Indonesia's January 28 protest actions: political limitations and potential

From March 23 until May 3, Zely Ariane will be touring Australia, speaking at Direct Action forums, at universities, to trade union meetings and at other venues. Ariane is the National Spokesperson of the Committee for the Politics of the Poor-Peoples Democratic Party (KPRM-PRD), one of Indonesia’s left-wing political parties. She is also active in the Indonesian Solidarity Alliance for Workers Struggle (GSPB) and the National Women’s Liberation Network (JNPM). She was interviewed for Direct Action by Max Lane.

Direct Action: There were demonstrations in many cities around Indonesia on January 28, the anniversary of the first 100 days of the second term of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. What social layers were involved in those demonstrations?

Students dominated, while trade unionists were the second biggest component. The January 28 actions were a kind of culmination of a series of protests that had been going on since Yudhoyono’s inauguration on October 20 last year. Almost during the whole year there had been student protests against the new education institution legal status law that was resulting in the commercialisation of campuses and increasing the cost of education. There had also been “mainstream” issues around the arrest of some of the leaders of the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) and the bail out of a bank, the Century Bank.

The January 28 demonstrations were a moment where all these interests came together, given that it was on the 100th day of Yudhoyono’s government, or actually on the anniversary of five years and 100 days of his presidency, given that the polices are the same now as in his first term. Although the issue that mobilised the greatest variety of groups, especially various student committees and organizations, was corruption.

What were the various coalitions mobilising around the country?

The coalitions that were organising these protests nationally were the Clean Indonesia Movement (GIB), the Indonesian Peoples Opposition Front (FORI), and the Peoples Struggle Front (FPR), university student executive bodies, and students’ action committees. Trade unions such as the Indonesian Metal Workers Union (SPMI) and the National Workers Union (SPN) were also involved. In the towns across the country the forces were more-or-less the same, although the names of the coalitions varied.

GIB was a coalition formed around corruption issues, including the arrests of the KPK leaders and the Century Bank scandal. Their first action was on December 9, World Anti Corruption Day. The spectrum of forces involved included both reform-minded and fake reformers advocating a fairly moderate platform. They criticise the government from the angle of eradication of corruption. They stress that their movement is not aimed at opposing Yudhoyono.

Groups involved in GIB include the Peoples Democratic Party (PRD), the National Student League for Democracy (LMND), and the various long established religious student organisations. Other figures include Fadjroel Rahman (Society Coalition Against Corruption, Kompak), Adi Massardi (a figure close to the late Abdurrahman Wahid), Efendi Gadzali (an academic and popular current affairs TV personality), Yudi Latief (an academic), Ray Rangkuti (head of the Independent Commission to Monitor Elections, KIPP), Dien Syamsudin (head of the Muhammadiyah, a liberal Islamic socioreligious organisation) and Usman Hamid, the coordinator of the human rights group Kontras. GIB received some support for a while from Hidayat Nurwahid, from the Islamist Justice and Welfare Party, PKS. These groups have their own networks throughout the country and were able to hold protests in several places. They often used different names. For example, the PRD-dominated LMND used the name Parliament of the Streets Alliance in some towns.

FORI is a coalition whose motor force has been the process of consolidation of collaboration between left groups and those NGOs that support mass mobilisation politics. Most of these organisations had previously been involved in the National Liberation Front (FPN) that had organised mobilisations against fuel prices rises in 2008. Some had also collaborated in the Peoples Struggle Committee that had organised protest actions against the government on Yudhoyono’s inauguration last October 20.

These groups include the Working Peoples Association (PRP), ourselves in the KPRM-PRD and the Politics of the Poor Association (PPRM), as well as Indonesian Students Union (SMI), the Indonesian Struggle Centre (PPI), the LMND-PRM, the Congress of Indonesian Trade Unions Alliance (KASBI), the Jakarta Federation of Trade Unions (FPBJ), the Preparatory Committee for the Centre of Indonesian Labour Struggles (KP-PPBI), the Indonesian Transport Workers Union (SBTPI), as well as NGOs such as the Indonesian Friends of the Earth (Wahli) and several others.

FORI is a continuation of an initiative by the PRP to consolidate what they call the opposition against Yudhoyono. In the beginning this consolidation process took place on two levels nationally and in the Jakarta-Bogor-Tangerang-Bekasi area, that is metropolitan Jakarta and the region around it, called Jabotabek. Our organisation was more involved in FORI Jabotabek. Most of the NGOs were involved in FORI National. It is not clear why these two processes developed separately. We had no idea that there were going to be two FORI coalitions when we got involved.

What is clear is that the Jabotabek FORI had a very clear call for the replacement of the Yudhoyono government and the formation of a “united peoples’ government”. This included putting forward fundamental solutions such as national industrialisation and the nationalisation of vital industries under popular control as well as other programs relating to the pressing needs of the people, the workers and peasants. It was a pity that the slogan adopted by FORI national was “change the regime, change the system”, which is very abstract and points to no programmatic answers to the people’s problems.

As January 28 approached the two FORI in Jakarta united and also called for the formation of FORI coalitions in the rest of the country. However, not many of the alliances in the regions adopted the FORI name. This only happened in Bandung (west Java), Palu (Sulawesi) and Samarinda (East Kalimantan). This is probably because in many areas there were already consolidated alliances and the call for a new alliance or just to change the name to FORI did not receive support. Alliances in other towns where we were involved include in Medan (north Sumatra), in the North Sumatra Pro-Democracy Movement; in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second biggest city, located in east Java, in the People Resist Front (BRM); in Yogyakarta, central Java, in the Peoples Challenge Alliance (ARM); and in Makassar, Sulawesi, in the Peoples Movement United Against Neo-liberalism and Globalisation for Revolution, with the acronym Gerbang Revolusi, which means gateway to revolution.

