Interview with Dita Sari

Submitted by martin on 23 August, 2005 - 2:57

Dita Sari spoke to Melissa White when Dita visited Brisbane in July 2005.

It's far more difficult for the left now that the dictatorship has gone. Before, the enemy was clear. We wanted to get rid of Suharto and his family eating up the natural resources. It was easy for us to unite against our common enemy. But now democratic space has come about formally and we can form political parties and trade unions and organise talks like this, social change has become so much more fractured. It's hard to bring together all the different groups with all of their different energies and different activities. Many hesitate to go beyond those activities.

In principle the trade unions agree that they should be the agents of the social movement. But when it comes to practical action they won't do anything. There are thousands of student unions organised on campuses, but it's hard to convince them to act as a co-ordinated national movement.

So maybe the problem is that the time we've had democracy, since 1998, has just been too short. But I say that for the 5 million undernourished children, for the 11 million children who never go to school and for the tens of millions unemployed — they can not wait any longer. The neoliberal agenda has become complete hell for third world countries. The neoliberals have succeeded in consolidating themselves via the terrorist issue. But we have failed to consolidate ourselves.

We want to bring about a consensus that's not merely issue-based, but political. Otherwise we'll be limited in challenging the political power. We have learnt how unity can be built by looking at examples such as the Socialist Alliance in Australia and Respect in England, but we in Indonesia have not been successful in building unity amongst the trade unions, the non-government organisations, the student organisations, the intellectuals and individuals. We are keen to keep trying this unity because the process of arguing and so on is as important as the result. We are very up and down in doing this. Sometimes nobody comes to our meetings, sometimes we just can't agree, but we have to keep trying even if it is very tiring.

We've achieved unity under a couple of platforms so far. One has been the anti-corruption agenda. The next election is not until 2009, however. Some people ask me why we participate in elections, because they're part of the state and so on. But you have to understand that the entire process is utterly corrupt in Indonesia. We don't want to leave these electoral arenas just to our enemies. We want people to know there is an alternative for social change. Of course we respect reform, but we want more. Social transformation and revolution.

The Indonesian Government represents the interests of global capital and rich Indonesian capitalists. Even though we've now had direct elections and over 60 per cent of people voted for Yudiyono, he's still an ex-general. After seven months in power he's signed 21 agreements with CGA/Paris Club. Soon he will travel to Beijing and sign agreements with the Chinese government which will exempt 8000 goods from China from trade tariffs from. It's a disaster. Domestic production, agriculture and manufacturing will be smashed by this. There is just no way to compete. Already many subsidies have been removed, on corn, rice and beans.

People say Indonesia has enjoyed democracy and in a limited sense this is true. There is the freedom to demonstrate and freedom of the press. But no human rights violations have been rectified. There is the massacre of three million communists in 1965 and the East Timor massacre for a start. Whenever prosecutions take place, they're always the prosecution of poor privates from rural areas. Never are the generals prosecuted. That means that a formal but fake democracy exists and the institutions that actually administer democracy haven't even been touched. This Government presents itself as anti-corruption, but it hasn't even touched the corruption of the top cops, ex-military people or ex-regime men.

The estimates suggest that 45 per cent of the Indonesian economy is a black economy. Of that, 80 per cent is run and organised by the military. So the official economy is very unstable and fragile. Every year the police ask for increased budgets for machine guns and grenades. Why? This suggests they want to be a para-military instead of a public police force. It's not militarism in the conventional sense, but it's militarism nonetheless. Some of the one thousand jihad militia sent to Ambon turned up with guns, but where else did they get their weapons other than from the police? It's militarism in a different phase or in disguise.

88 per cent of Indonesians are Muslim. Of that, only 35 per cent are what you'd call religious Muslims. The rest are moderate: they eat pork, drink alcohol, and don't pray five times a day. The Western media portrays the religious set as representative of all. But Islam has never had root in Indonesian society. It hasn't been part of a philosophy or the culture of our society for long. Hinduism was brought to Indonesia in the ninth and tenth centuries and it is strongly embedded in Indonesian society. The Islam brought to Indonesia was brought by traders, so the character of it is different. It's an Islam socialised by the merchant class. It was located mostly on the coast, but spread gradually to the countryside. It has not challenged the social structure of Hinduism and it is more harmonising with the Hindu structure than challenging of it. Hinduism is in fact much more rooted in the countryside.

Islamic ideology under Sukarno saw some asking for the introduction of Shari a law, but this was mainly a parliamentarian movement. Under Suharto, Muslims were too scared to ask for Shari a law so it wasn't even an issue. But then there was the reform and the four changes of government in quick succession. Islam started growing in popularity. Why? First, there has been a failure of governments to handle the corruption and the criminals. Second, the left and the democratic opposition have not been strong enough to pose an alternative. Third, many Islamic groups were repressed under Suharto, so the radicalised versions of Islam found no expression and were never able to compete with other more powerful groups.

Why is Indonesia portrayed as a place of radical Islam? The media picks up extreme cases and presents them as the norm. Islamists are being used by the Government to suppress the left and to control Islamic society as a whole. Since the Government has shown so many failures, the empty space is filled by the Islamists. They are trying to smash the democratic achievement of women by saying that "democracy is a product of the West". They say that democracy and human rights are Western propaganda used to bargain with the third world. Yes, that's true in one way, but they are not even talking about real democracy. You couldn't even develop as an Islamic organisation if you didn't have democracy! Thankfully the fragmentation of the Islamists is almost as bad as that of the left. They ranked seventh in the national elections out of a list of eighteen. They have achieved majors and governors in 37 districts.

The trade unions are weakened by Indonesia's domestic policies. They are losing members due to mass unemployment. The highest levels of unemployment are in the countryside. 62 per cent of all unemployed people are from the country. Unemployment is normally a springboard to radicalisation, but the leaders of the big trade unions carry on the same policies as they had under the dictatorship, so these sacked workers do not fight back. The trade unions think, "Why should we make alliances with smaller trade unions?" They make any unity project hard. They do not address the Islamic threat. They are morally, industrially and politically corrupt.

There are mosques every 200 metres in Indonesia, so they are very effective in recruiting. . In some ways, the Islamists have more spaces to talk because they are structurally well-established. There are 40 million Muslims in two large Islamic organisations. The political centre and left are the most effective in countering the Islamists. Women's groups who are opposed to polygamy and non-government organisations are also effective. Talking about land, wages, democracy and human rights changes things directly and indirectly in the competitive arena of politics

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