Washington and other imperialist powers with stakes in Indonesia, unable to rely on the old method of openly repressive rule and social control, find this Wahid-Megawati government acceptable. At the same time they view with concern the irrepressible political ferment in the country.
The Wall St Journal, referring in an editorial to Wahid's "inclusive government," commented that this "may be useful for Indonesia now. By reducing the number of people on the outside, you reduce the number of people who will be tempted to use the blunt instrument of riots to advance their own political agenda."
The editorial writer had in mind the 50,000 who protested in the capital Jakarta after Wahid defeated Megawati in the assembly poll for the presidency, and the ongoing demonstrations and labor and peasant actions in the country.
Mark Baird, the representative of the World Bank in Jakarta, commented that "This is the first time you've had a government in Indonesia with such a broad base of support." The New York Times summarized reaction among "foreign investors" to the new Indonesian government as "positive."
The interests of the U.S., Australian, and other imperialist powers were defended in Indonesia for many decades by the government of the strongman Suharto a regime with a heavily military character. But in May 1998 Washington pressured Suharto to resign in the midst of mass protests against his austerity policies and Vice President B.J. Habibie took over the presidency. Widely hated for his links to Suharto, Habibie called parliamentary elections for June 1999.
In the year and a half since Suharto's resignation, workers, farmers and young people in this country of 210 million people have organized street demonstrations, work stoppages, and land occupations for their rights. Recently students have led mass street protests that forced the government to delay proposed security legislation.
These actions for reformasi (reform) are driven by the restricted democratic rights and the desperate living conditions that the vast majority of Indonesians face. The Washington Post reports that "Economically the country has not recovered from the meltdown of 1997-98. The budget is $10 billion short and repayment of principal on foreign debt is scheduled to skyrocket to $5 billion next year and $9 billion in 2001."
Political ferment threatened to explode anew as the campaigning for governmental posts accelerated in the last weeks. Millions of Indonesians expected the PDI-P's Megawati to win the presidency in the assembly elections. Her party received one-third of the votes cast in the general election held in June 12 percent more than the second-placed Golkar party, led by Habibie, who during much of the ensuing horse-trading was considered her most serious rival.
Wahid's National Awakening Party (PKB) came in a distant fourth in the elections. The discredited Habibie withdrew from the race, however, and Golkar threw its votes behind Wahid.
Megawati's pro-capitalist policies are no different from the other contenders, but Indonesia's rulers and their imperialist backers did not want the aroused expectations among working people that would have accompanied her presidency. She claims the mantle of her father, Sukarno, the first president of Indonesia following the defeat of Dutch colonial rule in 1949. Sukarno led an unstable bourgeois nationalist government that for years tried to balance between support from layers in the military, Muslim organizations, and the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI), which claimed the allegiance of millions of workers and peasants.
Sukarno was shoved aside in 1965 when military officers around Suharto organized a massive bloodletting of the PKI and other workers and peasants' organizations. The military and right-wing gangs massacred hundreds of thousands of working people. The PKI, whose leadership had repeatedly demobilized and held back the toilers in their struggles against the employers and landowners in the name of "national unity," was crushed. The New Order regime installed by Suharto ruled uncontested for more than 30 years.
With Megawati's appointment as vice-president, Wahid aimed to forestall angry demonstrations by working people and students, many of whom see her as a symbol of the fight against Suharto's dictatorship. Suharto had deposed Megawati as leader of one of the two officially-sanctioned opposition parties in 1996.
In many cities people turned out by the thousands for Megawati's election campaign rallies, turning them into anti-Golkar demonstrations. Golkar's political machine, strongly linked to the military officer corps and to layers in the exploiting classes, had been the instrument of Suharto's rule for decades.
The frail, elderly Wahid has been a pro-minent figure in Indonesian politics for a long time, as the chairman of the 30 million-strong Muslim organization Nahdlatul Ulama (NU). While in recent years he criticized aspects of Suharto's rule, his political history includes a major role in one of the youth groups that organized pro-army actions during the 1965-66 massacre.
The appointment of Megawati as Wahid's deputy and her willing acceptance of that post quietened pro-Megawati protests in the new government's first days, at the price of heightened expectations. Working people hope the regime will take some action to ease the weight of the crisis from their backs.
Wahid's new 34-member "National Unity Cabinet" includes many figures from the world of business and the military. All four front-running parties from the election are represented. This includes several representatives of Golkar, one of whom is the chairman of the Indonesian Workers Association (SPSI). This pro-government outfit was the only "union" permitted in many workplaces under Suharto. Among workers struggling to organize real unions today, it is held in universal contempt.
"Foreign investment are key words," said Wahid on October 24 to an audience of "foreign businesspeople, diplomats and academics at an international conference," according to the Jakarta Post. Appearing at his side was the former U.S. envoy to Indonesia Paul Wolfowitz. "We are not able to make it on our own without capital from outside" said Wahid. ". We have to live with a free, open international trade system where companies are motivated by profits."
Two days later Wahid further signaled the willingness of the Indonesian rulers to cooperate with imperialist demands, by issuing a permit for the detention of a government official and businessman allegedly involved in the "Bank Bali scandal" where bank funds were diverted into Golkar campaign accounts. The International Monetary Fund suspended payment of installments of its $43 billion loan to Indonesia after the scandal unfolded.
"Our final aim is really the American investors," said the new foreign minister, Alwi Shihab, in proposing closer ties with Israel. The local stock market rose more than 6 percent in heavy trading on the news of Wahid's selection as president.
Wahid also recognized the results of the August 30 independence referendum on East Timor, which resulted in a landslide vote for independence from Indonesia, and announced he would meet with East Timorese leader Xanana Gusmao. East Timor is now occupied by thousands of imperialist troops.
Many commentators have stated that the new Cabinet illustrates the "waning influence of the army" as the Financial Times put it, citing the switch of General Wiranto from head of the armed forces to the "lesser role of security and political coordinating minister."
The Indonesian rulers and their imperialist overseers who ultimately call the shots have decided the military should reduce its profile at this time.
Wiranto himself, a close ally of both Suharto and Habibie in the past, told 12,000 soldiers and riot police at a rally on October 25 that "we ask for forgiveness from people who feel we did wrong, from the victims, from the students. We must safeguard the reform process, the constitution and the law."
Nevertheless the cabinet includes six active or retired generals, the same number as the previous government.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported that for the first time in 40 years the country has a civilian defense minister, Juwono Sudarsono. In truth, Juwono served under Suharto and Habibie in roles that included participation in an army "think tank."
In addition to their role of dealing out violence to working people, military officers in Indonesia are tied closely to business in town and country, and to politics at all levels. Wahid has been forced to order an investigation of one October 20 incident . As described in the Jakarta Post, a Jakarta hospital "was turned into a war zone [at] midnight when frustrated military officers ran amok, searching for suspected militant students hiding on the premises."
Another Jakarta Post article reported that on hearing news of the new government, "university students vowed to continue with their street demonstrations . " One student activist said that "we respect Gus Dur and Mega. But if they make mistakes such as establishing a new Cabinet which still accommodates elements of the New Order we will stage protests in the streets."
Jakarta's weakness continues to spark regional protests and struggles for national rights. Wahid has appointed himself responsible for Aceh, where a fight for independence and against military occupation is still raging. He has said he will give Megawati responsibility for resolving the conflicts on West Papua scene of an independence struggle and Ambon, where inequalities have fueled protests and communal violence. Recently 10,000 people marched on the island of Sulawesi demanding independence. Wahid has spoken abstractly in favor of "federalism" and at the same time has declared "territorial integrity" to be a priority.
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