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International Socialism, September 1998


Three interviews with workers’ representatives
and socialists in Indonesia


From International Socialism 2:80, September 1998.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Interview with factory representatives of
the Workers’ Committee for Total Reformasi (COBAR)

International Socialism: What impact did the May events have in your workplace?

Male stationery factory worker, Kapuk (Jakarta region): After things happened in May the military came to the factory to try and prevent the workers joining the political activity. After the riots and demonstrations the employers shut down the factory and asked the workers to guard the factory. So they were not doing their real work but just guarding the factory.

Woman clothing factory worker, Kapuk: After the riots my factory was being guarded by the military. Even the security guards were not allowed to continue their jobs.

IS: What were your workmates saying about the demonstrations and riots?

Woman kitchen goods factory worker, Kapuk: The workers kept hearing the news on TV and they supported the students because they also wanted a new leader. And after Suharto stepped down, they were hoping for a better government.

Male timber plant worker, Lam Pung (Sumatra): After Suharto stepped down, the minister of manpower said there is freedom to join workers’ federations. But in a concrete way, when workers in the factory try to build such a federation, then the military try to stop them. So it is still difficult to build in the factories because the military try to scare workers, even though the minister of manpower said that we have the freedom to build such federations.

Woman clothing worker, Kapuk: The workers in Kapuk supported the demonstrations because they wanted a new government and because it seemed that they had a freedom of speech which they did not have before. But during the riots the employers told the male workers to guard the factory. After two weeks they even offered to let people go on the pilgrimage to Mecca. The direct effect of the riots is that basic necessities become very expensive and scarce.

IS: Did people in the factories support the riots of the urban poor against the state?

Woman clothing worker, Kapuk: Sometimes, they didn’t always support the looting of the stores because it’s a lottery and they live on very low wages. They didn’t necessarily support the attacks on the big stores.

IS: What was the attitude to attacks on the Chinese? Were there arguments against attacking the poor Chinese?

Male stationery worker, Kapuk: Workers supported the transformation process, but not in the sense of stealing from the Chinese. They don’t support the anti-Chinese movement. A lot of Chinese do have economic power, but there are also Chinese people who have become integrated with Indonesian people. So it would be wrong to have an anti-Chinese attitude.

IS: Was there contact between students and workers?

Male stationery worker, Kapuk: Not yet.

IS: Have strikes increased since the overthrow of Suharto?

Male timber plant worker, Lam Pung (Sumatra): Yes, obviously. In my workplace there have been a lot of workers’ struggles against the employer. In June there were about 20 factories in struggle in my town. These were all strikes. In Sumatra the economic crisis has become deeper and the workers’ response has been to strike. This week there have been seven strikes and there will be more next week.

Male stationery worker, Kapuk: In Suharto’s time there was a lot of military intervention. People didn’t get their holidays and wages. So people are demanding their wages, their rights, and an end to military intervention. The demands are political as well as economic.

Male pharmaceutical plant worker, Lam Pung (Sumatra): In Sumatra the demands are to raise wages and to stop unemployment and to stop military intervention. They also want an end to Law 25, so allowing freedom of trade union organisation.

IS: Many of the trade union representatives here are women. Are women’s issues and issues of equal pay being raised?

Woman clothing worker, Kapuk: There has been discrimination for years. One of our demands is to stop the pay discrimination between men and women. At my factory we produce bras for companies like Triumph. There is an issue of sexual harassment. The company insists that we wear transparent uniforms on the factory floor so that they can see we are not stealing bras. At the end of each shift we are searched. Many of the women are Muslim and the security guards and management are male.

IS: What would the representatives here regard as real democratic change? What would have to happen for such change to be a reality for them?

Woman kitchen goods factory worker, Kapuk: Real democracy must come from the people. Workers should have their representatives in parliament. Workers should have a national organisation. There should be representation from many different sectors in the new regime.

Male timber plant worker, Lam Pung (Sumatra): The leaders should come from the people, not from the elite.

IS: People seem very dissatisfied with Habibie. Will people accept the present situation? Can Habibie survive?

Male pharmaceutical factory worker, Lam Pung (Sumatra): Habibie is bad because he likes to spend a lot of money. Habibie is part of the cadre of the old regime. If we want democracy we must overthrow this regime and replace it with a new leadership drawn from all sectors.

Male shoe factory worker, Kapuk: Habibie is a technocrat. He doesn’t really know about people’s economic problems so he can’t lead the people in this economic crisis.

IS: How does COBAR organise?

COBAR organiser: The COBAR organiser in Kapuk was a worker at first, then he became a full time organiser because his factory was burnt down in the riots. The way we organise is by building the confidence of our friends to fight the employers, by pamphlets and newsletters. COBAR has already built contacts in a factory and has a co-ordinator in each factory, so when COBAR wants a strike we call the co-ordinator and discuss what they want to do, and the co-ordinator asks the workers to take action.

