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Mass politics and political change in Indonesia

December 11, 1998

By Max Lane

[This paper was delivered at the conference: "Democracy in Indonesia – the crisis and beyond", organised by the University of Melbourne and Monash University, 11-12 December, 1998.]

"Grass roots politics" has long been a term used to marginalise and ghettoise in political analysis all political activity aimed at organising and mobilising workers, poor farmers and other poor and exploited sections of the Indonesian population. So-called scholarly treatises have argued that the real political change has must come from within the established political institutions or, at the most, from that most mysterious of all political forces, the "middle class". When mass unrest does start to take political form, even primitive political form, it is still evaluated as a temporary phenomenon whose main role is to facilitate the manoeuvres of other political forces. For example, at the moment most observers of the Indonesian political scene see the current student led mass movement as not having the potential to be more than a pressure force on those establishment political forces struggling against their exclusion from the power and wealth sharing arrangements of the Suharto period. Outside allegedly scholarly writings, there has also been an acceptance of "grass roots" activity as being the preserve of community based Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) among such NGOs and among many political actors.

May, 1998: Preempting grassroots insurrection

In the eyes of the New Order political establishment, however, grassroots political mobilisation and grassroots political unrest has posed the greatest threat to the political status quo. This is true for those sections of the New Order political establishment within the government, as well as those New Order establishment sectors who have been excluded from government since the 1970s, such as the Masyumi forces, the Nahdatul Ulama (NU) and the right-wing of the PNI (Indonesian Nationalist Party). In fact, it was fear of grassroots political unrest and political power that led to the panic within the establishment in May 1998 and finally led to the resignation of Suharto. There were plenty of grounds for the fear felt by the political establishment. In any case, it is a fear that has been long felt, since 1965. The mass killings, purges and terror of 1965-6 were also aimed at intimidating the grassroots sectors, the poor and exploited. The policy of depoliticisation and floating mass introduced in 1971 and which denied mass mobilisation rights to these sectors also reflected this fear. In 1974, the fear emerged again in the wake of the popular unrest that broke onto the streets after the student demonstrations on January 16.

Apart from these long term, deeply held fears, the events of July 1996 until May 1998 also provided new and fresh grounds for this fear. The riots that broke out in Jakarta after the crackdown on the national headquarters of the PDI Perjuangan (pro-Megawati Indonesian Democratic Party) headquarters exhibited a level of mass combativeness and targeting of government offices that indicated that the anger and unrest brewing at the grassroots contained a strong political component. Moreover, it was also clear that the riots were also a part of more generalised trend towards mass mobilisation of grass roots political anger.

The previous two years had witnessed many other street political protests, many organised by the People Democratic Party (PRD).(ASIET, 1996) On July 8, 20,000 factory workers mobilised for two days running in confrontation with army repression in Surabaya, East Java. Just a few days before that, 20,000 people had mobilised in Jakarta and marched on Gambir square, again in a face off with the military. The Jakarta mobilisation was in support of Megawati and included other forces as well, including the PRD.

On July 27 itself the grassroots defiance of the government did not only take the form of the riots. The resistance at the PDI headquarters itself and a march and rally of several thousand people in the afternoon gave strong indications that grassroots anger could and would be mobilised on the streets.

Between July 1996 and May, 1997 these two forms of mass unrest continued to exhibit themselves. Firstly, rioting continue to break out in several parts of the country. In the absence of any political direction from any political forces, and often under the influence of pro-regime provocoteurs, most of this rioting took on a racialist character. Secondly, organised protest actions continued to be organised by the PDI Perjuangan, or at least by some of its elements, mostly in conjunction with the series of court challenges waged by Megawati.

In May, 1997 these two forms of mass unrest – organised and unorganised – merged in the huge mobilisations of the May 1997 general elections. On May 14, this peaked in Jakarta with most estimates giving figures for over 1 million people on the streets, mainly on the eastern approach to the city. Mass leafleting in that section of the city was a key part of that mobilisation. The PRD alone estimates that it distributed around 600,000 leaflets calling on Megawati and Moslem leaders to unite against the government and to demand the repeal of the country's repressive political laws.

