Crisis in Indonesia - end of Suharto


WHEN ANARCHISTS TALK about change, they inevitably come around to the subject of revolution. Anarchists argue that the present social system is incapable of real reform - that a complete overhaul is needed if we're to change the fundamental wrongs in this society. But, as most people know, revolution is not an everyday occurrence. Revolution is about a large number of people coming together at the one time. The aims of a revolution are often radical and far reaching.In contrast to a period of reform, the agenda for social change expands rapidly during a revolution. Suddenly unobtainable aims come within the grasp of ordinary people. Revolutions are great opportunities to re-organise society. As such they're not to be squandered.

Because revolutions involve so many and have such grand aims, many people see them as unlikely events. Comments such as: "People are too divided in this country" or "There's too much apathy here" are common objections to the strategy of revolution. Still, the question has to be asked: What causes revolutions to happen? Is it a sudden sense of unity among people? Or is it something else entirely?

A recent example sheds light on these questions - this was crisis in Indonesia. Since 1965 Indonesia has been ruled by a ruthless dictator, General Suharto. He ordered the murder of millions of ordinary Indonesians and was also responsible for the brutal annexation of East Timor.


Very few people gave either Indonesia or the East Timorese much of a chance against Suharto. His control was seen as brutal and absolute; the opposition was weak and divided. Then in 1997-98, an economic crisis spread across South-East Asia. The crisis was particularly strong in Indonesia. Financial institutions crashed and businesses went bottom-up.

The financial crisis revealed how corrupt and inept Suharto really was. And it was anger and disgust at this that brought Indonesians together. A mass opposition movement came into existence over a few short weeks. Students took to the streets and were joined by workers.

The Suharto regime was faced with something it had never seen before - an angry and militant population. Rather than face them down, the regime gave way and granted major concessions. It was clear to everyone that if it didn't, a revolution might occur.

Indonesia is a good example of how capitalism itself creates the opportunities for its own overthrow. The root cause of the crisis in Indonesia lay with the manner in which the South-East Asian economies were developed and used (by the West). Countries like Indonesia and Thailand were given massive loans to develop.

Men like Suharto were seen as 'reliable and safe' by these bankers. (So what if they were murdering thousands in East Timor!) In part this was because these economies provide cheap labour pools for capitalism. Cheap labour plays a central role in maintaining current profit levels.


But there were massive contradictions at the heart of the economic development in Indonesia. Unexpectedly these came home to roost last year. There was a massive crisis and it was only through emergency loans from the IMF and the USA that catastrophe was averted. Revolution was staved off, but only by a whisker.

What can we learn from what happened in Indonesia? Firstly we need to keep in mind that capitalism is a fundamentally unstable system. Despite the fact that it uses institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF to manage this instability, at root it is unsafe and shaky. It is a system based on short-term profits and as such it lends itself to developments that are inherently short-sighted. So inevitably there is crisis ahead. The only question is: how big?

The second point is that crises often bring people together. (Not the other way around.) Needless to say a crisis can often have other effects too, but fundamentally it can be the basis for people coming together.

History shows us that support for anarchist ideas expands rapidly in times of mass rebellion. This is because anarchists encourage the dynamic aspects of revolution &endash; liberty and the practice of participatory democracy. But if we are to build the anarchist society we must maximise our influence and effect when the time comes. Why? Because opportunities can arise and then quickly dissipate if they are not taken &endash; once again the Suharto example springs to mind.

How well we are able to do this, depends on what we do now. People listen to those who have a tradition and record of fighting capitalism. They also join those organisations whose methods and views they identify with. Right now these are some of the things we can do. Talk about our anarchist ideas, spread information on what we stand for and what we want. In the long run it will pay-off a thousand fold.

Kevin Doyle

This article is from Workers Solidarity No 58 published in Oct 1999