Red scare


THE slight, bespectacled face of a young man has stared out from the front pages of most Indonesian newspapers and magazines over the past week: that of 27-year-old Budiman Sudjatmiko, leader of a group of radical activists known as the People's Democratic Party (PRD). He is in the unenviable position of having been singled out by the government as the mastermind behind last month's riots in Jakarta. After two weeks in hiding, Mr Budiman and nine of his colleagues have been arrested, and are expected to be charged with subversion, an offence which can carry the death penalty. Another 52 suspected PRD members are believed to be in custody.

The government is not restricting its sweep to the PRD. The head of Indonesia's only independent trade union, Muchtar Pakpahan, has also been arrested and charged with subversion. The police are questioning the ousted chairwoman of the Indonesian Democratic Party, Megawati Sukarnoputri--daughter of Indonesia's erratic liberation leader and first president, Sukarno--along with several of her colleagues. It was the government-inspired removal of Megawati from politics that provoked the riots in the first place.

Even Indonesia's best known author, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, has been summoned to explain his role. Aged 71, nearly blind and in poor health, he cannot have been suspected of direct involvement in any violence. But as a former communist who spent 14 years on a remote prison island, his inclusion in the investigation fits the official argument that behind the riots lay a left-wing conspiracy to overthrow the government. President Suharto himself has accused the PRD of being a reincarnation of the old Indonesian Communist Party, which was banned in 1965 after it launched an abortive coup.

It is unlikely that many people in Indonesia believe the claim that the riots were a communist conspiracy. But it is still a potent charge in a country where hundreds of thousands of suspected communists were killed in the aftermath of the 1965 coup, and where even those only faintly connected with the coup are still stigmatised. For several months the military has been talking about "formless organisations" lurking in the shadows of Indonesian life. Dissidents of various persuasions, including Islamic militants, have been accused of using "communist methods". The PRD, with its openly Marxist rhetoric and confrontational stance towards the military, was a particularly easy target.

Curiously no attempt was made to close down the PRD earlier this year, when it organised strikes and demonstrations in several industrial centres. The authorities stood by and watched the group build links with the pro-democracy organisations, which later rallied behind Megawati Sukarnoputri. There is, in fact, little evidence that the PRD played a significant role in the riots. But the fact that it has now been publicly branded as an enemy of the state has spread fear among students and intellectuals, who may at some time have had contact with the group.

That puts Megawati in a delicate position. She either has to disavow many of the disparate groups who had been supporting her, or risk being charged alongside the activists from the PRD. Of course there is a risk for the government too: it may provoke further demonstrations if it puts Megawati on trial. So far it has proceeded cautiously, allowing her to slow her interrogation by challenging its legality. There can be little doubt that President Suharto wants her punished for the embarrassment brought about by his own clumsy attempts to remove her from the Indonesian political scene. But after more then 30 years of constant use, the old "communist" scapegoat is beginning to wear out.

Thu, 15 Aug 1996

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