this context should be defined as it is by the Indonesian movements, where democracy is taken to include the right to access education and healthcare, the right to strike, land for farmers, bringing justice to human rights abusers as well as Indonesia's right to refuse its exploitation by multinational capitalist corporations.

"There are 300 Australian capitalist firms operating in Indonesia but working people here don't know where they operate, what they do, nothing. Meanwhile, the Australian government continues to tighten its ties with the Indonesian government despite that regime's falling legitimacy among the Indonesian poor majority. An Indonesia solidarity grouping could have provided a voice in the Australian media to denounce the disgusting collaboration between Kevin Rudd and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudoyono to lock up Tamil refugees. Why on earth should Australian aid to Indonesia be designated for locking up innocent people to stop them exercising their rights? Surely there are more worthy causes. The refugee issue may be the topic of our first meeting later this year.

Michael Ewing, Head of Melbourne University's Indonesian Language program, told Direct Action that "such a network would create a very timely channel for opening up dialog between activists in Indonesia and Australia and with the concerned public more generally." He added that it could address "how little the Australian public at large knows about grass-roots activism in Indonesia".

Setyo Budi from the Asia Pacific Current radio program on radio 3CR told Direct Action: "The Indonesian forum can be important as a way to bridge understanding and form solidarity with labour and human rights activists in Indonesia. The forum can inform Australians who are often fed information that is looked at from the rulers', rather than the people's, point of view. Vice versa, the Indonesians can also be better informed about issues that relate the two countries. The East Timor referendum for independence in 1999 comes to mind: to date many Indonesians still think that East Timor wanted to be independent because they want to be part of Australia.

"The forum would be a continuation of solidarity that was formed in the past. The Indonesia-Australia solidarity movement has a long history. The Australian unions in the 1940s supported the Indonesian independence struggle, with the maritime workers refusing to unload Dutch cargo."