Indonesia: Unfinished Nation

I am back in Indonesia in 2015 learning more about culture, unions and politics. I read 13 books and post these reviews.

1. ‘Unfinished Nation: Indonesia before and after Suharto’ by Max Lane, Verso, 2008 and two other Max Lane books.

Max Lane’s books provide a key analysis that are most interesting. Max is an Australian left activist, participant in Indonesian politics and author. He has translated Indonesian literature by famous Indonesian novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer and playwright W. S. Rendra. He is a former Lecturer in Southeast Asian Politics and History at Victoria University.

I had not met Max Lane before and was pleased to meet him and hear his analysis twice in Jakarta in 2014 on Indonesian politics. He introduced me to Danial Indrakusuma who in the 1990s in the PRD Peoples Democratic Party pushed Suharto out with mass protests. The detailed facts of this mass protest history features in Lane’s books. Danial is now with an alternative workers’ media, (here in English)

First, see my earlier post on Jokowi winning the Presidential elections against Prabowo. Max Lane and others are cited. His books are before Jokowi is elected President. Background here

Next, in this video Max Lane discusses Mass Protest Action ‘Aksi’ and the rise of unionism in Indonesia, with Asialink

Book 1.
Max Lane, Unfinished Nation: Indonesia before and after Suharto, Verso, 2008

Book 2
Max Lane, Catastrophe in Indonesia, Seagull Books, December 2010.

Book 3
Max Lane, “Decentralization and Its Discontents: An Essay on Class, Political Agency and National Perspective in Indonesian Politics” 2014, ISEAS Monograph Series, Singapore.

1. Unfinished Nation: Indonesia before and after Suharto
By Max Lane

I post one review by Nick Everett,
DIRECT ACTION monthly, August 2008.

‘In May 1998, Indonesian dictator General Mohammed Suharto was forced out of power when his cabinet ministers and the other generals — faced with escalating mass protests — abandoned him.

A second upsurge of protest, drawing in even larger layers of the population in November 1998, forced Suharto’s successor as Indonesian president, Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie, to call elections.

These events signaled the end of Indonesia’s New Order dictatorship, which had dominated Indonesian political life throughout most of the archipelago’s post-colonial history.

Unfinished Nation traces the evolution of Indonesia’s political struggle from the stirring of an anti-colonial movement at the beginning of the 20th century through to the post-Suharto era.

It tells the story of the real heroes of this struggle: Indonesia’s workers, peasants and urban poor, whose sustained mass action was the determining force in overthrowing the New Order regime.

The book’s author, Max Lane, writes both from the viewpoint of a participant in this movement — as a close collaborator with Indonesian radicals who formed the Peoples Democratic Party (PRD) in the mid-1990s — and someone who has participated in building solidarity with the anti-dictatorship struggle in Australia.

Lane came into contact with the first wave of student protest against Suharto in 1975 as a participant in the Bengkel Theatre, led by dissident playwright WS Rendra. Lane translated one of Rendra’s plays, Kisa Perjuangan Suka Naga, into English. The play was published in the US and Australia and later performed in several countries.

In 1981, Lane helped found a journal of Indonesian studies, Inside Indonesia, This contributed to critical debate on Indonesia and roused interest in solidarity with the anti-dictatorship struggle in the 1990s, particularly among Australian university students.

During the 1980s, Lane translated Indonesian novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s Buru Quartet, bringing to light a rich historical narrative of Indonesia’s national revolution that had been suppressed under the Suharto dictatorship. (I really enjoyed these books – essential reading to understand Indonesia

Returning to Indonesia in 1990, Lane made contact with a younger generation of Indonesian political activists and witnessed the stirring of a new anti-dictatorship struggle that had begun with a series of mass protests against the World Bank-financed Kedung Ombo dam project. There he met with activists who pioneered the revival of street protest mobilisations, factory strikes and land occupations. Many of these activists went on to form the Partai Rakyat Demokratik (PRD – Peoples Democratic Party), which first emerged from underground in 1994. On his return to Australia, Lane was a founding member of Action in Solidarity with Indonesia and East Timor (ASIET), which played an instrumental role in building solidarity with both Indonesia’s anti-dictatorship struggle and East Timor’s independence movement in Australia during the 1990s.

In his introduction to Unfinished Nation, Lane explains that his analysis draws the conclusion that

“Suharto did not just fall from power — he was pushed and the movement that pushed him from power developed as the result of an arduous, conscious effort to build a political movement, based on mobilising masses of people in action.”

To understand this revival of aksi (protest action), Lane argues that it is necessary to view the rise of the anti-dictatorship movement, and subsequent struggles, within the history of Indonesia’s struggle for national liberation.

“Mass mobilisation politics”, Lane writes, “played a central role in the anti-colonial struggle that began at the beginning of the twentieth century and continued up until 1945 and in a struggle to ‘complete the revolution’ that unfolded between 1945 and 1965.”

Lane draws strongly on the literary novels of Pramoedya to illustrate how Indonesia’s national revolution came into being. Pramoedya was, according to Lane, the central literary figure in Indonesia’s national revolution and a committed revolutionary.

Pramoedya’s novels span a thousand years of Indonesia’s history. His most famous novels, This Earth of Mankind, Child of all Nations, Footsteps and House of Glass (known together as the Buru Quartet) tell the story of Indonesia’s national awakening. They were written during Pramoedya’s incarceration on Buru Island.

The first three novels are narrated by their central character, Minke, based on the writer, journalist and political leader,
Tirto Adhisuryo. The first indigenous Indonesian to publish a daily newspaper, Adhisuryo used the paper to promote the struggle against Dutch colonialism and the organisation at the forefront of the struggle, Sarekat Islam (Union of Islamic Traders). The traders were the motive force of independent political and cultural life outside the enclaves of native civil servants employed by the Dutch. Sarekat Islam soon attracted all types of traders as well as workers and peasant farmers, claiming a membership of 2 million by 1919.

