In October this year over 2 million workers struck across Indonesia against appalling working conditions and pitifully low wages. Working class Indonesians have a great deal to complain about.
The country has vast natural resources and biodiversity and a large young population. Under any sane economic system it would be a rich country with a high standard of living. Yet the Indonesian state only considers around 13 percent of the population to be poor which makes sense when you discover that it defines middle class as someone who can spend two dollars a day!
Andre Vltchek, a journalist and filmmaker has a long and affectionate association with Indonesia. He has lived and made films there and worked with Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Indonesia’s greatest novelist. He is as angry about the rampant corruption, inequality and environmental degradation as anyone else in the hundreds of islands that make up the country.
But the difference between him and any of the strikers is that he has no sense that the working class has any power that could improve the country.
His book gives a useful short history of Indonesia since the Second World War and looks at its political economy since the fall of the dictator Suharto. Suharto murdered at least a million people after he took power in 1965. Indonesian communists, trade unionists and the working class bore the brunt of his brutality. When he invaded East Timor in 1975 to prevent its independence hundreds of thousands were murdered.
Vltchek appreciates that Indonesia has a great history of struggle against imperialism and that Suharto was driven out in 1998 by a mass movement of strikes and protests but his understanding of the forces involved is unclear. The level of prejudice against Chinese Indonesians is so high that it is common for them to be attacked at times of social crisis. But Vltchek appears to understand these horrible attacks as an inevitable part of “the mob” on the move. This sits oddly with his admiration of the “alternative systems” he names in Vietnam, Bolivia, Brazil, Venezuela and China. These countries have also been shaped by mass movements and huge strikes, most recently in Venezuela and Bolivia. Yet he tends to see these forces as somehow different from what could happen in Indonesia because, however sympathetic he is to ordinary people, he is locked in pessimism in the face of the vastness of the problem. This book is a useful basic introduction to Indonesia’s history and problems though quite slight for its price.
Indonesia Archipelago of Fear is published by Pluto, £17.99
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