It is twenty-five years since mass “Reformasi” (reform) protests brought down the “New Order” Indonesian military dictatorship, marked by the resignation of General Suharto on May 21, 1998 after 33 years in power. The military had come to power through a historic massacre of the Indonesian Communist Party and the broader Indonesian left between 1965-1968. The defeat of military rule opened a new political period in which the left had to re-orient and attempt to rebuild itself almost from scratch, having been all but wiped out for generations.
Below, Red Ant publishes a brief interview with a leading cadre of one Indonesian socialist organisation, Socialist Union (Perserikatan Socialis). PS publishes the newspaper Arah Juang and also cooperates closely with Socialist Youth Organizations (Organisasi Kaum Muda Sosialis).
RA: With the fall of Suharto in May 1998, what was the main victory of the anti-dictatorship movement then?
PS: The main victory of the anti-dictatorship movement was to overthrow Suharto and open up democratic space while also restoring the tradition of mass action.
RA: What was the key to the success of the movement at that time?
PS: The key was the pioneering role of the People’s Democratic Party (Partai Rakyat Demokratik – PRD) with its emphasis on the strategy of being among the people and mass mobilisation. Also key was that party’s ability to determine the programs of struggle, including the appropriate demands and issues in the struggle to complete the democratic revolution.
RA: What were the main weaknesses of the movement and its organization at that time?
PS: The main weakness was that the vanguard organisation had little time to enlarge itself organisationally and grow its influence in the masses. The PRD was formed in 1994 under the name People’s Democratic Union, became the People’s Democratic Party on 15 April 1996 and later publicly declared itself as such on 22 July 1996. A few days after that, following the July 27 incident that involved thug and police attack on the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI) offices and ensuing riots, the regime started persecuting and arresting PRD cadres and it had to go underground.
Besides, the general consciousness of the masses at that time was still limited as anti-dictatorship consciousness. It had not yet developed an understanding of the need to build its own political power structure that stood outside the political power of the New Order Military Regime and the political elites.
RA: How do you evaluate the success of the movement since then?
Since the democratic space was opened, various “left” initiatives have emerged, both those that developed during the New Order Military Regime and the new ones. The process of growth and development occurs, of course, including the process of regrouping, splitting or disappearing. This is also the case in relation to building revolutionary vanguards.
On the other hand, development is not in a straight line. We can see explosions of resistance, such as in the Anti-Omnibus Law Movement 2020, Reformasi Dikorupsi 2019, Anti-Racism Movement in Papua 2019, First National Strike 2012, Factory Siege Movement of 2011-12, Anti-Golkar and Military Action 2001, labour protests against various bad regulations and so on.
RA: What is the weakness or limitation of the current movement?
The political strategy of mass mobilisation – that had been built since before the 1998 Reformasi – on the one hand succeeded in bringing down Suharto. But on the other hand, it makes the development of the movement one-sided, by forgetting theoretical and intellectual work. Similarly, when the situation of mass mobilisation with a single national issue such as Suharto’s ouster disappeared, mobilisation became based on local unrest. This resulted in a loss of perspective as regards building a national movement organisation. If you look at the 2020-21 Reformasi Dikorupsi (corruption reform) movement, it can be seen that the dominant character was spontaneous. Spontaneity also shows that the organised element and also the vanguard are still quite small.
RA: In the 1990s, the main goal of the movement was to overthrow the dictatorship and make some key demands? What should be the targets now?
The target of the movement now should be the construction and enlargement of a national vanguard organisation. This can be done by fusing revolutionary theory with practice.
The primary propaganda task of vanguard organisations in relation to theory is to use the analytical tool of scientific socialism to understand the history and specific conditions of Indonesia at this time.
In practice the task is mainly to intervene in struggles for reform, with transitional demands that can link the struggle to the great cause of socialism. This has to be done mainly through the building of a united front.