IS: What are the demands of the strikers?

COBAR organiser: During the last strike wave the demands raised depended on the individual factory’s policies. But although different factories have different specific demands, they all strike at the same time.

IS: Is there 100 percent support for the strikes?

COBAR organiser: Recently nine factories were on strike at the same time and five had total support with all the workers out on strike. They were fighting for specific concessions from their own employers, but all fighting at the same time. For example, in one photo album factory the workers struck for money for meals and transport. In another factory they had already won these so they were striking for other things.

IS: Do the women union representatives organise male workers too, or do they just represent women-only factories?

COBAR organiser: Some women representatives are in factories where the majority of workers are women. But it is not a problem if women are the representatives in factories where both men and women work.

IS: Would people here consider themselves to be socialists?

Male timber plant worker, Lam Pung (Sumatra): Yes, you could say that. I want our country to become a socialist country.

Interview with POSKO (student based organisation) member
at the University of Indonesia, Jakarta

IS: How did your organisation relate to the first wave of demonstrations on the campuses?

The demonstrations began before the presidential elections. They started in March and February because people were so angry with Suharto. The crisis in Indonesia meant that the movement increased in size. Two weeks before the presidential election most of the movement said ‘No to Suharto’ and general strikes broke out in all cities and especially in the University of Indonesia. There was a general strike of students, but not only among students. The students said ‘No to Suharto’ and the movement spread because the bigger universities in every city in Indonesia, in Jakarta and elsewhere, organised strikes and smaller campuses followed their example. Then in every city we built coalition organisations, but it never became a national alliance of students. When we realised that Suharto would be given power again by Congress the movement did not stop. On the contrary, it became bigger. It reached its peak when our friends in the university in west Jakarta were shot. Six students were shot dead and others are still missing. After that there was an explosion of anger amongst the people and riots broke out in every city in Indonesia, especially in Jakarta. On 13 and 14 May Jakarta was reduced almost to anarchy, with people burning buildings and looting shops. In addition, anti-Chinese feeling grew up everywhere.

IS: Did your group organise in one particular campus?

Yes, in the University of Indonesia.

IS: How did you begin to organise there?

We have a tradition of organisation in the university, so we have established an atmosphere where social and political problems are always being discussed. Almost every year we organised little strikes, which is why when the crisis really began to bite the strikes erupted more regularly. We organised when the new students came to the campuses every new term, by showing them the oppression which exists in Indonesia. We organised big discussions and after about a month of education we broke up into small discussion groups. The raw materials of the movement came from these groups.

IS: What do you discuss?

Everything-we discuss national issues and conditions and we have ideological discussions to educate students in Marxist ideas on politics and economics. We stood for the student council and used those positions to organise. In May we argued that students had to build links with the urban poor and with workers. We won that argument on our campus. People came to address our mass meetings. But when it came to the student occupation of the parliament building the leadership of the central co-ordinating committee were carried away with the image built up of the students, in the press and by sections of the military and government, that somehow student protests were legitimate. They not only argued to keep the urban poor and the workers out of the occupation but they organised a cordon to enforce that decision.

From our campus we organised to smuggle the urban poor into the occupation on board our buses. But when we handed out a leaflet arguing for unity the leadership of the occupation called on people to tear it up. I addressed the occupation about this but they shouted me down. But it was clear that there was a polarisation. When it was announced that Suharto had stepped down there was immediate jubilation. But then those students who supported Amien Rais argued that Habibie’s appointment should be welcomed because he was a good Muslim. Others were not happy that Habibie had been made president. When the universities go back in August we expect this process of polarisation to grow. It is important that we continue to build on the campuses.

Interview with full time COBAR organiser

IS: What is the relationship between students’ and workers’ struggles?

The Department of Manpower had a strike. Over 1,000 workers went on strike for a whole year, but the non-government organisations kept on hoping that the workers by themselves would organise spontaneously. In response to the worsening conditions of the 1990s, students organised demonstrations to government buildings and even to parliament, then workers copied these demonstrations and copied the tactics the students used, such as producing posters showing the demands they were fighting for and organising big rallies. Before, workers only knew how to strike, but they tried to learn from the students.

IS: Is the strike movement continuing and are some of the strikes political?

Almost every day there are strikes, and some of them are political strikes. The political demonstrations are the organised demonstrations; the spontaneous demonstrations are rarely the political ones. Until 1990 the working class increased in size until there were about 10.5 million workers in manufacturing alone. Also there is a situation where a lot of workers come from the country and villages and there is a threat of mass deportations back to the country which is used to prevent people from getting involved in politics.

