Sep 23, 2020 Last Updated 7:31 AM, Sep 18, 2020

Wahid, IMF and the people

Published: Jul 02, 2000

A young activist jailed under Suharto is stirring more opposition to Wahid too

Nick Everett talks with Budiman Sujatmiko

Budiman Sujatmiko chairs the Indonesian People's Democratic Party, PRD. He first became active in the movement for democracy in 1988, when he was a student at Yogyakarta's Gadjah Mada University. The New Order regime jailed him for more than three years. He was not released till December 1999, six weeks after Abdurrahman Wahid was elected president. Together with Avelino da Silva, secretary-general of the Timorese Socialist Party PST, Sujatmiko recently visited Australia on a speaking tour organised by Action in Solidarity with Indonesia and East Timor (Asiet). I caught up with Sujatmiko during his visit to Sydney on April 12.

Wahid was elected in October 1999 amid mass protests against continued Golkar rule. His appointment continued a process of reform begun under B J Habibie. Acting under the growing pressure of a mass anti-dictatorship movement demanding 'reformasi total', the Habibie government had passed legislation for multi-party elections, reduced the armed forces representation in parliament, withdrew some of the most repressive labour laws, and instituted a UN-supervised referendum in East Timor. The Wahid government subsequently forced Golkar-appointed military commander General Wiranto out of cabinet, finished releasing political prisoners, and launched its own investigation into human rights abuses by the armed forces in East Timor last September.

Australian and other Western governments have touted these reforms as proof of the new government's commitment to democracy. Sujatmiko and the PRD do not share this view.

'These are just the minimum criteria for democracy,' Sujatmiko explained. 'Freedom of speech, freedom of assembly these offer the chance for the majority to rule. But if those liberties do not actually result in majority rule, then we do not have democracy in the true sense.'

Sujatmiko concedes that, unlike his predecessors Suharto and Habibie, 'Wahid is not a bureaucrat.' However, 'he has no policy to deliver better living standards or to end the threat of unemployment - his policies cannot deliver "people friendly" outcomes,' he said.

Sujatmiko argues that this is most clearly demonstrated by Wahid's pursuit of an economic restructuring program imposed by the International Monetary Fund. 'If the policies dictated by the IMF are fully implemented in the next three years, the majority of the people will have to bear the burden of an increased cost of living, driving them under the poverty line,' he said. 'The 1997 economic crisis has already resulted in 37 million unemployed this figure will continue to rise if the IMF policies are implemented further.'

IMF demands to restructure the economy have robbed Indonesia of its economic independence. Sujatmiko likens it to the experience of Latin American countries since the 1980s. 'Privatisation, financial liberalisation, deregulation of trade and investment, reduced state subsidies this is the same as the neo-liberal policies that have been pursued in Latin America.'

'Wahid has given a commitment to the IMF that he will cut state subsidies, resulting in higher petrol, electricity and transport prices and increased education fees,' says Sujatmiko. 'He has said that he has to do this to reduce dependency on foreign debt and the IMF.' However, opposition to price hikes refreshed the memory of mass demonstrations against similar hikes that brought down the Suharto dictatorship in 1998. It forced Wahid to delay the fuel price increase and the increase in civil service salaries. 'Wahid is playing between two poles,' notes Sujatmiko: 'the IMF and the people.'

'He wants to win sympathy from the people, but his concessions are still not enough. He has created anger by proposing to increase salaries for the first echelon bureaucracy by 2000%. What he has done is not based on a clear-cut vision,' states Sujatmiko. 'Objectively, the Wahid government remains loyal to the dictates of the IMF and of Western governments. Wahid is seeking to use his popular following to position himself to implement this austerity program.'

No serious opposition is emerging to this economic program from the parties represented in Indonesia's newly elected parliament. 'The PRD is the only political party criticising this program,' Sujatmiko says, 'in unity with other democratic forces: the student movement and trade unions.'

'Workers and students have come to parliament to protest the cutting of subsidies, and teachers have mobilised in many centres in Indonesia demanding a 300% increase in their salaries. There has been unrest and social discontent. Bus drivers, taxi drivers and others have taken action against the increase in transport costs. This has given the people confidence: they can now act as political groups to put pressure on the government so that the government must listen to the people.'