Lane explains that this organisation split in 1921, with a massive left wing, opposed to both colonialism and capitalism, forming the Sarekat Rakyat (Peoples Union). It was from this current that the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) emerged. Although the PKI was brutally suppressed by the Dutch colonial authorities in 1926-27, and again by Indonesian nationalists during the four-year guerrilla war against Dutch attempts to restore colonial rule in 1945-49, it was to re-emerge again in the post-independence era as a mass political force.

According to Lane, “Political parties, and the mass organizations affiliated to the parties, filled a social and cultural vacuum. Four hundred years of colonial intervention had held back energies that were now unleashed, energies to organise social life.”

Trade unions and peasant organizations flourished, particularly those affiliated to the PKI and the Indonesian National Party (PNI). By March 1958, 6 million workers were organised in trade unions and hundred of thousands involved in strikes. Workers occupied almost every Dutch-owned company in Indonesia, including mines, plantations, factories and import-export houses.

Increasingly ideological divisions emerged. The PKI and Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno — whose political strength arose from their organisation of the proletariat and the peasantry — argued that the national-liberation revolution had not been completed by the independence struggle in 1945-49 and that the economy was still in the grip of Dutch and other foreign business interests. The PKI and Sukarno called for the nationalisation of foreign-owned businesses, a role for workers in the management of state-owned enterprises and distribution of land from landowners to tenant farmers and the landless. The army, the right wing of the PNI and the Islamic parties opposed this perspective, instead seeking cooperation with the US and the other imperialist powers and greater access to the economy by foreign capital.

The struggle came to a head in 1965, when Suharto seized power in a military coup and launched a counter-revolution aimed at destroying the PKI and its mass organisations, which claimed a total membership of 25 million. Despite Sukarno’s huge popularity, he had few allies in his cabinet, which was dominated by the right wing of the PNI and the Islamic parties. The army gained increasing economic power as its senior officers asserted themselves as managers (and later owners) of nationalised foreign companies, including more than 400 plantations and scores of commercial, industrial and banking enterprises. Indonesia’s military officer caste therefore had a vested interest in Suharto’s counter-revolution.

Between 500,000 and 2 million Indonesians were slaughtered by the military and militias connected with the right-wing parties.

Lane explains: “Most of these people were leaders, activists or supporters of one component or other of the Indonesian left… [and] many of those killed died horribly, as part of a terror campaign. They were decapitated, disemboweled, dragged behind a truck or otherwise cruelly killed. In addition… hundreds of thousands more were detained… [and] at least 12,000 were further detained for another ten to twelve years.”

Commenting on the 1990s anti-dictatorship struggle, Lane observes: “The political party most connected to the struggle to re-establish mass mobilisation as a political method has been the PRD.

He also observes that the ideological outlook that underpins the PRD’s program of socio-demokrasi kerakyatan (popular social democracy) has continuity with the program of Indonesian socialism espoused in the 1960s by Sukarno and other forces on the left.

But he writes: “The PRD has not attempted to build upon the theoretical work done by either Soekarno, the PKI or anybody else active prior to 1965.” Lane cites the systematic wipeout of the memory of political history that followed by 1965-67 “ideologicide”, and the radically different international context, for this discontinuity.

Despite the counter-revolutionary suppression of the memory of Indonesia’s national-liberation revolution prior to 1965, Lane observes that “the historical legacy of a class consciousness developed out of collective national struggle… the charisma of Soekarno and the extraordinary rapidity of the re-emergence and spread of aksi [political activity] remains a fundamental feature of Indonesian politics”.

The imposition of harsh neo-liberal policies by successive post-Suharto governments has, according to Lane “deepened class divisions, multiplying socio-economic grievances, creating a huge population of workers, semi-proletarians and peasant farmers collectively suffering under this offensive.”

Lane concludes, “The method of struggle of the national revolution — mass political mobilisation — has been regained.

Political organisation of the popular classes has begun, but remains at an early stage, held back by the counter-revolution’s suppression of ideological life, of the people’s memory of the national revolution that created Indonesia.”

Ed Walsh book review in the Irish Left Review 2010.

“Lane begins by describing the birth of the independence movement under colonial rule in the early twentieth century, leading to the eviction of Dutch imperialism after the Second World War. The key figure in that movement was Soekarno, who became the dominant personality of the new state’s opening act. His nationalist organisation was shadowed by the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), the largest non-ruling communist party in the world (Lane estimates its membership in the 1960s to have been something in the region of 25 million). This was a turbulent period of mass engagement and participation when a huge swathe of Indonesia’s population was directly involved in political activism and debate about the future of the country. Lane suggests that an alliance was beginning to coalesce between Soekarno and the PKI around a platform of drastic social transformation.

That radical agenda posed a threat both to Indonesian elites and to those foreign interests Soekarno would have bluntly described as “western imperialism”. While Soekarno was nominally head of government, his supporters and those of the PKI had little influence within the state apparatus. Crucially, their opponents dominated the top tier of the Indonesian army, and used that position to launch a counter-revolutionary coup in 1965. It was followed by one of the biggest massacres of the twentieth century, directed against the supporters of the Indonesian left. …

Aksi and Revolution

The terror of the 1960s proved chillingly effective for the next three decades: apart from intermittent student protests and the occasional riot of the urban poor, the New Order was unchallenged as its dominant figures – from Suharto down, and including his entire family – proceeded to ransack the country in order to line their own pockets. But all bad things must come to an end, and the 1990s saw the formation of independent trade unions and other popular organisations that began to challenge the regime. Many of these organisations were nurtured by activists of the People’s Democratic Party (PRD), a leftist group whose perspectives have strongly influenced Lane’s thinking. The accumulation of strikes and other disturbances that troubled the sleep of the New Order coincided with a split within the political class. Suharto had attempted to conceal the nature of his regime by establishing a sham parliament with rigged elections and a house-trained pseudo-opposition. Megawati Soekarnoputri – Soekarno’s daughter – assumed the leadership of a satellite party: when the commissars of the New Order intervened to remove her, she refused to accept their diktats, and supporters of Megawati used the 1997 elections as an opportunity to vent their anger in a way that hadn’t been seen since the coup.

