National conflicts erupt in Indonesia

BY PATRICK O’NEILL 
Thousands of heavily armed Indonesian soldiers descended on the province of West Papua during the last week of November, under orders to prevent anniversary celebrations of the region’s declaration of independence 39 years ago. Nearly 50 West Papuan independence activists were arrested and 10 people killed during the military-police crackdown. The Indonesian security forces proceeded to enforce a newly passed government ban on raising West Papuan flags, tearing them down and hoisting Indonesian flags in their place.

In a nationally publicized speech on the same day, Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid warned that his government would not tolerate any efforts to “secede.”

The government of Indonesia is seeking to stem the various pro-independence movements–from West Papua to Aceh in the east–in this diverse, sprawling nation of 224 million people. The weakening of the central government in Jakarta since 1998, when a popular revolt in Indonesia ended the Suharto dictatorship, has accelerated the tendencies toward breakup in a country that was created under the Dutch colonial boot and held together for more than three decades under the iron rule of the imperialist-backed Suharto dictatorship.

The imperialist governments of the United States, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand, which have great economic and strategic stakes tied up in Indonesia and the broader region, are worried about the growing instability in this huge country, as various peoples and other national groups that chafed under Suharto’s brutal rule voice their national demands.

Adding to the concerns of the imperialist powers and the Indonesian capitalists is the continuing ferment among working people throughout the archipelago, including frequent and hard-fought labor struggles.

The first national conflict that erupted after the resignation of Suharto was in East Timor, whose people have fought for independence for decades, first against Portuguese colonialism and then against the U.S.-backed Indonesian regime. This led to a 1999 referendum in which a majority voted for independence. In response, rightist gangs, with the collusion of the Indonesian armed forces, waged a terror campaign against the Timorese population, culminating with imperialist military intervention under the UN flag.  
 
Struggle flares up in West Papua
The Timorese independence struggle spurred pro-independence and autonomy forces elsewhere in the Indonesian archipelago. One simmering conflict that has flared up is in West Papua, where the Indonesian regime, which calls it Irian Jaya province, has stationed thousands of troops. Since the referendum in East Timor, the Wahid government has refused to conduct any such votes elsewhere.

“Your guns are not toys or decorations. They must be used to defend the unity of the Republic of Indonesia,” said Daud Sihombing, the police chief in the West Papua capital of Jayapura, at a briefing of 2,000 riot police, soldiers, and marines on December 1. More than 10,000 such security forces are now stationed in the province.

That day, troops killed at least six people in a crowd of 200 gathered to mark the anniversary of the independence declaration, opening fire after activists armed with bows and arrows tore down the Indonesian flag in the town of Merauke.

U.S., British, and other foreign capitalist interests as well as the Indonesian rulers have big stakes in West Papua. Freeport-McMoRan Copper and Gold Inc. of Louisiana owns 81 percent of the Freeport gold and copper mine, one of the world’s largest, with $1.5 billion a year in income.

Atlantic Richfield, a subsidiary of the British-based oil giant BP Amoco, is developing the world’s largest gas field in the sea off West Papua. Exploitation of the rich forests is under way.

Today the region ranks sixth among Indonesia’s 23 provinces in its contribution to the national income. The vast majority of the 3 million inhabitants of West Papua, however, do not share in the province’s natural wealth. Infant mortality there is the highest in the country, and other indicators of exploitation and oppression are also high.

In the early 19th century, the island of New Guinea was carved up by Dutch, British, and German colonialism. The western area, known as West Papua, was placed under Dutch rule, together with what later became Indonesia. After Indonesia won its independence following World War II, the regime in Jakarta claimed West Papua, and eventually took it over in 1963, establishing military rule there. Washington has supported Indonesian rule over West Papua from the beginning in order to guarantee stable conditions for exploiting the natural wealth and labor.

The indigenous population of West Papua, however, has a culture and history in common with the people in the eastern part of the island, which is now the independent nation of Papua New Guinea. The heavy-handed rule of Jakarta has spurred an independence movement led by the Free Papua Movement (OPM).  
 
Conflict in Aceh
Another regional struggle with a long history is unfolding in Aceh, near the northern tip of Sumatra, a large island in the western part of Indonesia. Aceh, with a population of 4 million, has a distinct historic and economic identity, including a hard-fought struggle against Dutch colonial rule. Today it is an officially designated “special region,” but the regime has resisted national demands in Aceh, where rich reserves of oil and gas are being tapped.

On December 4, Indonesian police forcibly removed hundreds of flags of the Acehnese independence movement, raised to mark the 24th anniversary of the region’s declaration of independence.

For many years the Indonesian military has carried out a ferocious campaign aimed at the Free Aceh Movement, which organizes a guerrilla war and mass actions in support of independence. At least 5,500 people have been killed over the last decade, most of them by the military. Wahid has ruled out granting independence, instead offering autonomy and, most recently, a $10.5 million emergency aid package.