These were semi-organised mobilisations in so far as mass leafleting for the Mega-Bintang (Mega-Star) unity gave some direction to the activity. However, the element of spontaneity remained high with neighbourhood mobilisations of the urban poor out of the gangs and onto the main thoroughfares providing the bulk of the masses.

The May 1997 election mobilisations also exhibited an increasingly combative mood among the grassroots masses. Both in Jakarta and in other cities, police stations were attacked and burned to the ground. Sub-district offices were attacked and wrecked. In the Jakarta industrial area of Tangerang, regency offices were wrecked as were local offices on the Department of Labour. In the immediate aftermath of the elections, where local masses were denied the right to vote, village masses attacked local offices. The most famous of these incidents took place in Madura, East Java, when almost the whole populations of villages revolted and attacked government offices.

These May mobilisations also revealed the limitations of the military in suppressing mobilisations when they reached a mass scale or when they started to occur simultaneously in many different areas. Military decrees that no photos of Megawati should be carried or that children not join demonstrations were ignored by demonstrators. Some police stations were burned down because they tried to confiscate Megawati photos. In fact, the huge outdoor mobilisations themselves were against the law.

Between May 1997 and December 1997, there were more riots pointing still to the depth of anger and discontent at the grass roots in many areas. Then during December 1997 and January 1998, students began protesting in a string of provincial universities, starting in Lampung (South Sumatra) and Solo (Central Java). Often mobilising students from the less prestigious campuses, militant student committees moved into confrontation with the Armed Forces (ABRI) who had issued instructions for the students not to take the protests outside the campuses. The rapid spread of student protests right around the country, in at least 22 cities, and the consistent use of the tactic of long marches off campus meant that stories of army attacks on students spread rapidly throughout the country. Many of the military attacks on students at this time took place off campus and in front of witnesses from the urban poor populations. There are many stories of housewives and others helping injured students or crying hysterically as they shouted against the brutality of the military. The image of the students as suffering at the hands of the military because they were fighting for the people was strengthened many fold.

Delegations of students from these provincial universities repeatedly travelled to Jakarta to convince students in Jakarta to mobilise. Finally, the University of Indonesia and other students began to mobilise. During this period too there were more riots as well as protest actions against police stations and other government offices. As the economic crisis deepened tensions at the grass roots were increasing greatly. In January, there were numerous attacks on supermarkets in several cities throughout the country. Attacks on grain warehouses and other food centres also broke out here and there. There were occurrences in Bogor, Tangerang, Bekasi and Depok as well as Surabaya, Solo, Medan and Semarang.

In February thousands of street peddlers mobilised in Bandung, West Java. There were anti-police actions in several Javanese towns. There were public transport strikes in numerous cities in Java as well as in Lampung as the prices of spare parts rocketed.

The history of developments of grass roots mass anger since at least June 1996 through to May provided all the evidence of the danger of unrest escalating to threatening proportions, especially if a political leadership developed to direct this anger. The regime had nothing to fear from those parts of the New Order establishment excluded from government – Megawati, Abdurahman Wahid and Amien Rais. These forces were just as afraid of mass mobilisations as the regime itself. But the rapid development of the student movement itself and the clear demands that they were focussed upon, especially for the end of Suharto's rule and of the repressive political laws, did have the potential to provide clear political direction to the mass anger.

The regime began to panic. On the one hand, the Minister of Defence and ABRI chief, General Wiranto, made his pathetic offer for dialogue with the students hoping they would end the tactic of long marches. A campaign began, perhaps launched by then head of the elite special forces Kopassus, Prabowo, to try to capture PRD leaders. More than 20 activists were kidnapped and interrogated about the whereabouts of PRD underground leaders. The panic reached its climax when soldiers shot students dead on Trisakti campus in Jakarta, in a last ditch attempt at intimidation. After the Trisakti shootings, followed by the price rises and riots, the student movement leapt forward in its level of organisation. Forum Kota (FORKOT, City Forum), a cross campus activist coalition was formed uniting activists from 14 campuses. And mobilisations were planned for May 19 or 20 at the parliament building. Similar preparations began in other cities.