Lane describes those elections as the first of three key moments in the Indonesian revolution.
The second came in May 1998, when student protesters in Jakarta demanded the resignation of Suharto. As they watched hundreds of thousands of Indonesians join the protest, the notables of the New Order decided to abandon the tyrant and forced him to resign in favour of his vice-president. This clumsy attempt to preserve “Suhartoism without Suharto” was challenged in November of the same year by a third wave of mass protest. The PRD and other radical groups played a central role in organising this third wave, and even advanced the demand for a new political system based on “people’s councils”, to be elected by communities and workplaces across Indonesia. But the initiative was taken by “those politicians at arm’s length from the centre of power, not immersed in the machinations of suppressing the mobilisations, and who had some analytical capacity”. These included Megawati, Abdurrahman Wahid and Amien Rais.

Rais denounced the proposal for “people’s councils” with a careful piece of misdirection:
“This is very dangerous, because people are being told not to believe in the process of democracy, elections are belittled, and then parties will not be needed and people will just rely on mass strength, on muscle.”

In fact, as Rais understood perfectly well, it was the radicals calling for popular councils who were also demanding elections as soon as possible. What he really feared was that elite politicians like himself would be “belittled” by a system that transferred power to grassroots level. Rais, Wahid and Megawati issued a joint declaration calling for general elections but insisting that “everyone should return home and stop complicating the situation”. The protests came to an end, and pressure for a radical break with the New Order was dissipated.

When elections were held, Suharto’s GOLKAR party retained much of the infrastructure it had built up over three decades of monopoly rule, and the army lurked obtrusively in the background. Abdurrahman Wahid became the new president, but after his reforming zeal proved too much for the elite to bear, he was deposed by an alliance of GOLKAR (which wanted to protect its unearned privileges), the army (ditto), and Megawati (who wanted to be president herself at any cost). Wahid was supported by the PRD but could not defend his position because of his own political limitations:

“He had the worst of both worlds. His perspective on political liberalization, including the legalisation of communism; his attempt to bring other liberals into the government from outside the established political parties; and his support for the most outspoken reformer inside the armed forces set him against all parties that had supported his election as president. But neither did he put forward a platform that could galvanise popular support. His economic policies, involving imposition of IMF-prescribed austerity policies, was a barrier to winning popular support. Most crucially he consistently pulled back from using mass mobilisation as a means of organising and demonstrating public support for his presidency.”

‘Why were these elite politicians, who had done little or nothing to build the aksi movement that deposed Suharto, able to seize control of the protests and defuse their potential?

Lane sees this outcome as a legacy of the New Order’s repression.

The massacres of the 1960s – and the obliteration of historical memory that followed – had broken the continuity of the Indonesian left. The PRD itself was tiny in relation to the Indonesian population (or the PKI with which it was often compared). It was able to punch well above its weight in 1997-8, but the leftists couldn’t match the influence of Megawati and co when the latter tried to bring the movement off the streets in November 1998. The demand for people’s councils, while admirable, was too far ahead of the curve.

He also refers to the Indonesian social structure as an obstacle blocking the formation of an organised mass movement.

The country’s manufacturing base is limited, and most of the urban workforce remains “overwhelmingly comprised of a semi-proletariat with uncertain employment in a huge ocean of small enterprises, with miserably low productivity and with the concomitant low incomes”.

Big factories that offer the most promising conditions for union organisation are comparatively rare. As a result, political activism is more likely to be found in the neighbourhood than in the workplace.

In one of the book’s most striking passages, Lane notes the popularity of Chinese sword-fighting stories in the popular culture of the urban poor, and suggests that the social conditions of those floating in the “huge ocean” of small-scale employment leave a strong imprint on their habits of thought:

“It helps reinforce a sense of politics where the role of the individual leader, the personality, plays a predominant role.
This is the kind of popular culture in which they participate – the world of the sword-fighter hero – and it is also the nature of the day to day socio-economic reality they experience.

Life as a semi-proletarian, working in a variety of different small enterprises, means they are not dealing with anonymous corporate owners, but often with owners who are friends or relatives, as much as with totally unknown people.

Whether their employers are ratbags or easy to get on with plays a big role in their experience. This experience can reinforce a psychology brought in from the village where patron-client relations exist. It is, therefore, not surprising that among big sections of this sector Megawati Soekarnoputri became a symbol of leadership that could mobilise millions of people.”

Lane’s explanation of the outcome at the turn of the millennium seems very convincing. It would be unrealistic to expect that the legacy of Suharto’s regime could be overcome all at once.

Even so, the aksi movement achieved remarkable things, and has laid down solid foundations for the next round of the struggle for democracy in Indonesia.’

See more at:

I add that Unfinished Nation has just been translated into Indonesian.

Max Lane’s current writings here

Book 2

Catastrophe in Indonesia by Max Lane Seagull Books 2010.

“In 1965 Indonesia had the largest communist movement in the world outside of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China.

Indonesian President Sukarno supported the movement and was edging Indonesia towards socialism, when a mutiny coordinated by D. N. Aidit, chairperson of the Indonesian Communist Party, was launched on the last day of September 1965, and the backlash destroyed the movement.

As Max Lane describes in Catastrophe in Indonesia, though this attempt to replace the anti-communist army leadership was organized without the knowledge of the communist party, the army launched a subsequent propaganda campaign against the communist movement.

Consequently, the government collapsed, opening the way for an extremely violent uprising in which over one million people were killed and tens of thousands imprisoned. All left-wing ideas and activities were banned—and remain so today.

The Crash of the Left in 1965

‘Rarely has any modern country been through a political experience that has completely and utterly reversed its direction and redefined and turned inside out its culture. …

Indonesia had one of the most devastating state-managed campaigns of murder and terror in the twentieth century.

The massacre of more than a million Indonesians between October 1965 and 1967 remains one of the most effective and gruesome campaigns of terror in recent years. …

The targets: anyone sympathetic to President Sukarno or to the political parties …such as the Indonesian Communist Party PKI and similar left groups… that had some 20 million supporters… The Indonesian army…under General Suharto was the main instrument of terror.

The massacre succeeded in, literally, reversing the direction of Indonesian history.

