The Angry Streets of Indonesia
Nationwide Protests Target Suharto Regime
Revolutionary Worker #957, May 17, 1998
Anti-government demonstrations have erupted throughout Indonesia as tens of thousands are taking to the streets to protest price hikes and government corruption.
The Asian economic crisis that started in Thailand last summer has continued to deepen. And Indonesia, like Thailand and South Korea, is being forced to implement drastic economic measures in order to receive a bailout from the International Monetary Fund. The United States and the IMF are demanding that in order to get $43 billion dollars to rescue its crisis-ridden economy, Indonesia must carry out drastic restructuring of its banking and economic structures and impose harsh austerity measures on the population. Economic "reforms" being implemented by the government will mean higher prices and more misery for the masses of Indonesian people--there are predictions that IMF-imposed measures will result in an additional two million unemployed workers. And the US/IMF plan for Indonesia will open the door for further imperialist penetration and domination of the Indonesian economy. (See accompanying article, "The US/IMF Godfather and the Crisis in Indonesia.")
Since last summer, students have been demonstrating against rising costs and demanding political reforms. And in the last few months, these protests have escalated--in some cities there have been daily actions. At the beginning of May the government announced a major rise in fuel, transport and electricity prices. And this set off a new wave of bigger and more widespread protests.
On Thursday, April 30, students gathered at the Islamic Teaching Institute in the capital city of Jakarta. They shouted, "Hang Suharto!" and held up a banner with the names of Cabinet members they accuse of corruption, followed by the words "Go to hell." Other posters read, "Bring down prices or bring down Suharto." Several thousand students surged into the street in defiance of a military ban on street marches and hurled rocks at police. At the small campus of St. Thomas Catholic University students blocked the main road to the city with burning tires and chanted slogans against Suharto until security forces drove them off.
The next day, on May 1, 500 students protested in the city of Medan. Demonstrators threw stones and petrol bombs at the police, who responded with tear gas, rubber bullets and armored cars mounted with water cannons. The students were driven back to their campus at the Islamic University of North Sumatra, a mile from the city center. But the fighting continued as government troops crouched behind armored cars while students continued to throw rocks at them from the campus.
This same day, about 1,000 students from the Institute of Technology blocked a road near their campus before they, too, were driven back by tear gas. And there were other protests in cities on Indonesia's main island of Java, including the capital, Jakarta, and Yogjakarta, Surabaya and Bandung.
On Saturday, May 2, tens of thousands of students at university campuses throughout Indonesia demonstrated. Protesters threw stones and Molotov cocktails and at least four police officers were injured. Police used tear-gas and rubber bullets to keep protesters from leaving their campuses and in Jakarta, as many as 20 people were hurt in a demonstration at the Teachers' Training College.
In the northern Sumatra city of Medan, where clashes between demonstrators and police had been going on almost every day for the last two weeks of April, students from Nommansen University blocked the road outside their campus with burning tires. The students then attacked a showroom displaying a car produced by a firm controlled by Suharto's youngest son, smashed the glass window, and pushed the car into the street and set it on fire.
On Monday, May 4, anti-government protests continued. At the Mercu Buana University in West Jakarta, 500 students staged a peaceful demonstration on the street outside their campus. Some of the students lay on the ground, calling for President Suharto to resign. But other protests were much more confrontational.
In Medan, about 3,000 students confronted security forces at the Teachers' Training Institute. They hurled stones and petrol bombs at the police, who tried to beat back the crowds with tear gas and rubber bullets. Witnesses said police on motorcycles chased people into alleys and opened fire with pistols, injuring at least two.
Since Indonesia was hit by the economic crisis last summer, demonstrations have frequently targeted shops owned by ethnic Chinese. The Indonesian ruling class has a history of fanning this kind of anti-Chinese sentiment in periods of social and economic unrest. In fact, Suharto came to power in 1965 in connection with a wave of anticommunist and anti-Chinese hysteria. Ethnic Chinese in Indonesia, even though they were born in the country, are discriminated against--they are not allowed to speak their own language, are banned from celebrating the Chinese New Year and are generally kept out of political positions in the government. At the same time, a lot of wealth and retail trade in Indonesia, and throughout South East Asia, is controlled by ethnic Chinese. When people are hit by high prices and unemployment, Chinese big businesses as well as small shops are frequently scapegoated. And the Indonesian government works to whip up this kind of animosity--since it would much rather have the people's anger misdirected at the ethnic Chinese than at the oppressive and corrupt government, politicians, bureaucrat capitalists and their imperialist backers.
