Spring 1998
Congress Bars Use of U.S. Weapons in East Timor

Indonesian Military Training Continues Despite Ban

Constâncio Pinto Joins ETAN Staff

APECT III Meets in Bangkok

ETAN Hosts Activist Training Conferences

José Ramos-Horta Inspires St. Louis Activists

Massachusetts East Timor Bill Update

Member News

Torture and Fear of Torture Actualized

Postcard from Timor

Review- Women’s Rights in East Timor

U.S. Should Help East Timor

Youth Resistance in East Timor

Estafeta -
Spring 1998
Spring 1997

Observations in Indonesia: On the verge of change?
Summary report from recent fact-finding delegation to Indonesia and East Timor. A more comprehensive version is available from ETAN.

From March 3-13, 1998, a three-person delegation from the East Timor Action Network (Charles Scheiner), Global Exchange (Matthew Jardine), and Justice for All (Sidhawati), visited Jakarta (Indonesia) and Dili (East Timor). We spoke with many people from a wide range of perspectives, experiences, and organizations. This is a brief analysis of the current situation and a call for a reworking of US-Indonesia relations.

The financial crisis in Indonesia has captured the attention of the international media over the past six months. The basic facts of the crisis are now well-known: the whopping 500% depreciation of the Indonesian rupiah against the dollar, the skyrocketing prices of basic commodities, the precipitous fall in foreign investment, and flood of companies going bankrupt. The showdown between President Suharto, determined to stick to crony capitalism, and the IMF, insistent upon liberalization of markets, has been a subject of almost daily news coverage.

The story that has received much less attention is the increasing conflict between the Indonesian people and the Indonesian regime. The military has already unleashed a wave of widespread repression–arresting over 1,400 people over the past two months on charges of civil disorder and killing five–and is steeling itself for much larger street battles against the country’s citizens. As the economic crisis continues to deepen, there is every reason to expect that resistance will grow and repression will intensify.

At this crucial juncture, we must ask ourselves, as citizens of the United States, whether our government will be complicit in this repression or whether it will cut off all relations with the Indonesian military. The evidence of expanded training for the Indonesian military, especially the special forces (Kopassus), indicates that the US government is prepared to help the military fight urban warfare against the victims of this economic crisis.

According to estimates of a labor expert whom we met, more than 16 million people have lost their jobs in the past six months. The much-celebrated industrialization of the 1980s in textile, garment and shoe production has virtually collapsed overnight. Export processing zones around Jakarta have become eerily quiet. The urban construction boom has gone bust: half-built skyscrapers now litter the Jakarta landscape.

The nation is awash in unemployed people, and 100,000 migrant workers have returned from Malaysia, also hit by economic troubles. The unemployment portends to become much worse. Many industries will grind to a halt when their present inventory of imported raw materials is exhausted. Foreign labor-intensive corporations, alarmed by the newly perceived instability of the Suharto regime, are packing their bags, foregoing the minuscule wages of Indonesian workers (less than 50 cents per day in the shoe factories) for cheap labor elsewhere.

Last year’s new Indonesian labor law allows employers to fire workers without notice and without arbitration proceedings. The law also forbids all strikes. The workers, if they dare to protest, face troops of the Indonesian military.

Popular protest thus far has been significant by Indonesian standards, small when compared with other countries, and less than it will take to create a dramatic change from below. While we were there, tens of thousands of university students staged daily protests at nearly every university in Java. Surrounded by massively armed police and troops, students were largely contained to campuses. As we traveled around Jakarta, we encountered traffic jams caused by military vehicles and soldiers deployed at the edges of the universities. Police and military brutally attacked students in places such as Surabaya where protests were spreading to nearby working class neighborhoods.

The Suharto regime does not tolerate even small-scale opposition. When twelve prominent female university professors gathered in downtown Jakarta to protest the doubling of milk prices, police immediately arrested and jailed them. When some fifty people tried to hold a private discussion on Indonesia’s political future at a north Jakarta resort, over a hundred police intervened and arrested eleven of the organizers. We met with a member of Komnas Ham (the government-appointed National Human Rights Commission) and asked him about non-governmental organization tabulations of 1,000 political arrests in the first six weeks of 1998. He thought the number was too low.

In the midst of the increasing material deprivation, the Indonesian army remains just as powerful. Neither Suharto, nor the IMF, nor the USA have proposed any lessening in the power of the military. Over the past 30 years, the military has been a law unto itself. It has troops stationed throughout the country who police the population with impunity. Recently, the military has demanded even more money from the government for "special operations," including warfare in "urban terrain." What the military does not get by asking, it takes. Troops have been confiscating the goods of many merchants under the pretext of anti-hoarding regulations. They then sell those goods themselves at military-run markets and pocket the profits.

The human rights situation in East Timor remains atrocious despite the attention brought to the plight of the former Portuguese colony by the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize. According to Catholic Church sources, military repression of the territory’s inhabitants is actually worse than it was in 1996. Indonesia’s economic crisis has hit East Timor especially hard; it was already one of the poorest regions under Suharto’s rule. A severe lack of rain in many areas of East Timor has brought increased hardship, and aid workers fear that the food situation along the north coast could reach crisis proportions in the next couple of months.

Any aid to the Suharto regime, whether it be IMF loans or military training, supports continued suppression of the burgeoning popular movement in Indonesia and the illegal occupation of East Timor. As Sri Bintang Pamungkas, the jailed leader of a dissident Indonesian political party, told us, all foreign aid should wait until the present regime is replaced.

For many years, Washington has sent mixed signals to Jakarta. Congress (sometimes with State Department support) limits military training or arms sales to Indonesia. President Clinton decries human rights violations in East Timor when he meets with Suharto, and the US sponsors critical resolutions in the UN Human Rights Commission. But at the same time US soldiers are training Indonesia’s special forces in urban warfare and sniper tactics. Suharto, a world-class expert in political ritual (his recent self-re-election is a classic example), has no problem decoding the message - the criticisms are intended to placate the American people and Congress, while the continued military support indicates US approval of his regime’s ongoing repression.

The solution to the present crisis will require more than just IMF bailouts, financial transparency, and the elimination of corruption. Since the Suharto family, its cronies and its military are attempting to push the costs of the crisis onto the people (instead of releasing their vast stores of stolen wealth), the only solution for the people of Indonesia and East Timor will lie in the ending of institutionalized martial law and the creation of a democratic system. The United States can play a positive role in this process by ending its partnership with Suharto and his military.

sandy.jpg (15751 bytes)Father Sandyawan Sumardi, SJ of the Jakarta Social Institute, has been a consistent and persuasive advocate for the urban poor, including street children. This photo was taken as he awaited his 20th court appearance on charges of giving sanctuary to Indonesian pro-democracy activists who were leaders of the banned PRD. A week after we returned to the US, Father Sandy and his brother were acquitted because the court decided that sheltering the PRD fugitives was in accordance with humanitarian mission of a Catholic priest.

On March 22, Fr. Sandy eloquently described the unbelievable hardships the current economic crisis creates for the urban poor, with rising prices and falling incomes. He concluded "We are convinced that however soft it may sound, the value of truth and the struggle of the victims will always live under the surface of development; even though the New Order tries hard to bury them, their screams will never disappear from the labyrinth of history."