The Sukarno-PKI with popular support were poised for power until the reign of terror unleashed by Suharto on 1st October 1965. …The spreading of Marxism-Leninism was forbidden and trade unions disappeared…all mobilisations of the popular classes was depicted as evil…no alternative viewpoints other than the army was allowed for 33 years.

…According to Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Indonesia’s leading novelist,

“Suharto and his regime lacked any sort of idealism. That’s why our culture degenerated into trivia and entertainment, and eventually became so shallow that a normal human brain could find nothing to digest.”

Lane canvasses the history of PKI Chairperson Aidit and his actions in opposing right-wing Generals and his failed attempt, leading to the infamous killing of some Generals on the 30th September used by Suharto as the pretext to move against Sukarno and the PKI.

Lane argues Indonesia’s political landscape was unique with Indonesian capitalists weak with little social or national political base because of the colonial Dutch capitalism. Sukarno was able to be dominant waging the anti-colonial struggle against the Dutch, with mass struggle and politics of social justice and where the PKI emerged strongly.

The rapid radicalization of the masses and rapid militarization of the bourgeoisie during and after the Japanese occupation had Sukarno declaring Independence in 1945 and ruling as a most dynamic and popular President.

Sukarno political actions historically were based on the unity of anti-colonial nationalism, religion – Islam and communism. The PKI in 1955 elections had 16.4% of the vote and with Sukarno and mobilisations against inequality were growing stronger. In 1965 the PKI had several million members with growing support. Lane documents this together with the growing power of the army that was more and more opposed to these radical developments and planned to stop this powerful Sukarno-PKI alliance. Lane documents Sukarno’s radical reforms under his ‘Guided Democracy’. This saw mass mobilisations against past-colonial and present imperialist interests, the nationalisations of foreign companies with workers’ participation and greater union power. As well, there was Sukarno’s growing struggle against the powerful army that was planning to respond.

Sukarno’s rituling or political re-tooling of his government involved replacing right-wing cabinet and government people and business with new left leaders under the unity of nationalism, Islam and communism. This gave greater legitimacy to the PKI.

But rituling’s fundamental flaws turned out to be its top-down method of ruling in 1963-1965. With no elections but guided democracy, rituling lead to more and more confrontations with the right-wing Army. Sukarno was unable to replace right-wing Army leaders with his supporters, that in effect Aidit was attempting.

In 1965 Sukarno led an intensification of the mass struggle, land redistribution, against corruption and for social justice for the masses including against the Army leaders. The Army responded in the 30 September incidents.

Lane supports this detailed research of the events in the book
‘Pretext for Mass Murder: The September 30th Movement and Suharto’s Coup d’Etat in Indonesia’ by John Roosa, New Perspectives in Se Asian Studies August 3, 2006.

Remember at this time Sukarno had established the Non-Aligned International movement against US hegemony, was close to China, supported anti-colonial revolutions and so not surprisingly the US, and the CIA supported the Army who were waiting for their chance to move against Sukarno, which they did. The resulting terror and long-fascist Suharto dictatorship rewrote history for 30 years blaming the PKI and any of their supporters.

Lane ends on how the left in the 1980’s and in the 1990’s was eventually able to reemerge and play a role in the toppling of Suharto – the details of which are recorded more fully in Unfinished Nation.

3. Book 3

“Decentralization and Its Discontents: An Essay on Class, Political Agency and National Perspective in Indonesian Politics”

by Max Lane, 2014, ISEAS Singapore.

“Decentralization is a major trend in Indonesia since the first decades of that nation under Sukarno and Suharto. Anyone who seeks insights into the current trend of decentralization, whether in Indonesia or other parts of the world, will find this work cogent.” – James L. Peacock, Kenan Distinguished Professor, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

“This book opens up the discussion on the history and political economy of the new populist policies that seem to gain momentum in the face of the Indonesian elections. It also addresses questions pertaining to the problems and options related to popular aspirations within this context-all of which cannot be explained very well by any of the predominant theses on Indonesia, whether as an oligarchy or a democratically liberal but economically predatory country.” Professor Olle Trnquist, University of Oslo.


From Lane’s Preface:

‘This extended essay was written in late 2013 and early 2014, before the April 2014 election campaigns. One of the first lines written was: “There is a certain Jokowimania afoot”.

The march announcement by Megawati Sukarnoputri that the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) would nominate Joko Widodo “Jokowi” as its presidential candidate has accentuated this. Media coverage — including the social media — has narrowed down the formal political struggle for governmental power as one between Widodo, the kabupaten (district) capitalist, and Prabowo Subianto, representing the billionaire Djojohadikusumo family.

At a certain level, it is a fight between kabupaten capitalism and crony capitalism, although there is no doubt much more behind this.

The emergence of a kabupaten capitalist as a presidential candidate, without doubt, has been possible as a direct result of the last ten years of decentralization, especially providing guaranteed funds over which local government can exercise some autonomy, giving local mayors and bupati greater room to nuance and market the implementation of policies as their own (when in fact such policies originated with international financial institutions working through the national government).

The institution of direct elections for mayors and bupati has accentuated this trend.
In decentralized Indonesia, Widodo has gone from head of the local businessmen’s association, to mayor of a medium-sized town in Java, to governor of the province of Jakarta, and now, to being a presidential candidate of the Republic of Indonesia.
He has done this through the PDI-P in a period when the PDI-P no longer has an obvious presence of big capitalists and former cronies in its ranks. The PDI-P is more perceived as being associated with other “rising stars” in regional politics, such as the mayor of Surabaya, “Ibu Risma” (Tri Rismaharini) and the governor of Central Java, Ganjar Pranowo.

Writing this preface before the 9 April 2014 elections, it is tempting to predict results. While it is likely that Widodo’s candidacy will increase the vote for the PDI-P, at least a little, it remains the case that it is unlikely that there will be any one party or serious coalition of parties, which will be able to claim that it represents a majority of the population. The highest polling result for the PDI-P as of 2 April is 33 per cent. PDI-P is more often scoring around 25 per cent. All of the other parties score under 20 per cent, most under 10 per cent. Golkar and Gerindra score between 10–15 per cent in most polls. The percentage refusing to vote will still be high for the parliamentary elections — although it may drop substantially in July for the presidential elections.