Once it became clear that the May 19-20 mobilisations would go ahead, the regime's cohesion started to break down as the whole New Order Establishment sought a way to prevent a further escalation, a further increase in the level of organisation of the students, and any real independent mass mobilisations. Harmoko, the parliamentary speaker, panicked and started to call for Suharto to step down. Army officials started to hint that a voluntary and dignified step down might be the right thing for Suharto. Islamic intellectual Nurcholis Madjid called for "Reformasi" to be led by Suharto himself. Wahid, ever afraid of an independent mass movement, turned up at the palace lending his authority to Suharto's manoeuvres. Rais went on TV to urge people not to mobilise. Megawati remained silent afraid that any comment by her may be interpreted by her supporters as a call to action.

In Yogyakarta, Central Java, the Sultan – a figure from the state party Golkar – spoke at a huge mobilisation, asserting New Order authority over the mobilisation. The whole of the New Order establishment, in and out of power, moved to bring the mobilisations to an end and to prevent the prolongation of the student movement. Any prolongation posed the threat of the emergence of an independent grassroots political power.

In the end, even Suharto realised this danger too and resigned. His resignation did end – for a whole at least – the huge wave of mobilisations.

It should be noted here that it was not only the key political figures of the New Order establishment that were afraid of the prolongation of the mass actions. A major debate took place within FORKOT on May 14 as to whether the students movement should call on the general population to join the May 19-20 mobilisation. A vote was finally taken on this question and those arguing for a students-only mobilisation won the vote by a small margin. PRD students from the University of Indonesia and two other campuses had led the move but had lost. The majority of students had felt that calling on the urban population to join in would lead to rioting. The PRD and other students had argued that the urban poor would come out on the streets anyway. Riots were more likely, they argued, if there were no clear political direction.

Grass-roots power after May

Large scale mobilisations ceased after May until the special session of the MPR (People's Consultative Assembly) session in November. However small and medium scale protest actions, involving both students and grassroots social sectors multiplied enormously in Jakarta, in provincial cities and towns and even is some villages. Even at these lower levels, they continued to frighten the establishment. In June, Wiranto threatened to take action against the "aksi reformasi yang marak" (the multiplying reformation actions) which, he said, "were tending to challenge anything and everything". Troops continued to be mobilised against some actions with several workers being killed. Rightist pseudo-moslem groups have also been deployed behind campaigns accusing the student movement, especially FORKOT and the PRD, of being communist.

As the November MPR session approached, ABRI mobilised large numbers of troops in Jakarta. They also took measures to establish the Pam Swarkasa (Volunteer Security) contingents armed with sharpened bamboo sticks. ABRI took the position that the MPR session itself was under threat and that they would do all they could to safeguard it. This position reflected the military's quite accurate sense of the continuing depth of discontent among the population and probably also the developing level of organisation among the student movement. The military continued to assess that the mass action trend still represented a major threat to the regime. The events of November 11-14 indicated that the military's assessment was correct.

The November mobilisations differed from May 19-21 in the following ways:

  1. The political demands were more advanced. In May, the students had demanded the resignation of Suharto and the holding of a special session of the MPR. In November again demanded the resignation of the President but this time rejected the MPR outright and called for a provisional government to be formed.
  2. In May, the students still held illusions in military figures such as Wiranto and focussed their anger on figures such as Prabowo. In November, the students were demanding the immediate ending of any political role for ABRI at all.
  3. In May, no non-student masses were mobilised in Jakarta until at the very end after Suharto had resigned. The medium sized contingents of workers and urban poor that had come to the MPR on May 19-20 were refused entry by the students leadership. In November hundreds of thousands of non-students from the urban poor neighbourhoods of Jakarta joined the students, often clashing physically with the military and the Pam Swakarsa. These masses also showed their support for the same political demands as the students.
  4. Outside Jakarta, student-masses protests started to target military bases, radio and TV stations as well as parliament buildings. The November events showed that the resignation of Suharto had bought only a brief respite. The more militant and more radical November mobilisations took place even though Suharto had been removed and the so-called official Era Reformasi ushered in. In fact, a process of radicalisation had taken place on a mass scale.
It was also clear in November that only the regime's policy of using force to prevent an occupation of the MPR prevented a full scale governmental crisis. Without the use of force to prevent an occupation during the MPR session, the MPR would have been occupied by a huge mass of students and Jakarta poor.

