Revolutionary Worker #958, May 24, 1998
The economic and political crisis in Indonesia is deepening as anti-government protests continue to escalate. And it is widely believed that the brutal, U.S.-backed rule of President Suharto cannot last much longer.
Indonesia was hit hard last summer when economic crisis swept through several countries in East Asia. The Indonesian rupiah currency was drastically devalued, leading to higher prices and unemployment. And banks and businesses began defaulting on foreign loans. The U.S.-dominated International Monetary Fund stepped in to prevent financial instability from worsening by arranging a $43 billion bailout. And, as a condition for this loan, the IMF demanded Suharto institute all kinds of economic reforms and austerity measures. Such "reforms" are aimed at creating more favorable opportunities for foreign investment and will mean tremendous suffering and misery for the masses of Indonesian people.
Student demonstrations against rising prices and the corrupt government have been going on for months throughout Indonesia and have been mainly peaceful. But in this latest wave of protests--which started after the government announced a steep increase in the price of fuel--workers, unemployed youth and others from the bottom of Indonesian society have increasingly taken to the streets. And there have been escalating, violent clashes with the police and army.
Student Protests Defy Soldiers
On Tuesday, May 12, six students were killed and many others were wounded when security forces opened fire on a demonstration of 10,000 at Trisakti University. Trisakti is a private Christian college where many government and military officials send their children. And a demonstration at such an elite school reflects how as opposition to Suharto has grown--even youth from the most privileged families have been pulled into the tide of protest.
The demonstration at Trisakti spilled into the streets off campus. And when students refused to return to school grounds, police attacked and shot into the crowd. One student said, "We were running when we heard shots. I saw my friend get shot in the neck. I also saw a girl fall down in front of me and get kicked in the head."
Clashes between students and police also broke out in other cities. In Bandung, police fired shots in the air and clubbed a crowd of 600 students. In Kupang in Timor, police fired tear gas to disperse 300 student demonstrators. In central Java, 5,000 students clashed with police who fired water cannon, tear gas and rubber bullets. And in Surabaya, the country's second-largest city, students from dozens of colleges and universities gathered at two campuses, then marched through the city 30,000 strong.
On Wednesday, May 13, a mass funeral was held for the murdered students. Classes and exams at Trisakti were suspended. Students and professors wore black armbands. Volunteers barricaded stairways in university buildings with metal rods, tables and blackboards. Students on motorcycles arrived with huge wreaths with messages from other universities.
People crowded around a list of victims. A long white cloth was put up on a wall for people to write comments, and defiant messages immediately went up: "We'll continue our fight, my friends," "People power," "I hate Suharto," "Suharto must go," "Keep on fighting, don't give up." On a wall nearby someone had painted in large red letters, in English, "Suharto and ABRI --murderers." (ABRI is the initials of the Indonesian army.)
As people gathered at the gravesite of the murdered students, a relative of one of the dead thanked the crowd for sharing his family's grief and asked: "How can we repay you?" Someone shouted back: "With a life." And another added: "With the life of Suharto."
Fire in the Streets
Meanwhile workers, unemployed youth and others streamed out of poor neighborhoods into the streets of Jakarta. And protests, street fighting and looting has escalated day by day. On Thursday, May 14, police shot and killed two more people. And TV news reported 300 vehicles set afire by demonstrators.
In one instance, an angry crowd went up against a volley of shots from soldiers guarding a gas station. A rubbish truck was hijacked and set on fire. People pulled down lamp posts and street lights. And for four hours, shots could be heard periodically as the crowd confronted security forces.
On another street, a crowd gathered in front of The Body Shop and Dunkin' Donuts. Cheers went up as protesters from a poor area nearby taunted the police and threw bottles. Down the road people broke windows at a bank and took out computers and swivel chairs to make a bonfire. A garbage truck with a government license plate was singled out and set on fire. The police were forced to seal off three main highways, including one leading to the international airport.
Five hundred people died when a large, five-story department store was set on fire with hundreds of people still inside grabbing merchandise. And throughout the capital city, smoke filled the sky from burning stores, banks, supermarkets and electronic stores. One crowd attacked and burned a police station as they were fired on and tear-gassed from a helicopter.
Workers organized by an unofficial trade union marched on the downtown Jakarta offices of the International Monetary Fund to protest IMF-imposed "reforms." One man said, "We are hungry, we just can't take it any more." In the city of Yogyakarta an unemployed leather cutter told a reporter, "It will be like a boomerang. The more violent the Army gets, the more violence they will get back from the people."
Ethnic Chinese have remained a major target in this rebellion. Ethnic Chinese are only about 5 percent of the population in Indonesia, but they control a lot of wealth and retail trade. And especially during hard economic times, the Indonesian government has fanned anti-Chinese sentiment. When people are hit by high prices and unemployment, Chinese big businesses as well as small shops are frequently scapegoated. And the Indonesian government encourages this kind of mis-directed anger--since it would much rather see people targeting the ethnic Chinese than the oppressive and corrupt government and its imperialist backers.
Nine people were killed when a bar was set on fire in a Chinese neighborhood. Angry crowds on the highways have been pulling Chinese out of their cars, beating them and setting their cars on fire. And Chinese-owned stores throughout the city have been burned and looted. One Chinese-Indonesian woman though, told reporters she doesn't blame the people who looted her shop. She said, "The cause was simple--the poor people got together to say, `We can't take it any more.' I blame the Government for raising fuel prices."
