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Eyewitness account from Indonesia – Repression and resistance

JUNE 18, 2001 – June 11, the Asia-Pacific Peoples’ Solidarity Conference – an anti-globalization conference taking place in Jakarta, Indonesia –– was violently shut down by police and a pro-police right-wing militia. [1] I was one of the delegates and wrote this report.

To understand Indonesia, you have to understand the depth of the economic crisis. Jakarta, where I was staying, is a city blasted raw by the market and by imperialism. Just a few years ago, held up as an example of “capitalist development”, Jakarta today is a city where you can see in the background, the bank towers and the other temples of modern capitalism, while in the foreground are the teeming millions of the urban poor.

The urban poor carry themselves with a tremendous dignity. But the poverty in which they live is crushing.

Every street corner, every inch of sidewalk, every interchange on the highway is crammed with people, scrapping out a living by selling water, cigarettes, toothpaste – anything and everything.

At the old port, the first day I arrived, it felt like we were being thrust back into the 19th century. There lined up on the pier were ten or so sailing ships – still very much in use, plying the waters of the archipelago to pick up planks of wood and deliver them to Jakarta. Barefoot dockworkers unloaded the ships by hand, walking down wooden planks from ship to shore.

While there, I purchased souvenirs from dockworkers who supplement their income by making postcards out of wood chips. Two packages cost me 20,000 rupiah. I discovered that was a days’ wage for a dock-worker – the equivalent of $2 US – and that is considered a good wage.

Indonesia, then, is a living experiment in pure, unfettered market capitalism.

And the response of the government and the International Monetary Fund is to let it be even more unfettered. The IMF and the Indonesian government are in a tug of war over removing subsidies on fuel, rice and other basic necessities.[2] Were these subsidies to be removed, the effect on workers, peasants and the urban poor would be catastrophic. Three times the government has backed off these price increases for fear of revolt.

Indonesia would be loved by those in Canada with a privatization agenda. In Indonesia, the army and the police are already virtually privatized. Both rely only partially on government money for their operations. Both are major players in Indonesian capitalism. A large part of their operations is financed by corporate profits.[3]

Police and their thugs

The Asia-Pacific Peoples’ Solidarity Conference was a test of the new democracy that exists in Indonesia. Until the fall of Suharto in 1998, it would have been unthinkable to organize an open discussion on the fight against globalization. Today such a discussion is legal. But, as we were to find out, old habits die hard.

The first day and a half proceeded uneventfully. The 30-plus foreign delegates and the 50 or 60 from Indonesia, engaged in animated discussions, comparing notes on the fight against globalization in the advanced west and in the Third World.

At 3:05 pm Friday June 11, our agenda was disrupted.

Twenty or so armed police entered the conference room, two with rifles drawn, demanding that proceedings end. Outside there were dozens more more – perhaps as many as 300, and many police vehicles.

At first it looked like the target was the foreign delegates. The police claimed that the foreign delegates had arrived under false pretenses, that we had not received the appropriate visas.

Our Indonesian hosts quickly ushered us into the inner-most circle of tables, so that two layers of table lay between us and the cops. They then linked arms around the tables and around us.

The stand-off lasted two hours.

Our hosts had considerable experience in combating police repression. They organized chants, sang resistance songs in Bahasa Indonesian. This was our only weapon – defiance. But it confused and slowed down the police.

Finally, we reached a compromise. We would keep our passports, but proceed under detention to the police station. Our Indonesian hosts advised us to accept this compromise, as there were forces present more dangerous than the police.

They were absolutely right.

Two hours after we were cleared out of the conference centre by the police, a right-wing militia group attacked the Indonesians who had remained behind. The police stood by and did nothing.

Wielding swords, knives and sticks, they descended on our unarmed hosts, forcing them to retreat. In the chaos, glass doors and windows were shattered, and many were cut with shards of glass, two seriously. One person had an artery severed in his neck and had to undergo emergency surgery.

The next time you hear of “ethnic violence” in Indonesia, remember this pattern – a so-called “private” militia group doing the police’s dirty work.

The militia attack revealed the real agenda of the police.

We foreigners were a footnote. The real targets were the anti-globalization activists from Indonesia. Even talk of fighting globalization is a threat, and that talk had to be ended.

By Monday, the incident had exploded into a major scandal in Indonesia. This time, the police had gone too far.

Crucially, solidarity demonstrations had been held around the world in outrage over the police attack.

Six cities in Australia, seven in Canada, four in the United States, one in New Zealand and one in Britain organized demonstrations on 24-hours notice.