Throughout this last year, shops owned by ethnic Chinese have been looted and burned. And in this latest eruption of protest, ethnic Chinese-owned shops have once again been targeted by demonstrators. In Medan, crowds set fire to Chinese-owned shops--while stores were spared that had signs saying "Milik Pribumi" ("Indonesian-owned") pasted on the outside. But the demonstrations have also had new targets--two police cars were among at least 13 vehicles burned, and two offices of the state electricity company, which has announced 60 percent price increases, were stoned.
In Jakarta, 5,000 students at the Mercu Buana private university defied the military ban on street gatherings and marched out of their campus. They were met by rubber bullets and tear gas and 17 were injured.
After Monday's protests, the army issued a stern warning against street demonstrations. But on Tuesday May 5, price increases dictated by the IMF went into effect. And hundreds of students gathered at gas stations right at midnight, when the price hikes took effect.
In Medan, at least 1,000 took to the streets in response to the rise in fuel prices. Police fired rubber bullets to disperse the crowd and 100 people were taken into custody. Shops were looted, storehouses ransacked and cars burnt. One news report described police pulling up in a truck, getting out and swinging batons at crowds of children, housewives and men who were looting stores. Truckloads of security forces armed with M-16 rifles and tear gas patrolled the streets. And fearful that people from neighboring towns might join in the demonstrations, police closed off a toll road leading into Medan.
In other parts of the country, tens of thousands of students also marched in the streets against the IMF-dictated price hikes. In the capital city of Jakarta, which has a population of 10 million people, workers, unemployed laborers and high school students joined university students in protest. Police fired shots into the crowd, trying to contain students within their campus, and it was reported that at least a dozen students were injured.
Demonstrations were also reported in several cities throughout the Island of Java including Bandung, Yogyakarta, Semarang, Ujung Pandang, and Sulawesi. In Surabaya, capital of East Java, thousands of students gathered at the Nusantara Muslim Institute and other university campuses to protest and were joined by workers and unemployed laborers.
While students fight the police with old-fashioned rocks and Molotov cocktails, they have also been using high-tech weapons--like cellular phones, pagers, computers and the internet-- to organize and spread their struggle.
Indonesia is a country made up of 13,000 islands--which makes it difficult for different student groups to communicate and coordinate actions. But using the internet, the students have been able to spread their rebellion even to the most distant islands. And students are also using E-mail, pagers, cellular phones, pay phones and coded computer files in order to evade bugged home and office phones and other kinds of police spying.
One student organizer who talked about how they were trying to build networks between students all over the country said that during the latest wave of protests, reporters received almost daily E-mail reports and faxes from students across the country, detailing number of protesters and number of wounded by the police.
But the students are also learning that these high-tech gadgets cannot always be relied on. In one instance a member of a banned organization was arrested after the operator of his pager company informed the police. And the army has now demanded access to cell-phone-company systems, saying it has to monitor, cut off and, if need be, seize certain callers.
Since the Asian crisis hit Indonesia last summer, this is the first time there has been widespread government violence against demonstrations. Police opened fire on protesters in at least three cities, using small caliber rubber bullets. At least 17 students were injured by rubber bullets in Jakarta. Indonesian police shot and wounded at least two people in Medan when they opened fire into a crowd of people looting stores. There has been one report that six people have been killed by government security forces. And new exposure has recently come out about how the government is kidnapping and torturing political activists.
But the vicious, repressive moves by the Suharto government have not put a lid on the people's anger. While demonstrations in the last year have been almost completely students and mainly confined to campuses, the students are now taking their protests into the city streets. And many more sections of the population are being drawn into the action.
The newly implemented price hikes are limited to fuel and transport. But food prices are expected to rise as a result and several truckers are already refusing to deliver goods. Bus drivers in another town refused to drive students to school. And the government is worried that as more U.S./IMF-imposed austerity measures get implemented, anti-government demonstrations will grow. One Indonesian police lieutenant colonel told the press, "It's not a pure student protest any more, because it involves ordinary people. There are thousands of angry people trying to burn houses. They are burning tires and turning over cars."
As we go to press, demonstrations continue in cities throughout Indonesia. And there are reports that the students are increasingly being joined by others -- including workers, farmers, bus drivers, doctors, nurses, and government employees.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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