The inability of parties to claim to represent a significant section of the public stems not only from their low percentage support.

It also stems from an absence of political campaigning for or against anything. The election campaign, especially the national messaging through the media, has been empty of content. Widodo’s main claim is that he is “electable”; there has not been, so far, any interrogation of his record or his policies, or the policies of his party.

Prabowo’s situation is slightly different. Prabowo struggles to claim electability with all of the polls against him, so his emphasis has been on his claims to being a “strong leader”, in the style of a military campaigner, giving rise to increased criticims of militarism from some quarters.

This essay points to the end of (direct) crony capitalism at the national level and the shift in the possibility of political initiative to the kabupaten capitalists, and the initiatives can be different or even contradictory among local capitalists.

It raises questions as to whether a new national socio-political agency for progressive change might emerge via the kabupaten capitalists and through the PDI-P.

The essay speculates in the negative.

The emptiness of the election campaign to date — and the emptiness of all the pre-announcement manoeuvres of 2013 — would seem to confirm this negative conclusion. The essay points to the labour movement as having greater potential, although that arena is also full of complications.

Max Lane 4 April 2014, Jakarta

The final chapter most interestingly documents and updates Unfinished Nation on how the labour movement is becoming a national force by annual union minimum wage struggles in 2012 and 2013 over 2 million striking, campaigning against casualisation and to enforce labour laws, through lobbying for universal health insurance 2011 and a new social insurance and pension system in 2014.

In the last ten years, the new unions have been trying to have more political input, debating for a “labor” party or of the left a “socialist labor” party and Max documents such as yet unsuccessful attempts with “Workers Go Political.” He discusses more pro-labor responses from Jokowi’s traditional PDI-P (Megawati’s party).

Danial Indrakusuma argues that increased workers’ combativity is a combination of political economy lessons in unions that he was involved in, the role of labour NGO’s on workers’ rights, actions of practical solidarity and the ‘sweeping’ tactic where workers in one factory on strike march to the next door factory calling out those on strike, holding mass meetings, and huge May Day rallies. Indrakusuma:

“The most important political consciousness that has grown alongside all of these struggles is that these affairs of labour cannot be resolved outside of politics, outside of the struggle for power. It is that consciousness which pushes us to control the state. …workers must be the vanguard in the struggle for the interests of the whole people…”

After the mass rallies 2012, the employers increased in 2013 and 2014 their opposition to wage increases. As the labour laws in Indonesia are based on modern ILO labour principles, the employers in response to mass union actions counter-attack by employing company thugs literally to attack and bash union leaders, as documented by Sherr Rinn. The class struggle is indeed intense.

This account is before the new union development in 2014 where the unions split over their political support for Presidential candidates and although most unions either supported Jokowi or opposed Prabowo, the militant Metal Workers Union lead by Said Iqbal decided to support the fascist Prabowo. I won’t deal with this here but see Michelle Ford’s article below. In late 2014 although workers’ mobilisations over minimum wages occur, the unions locally and nationally are more divided.

You can appreciate the significance of Lane’s sub-title, Class, Political Agency and National perspective in Indonesian Politics.

More from Max Lane:

Post-elections Indonesia: Towards a Crisis of Government?

‘The rivalry between incoming president Joko Widodo and the Red and White Coalition, which holds the majority in parliament, continues to build up.

The Red and White Coalition of parties that supported Prabowo Subianto for the Presidency has gone on the offensive by changing the rules for how parliamentary leadership positions are assigned. This has allowed them to take the chairman and vice-chairmen positions in parliament.

At the same time, they have managed to push through a law ending direct elections for regional leaders.
Should the Red and White Coalition continue to “govern from parliament” and challenge the Joko Widodo Presidency, Indonesia will likely head into a crisis of government.

4. Pramoedya Ananta Toer was an Indonesian author of novels, short stories, essays, polemics, and histories of his homeland and its people. A well-regarded writer in the West, Pramoedya’s outspoken and often politically charged writings faced censorship in his native land during the pre-reformation era.

For opposing the policies of both founding president Sukarno, as well as those of its successor, the New Order regime of Suharto, he faced extrajudicial punishment. During the many years in which he suffered imprisonment and house arrest, he became a cause célèbre for advocates of freedom of expression and human rights. Toer was involved in the PDR. Max Lane translated some of his novels.

I urge a reading of his many novels. Start with the Buru Quartet.

Buy here

In the Marxist Left Review: Lane on ‘Why you should read ‘This Earth of Mankind’

Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s historical novel Bumi Manusia (This Earth of Mankind) was published by Penguin in 1983. Along with later novels by the author it is still in print and is now available as an ebook. Their translator, Max Lane, argues they should be read by anyone wanting to understand the history of Indonesia in the late twentieth century.

I strongly recommend Toer’s “Exile.”

W.S Rendra
W.S. Rendra’s THE STRUGGLE OF THE NAGA TRIBE translated by Max Lane is now available as part of THE METHUEN DRAMA ANTHOLOGY OF MODERN ASIAN PLAYS (2014)

5. Elizabeth Pisani ‘Indonesia Etc. Exploring the Improbable Nation’ Granta 2014 and

6. Hamish McDonald ‘Demokrasi: Indonesia in the 21st Century’ Black Inc 2014

I post Hugh White’s reviews in The Monthly

‘No other country with anything like Indonesia’s size and potential is so often overlooked by the world at large. “ One reason perhaps is that Indonesians themselves seem to have such a fuzzy, uncertain sense of their own country. That is the point of the title of Elizabeth Pisani’s new book: Indonesia Etc.: Exploring the improbable nation. As she explains, the “Etc.” in her title alludes to the wording of Indonesia’s laconic two-sentence declaration of independence from the Dutch. The second sentence translates as “Matters related to transfer of power etc. will be executed carefully and as soon as possible.” “Indonesia has been working on that ‘etc.’ ever since,” Pisani writes. Her book is a survey of that work in progress.

So is Hamish McDonald’s new book. He is well known to Australians as a distinguished foreign correspondent and foreign editor, and he has done a lot to shape Australia’s understanding of the Asia-Pacific, and especially Indonesia, for many years.