The current limitations of grass roots power

But the regime was able to prevent the occupation of the MPR, at the cost of 12 dead and scores injured. The use of rubber bullets to disperse the crowds in Jakarta at Semanggi and Gatot Subroto did fuel greater anger among people on the next day so that there were bigger mobilisations on Saturday 14 which did reach the MPR building. Later that evening the huge crowd outside the MPR building voluntarily dispersed.

In the wake of the MPR session, the regime has been able to continue with the same political program as it did before the MPR session. In fact, elections have been postponed slightly. There has been no real advancement in the proposed schedule for the MPR to hold a presidential election by the MPR. There is still no plan for elections for the parliament. The military seem likely to still get 55 members of parliament. Dwifungsi (the social and political role of the military) is still protected.

What are the limitations of this grass roots power at the moment? The crucial factor is that the mass action process that has developed in Indonesia since 1989, starting with the Kedung Ombo dam protests in Java, has still not made the leap to become an independent political movement with its own organisational forms and leadership. The movement, essentially still led by ad hoc student action committee, does not pose as a potential source of power itself. It does not see itself and is not yet seen as an alternative to the other possible sources of power active in Indonesian politics. In the context of opposition to the current government, this fact meant that the logic of the political dynamics of the situation is for the student movement, despite its mass support and radicalisation, to act merely as a source of pressure on the dissident elements of the New Order establishment: represented by Rais, Megawati and Wahid. In fact the Communication Forum of Jakarta Students (FKSMJ) had lobbied hard to pressure these figures plus the Sultan of Yogyakarta to meet together. Later dubbed the Ciganjur four, they wouldn't even have met if it had not been for the pressure from the FKSMJ. Even the FORKOT and FAMRED (Student Front for Reform and Democracy) students still looked to the New Order loyal opposition. There is nobody else – at the moment.

The dynamic of the events of November 11-14 had the potential to lead to mass occupation of the MPR or a mass encirclement of the MPR, reinforced by similar events in other cities, which could have legitimised a demand by the so-called Ciganjur Four for Habibie to resign and hand over power to them. But none of these New Order fringe dwellers wanted to come to power at the hands of the mass movement. That would set a precedent which could come back to haunt them at a later date. It would have been a huge boost for a notion of democracy – the democracy of mass direct exercise of power – that is anathema to these forces. Historically, the NU, the Himpunan Mahasiswa Islam (HMI, Islamic Students Association) from which Rais originates and the right wing of the PNI, which is the core of the Megawati PDI, were key partners of the military in establishing the New Order and suppressing the Indonesian left from before 1965.

The student mobilisations ended on Saturday night November 14 due to a "kemacetan perspektif" (a block in perspective) resulting directly from the movement's lack of consciousness of its own potential power and its consequent low level of organisation. If the Ciganjur Four refused to come to power in this fashion, what more could the students do. They went home and took the urban poor with them.

The struggle for grass roots power

The question of the suppression of mass mobilisation politics remains central to the political agenda at the moment. In the last few days, we have seen Wahid call for national reconciliation and attack the Habibie regime for having no political sense. According to Wahid, there was a great danger of social revolution. Echoing Wiranto's June speech that the reformation actions were tending to oppose everything and anything, Wahid defined a social revolution as when the masses would oppose everything. At almost the same time, the Gajah Mada University (UGM) authorities in Central Java called a national dialogue of 78 or 80 political parties. One of the key outcomes of this gathering was a statement that the election campaign next year should not involve mass mobilisations. Parties should rely on campaigning through the media. The meeting apparently also refused to discuss the question of the Dwifungsi. The PRD delegation along with representatives of Indonesian United Democratic Party (PUDI) and the PNI walked out of the meeting. At the same time, students from some of the Faculty Senates from several universities met in Kaliurang. They issued a statement supporting the anti-mobilisation stance of the UGM meeting. A few days later, Muslim academic Ihsanul Amal, sought audience with Habibie, the head of the regime that had ordered force to disperse student demonstrations, to explain what a good job he had done in getting this show of support for a no mobilisation election campaign.

