It was only a matter of time before Indonesian police opened fire on protesters. Months ago, when president-for-life Suharto gave in and adopted IMF austerity measures, students have been staging demonstrations on campuses in Jakarta and other major cities on the islands of Java and Sumatra. Until this past week, the demonstrations have all been peaceful, but after police shot and killed six students, riots have broken out in several cities.
The death of these students has coincided with two other events to precipitate the current “riots”: a drastic increase in food and fuel prices of 40-70% (part of the IMF “bailout package”), and Suharto’s jaunt to Egypt. The new price increases are in addition to ones imposed late last year, and they follow on the heels of major layoffs and wage cuts in state-run industries. Only an egomaniac like Suharto would expect people to sit at home and accept starvation.
Suharto, his family, and his cronies have ruled Indonesia for 32 years, since 1966, when the CIA helped the Indonesian military slaughter the popularly-elected, socialist president Sukarno and thousands of his supporters. Since then, with the help of U.S. weapons and training, the Indonesian junta has killed hundreds of thousands of people in East Timor (one-third of the population) in a drive to develop the island’s off-shore oil fields. As recently as the early 1990s, the Indonesian military slaughtered and displaced indigenous people in Irian Jaya to protect the enormous Grasberg copper and gold pit mine on behalf of a U.S. mining corporation, Freeport McMoRan. In addition, Indonesian police and military have routinely jailed, tortured, and “disappeared” thousands of political dissidents throughout Suharto’s 32 year reign. So notoriously vicious was this repression, that foreign journalists and political analysts have assumed that the Indonesian population would never rise up in violence against Suharto for fear of military reprisals; Western politicians and economists have always hoped for a peaceful political referendum (in favor of a Suharto crony, of course), once Suharto dies or retires. But, of course, violence begets violence: Suharto won’t step down for fear of assassination or trial, and the Indonesian people have been brutalized for so long that they can’t and won’t stand for starvation on top of political repression.
So the future holds a violent collision of interests in Indonesia: Suharto has offered to retire, as long as the military protects him and the economic interests of his family, who through decades of corruption and nepotism own the most lucrative industries in Indonesia (oil, automobiles, spices, and banking interests). The protesters (workers as well as students) want Suharto, his family, and all his associates out of Indonesian politics forever, and probably want to confiscate most of their ill-gotten wealth. The IMF wants political stability so Indonesia will pay back its loans, and undoubtedly could care less how many people die in the process. Western political analysts are already searching among Suharto’s associates for a replacement–someone who will carry on the legacy of Suharto’s exploitation of the fourth most populous nation in the world.