Workers' Liberty #57


Struggles in Indonesia

A conversation with Dita Sari, by Martin Thomas.

Heroine of the Indonesian labour movement

One of the great heroines of the world labour movement, Dita Sari, visited Australia in August this year. In July an international campaign had finally won her release from jail in Indonesia. She had been imprisoned since July 1996 on charges of "disturbing public order and security" because of her activities as president of the illegal independent trade union centre PPBI and a leader of Indonesia's main socialist opposition group, the People's Democratic Party.

When jailed Dita was only 23 years old. She had been politically active for a bit over three years, abandoning the comfortable future which had been open to her as a 19 year old law student in order to champion the cause of the working class.

What sustained her through the years in jail, during which at one point she suffered severe typhoid? Her commitment, she told a socialist gathering in Brisbane, came "not from friends or books, but from the passion I had for the working class, and the feeling that I did the right thing. Many other issues are important, but the most important thing is to stop capitalism exploiting the people and taking the profits from the working class".

After her long spell in jail, and a speaking tour across Australia, Dita was in poor health by the time she reached Brisbane, and too tired to debate politics at length. However, I was able to exchange some ideas with her.

What progress was being made, I asked, after the fall of the Suharto dictatorship, in the Indonesian workers organising and gaining sufficient self-confidence to pose a workers' and farmers' government as the only way out from Indonesia's terrible mass poverty, unemployment, and social inequality? There are now 19 trade-union organisations in Indonesia, Dita replied, and maybe more. The workers have begun to develop a consciousness about the need to organise themselves in unions and to campaign for workers' rights.

But there are big illusions about the next government - big illusions among working people that Megawati Sukarnoputri [the leading bourgeois democratic opposition figure in the last days of the Suharto regime] will get them out of these hard times. In fact, Megawati speaks a lot about macro-political issues but mentions nothing for the working class, nothing about freedom of association for workers. Her party, the PDI-P, has never said anything about a policy to overcome the problems facing the working class.

But the illusions are an obstacle. Another obstacle is that lots of unions think it is only important to develop economic issues. They don't mention the role of the military. But if the military are still there, in and around the workplaces, then the workers cannot organise freely at ground level or negotiate fairly with the employers. Unions should demand not only better wages, but the end of the dual role of the military [as an army, and also as a policing agency in every part of civilian society and as a guaranteed part of government].

Dita said that she and her comrades believe they must develop a consciousness among workers that they can play a big role in changing society. They want workers to have a strong position in government policy. They try to educate workers in the need to take action not only against the employers, but also against the government - to make workers understand that they cannot improve their conditions unless they can influence government policy.

I asked Dita why she put the issue in terms of workers influencing government policy - the official PRD slogan is for "a democratic coalition government" which would include both Megawati and radical left forces like the PRD - rather than the workers and the farmers defeating the wealthy classes to form their own government. The masses have great illusions in Megawati, she replied. We can't go against them. We would be isolated. In Trotsky's pamphlet on the trade unions, he says that revolutionaries never leave the unions. The revolutionaries are always for unity, for a broad movement. It's always the reformists who split.

Whether or not Trotsky was quite that dogmatic about trade-union unity, to my mind workers' unity is quite a different matter from unity with a bourgeois politician like Megawati. I talked about historical examples, from our South African comrades, in WOSA, running the Workers' List against the ANC in the first post-apartheid elections, back to Lenin's successful struggle in 1917 to break the Bolsheviks from supporting the "democratic coalition" Provisional Government in Russia. Refusing a "democratic coalition" with Megawati would not necessarily mean shrill self-isolating denunciations or delusions of rapid socialist victory. Socialists could still say they would stand with Megawati in any real steps she took against the military, while at the same time advocating a workers' and farmers' government as the only proper way forward.

Dita was not convinced. In Russia, she said, Lenin talked about dual power. The PRD works on two levels. As well as working for a democratic coalition government, it works for working-class power at the base, like the workers' councils in Russia in 1917. To make a socialist revolution, Dita said, you cannot work with the bourgeoisie, the capitalists. But you can and must work with the progressive middle class. For the PRD, Megawati represents a middle force. Whether she goes to the right or to the left depends on the pressure of the mass movement. Dita was emphatic that the PRD does not support Megawati. In strict interpretation that is true, though whether to the Indonesian workers hearing its message the PRD line really sounds any different from critical support is another question.

I moved on to another question. To the English-language Jakarta Post, for example, the PRD says it is definitely not communist but instead "social-democratic" - plainly using "social-democratic" in a very different meaning from Europe or Australia. Dita had explained that the PRD is reorganising its trade-union work round a new body - the FNPBI, created by bringing together several local groups - in place of the old PPBI. In 1996 Suharto not only jailed many PRD members, but organised a fierce "anti-communist" campaign against the PPBI. After that, Dita said, the PRD found it could no longer approach the masses with the old banner of the PPBI.

Why does anti-communism grip so strongly in Indonesia, I asked, even after Suharto has been discredited and chased from power? To the average not-very-political worker, what does "communist" mean? Cruel, violent, godless, replied Dita. Because of what they know about China or the USSR? Not really. Most of the workers don't read newspapers or watch TV. It's more a result of Suharto's propaganda campaigns against the old Indonesian Communist Party.