Wahid's statements, the UGM meeting and the regime's own stand against the use of street politics all reflect the continuing recognition that the danger from mass opposition is not yet over.

The basis for grass roots mobilisation

In this regard it is worth restating the basic reasons for the development of the depth of discontent that has been behind both the student and mass mobilisations.

Issues of nepotism, corruption and collusion (NKK), which have received wide media coverage in recent years and knowledge of which has been incorporated into popular culture, have been a key cause of this discontent. These issues have been especially important among better paid white collar workers and professional people. The NKK issue has also concentrated hatred on the Suharto-crony-military complex among the poor and exploited sectors of society.

But there is another factor impacting in these sectors as well. Namely, their actual conditions of life in both the economic and sociopolitical fields. A graphic description of the situation of the urban poor is provided in an interview with a central leader of the PRD, which shifted many of its organisers to Jakarta urban poor neighbourhoods after the May elections. I quote from this interview published in LINKS magazine (Number 9, Nov 1997 to Feb 1998, pages 10-11).

    What we call the urban poor are made up of the unemployed, the lumpen proletariat (pickpockets, burglars, con men, sex workers, drug sellers, guts who jump in to moving trucks and grab some of the load) as well as peddlers, government clerks and employees. In north Jakarta, they also include factory workers, shop assistants, supermarket and department store employees (mostly women), coolies, public transport drivers, street stall owners and so on. Most of these people live in squalid kampung. Rubbish piled up everywhere, there is no water, the drains are blocked, mosquitoes abound, the rooms are tiny so that people pile up against each other like sardines to sleep, and they wash and defecate in public toilets where they have to pay. Electricity is around 100 watts total per household (if youre a bit better off you can get up to 450 watts). It's rare for anyone to get a senior high school or university education. Incomes are around 100-300 thousand Rupiah a month. Most families have two to five members. Children regularly suffer cholera, typhus, meningitis, dysentery, skin disorders, influenza, sinus and eye infections and malnutrition.

    At demonstrations, protest most often takes place around the demolition of their homes, the increase in public transport vehicles which cuts into the incomes of existing public transport drivers [paid by commission and not wages], the banning of street stalls and peddlers by local government, the closure of small kiosks without the operators being given somewhere else to operate or being forced to wait too long for a new place.

    The urban poor usually read papers like Sentana, Swadesi, Pos Kota, Suara Karya, and Inti Jaya. In Surabaya [Indonesia's biggest metropolitan and industrial centre after Jakarta] the public transport drivers read the middle class paper Jawa Pos and the sensationalist Memorandum, whose editorials are very radical. Reading these newspapers means the urban poor have been able to learn from the protest actions by students and peasant farmers when protest delegations to the parliament and the National Human Rights Commission are common. They imitate these actions, using leaflets, placards, press releases and even giving interviews to the media. The urban poor also ready the penny novels of Freddy S and the Chinese word fighting stories of Wiro Sableng and Kho Ping Ho which teach of the holiness of pure love and that those who struggle for justice and truth are always victorious, always survive. Many of them are members of the PDI and use the sense of urban kampung solidarity to involve their neighbours in PDI actions. Many were supporters of the United Development Party during the May elections. Gossip about government officials, their wealth, scandals and corruption, is their daily staple. Many of these kampung poor have come to the same conclusion as the students as to the source of their problems. Many too, ever since they were in junior, or perhaps, senior high, have become accustomed to violence in the form of fights and mass brawls between students from different schools (often with knives or guns) or with the police trying to separate the warring students.

