SUKARNO, the man destined to become father of the Republic of Indonesia, was walking in the fields of West Java, heartland of the Dutch East Indies. It was the 1930s and independent Indonesia was still much more than a world war away.
A peasant farmer was tilling his field with a hand-held plough. Sukamo went over to talk to him. He asked if the farmer owned the plough. Yes. Did he own the land? Yes, but it was only a tiny plot Sukamo asked the farmer his name. Marhaen.
This, decided Sukarno, was the typical Indonesian. He was not of the proletariat in the Marxist sense. He did own tools. He did own land. But he was still poverty-stricken and exploited. Sukamo refined his concept of the average Indonesian in many speeches and writings as the years went by. Eventually it jelled into the theory of ‘Marhaenism.
When, in the years following Indonesia’s last democratic but inconclusive general election in 1955, Sukamo decided it was time to introduce his own brand of ‘guided democracy’, Marhaenism was fundamental to his thinking But populist politics was not solely Sukamo’s domain; all four main political parties from 1950 to the mid-sixties claimed, and exploited, the active support of the ordinary people.
Democracy in Indonesia in these days was more than a periodic consultation between the pemimpin (leaders)and rakyat(people), as is the way of parliamentary systems; it was more a question of kerakyatan, which implies not just a willingness to communicate regularly with the people but also to eat and sleep with them and to be ever ready to indulge in repartee with rural peasant and urban workers.
Through the fifties, recurrent cabinet instability undercut the authority of the mainly anti-populist elite who had been holding the govemmental reins. By 1957 voters in many major cities were electing left-wing, communist and populist mayors.
American anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, described how the burgeoning range of party-affiliated organisations, unions, women’s movements, social credit and religious discussion groups breathed life once again into a Java that had been deprived of outlets for spontaneous dynamism through hundreds of years of foreign colonial rule. The membership of these organisations ran into tens of millions.
Union militancy climaxed in 1959 when workers in several parts of Indonesia marched on and took over numerous plantations. More significantly, when the army moved in to remove workers from the plantations, it did not hand them back to their mostly Dutch owners. Instead, the military aligned itself with anti-imperialist politics and moved into scores of economic enterprises. In one stroke the army had obtained for itself an independent economic base— the foundation for ‘warlord capitalism’ had been laid.
In 1957 Sukamo had urged Indonesians to bury their political parties. When, in 1959, political sectarianism was still blocking any common direction for the nation’s populist dynamism, Sukamo(having won the support of the army) proposed a ‘functional group’ system. (Functional groups in Indonesia are bodies of people such as peasants, workers, and, conveniently, the military.) The appeal in Sukamo’s proposal to the military was that it would legitimise its non-military role.
Both Sukamo and the military were dedicated to streamlining the functional groups. But while Sukamo saw it as a way of harnessing the populist dynamism of the people, the military saw it as a way of bringing that dynamism under control.
Armed rebellion in Sumatra and Sulawesi offered Sukamo a reason to declare martial law in 1959. Hitherto without a power base of his own, Sukarno now had the backing of the economically independent armed forces.
While Sukarno tried to wean the unions and other groups away from the political parties, the military set up its own union structure. The military’s union organization — which had its core in the plantations and factories which it had taken over and in government services controlled by martial law — was never able to compete with the popularity of the established, party-affiliated unions.
By 1962 Sukarno had given up hope of severing the mass organisations from their parties. Instead, he introduced the concept of NASAKOM (an acronym based on the Indonesian words for nationalism, religion and communism). He had always argued that these three ideological streams had summed up Indonesian political thinking. Although he was rehabilitating the parties, he did not give up his idea of building Indonesia’s future on the dynamism of populist mobilisation. By urging each party to complete to mobilise its mass support behind the goals of his government, he was inviting them to defend populism against the inroads the anti-populist army was making into national political and economic life.
The parties took their cue. Membership of mass organisations burgeoned; nationalist and communist unions and peasants’ groups became more militant; and women’s, students’ and intellectual groups followed suit.
As this militancy headed for climax, the ambiguity of the populist environment became clear: the major issues around which the parties mobilised their mass organisations were formulated primarily by Sukarno and his closest associates. Although many influences were at work in the presidential palace, there was no clear line of communication from the bottom up.
