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The Indonesian progressive movement: An update

This article originally appeared in Links - International Journal of Socialist Renewal, Issue #4, January-March 1995

By Max Lane

In May, 1994, some 150 delegates gathered to form the Peoples Democratic Union (Persatuan Rakyat Demokratik (PRD) [1]. These activists were drawn from among students and workers who had been active in campaigns based on campuses in Yogyakarta, Semarang, Surabaya, Solo, Bandung, Jakarta, Medan and Menado and in the sprawling industrial estates around Jakarta, Semarang, Solo and Surabaya. The well-organised and national character of this activist formation won support from progressive intellectuals such as writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer and publisher Yusuf Isak, and also forced recognition from the moderate liberal opposition to the Suharto dictatorship.

For example, figures such as Adnan Buyung Nasution, from the Indonesian Legal Aid Institute Foundation (YLBHI), and Moktar Pakpahan, from the Indonesian Workers for Prosperity Union (Serikat Buruh Sejahtera Indonesia, SBSI), also attended the press conference that publicly launched the PRD. The launch also received substantial press coverage, until the dictatorship banned the country's three major weekly news magazines in April.

Since its formation and the flurry of activity at the time of its launch, activity in the PRD has begun by establishing and consolidating branches in several major cities. In some cities, such as Yogyakarta, meetings to form PRD branches have been raided by the military and activists arrested. A debate has emerged within the national leadership over the issue of how fast to move ahead in offering leadership to the opposition movement. Although no documents are yet available, it appears this debate has a moderate-radical axis and is related to differing assessments of the potential for radicalisation among workers and students, and the tactics needed in relating to the elite opposition to the dictatorship.

While this debate continues within the national leadership of the PRD, it appears to be overtaken by developments on the ground. There have been two closely interrelated developments. First, there has been a marked decline in political initiatives by the liberal opposition to the dictatorship, including its allied student organisations. Secondly, the organised worker and student support base of the PRD represented by the Students in Solidarity with Democracy in Indonesia (Solidaritas Mahasiswa Untuk Demokrasi di Indonesia, SMID) and the Centre for Indonesian Working Class Struggle (Persatuan Perjuangan Buruh Indonesia, PPBI) have escalated their activity independent of the PRD. They have spearheaded an increase in campaign activity around a number of issues, including worker rights, wages and conditions, press freedom and East Timorese independence.

The formation of PPBI

The PPBI was launched at a congress in Ambarawa, Central Java, on October 22-23, 1994. Some 100 delegates represented workers from factory committees based in the major towns of Jakarta, Tangerang, Bogor, Yogyakarta, Semarang, Solo, Salatiga, Surabaya and Medan. The congress adopted the general slogan: "Fight against oppression; gaining prosperity for workers".

The PPBI adopted both a general programme and a programme of specific demands. The key elements of the general programme included: the struggle for wage and allowance increases; improved conditions and health standards; the end of the governments cheap labour policy; the return of workers' rights to establish their own organisations; workers' rights to free assembly, free speech and to strike; repeal of all anti-worker regulations and laws; the ending of military intervention in industrial affairs; direct involvement of workers in all policy formulation affecting workers; ending all discrimination against women workers; and ending child labour.

Specific demands include the establishment of a national minimum wage of Rp5000 (US$2.50) per day, the repeal of ministerial regulation 01/84 which allows only the government's yellow union, a new progressive tax system that applies only to incomes above Rp1,000,000 (US$500) per month, and the implementation of minimum redundancy payments. PPBI is also calling for the establishment of a democratic and independent court system that will strictly implement sanctions against capitalists that violate workers' rights.

The process of building deeply rooted factory committees has been ongoing for at least five years. Former students as well as young workers have been forming worker support groups in the first instance, and later, factory committees. These committees have been leading local factory struggles for wage improvements and the right to organise in many factories over the last few years.

PPBI is the third independent trade union-workers' organisation to be established in Indonesia. It already has a core of 300 organisers and an estimated active following of between 10,000 and 15,000 workers, and is rapidly expanding.