    The urban poor are more aware of the contradictions around them because in their daily lives the rich pass back and forth before their very eyes. They experience all kinds of criminality, including the criminal actions of the government and the violence and arrogance of the military in the form of extortion, bribes and beatings. They live among people from all walks of life and have time to discuss and debate things with their kampung friends. They also have greater access to different kinds of reading materials, so their culture is more urban, more liberal- radical and they are open to new ideas.

None of these conditions have disappeared. In fact, the impact of the global economic crisis in Indonesia is likely to worsen these conditions. Neither are conditions likely to improve in the country's sprawling factory areas nor in the villages, where there have been protest actions against village administrations as well as attacks on food storage buildings. There have been more reports of such events just in the last few days.

So, firstly, the basic material causes of deep social discontent remain, including the pervasive presence of the territorial military structure. Secondly, the student movement and many grass roots sectors have new and inspiring experiences of political mobilisations.

Thirdly, while carried out by a still relatively small force in the PRD, there is continuing propaganda within the student movement arguing for turning the mass movement into a fully fledged independent political movement with its own organisation, leadership and strategy. In some cities, such as Lampung and Solo, Central Java, these ideas have already started to gain ground. In this context, there is now a campaign for the formation of Peoples Councils formed by uniting local action committees in specific areas as an alternative source of political leadership to the New Order loyal opposition and as a potential source of alternative power.

The whole of the New Order establishment, in and out of power, has no choice but to take the threat of greater mass unrest, and of the unrest giving rise to more organised and larger radicalising political forces, seriously. The elections and negotiation a new power sharing arrangement The call for "reconciliation" by Wahid included the stipulation that discussions about how to avoid a social revolution include representatives of the regime and the military. Indeed he has also insisted that ex-president Suharto be involved. This is the preferred option for figures such as Wahid. A negotiated new arrangement for power sharing among the political institutions and organisations of the New Order. This is also the intent of the call by the UGM academics for an election campaign without massive mobilisations. The minimal real opposition to the new electoral laws by Wahid's National Awakening Party, PDI Perjuangan and Rais's National Mandate Party are also another sign of the preferred nature of the coming elections, namely, a mechanism to rearrange the sharing of power among these forces and those of the old regime. It is also significant that none of the so-called major new parties are calling for the release of the jailed leaders of the PRD before elections.

Suppression of mass grassroots mobilising for the elections is also necessary to ensure that the issues agenda for the elections remains restricted. All the New Order participants have similar stances on a range of major issues:

  1. retention of the Dwifungsi for the foreseeable future and recognition of ABRI as a legitimate political force. Retention of the ABRI territorial structure;
  2. support for the economic and social policies represented by the IMF-Suharto package signed in February;
  3. a negotiated settlement with the crony corporations.
The only issue of apparent contention is on the question of the fate of Suharto. But even here, there is no real evidence of any of the forces attempting to apply real pressure on the issue of bringing Suharto to trial. Rais's deadlines come and go with boring predictability. In any case, the regime has already made the necessary formal promises that reduce the differences between its stance and that of the loyal opposition. If there are no fundamental policy differences between the major players, the real thing being decided at such elections are simply the power sharing arrangements for administering a socioeconomic system which in the experience of the mass of people will hardly be different.

If mass mobilising campaigns were allowed, it would not be impossible that the student movement, or even more radical forces, should raise other issues and questions through their presence on the streets. In fact, while the New Order establishment may wish things to proceed with no more mass actions, they may not necessarily succeed.

The events of the last two years, the defeats for the government in May at the hands of the student movement, the inspiring experiences of May and November, the ongoing work of radical organisations and the worsening material conditions of the masses all mean that it is unlikely that the struggle between parliamentary and extra-parliamentary dynamics will end soon. Those wishing only to rearrange the power sharing arrangements of the New Order state and those forces that want to genuinely democratise society will be in increasing conflict.

In this conflict, two factors will play a determining role. Firstly, whether the effectiveness of mass organisation at the grassroots level increases and whether it extends substantially beyond students. Secondly, whether the argument is won inside the student movement on the question of the need for a mass movement with an alternative strategy and program to that of the New Order loyal opposition, so-called.