Who is listening to Indonesia's poor?
Inside Indonesia, digest 67, 22 jun 1998
On the last Sunday of May, well over a million Muslim Indonesians gathered for an open-air prayer meeting in Surabaya. Peaceful and all in white, it was the largest gathering in that country in decades. For over three hours, one famous ulama after another pleaded for God's mercy in their distress. A kind of suppressed sobbing began to spread through the massive crowd. 'It made the hair on my neck stand up', said one journalist. This was the sobbing of the hungry poor, who have no one to turn to but Allah.
Suharto's New Order was not so much a lone dictatorship as a club for a privileged upper middle class. More than anything, these people fear the unwashed. Theirs is a peculiarly colonial fear, nurtured in enclaves surrounded by poverty. Yet they treated power as a licence to do whatever they pleased. For insurance against unrest, they relied mostly on the 'dual function' of the military.
Indeed, many of the poor are angry. Tens of thousands rampaged through Jakarta on 13-15 May, targeting the symbols of an alien modern economy - banks, automatic teller machines, car showrooms, hotels, cars belonging to Chinese people.
Rioting leapt like wildfire through the industrial belts just outside the capital, worst hit by recent layoffs. Over 1300 died, a death toll soon forgotten by a preoccupied media. It was the biggest, but by no means the first, of many incidents with a strong class edge over recent years. There is insurrection out there now. The suppressed sobbing in Surabaya tells us that many more are suffering in quiet despair.
Who will represent these impoverished millions in the post- Suharto political equation? The communist party tried. But the military sponsored a genocidal bloodbath against them when the New Order was born in 1965. President Habibie has already vowed that the remaining communist prisoners, still in jail three decades later, will not be released. Will the poor now remain for Mr. Habibie what they always were for Mr. Suharto - the dangerous unwashed?
Who has ever asked them what they want? If numbers count, theirs is the real opposition agenda.
'Justice' is a more vital word for them than for the comfortable middle classes, who are already saying they want less politics so the exchange rate can improve. The poor want justice for the unknown thousands who died in New Order army massacres.
They want heroes. Pictures of the revolutionary president Sukarno are selling in record numbers. His daughter Mrs. Megawati remains an idol for many. They want food - getting dearer just as their incomes plummet. They want work. And they want land.
While the nation's elite wring their hands over the constitutionality of post-Suharto reform, the poor are taking direct action. Hundreds of farmers dug up a luxurious golf course near Bandung and planted bananas and cassava there on 13 June. They said they were never properly compensated when a large company took over the land in 1989.
Within days of Mr. Suharto's resignation, thousands had descended on land set aside for various housing estates around Jakarta linked to the former president's family. Among them parts of Jonggol Asri, planned as a huge satellite city by Mr. Suharto's son Bambang Trihatmodjo. They marked out plots for themselves with stakes and raffia.
Even Mr. Suharto's famous ranch 'Tapos' was not immune from the landless poor who, seeing long grass growing on the unused land, moved in to plant something. 'I'm unemployed. People everywhere were taking over Suharto's land after he stepped down, so I'm doing the same here', said ring-leader Mr. Hasan, a mechanic from Jakarta.
If Indonesia's elite, and those who deal with them from abroad, hope simply to get back to business as usual, more unhappiness will surely follow. Unless, amid the cacophany of demands, they now listen to the voice of the poor, they may well need the military's 'dual function' to protect themselves once more.
Gerry van Klinken, editor, 'Inside Indonesia' magazine.