Growing opposition to the IMF's demands has strengthened the PRD's advocacy of an alternative economic program. 'We have already come to parliament and met with its members and presented our proposals,' Sujatmiko tells me. The PRD advocates: cancellation of the foreign debt, a progressive tax on high incomes, taxes on the sale of luxury goods, a reduced military budget, and expropriation of Suharto's assets (estimated to be worth US$16 billion) and those of corrupt bureaucrats and military businesses.

'One of these proposals has been accepted already taxes on luxury goods,' explained Sujatmiko. 'These measures are needed to create a fund that can maintain state subsidies for essential services.'

On the prospects of a trial for Suharto, Sujatmiko says: 'There are protests by the student movement now almost every day in Indonesia. These actions have included attempts to occupy Suharto's house and demand that he face a "people's tribunal", because they have no confidence in the Indonesian justice system. A fair trial of Suharto and corrupt bureaucrats, as well as of generals responsible for human rights abuses, cannot possibly take place under the current justice system. Cleaning up the justice system is potentially a very radical thing. It cannot be achieved simply by replacing judges. The system itself needs to change.'

On the possibility of an international tribunal to try the generals responsible for the violence in East Timor, Sujatmiko observes: 'The UN itself is not demanding an international tribunal, but is there any alternative? We support a campaign for an international tribunal because it has the potential not only to address past injustices but will draw attention to the political role of the armed forces in Indonesia. While the factions in parliament have agreed not to give seats to the armed forces in the next parliamentary term, the structural issue of the role of the military through the territorial command system is yet to be addressed.'


In recent weeks, a Wahid proposal to lift the 1966 ban on communism has stirred much public debate. Wahid now indicates he wants to un-ban communism while retaining a ban on the Indonesian Communist Party PKI.

More than a million PKI members and sympathisers were killed following the Suharto regime's seizure of power in a military coup in October 1965. 'Wahid has issued a statement of apology to the PKI,' explained Sujatmiko. 'He has no phobia about any ideology, he gives permission for people to live with any faith or ideology in Indonesia he is liberal-minded. But both conservative Islamic forces and the military are opposed to this, including forces inside the cabinet such as the religious Crescent and Star Party PBB, and Amien Rais who chairs PAN, while Vice-President Megawati is silent on the issue. Opposition within Wahid's own cabinet has pressed him to concede to maintaining the ban on the PKI.'

Sujatmiko notes that 'while the unbanning of communism would enable the distribution of Marxist literature - the Communist Manifesto, for example - the question of whether we would openly campaign for socialism is a tactical one. We need to give a socialist perspective, not as something that is attainable in the near future or programmatic in the short term, but as our longer-term objective. More immediately we must continue to campaign for "people's democracy", because this lays the basis for raising consciousness. We are defending ourselves as a leftist party with one goal: promoting popular-oriented democracy and socialism in the context of capitalism as it exists in Indonesia now.'

Under the New Order, the PRD experienced severe repression. Its members were hunted down, jailed, kidnapped and killed. I asked Sujatmiko: 'What is it for you that commits you to remain a PRD activist, in what you describe as a "leftist party"?'

'Commitment,' he responded. 'It is not something that can be explained in a few words. It has to be explained in deeds. You have to look for the answer in practical experience.'

'Since the very beginning the PRD has been built on a solid theoretical, ideological base that is absent in Indonesia's non-government organisations or other political parties. Most other parties are built for running their chairperson for the presidency. We have been building the PRD in the context of the ongoing struggle of the mass movement, the people's movement. So for us the existence of the PRD does not depend on the objective political situation,' he explains. 'Democracy or not, we are still there.'

'We draw on the lessons of the past in Indonesia in revolutionary struggles against Dutch colonialism. We draw on the lessons of people's movements around the world: if you want something worthwhile you have to pay for it. You may have to go without, to live in prison, in order to win the bigger freedom for the people you want to defend. If you live in a society where exploitation is blatant, naked and very repressive, then your decision to fight for the greater liberty of all by reducing your own personal liberty is something logical and can be accepted not just by rational logic but by our own consciousness.'

Nick Everett is a member of the Sydney committee of Asiet (email, or visit

Inside Indonesia 63: Jul - Sep 2000

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