Demokrasi: Indonesia in the 21st Century is a kind of sequel to his Suharto’s Indonesia, published 34 years ago. …Demokrasi brings the story up to date by exploring the new Indonesia that has emerged since Suharto fell in 1998. Like the earlier book, Demokrasi is straightforward higher journalism in the best sense, with serious and generally well judged descriptions and analysis of the big issues, enlivened by occasional vivid vignettes.

Pisani’s book is, on the surface, very different. Like McDonald, she worked as a Western journalist in Indonesia, but she later returned to spend years as an epidemiologist researching the spread of AIDS. She went back yet again in 2011 to travel, mostly through Indonesia’s outer islands.

She stayed in remote corners of the archipelago for weeks at a time, getting to know something of life for Indonesians in places far from Jakarta. Much of her book describes her encounters with these people; there are some great stories and she tells them well. She attends a funeral celebrated with a massive sacrifice of horses and cattle among the megalithic tombs on Sumba. She hunts whales from an open boat off the island of Lembata. She roams with jungle-dwelling nomads in central Sumatra. And she goes electioneering with a local politician in Aceh. With both a talent for engaging with strangers and a skin thick enough that she can impose on them rather ruthlessly, Pisani illustrates Indonesia’s astonishing diversity.

At times her account feels a little self-absorbed and slightly Orientalist, but overall it works surprisingly well. …

In none of the elections since Suharto fell have Islamic parties done as well as they did at the height of their appeal in 1956, and though Islamic organisations continue to influence politics in significant ways, the studiously secular national ideology of Pancasila remains a touchstone of political legitimacy.

Another theme in both books is the importance of Indonesia’s unique experiment with decentralisation since Suharto fell. In the 1950s, President Sukarno tried to centralise rule from Jakarta. The bureaucratised New Order imposed by his successor Suharto in the late 1960s went a long way to making that a reality. For the past 15 years, however, Indonesia has expanded the scale and reach of a hierarchy of elected governments all the way down to local councils. Indonesians have a lot of opportunities to vote, and their politicians have a lot of opportunities for corruption. Politics and campaigning are a big part of life throughout Indonesia – much bigger than in Australia, it seems – and they provide Pisani with some of her best stories. But most importantly, against the odds, it seems to work. …the new decentralised democratic system.

Tellingly, neither of these books has much to say about Indonesia’s economy, and what they do say focuses mostly on the bad-news stories of cronyism and corruption. …

As both books were written before the precise shape of the contest was known, neither has much to say directly about Indonesia’s presidential election. However, McDonald especially provides some fascinating insights into the two contenders. Both Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and Prabowo Subianto have promised Indonesians a new and stronger kind of presidential leadership. Both identify with Sukarno and offer something of the sense of excitement and lofty aspiration that surrounded Indonesia’s first president post-independence. Both sharply depart from the tentative, passive style of Indonesia’s recent leaders. Yet they differ markedly from one another.

Jokowi has a relatively modest background. He was a businessman before he became mayor of his home city of Solo in central Java, and he graduated to the national stage as governor of Jakarta less than two years ago.

Prabowo is the son of one of Indonesia’s founding figures. His family is very wealthy, he was married to one of Suharto’s daughters, and he has been at the centre of national affairs all his life. He has been accused of grave human rights abuses that date back to his time as a military officer, and his attitude to democratic and constitutional processes is also worrying.

McDonald gives a chilling account of how Prabowo challenged new president Habibie’s authority immediately after Suharto fell, deploying troops under his command in the centre of Jakarta to pressure Habibie over senior military appointments. Incidents like this cast a disquieting light on Prabowo’s calls for stronger presidential leadership. His campaigning has also played on some distinctly nationalistic and xenophobic themes. …

Both Demokrasi and Indonesia Etc. help explain why Indonesia’s democratic transformation since 1998 has been so much smoother and more successful than that of other developing countries. But they also show how much is left to be done to create a fully realised and sustainable political system and culture in such a diverse and complex country. And why we need to pay a lot more attention to what is happening there.

See this review

7. Edward Aspinall, ‘Opposing Suharto. Compromise, Resistance, and Regime Change in Indonesia’, Stanford, 2005.

Opposing Suharto presents an account of democratization in the world’s fourth most populous country, Indonesia. It describes how opposition groups challenged the long-time ruler, President Suharto, and his military-based regime, forcing him to resign in 1998.

The book’s main purpose is to explain how ordinary people can bring about political change in a repressive authoritarian regime. It does this by telling the story of an array of dissident groups, nongovernmental organizations, student activists, and political party workers as they tried to expand democratic space in the last decade of Suharto’s rule.

This book is an important study not only for readers interested in contemporary Indonesia and political change in Asia, but also for all those interested in democratization processes elsewhere in the world. Unlike most other books on Indonesia, and unlike many books on democratization, it provides an account from the perspective of those who were struggling to bring about change.

Edward Aspinall is a Fellow in the Department of Political and Social Change in the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies at the Australian National University. He is the co-editor of The Last Days of President Suharto (1999).

Here is one of his 2010 articles
Left-wing politics are fragmented, but left-wing ideas are surprisingly influential By Edward Aspinall

8. Michele Ford. ‘Workers and Intellectuals: NGOs, Trade Unions and the Indonesian Labour Movement’, Singapore: NUS Press/Hawaii/KITLV and Asian Studies Association of Australia, 2009.

‘The Indonesian case confirms that new understandings of the labour movement are necessary in order to properly document and theorise the contribution of labour NGOs and other non-traditional labour movement organisations to that movement’ (p.205). This is the major assertion of this information-packed book.

The author’s underlying contention is that the majority of observers of Indonesian labour, this reviewer included, have underestimated the role of labour NGOs due to an ideological and/or intellectual inclination to emphasise trade unions as the main vehicle of labour struggles. Ford argues that the structural characteristics of Indonesia, like that of many post-colonial societies, necessitates a fundamental re-conceptualisation of what constitutes a labour movement in historical experiences as they differ so greatly from that of Europe and other advanced industrial societies. On the whole, she makes this argument very convincingly.