IS: Is the historical comparison more like the 1905 revolution in Russia than February 1917, so this is more like the beginning of revolutionary organisation in Indonesia?

We have established discussion groups, which talk about the capitalist system, but at first the students just wanted to discuss politics, not to organise the workers. A minority of the workers have become political, but they are separated from the other workers. But also in the 1990s most of the organisations in the big factories organised big demonstrations, and they encouraged other smaller factories to do the same. So the situation in the industrial areas becomes explosive: workers are not afraid to have demonstrations and other groups of workers get involved.

IS: So the movement spread along the lines Rosa Luxemburg described in The Mass Strike?

The problem is that the workers have not made really good progress; it is the student groups who attempt to bring politics to the workplaces. They make a little progress and then they move to other workers to set up a discussion group, so there is no real leadership over economic problems and no real consistency.

IS: So they remain as discussion groups?

So when the demonstrations spread in the industrial areas, the students still limit their activity to organising discussion groups. Also the student groups have not progressed much either, so the students just jump from one issue to another and it becomes hard for them. They use lots of energy but don’t build anything. Meanwhile there has also been an increasing political crisis in the government so other sections of society are beginning to address wider issues, but the majority of workers still see their own boss as the main problem.

IS: Is this changing now with the depth of the economic crisis?

Yes, workers are beginning to look increasingly to political issues beyond their own workplaces.

IS: Are the urban poor still attacking buildings?

No, that only happened on one occasion, in May. Now they are waiting for another chance.

IS: How do you see the future of Habibie? Do you think it is a stable regime?

His party has elections in November. We think Habibie will not be the leader after November because he is not accepted by the people or the military.

IS: So you think it will be a long term crisis, an organic crisis?

It is a global crisis, as well as a deep crisis in Indonesia.

IS: How do you see the democratic revolution in relation to the socialist revolution? Do you think there is a separation?

The socialist revolution and the democratic revolution are not separate. The process of insurrection can lead to rapid change, or to slow gradual change.

IS: If the regime falls through mass action, could that open the door to rapid transformation?

Yes, that is why we are trying to build a democratic coalition in Indonesia, involving groups that do not have the same ideological positions as us.

IS: With what sort of groups are you working?

For example, if people from Amien Rais’s organisation wanted to work with us, we would not refuse them. We want to build the biggest possible coalition for democratic reform.

IS: Do you think Rais would support that?

No. Megawati may, but not Rais.

IS: Why do you think Megawati has been so quiet and careful?

Megawati is an ambiguous figure. She never makes a catagorical statement. But she is supported by the people because of her father. Megawati stays a long way behind the masses. They are running ahead calling her on.

IS: Is she still the most popular opposition leader?

Yes, she has the support of most of the people. That is the stupidity of Megawati, because if she dared to take the leadership, she could do it. And because of her lack of a political background, she is just a spoilt child, and some in the movement call her a housewife.

IS: In the Philippines Cory Aquino moved quickly to stop the revolutionary process but here, because Megawati has been so slow, it means that the process can become more protracted and much deeper.

Yes, we agree.

IS: How do you see your organisation developing from here? What is your immediate perspective?

From the past of our movement, we have learnt to concentrate on other sectors of the country. In Jakarta we put out a political leaflet arguing ‘Down with Suharto. Take his wealth. Lower the prices’. Now we are concentrating our efforts on the workers, because the workers move slower than students but they are better organised. Also we have programme for students to go and organise the workers, put out leaflets and so on.

IS: The demand to take Suharto’s wealth is a good demand-after all, it is all still there. Is it a popular demand with the masses?

Yes, the masses would say it is a good idea.

IS: Have you organised among women workers?

Yes, about 60 to 70 percent of workers are women.

IS: Are they well organised?

Not in separate women’s organisations, but in factory organisations, yes they are. They are the leaders of some of the unions, representing men as well as women.

IS: Are the women more militant than the men?

Yes, because the history of our movement shows that the factories with most women workers tend to be the most militant. The most active workers are the women workers. They regularly attend meetings and the representatives of each workforce are usually the most active workers in the factory, often women. The representatives always give speeches – it doesn’t matter whether it is a man or a women. Also we try to build around issues important to women workers because the discrimination against women still happens. There is not equal pay and social conditions, so sometimes men get money for meals and women don’t. There is also sexual harassment. Women often get body searched at work and they don’t get menstruation holidays. In the middle class the issue of women is also being raised, because of the rape of Chinese women. Middle class feminism is also growing but because of exploitation most working class women look to workplace organisation, not middle class feminism.

IS: Would you like to say anything to people in Britain?

Yes, keep fighting. Let’s fight for a classless society.

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