But many issues were progressive: agrarian land reform limiting land holdings and greatly enlarging the proportion of the harvest due to the peasant labourer; nationalisation of key industries in line with the constitution to enable surplus production to be constructively used; and a whole gambit of anti-imperialist policies designed to restore economic and cultural independence to Indonesia.
All kinds of activity flourished: literacy programmes; attempts to bring basic education to all classes; political education for millions; worker and peasant co-operatives. And a populist press eagerly broadcast cooperative success stories.
Political party leaders found it increasingly difficult to control their members at grassroots level. When landowners and state officials were seen to be collaborating to prevent land reform, grassroots branches of the Peasant Farmers Front began to occupy land. Landowning groups used religious and state contacts to mobilise fanatic Moslem elements and police and army to eject the occupiers.
From the beginning, the Communist Party leaders had urged members not to take unilateral action. The land reforms pushed through were a compromise that the party had agreed to in order to get a parliamentary majority, the communist leaders told their followers.
Despite this appeal for discipline, the radicalisation process was in full torrent and, in the-end the movement was not based on any political or ideological loyalty; it was populist in character, constantly emphasising the belief that the little people should speak up in their own interests.
In 1964 came the signing of the Marhaen Declaration by most leaders of the Indonesian Nationalist Party(PNI). It demanded the purging from the party of all landowning, capitalist and other class groupings whose interests were opposed to the ideals being manifested by the populist movement.
All this could not happen without a sharp polarisation in society. Not surprisingly, the armed forces took the lead on the anti-populist side. Until 1963 under martial law the armed forces had enormous power. They constantly harassed leftwing and populist publications, closing down communist newspapers in some provinces.
Cultural polarisation was also proceeding at breakneck speed. Artists and writers attempted to voice the aspirations of the people and depict their social reality. Some were highly successful; others collapsed under the burden of dogma But the ferment was intense and the commitment high.
This was the situation then, when, on September 30, 1965, Indonesia plunged into catastrophe. The Westem press invariably refers to the events of 1965 as the time of the ‘abortive communist coup’. In reality the picture is considerably different.
A group of propopulist army officers, announcing their support for Sukamo, moved to oust senior military officers. They wanted to set up a revolutionary council consisting of mainly propopulist non-party figures and abolish all ranks above colonel. Their failure to arrest General Suharto, commander of elite strategic command troops, was their undoing.
Suharto mobilised his troops and quickly crushed the propopulist young turks. (Accusations, which have surfaced from time to time since those bloody days, have been made that Suharto was involved in the pro-populist action and that he was party to Lhe mutiny plans, waiting to crush them.)
As the situation became confused on October 1, troops given the task of detaining senior generals panicked and executed them. Some generals had been killed resisting detention the night before. When the Communist Party newspaper declared its support for the mutiny leader, Colonel Untung, Suharto quickly and publicly associated the killings of the general with the Communist Party. Subsequently, though there is scant evidence to suggest it, the blame for Untung’ s actions was placed on the Communist Party.
And then the killing began. Some say a million. No one disputes half a million. Anyone known to have had communist connections was killed or arrested. The same went for radicalised members of the PNI.
It was notjust the slaughter of two political parties; a complete style of political life and social action was brutally savaged. Populist activity, with its emphasis on the interests of the little person, was excised from the Indonesian body politic.
Killing went on until 1970; sackings and arrests through the seventies. In 1973 it was estimated that more than 100,000 political prisoners were still being held without trial.
The Indonesian people became a ‘floating mass’ — no longer involved in political action; no longer able to voice criticism; able only to choose between electoral contestants handpicked by the Suharto military government.
By the middle-to-late seventies, this time in a much more sophisticated way, the instinctive populism of the Indonesian masses was beginning to manifest itself again. This time there was no Sukarno. But now there were scores of intellectuals — in law, medicine, student politics and other areas — working hand-in-hand with workers and peasants, in city and country. The message is the same: Indonesians want to participate in shaping their own destiny; they wish to regain control of their country from foreign interests.
Suharto cannot be sitting easy as he waits to be re-elected for a further presidential term next year by a body of people of his own choosing.
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