The book analyses Indonesia’s labour movement both during and after the New Order in scrupulous detail. While a lot of older ground is inevitably covered in the discussion of the heavily centralised and authoritarian Suharto-era, the account of the reconstitution of the labour movement in the reformasi period is undoubtedly the most comprehensive that is currently available.

In fact, this reviewer would have welcomed a greater portion of the book being devoted to the newer issues and problems confronting the Indonesian labour movement.

As Ford recognises – and demonstrates through her rich interview material – a major challenge for the labour movement has been how to remake itself. Many of the strategies adopted in coping with the authoritarian New Order became redundant in a democratised environment, although workers have remained marginalised.

It is common for labour activists today to lament their inability to make the most of the opportunities offered by democratisation (p.182), and it is fair to say that they have been both puzzled and frustrated by their lack of success.

Read more here

Indonesia’s unions are engaging in electoral politics in unprecedented ways in an attempt to balance the influence of business.

Here is an article on the 2014 development in unions during the election campaign that controversially had the militant Metal Workers Union support Prabowo.
By Teri Caraway and Michele Ford

The presidential elections this time around are a big deal not only for business. They are also a big deal for Indonesia’s unions, who have taken sides in the presidential race. Said Iqbal, the leader one of the major labour confederations, has openly backed Prabowo. Others are backing Jokowi.

The stakes are incredibly high. Iqbal expects to become minister for manpower. If Prabowo wins, Iqbal will be under enormous pressure to ensure that he actually does become minister and then to deliver worker-friendly policy. If Prabowo loses, Iqbal’s credibility and the credibility of his union will suffer. Jokowi’s union backers, meanwhile, would have to show that they can deliver.

The very public engagement of union leaders in the lead-up to the presidential elections would have been unthinkable just a decade ago. Even years after the fall of Suharto, unions didn’t engage openly in politics. But now many union leaders feel that there simply isn’t a choice. Business is there boots and all. For there to be any hope of a more pro-worker approach to policy, labour has to follow. Read more here

9. Mark Heyward ‘Crazy Little Heaven, An Indonesian Journey,’ 2013, Transit Lounge.

When Mark Heyward first went to Indonesia, to teach at a small school in East Kalimantan, little did he realise how life changing his decision would prove to be. Within three years his Australian life would be behind him and he would be travelling, with fellow adventurers, across remote Indonesian Borneo.

The story of that remarkable expedition − a true travel adventure – coalesces with the author’s longer journey into the complex heart of Indonesia. It is a journey that spans two decades, that takes the reader from a treasured childhood in Tasmania to a new life in the world’s most populous Muslim nation. Along the way the author travels from one end of the archipelago to the other, from the jungles of Kalimantan to the riots and political turmoil of Jakarta. When he meets and falls in love with Sopan, he must make another life changing decision. Evocative and beautiful, yet often questioning, and always revealing, Crazy Little Heaven is both a love story and an unforgettable journey into Indonesian culture and geography − a hymn to this ’sweet disappearing world’.

10. ‘Julia’s Jihad: Tales of the Politically, Sexually and Religiously Incorrect: Living in the Chaos of the Biggest Muslim Democracy’. 2013

Julia Suryakusuma, well-known as Indonesia’s most provocative columnist, needs no translator. Julia’s Jihad is a selection of more than a hundred of her columns published between 2006 and 2013. Most made their first appearance as her Wednesday column in the English-language The Jakarta Post (‘Julia’s WC’). Others come from the English language edition of the weekly Tempo. …The title of the book is itself a provocation both to Islamist extremists and Islamophobes.

The author is a liberal feminist Muslim who has chosen this title with serious purpose – not just for alliteration. She wants to recover the meaning of the word jihad from prevalent connotations of armed warfare and terrorism. For her, the original meaning of jihad in Islam is ‘spiritual struggle’ in its widest sense.

It gives her and fellow Muslims not just the freedom but also the obligation to seek justice and truth and to try to create a better society that is free of poverty, injustice and corruption. An Islamic praxis, so to speak.

11. ‘A History of Modern Indonesia’
by Adrian Vickers, 2nd edition, 2013. Cambridge press.

Since the Bali bombings of 2002 and the rise of political Islam, Indonesia has frequently occupied media headlines. Nevertheless, the history of the fourth largest country on earth remains relatively unknown. Adrian Vickers’s book, first published in 2005, traces the history of an island country, comprising some 240 million people, from the colonial period through revolution and independence to the present.

Framed around the life story of Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Indonesia’s most famous and controversial novelist and playwright, the book journeys through the social and cultural mores of Indonesian society, focusing on the experiences of ordinary people. In this new edition, the author brings the story up to date, revisiting his argument as to why Indonesia has yet to realize its potential as a democratic country. He will also examine the rise of fundamentalist Islam, which has haunted Indonesia since the fall of Suharto.

Update takes the story from the Bali bombings of 2002 to the present and analyses the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.

Although Indonesia has the fourth largest population in the world, its history is still relatively unknown. Adrian Vickers takes the reader on a journey across the social and political landscape of modern Indonesia, starting with the country’s origins under the Dutch in the early twentieth-century, and the subsequent anti-colonial revolution, which led to independence in 1949.

Thereafter the spotlight is on the 1950s, a crucial period in the formation of Indonesia as a new nation, followed by the Sukarno years, and the anti-Communist massacres of the 1960s when General Suharto took over as president.

The concluding chapters chart the fall of Suharto’s New Order after thirty-two years in power, and the subsequent political and religious turmoil, which culminated in the Bali bombings in 2002.

Adrian Vickers is Professor of Asian Studies at the University of Wollongong. He has more than twenty-five years research experience in Indonesia and the Netherlands.

He is author of the acclaimed Bali: a Paradise Created (Penguin, 1989). In 2003, he curated the exhibition Crossing Boundaries, a major survey of modern Indonesian art, and has also been involved in documentary films, including Done Bali (Negara Film and Television Productions, 1993).