The storm of controversy led the Jakarta Post, in their lead editorial Monday June 14, to denounce the ‘police and their thugs’.

In the end, the police succeeded in having one delegate deported, Farooq Tariq head of the Association for the Renewal of Democracy in Pakistan. “I am being deported because of the colour of my skin,” Farooq told the press, “this is just racism.”

Pakistan is a military dictatorship, and his deportation put him in some jeopardy. Fortunately, he sent us word that he has arrived without incident back home in Lahore, Pakistan.

On Monday June 14, immigration authorities concluded that all the rest of us could have our passports back with no charges laid.

But before this happened, we were detained for 24 hours in the central Jakarta police station, and were unable to finish the rest of the conference.

And that was the point – to shut the conference down.

The urgent need for solidarity

This time, the police repression backfired. A small conference that few knew about became national news in a way that has, for now, discredited the police.

But the conditions faced by anti-globalization activists in Indonesia are difficult in the extreme.

The veneer of democracy in Indonesia is very thin. There is a privileged elite which works hand in glove with foreign corporations, a privileged elite that has a stake in preserving the status quo in Indonesia.

The only reliable forces for democracy in the country are the working class and the urban poor.

We should also be clear that at the root, this is not Indonesia’s crisis. It is a crisis of capitalism, a capitalist system at whose pinnacle sit giant multi-national corporations, including Canadian corporations.

We have an interest and an obligation to build solidarity for those struggling against globalization in Indonesia.

The obligation is obvious. Their conditions are extremely difficult. Solidarity from the west does make a difference – it can embarrass the government and for a period stay the hand of the police. And it lifts the morale of our sisters and brothers who face this kind of repression every day.

It matters not whether you can mobilize five, fifty or five hundred – building solidarity for Third World struggles must become a top priority for activists in the West.

But it is also in our interest. The ravages of capitalism are more extreme in Indonesia, but it is a matter of degree. The same agenda is at work here in Canada – an agenda of privatization, deregulation and the unfettered rule of the market.

The stronger the movement is in places like Indonesia, the stronger our anti-capitalist movement will be at home.

The immediate step in that solidarity involves money.

The police raid cost the conference organizers 13 million rupiah. The biggest cost was paying for hospital care for those injured in the raid. Health care is not free in Indonesia.

Thirteen million rupiah is a crushing sum inside Indonesia. But it is actually equivalent to only $1,300 US, because of the weakness of the Indonesian currency.

We need to show our solidarity by raising money to pay off this debt.

‘Injustice must be resisted’

The conference programme was preceded with a quote from a well-known anti-Suharto literary figure, Pramoedya Ananta Toer. To him we give the last word.

“Imperialism is a power that still rules throughout the world.

“Its essence is capitalism, whether primitive or modern. In the West, they have ‘democracy’ but outside their own country, they do not apply democracy …

“This imperialism from the West exploits the coloured peoples. In Indonesia the word ‘rakyat’, which comes from the Arabic, means the lowest layers of the inhabitants.

“They are the workers and the peasants. It is they who are exploited by imperialism, primitive or modern. The native elite are imperialism’s dogs. …

“What they call globalization is actually the total victory of capitalism. Capitalism’s only goal is to seek profit wherever and however it can, using every opportunity and tool available. …

“Even injustice has a purpose, namely that we resist it. So, as long as there is life in one’s body, injustice must be resisted with whatever means possible.”

© 2001 Paul Kellogg This work is licensed under a CC BY 4.0 license


[1] Sharon Lindores, “Queen’s Grad Held at Gunpoint in Indonesia,” Kingston Whig – Standard, June 13, 2001, sec. Community; Jeff Gray, “Canadian Activist Detained in Indonesia,” The Globe and Mail (Online), June 13, 2001; Paul Knox, “Police Descend on Indonesians: As Democracy Debate Begins,” The Globe and Mail, June 14, 2001, sec. International News.

[2] Timothy Mapes, “Jakarta Postpones Fuel-Price Increase – Delay May Imperil Efforts to Sweeten Relations With the IMF,” Asian Wall Street Journal, June 15, 2001, sec. International News.

[3] According to Michael Richardson in the International Herald Tribune: “a major reason why the armed forces want to retain influence over government, despite their assertions to the contrary, is that they depend heavily for their institutional and personal financing on companies and enterprises run or controlled by the military.” (Michael Richardson, “Indonesia’s Military Regains Its Influence Political Discord Provides an Opening,” International Herald Tribune, May 24, 2001.)

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