Muchtar Pakpahan, founder of Indonesia’s first independent labor union, SBSI, in 1992, was imprisoned by the Suharto government for “subversive activities” in 1996. After Mr. Suharto stepped down on May 21, Mr. Pakpahan was one of the first political prisoners to be released. The 45-year-old activist from Sumatra was invited by the World Confederation of Labor to attend the annual assembly of the International Labor Organization in Geneva this week. He discussed his country’s problems and prospects with Robert Kroon for the IHT.
Q. The Indonesian government Tuesday accepted the ILO convention on workers’ freedom of association, which puts you in the driver’s seat as leader of Indonesia’s first free labor movement. Do you think President B.J. Habibie is now seriously committed to social and political reforms?
A. Not really. He has always been Suharto’s puppet and Suharto is still pulling the strings behind the scenes. That goes not only for Habibie, but also for his cabinet, which retained several ministers from the corrupt Suharto era. The reform process is much too slow. Habibie wants to hang on until the next century. The MPR, the People’s Consultative Assembly, must be convened as soon as possible to install a new and more credible transition government and prepare for early general elections. We have given Habibie until June 15 to make up his mind about this special MPR session. If he keeps stalling, we will organize mass demonstrations of Indonesian workers and students to force Habibie out of office and speed up reforms. Indonesian workers are the main victims of the economic crisis resulting from the corrupt Suharto regime.
Q. In the present climate couldn’t mass demonstrations trigger a new wave of violence?
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Hundreds feared dead in Philippines stormObama plans to take campaign to Republican bastionsIndia’s growth outstrips cropsI am against violence and the demonstrations will be peaceful if there are no provocations from the military. The attitude of the ABRI, the armed forces, in the reform process remains unclear. The military establishment is split in nationalist and Islamic fundamentalist factions. Armed forces chief General Wiranto claims he wants democratic reform, but he is an ambivalent factor in the military equation. He relieved General Prabowo Subianto, Suharto’s son-in-law, from his command of the élite Strategic Reserve, but Prabowo remains a dangerous man.
Q. Isn’t there a danger that Indonesia could turn into a fundamentalist state?
A. I see three negative possibilities: A military takeover, total anarchy, or a fundamentalist state. Freedom of religion is one of the underpinnings of the Indonesian republic and it must be respected. The general election should be a free and fair contest between political parties that are constituted according to democratic and not religious principles. Myself, I am a Christian from North Sumatra and SBSI, our independent labor union, was founded on the basis of religious tolerance. We started with a few hundred workers and now we already have half a million members.
Q. With Habibie still at the helm, what are your more immediate priorities?
A. The people do not trust the present government because it carries the imprint of the former regime. Suharto should be put on trial for enriching himself and his family at the expense of the Indonesian nation. Future support from the IMF to help Indonesia out of its present predicament is urgently needed, but the money should be disbursed in a transparent way for the benefit of the people. The $4 billion allotted by the IMF to Indonesia since November have disappeared without a trace.
We also need aid from Western governments to alleviate the people’s current hardships. Also, there are still some 150 political prisoners in jail and they should be freed immediately. That includes Xanana Gusmao, the leader of the East Timor resistance movement. Gusmao and I were in the same Jakarta prison. The East Timorese should decide on their own political future in a referendum and if they opt for association with Indonesia I told Xanana, he should accept it