Another alliance is the Peoples Struggle Front (FPR). This is the only one of the alliances formed during the protests against fuel price rises in 2008 which has been able to sustain itself. Some of the member organisations are the People’s Movement Alliance for Agrarian Reform (AGRA), the National Students Front (FMN), and the Association of Independent Trade Unions (GSBI). Many of these organisations are affiliated to the Philippines-based International League for People’s Struggle (ILPS). Their slogan was “Human rights for us, justice for us, the people’s movement demands wages, land and work”.

All these demonstrations took place outside the Presidential Palace and concentrated their attacks on the Yudhoyono-Budiono government. The two big unions, the SPMI and the SPN, held their demonstrations outside the parliament building and focused their fire on the various free trade agreements currently being agreed to by the government and parliament. The student executive bodies (BEMs), which are faculty level student councils, and other student action committees, also mobilised on this occasion. It is probable that most of these are new formations responding to the various issues of government policy that have arisen most recently. They too have developed networks outside Jakarta with different groups joining different coalitions including both GIB and FORI as well as various completely new coalitions at the town level .

What were the differences between all these separate protest actions?

None of these coalitions shared a common speaking platform, except FORI and GIB which shared a common rally platform at the end. There was no attempt to arrange this beforehand, at least as far as FORI was concerned. This was because FORI’s mobilisation was also aimed at the bourgeois political elite that was just pretending to oppose Yudhoyono’s pro-capitalist policies. This meant that FORI was not aiming to unite with GIB, which involved many elite politicians and fake reformers. As regards the FPR, past experience has shown that there were no real opportunities to unite on the ground with them.

In some respects, there are not so many differences regarding the issues that all the groups are protesting against as regards the Yudhoyono government. The differences are more visible when it comes to solutions, and also to the track record of the different groups. GIB, for example, concentrates more on corruption and the demand for the government to deal with it through legal channels. FORI and FPR emphasise more the failure of the Yudhoyono government as a part of the failure of the capitalist system which it administers. From a track-record point of view, most of the forces in GIB have never shown a real interest in fundamental change or replacement of capitalism and mostly still seek solutions through parliamentary channels, with the parliament full of fake reform parties.

How do you estimate the potential of these mobilisations to develop the mass struggle?

There is a lot of potential for a consolidation of a movement that could take the offensive against the regime’s policies, and this can only be done through the extra-parliamentary movement. The “parliamentary opposition” that just a little while ago was speaking out so loudly against “neoliberal” economic policies is now silent. Their investigation around the Bank Century scandal has moved away from disturbing Yudhoyono. This was very predictable from the start. Not one of these elite politicians has what it takes to be a real opposition to the government. The Golkar party started also speaking out as soon as its head, Aburizal Bakrie, was threatened with legal action over huge unpaid taxes. It’s all just about bargaining for a backroom deal.

But once these issues have been raised, they can’t be put back in the box. It all helps in raising the peoples’ awareness. It is the students and workers that have the potential to develop the movement through the extra-parliamentary mass action. The expression of anti-Yudhoyono-Budiono sentiment in January was a useful investment towards future campaigns. There are more and more channels available for propaganda about real solutions, about socialism. Whether this potential can be quickly realised will depend on whether the left can consolidate and launch more campaigning offensives. The parliamentary opposition has become quiescent, but it will always be looking for openings to come up with more maneouvres. It is in the interest of the left to keep the atmosphere as politicised as possible and to seek out the political openings for continuing the propaganda explanation about Yudhoyono’s role as an agent of capitalism and the need to end capitalism itself. At the same time, we must ensure that the political elite and other enemies of the people’s interest like the remnants of the Suharto regime, the fake reformers and the army commanders, don’t steal the momentum created by these offensives against the regime.

The consolidation of forces allied in opposition to neoliberalism and the resistance of the unions against the free trade agreements will provide the next opportunities, including to take people beyond being just against Yudhoyono and into opposition to capitalism and to Yudhoyono as its agent.

The other positive development is the huge public hatred of the recent cases of legal persecution of very poor people for minor theft, such as of a few cacao seedlings, or who have in fact done nothing illegal. This phenomenon was provoked initially by a case against a big private hospital which sued a poor women patient who had complained about malpractice to a few friends over the internet. People compare it to how the corrupt rich are always getting off scot free or with light sentences.

How big were the January 28 demonstrations?

There are different estimates of the Jakarta demonstrations. GIB mobilised about 1000 people, FORI about 3000, FPR less than both of those. The various student committees combined may have mobilised a total of between 1000 and 2000. The biggest mobilisations were those of the unions which were around 5000. Police estimates of the total on the streets in Jakarta was 10,000, when the target was 40,000. Perhaps if we added all the demonstrations in the hundreds of towns around the country, it may add up to a million people — still way below the situation where 1 million came out onto the streets of Jakarta alone in 1998.

What has been the reaction of the political elite?

Even though the numbers were relatively small, the anti-corruption protests were able to win a profile on the national political stage. The media have been highlighting the cases around the KPK and the Bank Century. The government’s response to the protests was to overreact somewhat in its statements. However, there was no general repression. There were some arrests, but not as many as during Megawati’s presidency. FORI activists who were arrested have all been released. The regime has to calculate carefully the damage that will be done to its image if it engages in systematic repression, especially given all its other recent anti-popular policies as well as introducing bills into parliament aimed at tightening restrictions on access to government information, on the press, and on radio broadcasting as well as strengthening the intelligence agencies.