Weight of elite opposition

Soon after the PRD was launched, another major political development took place. In June 1994, the Suharto dictatorship banned the country's three major news weeklies, Tempo, Editor and the mass circulation DeTik. Most of the street protests against these bans relied for their core of support on activists from the student base of PRD, namely SMID. Other support was organised by the small group of militant political activists inside the YLBHI who have a wide network of contacts among the younger and more militant layers of the liberal democratic opposition. The attendance at the PRD launch and some later actions by more senior figures such as YLBHI director Adnan Buyung Nasution gave the impression that some kind of alliance was forming between the liberal democratic opposition to the dictatorship and the more radical forces represented by the PRD. However, such an alliance has not developed.

A key feature of the protests against the bannings of the newspapers was the lack of any real campaign by any of the liberal democratic opposition forces. This was despite the fact that, in many ways, these publications mostly reflected their own political views. Of course, all the various elite opposition groups, such as Petition of Fifty, Forum Demokrasi and the more vocal student group, Information Centre and Action Network for Reform (Pusat Informasi dan Jaringan Aksi untuk Reformasi, PIJAR), issued statements condemning the bans. Some PIJAR activists also attended the meetings. However, without the SMID-PRD forces, there would have been no mass campaign.

The absence of mechanisms such as fair elections and the fact that most of the liberal opposition has no strategy of mass activity means that it is difficult to measure the authority of the elite opposition leadership among the working masses and the middle classes. However, it seems likely that their credibility has been significantly eroded as a result of their inability to defend publications which were ideologically their own. One sign of this has been a decline in activity of PIJAR. In 1993, PIJAR and other allied student groups organised a number of street actions. In 1994, they organised fewer actions, mainly protests outside courtrooms during the trials of activists jailed for the 1993 actions and speaking tours on the issue of the repression of former political detainees. It appears that PIJAR activists are also involved in the formation of Peoples Democratic Alliance (Alliansi Demokrasi Rakyat, ALDERA) which involves mainly student and ex- student activists but is a more loosely organised grouping than PIJAR. So far ALDERA has only organised a couple of public meetings and, as yet, has no significant organised working-class participation.

While both PIJAR and ALDERA's initiatves have been relatively sporadic during 1994, as a result of their reliance on an alliance with the elite opposition groups, in the future they could emerge as another pole of attraction for radical opposition to the Suharto dictatorship.

The timid and ineffective response of the liberal opposition to the press bannings also provided the background to the debates inside the PRD leadership. An element of the thinking behind the formation of the PRD was that it could play a role in forming an anti-dictatorship alliance with the elite opposition forces. In a situation where the elite opposition was not moving forward (on the contrary, it was reeling from shock after the press bannings), it appears a significant section of the central leadership of PRD also opted for caution. Two examples illustrate this:

  • In late June 1994, the PRD postponed a hunger strike against the press bannings, in the Jakarta Legal Aid Institute grounds, apparently thinking that such an action was getting ahead of the other forces. Facing this hesitation, student activists went ahead and took the initiative to organise the hunger strike as a national SMID initiative, with PRD chairperson, Sugeng, invited as one of the speakers.
  • While the PRD founding congress voted for a resolution supporting self- determination and a referendum for East Timor, this was watered down in the subsequently published PRD manifesto to support for human rights and the democratic rights of the East Timorese people.
  • The pattern of SMID taking the initiative in terms of organising campaigns and political actions has remained since the middle of 1994. The main campaign has been aimed at building a student- worker alliance that can campaign for both democratic rights and improvements in economic conditions. There have been increasingly frequent joint student-worker rallies and demonstrations, both on and off campuses.

    Since the end of October, more and more of these actions have been carried out jointly by the SMID and the PPBI. There have been joint actions in Jakarta and Semarang. The latest was a demonstration on January 10, 1995, of approximately a thousand workers and a hundred students in the Tangerang industrial area outside Jakarta in demand of wage increases for local workers. Several workers and students were detained, including some leaders of SMID. SMID-PPBI have also taken up other issues, such as support for self-determination in East Timor. A SMID-PPBI delegation visited Australia in December where they publicly campaigned on East Timor. The new PPBI bulletin, Workers' Banner, has also taken up the East Timor issue.

    The SMID-PPBI combination could reinforce the radical forces inside the PRD (mainly based in the provincial branches in formation) and help win PRD back to a more radical perspective, as reflected in the PRD founding congress documents. Another possibility is that this SMID-PPBI combination may overtake the PRD as the main pole of attraction for the rapidly radicalising layers of students and workers, especially in the country's largest cities.


    1. Max Lane, "Winning Democracy in Indonesia", Links, Number 2, July-September 1994, pp. 19-35.

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