But while businesses owned by ethnic Chinese have continued to be targeted, much of the anger in the streets is directed at the Suharto ruling clique. His wealthy financial empire has been built on family ties, cronyism and corruption. And banks and other businesses belonging to friends and family of Suharto have been particular targets of the demonstrators. The car dealership owned by one of Suharto's sons was gutted and the vehicles burned. The house of one of Suharto's closest associates, businessman Lim Sioe Liong, the head of the Salim Group conglomerate and the country's wealthiest man, was set on fire along with five of his cars.
"Tell the world Suharto should go!" people shouted at passing reporters. A worker said, "We have been stepped on by this government for 30 years." And a university student explained, "This is partly about students, partly about the economic crisis and the suffering of the poor. But it is also about the past 30 years, it is like an explosion of anger for everything that people have suffered."
Opposition and Splits in
the Indonesian Ruling Class and Military
As the economic and political crisis deepens in Indonesia there is evidence of growing splits in the ruling class and the military.
The Indonesian military has been staunchly loyal throughout Suharto's brutal 30-year rule. From top to bottom, it is an integral part of Suharto's government--75 seats in the 500-member Parliament are reserved for the armed forces, half of provincial governorships are held by military men, and many cabinet ministers, senior civil servants, ambassadors and directors of state corporations are soldiers. But now that it looks like Suharto's days may be numbered, there are divisions and maneuvering at the highest military levels.
Suharto's son-in-law, General Prabowo, who was recently named to head the special forces, is said to be the leader of the hard-line Suharto loyalists in the military. And General Wiranto, whom Suharto recently named to the dual posts of Defense Minister and armed forces chief, has been voicing support for student demonstrators.
Recently, in a significant development, a group of retired army generals and Cabinet ministers wrote an open letter calling for Suharto's removal. It said, "We support the movement and struggle of Indonesian students, who are brave enough to voice the needs and aspirations of the whole people of Indonesia." It was signed by 45 prominent Indonesians, five retired generals and three former cabinet ministers.
Out on the streets, some military officers have been telling the crowds, "We are one ...the army wants reform too." In some instances, soldiers have stood aside and let people loot and even joined crowds shouting anti-Suharto slogans. In other cases, soldiers have viciously attacked, using live ammunition even when they're supposed to only use rubber bullets and water hoses.
High-ranking military commanders went to address the students at the memorial for the murdered students. And General Wiranto publicly apologized to the families of the dead students and promised a full inquiry.
It may also be the case that Suharto has alienated some of Indonesia's business elite by carrying out (or promising to carry out) IMF-enforced reforms. To obey IMF demands, Suharto must restructure the banking system, which means merging, selling, or shutting down unprofitable institutions, which by some estimates account for 200 of the nation's 212 banks. And many of these institutions are owned by Suharto's friends and business partners of his family.
Meanwhile, sections of the ruling elite appear to be abandoning Suharto, sensing he will go down soon. And various bourgeois opposition forces are maneuvering for power.
The influential Indonesian Association of Muslim Intellectuals, which has ties to the Vice President B.J. Habibie, has called for immediate political reform. And bourgeois opposition to Suharto--including sections of the Indonesian capitalist class who feel themselves shut out of the most profitable sectors of the economy by the Suharto family--are looking to Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of Suharto's predecessor, Sukarno, and to Amien Rais, leader of the country's main Islamic organization, Muhammadiyah.
These bourgeois opposition figures--who have ties with figures in the ruling class and who have a following among sections of the people--have voiced support for the students. Megawati and Rais both went to the funeral at Trisakti and urged the students to continue their struggle "peacefully" and called on the military to show "restraint."
During a visit to the U.S. last month, Rais appeared before a Congressional Human Rights Caucus. And he has held private talks with senior Indonesian military leaders. Rais recently has announced the formation of a 50-member "peace council" which he said would help bring in a new government. His aides said the presidium was likely to include members of the powerful military, other Islamic leaders in the Muslim majority nation, and Megawati.
None of these military and bourgeois forces now coming out against Suharto represent the real interests of the masses in Indonesia. The only way the Indonesian people can get real liberation is by overthrowing the lackey government and getting rid of bureaucrat capitalism and U.S. domination. And no one in the military, ruling elite, or bourgeois opposition is calling for this!
U.S. Hypocrisy and Maneuvers
The U.S. has huge economic interests in Indonesia--from oil and gas exploration to manufacturing plants like Nike. And the U.S. has seen Indonesia as a stronghold of stability in Southeast Asia. This is why the U.S. has always backed the brutal Suharto regime. And the Pentagon has a direct role in training the Indonesian military--including psychological operations classes and military exercises in urban warfare. But now the Clinton administration is hypocritically trying to distance itself somewhat from Suharto and the Indonesian military.
The Clinton administration announced it was dispatching a high-level military delegation to Indonesia, headed by Adm. Joseph W. Prueher, the commander of all American military forces in the Pacific. The officially stated purpose of the trip was to call upon Suharto's security forces to "use restraint" with demonstrators. But such a trip was more likely aimed at assessing how the situation can be kept from further deteriorating and maintaining U.S. influence and control among forces that could come to power if/when Suharto goes down. Referring to the Indonesia General who has been maneuvering for power, one U.S. official said, "We don't know an awful lot about Wiranto, but we generally have hope about him. He seems to be more open to dialogue..."
But the U.S. wants to exert domination in whatever scenario develops. So the U.S. military delegation was scheduled to meet with General Wiranto as well as Lieutenant-General Prabowo, Suharto's son-in-law, who commands the 27,000-member elite army unit responsible for security around Jakarta and is widely seen as Wiranto's chief rival within the Indonesian military.
The Indonesian masses, though, ruined these plans for a high-level meeting between U.S. and Indonesian military commanders. The U.S. delegation's trip was called off at the last minute when it became clear that the roads into Jakarta from the international airport were so insecure the U.S. feared for the safety of their admiral.
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