Also in recent months, the Moluccas or Maluku Islands, dubbed the Spice Islands in the period of Dutch colonial rule, have been the scene of bloody clashes between the indigenous population and settlers from other parts of Indonesia. The conflicts are a product of the Indonesian regime’s decades-long “transmigration” policy–moving unsuspecting peasants from other parts of the archipelago, eager to gain land to farm and to escape poverty, to Maluku. Indonesian army units have been involved in the latest fighting.  
 
Workers press for labor rights
Since the end of the Suharto regime, many working people throughout Indonesia have sought to organize and expand their rights. Gaining confidence in their own strength, they have been less inclined to be intimidated by military violence as they pursue their demands.

Some 20,000 workers employed by Indonesia’s main cigarette manufacturer, Gudang Garam, staged a one-day strike November 25 in Kediri, East Java. They demanded company-issued work clothes and a ration of cigarettes. The company agreed to provide uniforms, but claimed the demand for cigarettes ran against a government regulation.

The action by workers at Gudang Garam to ease some of the burden of the cost of living has been repeated in other industrial workplaces big and small. Eight unions organized mass protests in Indonesia November 15 to demand an increase in the minimum wage. Oil workers in the town of Riau have waged protests for higher pay at Caltex, which is controlled by Chevron and Texaco.

Also in November, 2,000 supermarket chain workers rallied demanding pay increases.

The economic fragility and political instability in Indonesia–the world’s fourth most populous country–is of concern to the imperialist powers. The Australian foreign minister, Alexander Downer, stated shortly after a congress of pro-independence leaders in West Papua, “We don’t want [secession] to happen at all.” He ranked Indonesia with Japan, China, and the United States as the four most important countries in the Australian government’s foreign policy.

The major powers are also concerned about the weak recovery of the Indonesian economy since the devastating crisis that swept Southeast Asia in 1997-98. Indonesia’s present upturn is buttressed by the international rise in the price of oil, a major export earner. The country’s rate of growth currently stands at around 4 percent, half that of Malaysia and Singapore, and lower than Thailand and the Philippines.

Earlier this year the U.S. ambassador in Jakarta, Robert Gelbard, attacked the Indonesian government for “corruption” and criticized Wahid for his slow pace of “reform”–that is, for not moving quickly enough to bring down barriers to foreign capitalist investment and buyouts of Indonesian assets and corporations. U.S. mining, energy, and clothing companies have huge investments in Indonesia.

The Consultative Group on Indonesia, an umbrella organization headed by the World Bank, met in October to discuss how much to loan the Wahid government and on what terms. The loan would go to pay interest, and nothing more, on the country’s $60 billion foreign debt.

Indonesia is second only to Russia in loans held by the International Monetary Fund. Jakarta’s single biggest creditor is Japan.  
 
Washington restores military links
U.S. president William Clinton announced on May 23 that the U.S. military would begin restoring links with its Indonesian counterpart, officially broken during the East Timor events. Joint exercises are planned in what U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright described as a “carefully calibrated” plan to renew ties.

The move indicated the importance the U.S. rulers place on trying to restore stability in Indonesia and to slow down its disintegration. “Indonesia at the end of the day has a very big strategic importance in the region,” said Singapore-based Vincent Low of the U.S. investment firm Merrill Lynch in October. “From a geopolitical point of view, it’s too big to fail.”

Recently, Wahid has moved to increase incentives for foreign oil companies to invest in the country’s oil reserves. Indonesia is the sole Asian member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Companies. After months of hesitation, he moved in October to make initial cuts in the subsidies on fuel prices, increasing the prices and the potential profits for the Western oil companies.

Workers immediately disrupted the Sumatran operation of PT Caltex Pacific Indonesia, the country’s biggest oil contractor. Companies such as Caltex sign up for contracts with the state-owned Pertamina oil company.

It was the attempt to slash fuel price subsidies by the former dictator Suharto, as demanded by the IMF, that sparked massive protests by students and working people in 1998. Suharto stepped down in May of that year under pressure from the U.S. rulers.

Washington had backed Suharto since the 1965 military takeover and massacre of some 1 million workers and peasants that consolidated his rule. During his dictatorship, called the “New Order” regime, Suharto relied on the military–whose officers are part of the landlord and capitalist classes and play a prominent part in government to this day–to repress workers, peasants, and national struggles.

Suharto claimed credit for the uneven but rapid industrialization fueled by substantial overseas investment. Capitalists from the United States, Japan, and elsewhere were attracted by the apparently limitless supply of cheap labor power and the growth of a substantial middle class with some money to spend.

That 30-year rule came to an abrupt end under the pressure of economic crisis and popular unrest. Similar ingredients lie beneath the weakness of the Wahid government and the social conflicts bubbling throughout the country today.

source: The Militant

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