What does "socialist" mean, I asked? Dita replied: to most workers, it means wanting everyone to be exactly the same, with the same wages, the same clothing, the same everything. That's entirely wrong, she said, but it's what most workers think.

Dita also explained that the FNPBI had recently formed an alliance, the FSU, with the SBSI (the strongest, so Dita told me, of the independent unions, but with "no politics"), the SPSI-Reform (a split-off from the old government-controlled union organisation), and some Islamic unions. Was the PRD's aim to unite the unions into a single strong organisation, with democratic rights for minorities? Yes, said Dita, but at this stage the FNPBI is only working with five or six other union organisations out of the 19 in the field. There's a long way to go.

What about other workers' parties? There are four workers' parties in Indonesia, Dita replied, all very small - the Indonesian Workers' Party, the Workers' Solidarity Party, the All-Indonesian Workers' Solidarity Party, and the National Labour Party (linked to the SBSI). Who launched them? Some worker activists, some progressive-minded middle-class people. What are their politics? They advocate improvement of workers' conditions, but have little broader politics. What scope does the PRD see for working with them? Dita thought there were better possibilities for working with the other unions than with the parties as such.

Dita's comrade Budiman Sudjatmiko, chair of the PRD, has told the Jakarta Post that: "Che Guevara was my idol when I was in high school. I had his poster and books all over my room. What I learned from him was his consistency. He was faithful to his struggle..." Courage, the basic quality that all revolutionaries have always needed, is indeed the common thread between Guevara and Budiman, Dita Sari, and their PRD comrades.

Yet I came away from Dita's speeches, and my conversations with her, thinking that maybe she exemplifies a paradigm-shift in revolutionary politics. Che Guevara called on revolutionaries to "create two, three, many Vietnams" immediately, though the groups he was appealing to were usually weaker than the 25,000 strong PRD. Plainly he felt that the existence of North Vietnam, China, the USSR and so on - whatever his criticisms of them - created and exemplified a great historical wave that he could "surf" on. Dita has no such easy optimism. Asked how soon the "dual role" of the army could be ended in Indonesia, Dita replied that Megawati has estimated six years but she herself doubted it would be that soon. And however soon or late Dita can reach her goal, it is not the creation of another "communist" state on the model of Vietnam.

For Guevara, workers, wages, trade unions, and the civil rights associated with parliamentary democracy were all very secondary and disposable in his vision of socialism. For Dita, they are central. (When I told her that our group is called Workers' Liberty, she was pleased with the name).

In 1989 the Chinese students built a Statue of Liberty in Tienanmen Square. After a whole era in which the Statue of Liberty was only an advertising emblem for a great power which ruthlessly backed up and imposed client dictatorships across the world, it suddenly became a symbol of revolution. At the same time, the hammer and sickle, long the icon of revolution, has been perceived by more and more millions of people as a trade-mark for police states, bureaucratic privilege, and economic clumsiness or stagnation. (Even if many get the message only filtered through several voices from the minority who do watch TV or read newspapers, I can't believe that Dita's right about mass "anti-communism" in Indonesia having nothing to do with China or the USSR).

Budiman in jail, defiantly rejecting a government offer of conditional clemency, quoted John Lennon's song title, "Life begins at forty" (his age on release if he serves his full 13 year sentence). Dita finished her main speech in Brisbane by singing a song from Bob Marley. Not Ho Chi Minh, but John Lennon and Bob Marley! Revolutionaries always have to take our language, images and rhetoric from a culture shaped by others. For decades we had no choice but to use concepts whose dominant meanings had been re-shaped by Stalinism - revolution, socialism, communism - and then to try to explain to those whose ears we caught that we meant something different. Dita, Budiman, and their comrades are, I think, trying to establish a new language for revolutionary politics, based on the non-Stalinist traditions of radical democracy.

There is a paradox here, or a contradiction, I don't know which. The PRD's closest links are with Australia's Democratic Socialist Party. The DSP are not Stalinist, but for them the "democratic coalition government" is the centrepiece of an elaborate theory of revolution in less-industrialised countries based on Stalinist or Stalinist-inflected models. "Democratic coalition governments" describe the first post-revolutionary governments, fronted up with captive bourgeois politicians, formed by Tito in Yugoslavia, Castro in Cuba, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and so on. Revolution in less-industrialised countries has to be a "two-stage" process, with "democratic coalition government" as the goal of the first stage. This theory makes democracy an important theme in revolutionary politics - but only as a disposable expedient on the way to creating "socialism" on the model of Cuba, where all real democracy is stifled under a one-party state with no independent trade unions.

How much the PRD buys into this theory, I don't know. I asked Dita if she saw any historical models for the "democratic coalition" government she advocates - if she thought any such "democratic coalition" governments had ever existed, anywhere- - and instead of citing Nicaragua or Cuba or Yugoslavia, she said, "I don't know". My hope is that she and her comrades will see that democracy is indeed central to revolution, but that it can be made thoroughgoing only by a government of the worker and peasant majority, not by a coalition with sections of the wealthy classes.

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