Can progressive thinking exist in contemporary Indonesia ?

✍️ Gloria Truly ESTRELITA


In Indonesia, many observers of political life analyze that ideologies do not exist or hardly exist in the social field. The parties and unions are seen as organizing themselves more in pragmatic or identity-based terms (religious, regionalist, ethnic), relying on the networks inherited from decolonization and those, more recently, from the Suharto dictatorship. Indeed, if we look more specifically at progressive ideologies after the authoritarian turn taken by President Soekarno and the Communist Party of Indonesia (Partai Komunis Indonesia or PKI) in the early 1960s, followed by General Suharto’s seizure of power in 1965, and despite the democratization reforms undertaken since the fall of that regime in 1998, engagement in any form of socialist-oriented activism is subject to suspicion and is closely monitored by the intelligence services and their local civilian supporters (Honna 1999: 121).

Musée de la Trahison Communiste, Jakarta, 2015

Museum of Communist Treason, Jakarta, 2015. Credit @ S. Roland

This was not always the case. After Indonesia’s independence in 1945, while other political parties were preoccupied with national politics, the PKI exerted its influence at the local level by organizing social activities, political education, family planning, fighting illiteracy, and supporting peasants, thus solidifying a strong popular base. It was one of the big winners in Indonesia’s first general election in 1955 and became the third-largest communist party in the world in the 1960s with three million members, plus a constellation of satellite grassroots organizations. President Soekarno, after learning about the involvement of the United States and the United Kingdom in the local revolts (1957-1961) (Conboy and Morrison 2018), as well as the role of the two countries in provoking the Indonesia-Malaysia confrontation (1962-1966) (Wardaya 2008), came to support the PKI’s anti-Western position. This position made the other political parties, the right-wing army leaders, and the Western world, amid the Cold War, fear that the communists were taking over the country.

The tragedy of 1965-1966 brutally overshadowed the political dominance of the PKI. On September 30, 1965, in response to a failed coup attempt, the army under General Suharto took control of the country, accusing the PKI of being behind the coup. The most significant anti-communist purge in modern Indonesia was launched on an archipelago-wide scale. Mass arrests took place; by 1970, 116,000 people were in detention. A recent scientific consensus is that 500,000 people were killed (IPT Report 65 2016).

Hôtel en construction sur un charnier de 1965. Ile de Bali, 2015

Hotel under construction on a 1965 mass grave. Bali Island, 2015. Credit @ S. Roland

As soon as it took power, the New Order developed effective propaganda to demonize communism and legislation prohibiting it. In a country where religion was compulsory and directly associated with political power, the conflation of communism with atheism had its effect. The state bodies and the people themselves were involved in daily repression that turned Indonesia into a surveillance society in the name of anti-communism. Today, after 60 years of propaganda around a skewed national narrative, despite the return of democracy in 1998, any progressive concept is seen as a potential resurgence of the communist threat and is criticized. Similarly, all popular protest movements are suppressed on the basis of the now legitimized anti-communist struggle.

In this context, the large-scale citizen mobilizations that have been multiplying since May 2019 to protest against the politics of money, corruption, and the growing authoritarianism of the government, are being repressed by state authorities on the grounds of so-called communist-like activism: anarcho-syndicalism. This is presented as a conspiratorial nebula, which is said to be influenced by similar movements in the international community (Damier & Limanov 2017). Authorities develop phobia and stigma by accusing anarcho-syndicalism of moral deviance and threatening public order (Maharani 2019). In 2019, police authorities declared a group of anarcho-syndicalists responsible for May Day riots in several major cities, such as Yogyakarta, Bandung, and Makassar. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the national police announced that a group of anarcho-syndicalists had organized an attack on public facilities across Java (Velarosdela 2020). The few members arrested were described as drug users.

Within this informal movement, the Anarcho-Syndicalist Workers’ Brotherhood (Persaudaraan Pekerja Anarko Sindikalis or PPAS) is an organization founded in Indonesia in 2016 from a pre-existing network of small groups advocating for workers’ social rights. The network dates back to the beginning of Dutch colonization, shortly after the emergence of leftist movements under the influence of social democratic and socialist parties in the Netherlands, a time when anarchist ideas were still relatively unknown in Indonesia (Art 2020). In the 1990s, some fractions of the anarcho-syndicalist movement moved closer to the independent punk community, promoting not only a lifestyle and counterculture (known as “Do It Yourself” or DIY) but also forms of political activism (Syahrianto 2020). The movement nurtures a general humanist project and focuses on protecting workers and anti-fascism.
This movement also responds to micro-local-national conflicts that are essentially political. It brings together the demands of various groups and tries to unite the urban middle class, which is already struggling for survival, with a modest working class. However, the initiatives are poorly coordinated and depend on local groups, which rely on direct action (strikes, demonstrations, including undeclared ones, boycotts, and sabotage) in the wake of neo-anarchist militant groups, whose emergence is combined with the rise of alterglobalism (Baverel 2016: 85). We could also oppose this movement for its lack of references to classical anarchist or Marxist philosophers, preferring a certain pragmatism. Finally, a notable point in a country where atheism is unaccepted, many members of the movement practice their religion.

Elections présidentielles indonésiennes de 2019, Ambassade de Paris

Indonesian presidential elections 2019, Paris Embassy. Credit @ G.T. Estrelita

Nevertheless, the PPAS appears today as the last social and leftist political movement in Indonesia, a weak voice in a political landscape dominated by the traditional parties of the dictatorship, religions, and business, while politics and the economy remain in the hands of the regime’s heirs. The two terms of the current president, Joko Widodo, the first “people’s president”, who embodied the hope of a change of policy and an opening up of the debate towards progressivism, have increased inequality, a rapprochement of the army to power, a hardening of inter-religious relations and an increase in the environmental catastrophe. Will the new capital of the Indonesia of the future, whose construction is being prepared in the green lung of the Archipelago, in Kalimantan, reserve a place for progressive ideas?

About the author :

After completing her studies in Criminology at Universitas Indonesia (Indonesia), Gloria Truly Estrelita obtained a Master's degree in International Law at Kyushu University in Japan, and then specialized in Asian Studies at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), Paris. Before coming to France in 2013, she worked at the Center for Criminological Studies in Indonesia and taught criminology as a visiting lecturer at Universitas Indonesia. Truly is currently a PhD student in history at EHESS Paris. Her research focuses on religion in prison in Indonesia. In 2020, she co-founded the Observatory of Political Alternatives in Southeast Asia (AlterSEA), hosted by the Southeast Asia Center (CASE).
Beyond her scientific activities, GT. Estrelita regularly contributes to publications for the general public, such as “Buru Island: Between Stigma and Reality” (Suara Pembaruan), “Facing Hate Crimes” (Tempo), and “Survivors’ stories: memory of the 1965 Indonesian tragedy in virtual space” ( She also participated as a consultant in the documentary “The Mutes’ Soliloquy” by Stéphane Roland, which collects the testimonies of former political prisoners of the New Order regime in Indonesia.

Bibliography :

Hôtel en construction sur un charnier de 1965
September 2022
Gloria Truly ESTRELITA