12. ‘In the Time of Madness: Indonesia on the Edge of Chaos’ by Richard Lloyd Parry
Reviewed by Scott B MacDonald

“If you are looking for a depiction of Indonesia in the late 1990s, when the old order of Suharto’s authoritarian regime was coming to an end and societal upheaval ruled, this book is for you, though none of the positive developments are discussed.

Parry, who wrote for The Independent and now works for The Times of London, made a number of forays into Indonesia from Japan.

Through Parry’s eyes we are taken into the murderous jungles of Borneo, where Dayak tribesmen were seeking to drive out the Madurese by ethnic cleansing, into Jakarta’s universities

during the drive to oust Suharto, and into the turmoil of East Timor, seeking its independence from Indonesia.

Parry makes the point early on: “This is a book about violence, and about being afraid.”

One could add that Parry also is fascinated by what he found in Indonesia. As he states, “Although I prided myself on deploring violence, if it should – tragically – break out, I wanted to witness it for myself.”

Indeed, deeper in the book (and deeper into Indonesia’s heart of darkness), he notes: “In Borneo, I saw heads severed from their bodies and men eating flesh. In Jakarta, I saw burned corpses in the street, and shots were fired around and toward me.”

The climactic last part of the book deals extensively with East Timor and the bloody rear-guard actions taken by the Indonesian-supported militias in seeking to overturn the popular vote for independence. It is in East Timor where the author comes to terms with being afraid, yet carrying out the responsibility to report the injustice of what happened.

The fear theme permeates the book, both on a personal level (as Parry opts to depart from East Timor after several brushes with death) and with Indonesians. One encounter is most notable, when Parry asked an Indonesian carpenter named Jamari what he fears. The man answered:

“We are afraid that 1965 will happen again. We’re afraid that if we speak out, somebody will come and take us away during the night, and perhaps they will kill us.” An abortive left-wing military coup in 1965 led to a successful right-wing counter-coup and the rise of General Suharto as the country’s undisputed leader.

Parry also has a solid grasp of the issue of magic that permeates Indonesian society, especially in the rural areas. Here again he touches upon the fear of dark magic and the ability of Suharto, long at the helm of his country, to use that fear to help keep order.

While this reviewer enjoyed Parry’s opus, it is not without flaws. It helps to have some prior knowledge of Indonesia’s history and society prior to reading. While some explanation is given to the turn of events, some explanations are brief. Sadly, we are left with the image of Indonesia as a place of darkness, smoldering under the tropical sun and the puppetmasters in Jakarta.

As Parry states: “It was a thrilling time. Like many people … I was experiencing self-conscious flushes of excitement at the momentous of it all. A struggle was taking place between something old, murderous and corrupt and something new.” Can it be that Indonesian history from 1965 to 1998 was old, murderous and corrupt, nothing more? And what was the “something new”? Could it be that Indonesia is struggling to create a more open, democratic society in the post-Suharto era? These are lingering questions when one finishes Parry’s book.

Some have compared In the Time of Madness to Aidan Hartley’s The Zanzibar Chest, another book focused on the journalist dealing with a modern heart of darkness. Parry’s book is an echo of Hartley’s, which deals with family history, colonialism, barbarism and current affairs. Both books leave you with a sense of sweaty griminess and a Joseph Conrad-like vision of the world. (Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was published in 1902 and looks at genocide, repression and imperialism by the Belgians in the Congo.)

…And Hartley’s personal adventures are given some degree of clarity – his relationships are explained, his likes and dislikes covered, and his turn to drugs and alcohol understandable considering the nature and pressures of his work.

The criticisms of his book are minor. In the Time of Madness is well worth reading, especially for anyone interested in the events that shook Indonesia during the late 1990s. At the same time, one should not entirely write off Indonesia’s history through Parry’s lens of a murderous, corrupt place, seemingly without any hope.

One of the points worth noting is that change did occur: Suharto was forced out of office, and the country has gone to the polls more than once since 1998, finally having the option of directly electing a president. All the same (and this is why In the Time of Madness is worth the read), many of the problems of corruption and fear remain in post-Suharto Indonesia, making it one of Asia’s more interesting points on the map.

14. Indonesian references on this blog

the new Chega website and President Jokowi and the difficulties in redressing abuse of human rights in East Timor and Whitlam and Timor Leste

Two films on Indonesia:
“The Act of Killing”. Without doubt one of the most significant documentaries ever made about Indonesia and viewed in Indonesia….

When perpetrators speak

The historic film “Indonesia Calling” examines the post-WW2 radical film culture of Sydney and the influence of globetrotting Dutch documentarian Joris Ivens. Brought to Australia to work for the Dutch East Indies government-in-exile, Ivens disaffection and radical filmmaking aesthetic led instead to the first classic of Australia’s independent cinema, and to our first cinema new wave that emerged in post-war Australia. The film “Indonesia Calling” is an important political statement of support for Indonesian independence against the Dutch colonialists. The use of ASIO spy information against the film-makings is fascinating as is the militant action of waterside workers and seamen to support Indonesian freedom fighters of that time.

‘Indonesia, Australia and the Edward Snowden Legacy: Shifting asymmetries of power’ by Richard Tanter

A near perfect storm descended on Australian relations with its nominal strategic partner and largest neighbour, Indonesia, to the point where the Indonesian foreign minister, standing beside John Kerry in Jakarta, said it was “very simple.” “Australia must decide if Indonesia is a friend or an enemy.”

Courtesy of Edward Snowden, the Australian government is discovering that an asymmetry in electronic surveillance capacity does not trump the fundamental asymmetry of power between Australia and Indonesia, which geography, population size and importance in world affairs tilts in Indonesia’s favour.

NSA documents that the premier Australian intelligence agency monitored and intercepted phone calls by the Indonesian president, his wife, and inner circle of advisors has generated a rapid collapse in relations between the two governments, possibly with long-term effects.

The Indonesian government has called for a new intelligence accord, which will prove difficult for the Abbott government, not least because of the role of the NSA in Australian signals intelligence. A review of supervision and oversight of Australian intelligence agencies is urgently required.” Read here

Readers interested in daily reports from English papers such as the Jakarta Post can get the latest news and information on East Timor, Indonesia and West Papua 


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