The Peoples Democratic Party and Indonesia's poor majority

Kampung Guji Baru is just one of the many shanty settlements in the megacity of Jakarta, where an estimated 3 million poor people try to survive. Now its residents face forced eviction after greedy developers, corrupt government officials and the "land mafia" conspired to get the courts to do their bidding through fraudulent claims and documents. The developers want to build multistorey luxury apartments and more shopping malls for the rich. The residents and the Poor People's Union (Serikat Rakyat Miskin Indonesia, SRMI) are resisting and they ask for your solidarity. 

[See also Indonesia: People's Democratic Party relaunched as `open, mass-based cadre party'.]

By Peter Boyle

March 17, 2010 -- The Indonesian government headed by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (commonly referred to as “SBY”) claims that it has managed to reduce poverty in Indonesia from 17.7% in 2006 to 14.2% in 2009. Even if those statistics are accurate, which is disputed, it still amounts to 33 million people living officially in poverty! But World Bank researchers estimate that 60% of Indonesians (138 million) struggle to live on less than US$2 a day (a common international standard for poverty).

Marlo Sitompul, national chairperson of the Poor People's Union of Indonesia (Serikat Rakyat Miskin Indonesia, SRMI), believes that the government's claims about poverty reduction are about as credible as its claims to have reduced corruption. (One wouldn't know it from the fawning mass media coverage of SBY's recent official visit to Australia, but there have been daily protests outside his presidential palace for months about his government's proved corruption.)

SRMI leader Marlo Sitompul leads a March 9 protest demanding the resignation of Jakarta's governor. Photo by Agus Jablay/SRMI

“Just in Jakarta city there are at least 3 million people living in poverty, but the official figure is only 1.5 million. And how do they define poverty? For us there are five criteria: If you cannot eat healthily, and if you cannot get adequate clothing, housing, healthcare and education, at least up to secondary school, then you are poor.”

In December 2008, Indonesia's minster of defence admitted that access to basic human needs, such as clean water, primary healthcare, adequate housing and affordable electricity is still restricted to just 10% of the population.

The government boasts that the Indonesian economy continued to grow even while much of world went into recession following the global financial crisis. But in the same period factories have continued to close, official unemployment ranged between 8.5% and 10% (add another 30% for underemployment) and now an incredible 72% of the workforce has been forced into the “informal sector”.

The SBY goverment's "Poverty Eradication Program" does not tackle poverty but instead involves regular slum evictions and the dispersal of street hawkers. The police weigh in with batons, arresting people and smashing or confiscating hawkers' carts and cooking implements. One immediate issue sparking a campaign of escalating protests this year has been the demand for the resignation of the governor of Jakarta for corruption, and for causing the deaths of several street children as a result of aggressive hawker dispersal police sweeps. One young lad recently drowned in a pond after he fell in while fleeing police carrying out such a sweep.

This is the meaning of neoliberalism for Indonesia's impoverished majority.

Kampung Guji Baru

Recently I met up with Sitompul and other activists from SRMI in the slum settlement of Kampung Guji Baru, in West Jakarta. The clearing in which we met was significant. It was the rubble-strewn site of a shanty home that had been destroyed in the midst of a prolonged and ongoing attempt by “land mafia” to clear this three-hectare former swamp which now is home to about 3000 poor people.

Gangsters have been sent to try and burn out the residents on several occasions but have been beaten back by the well-organised and militant residents. Kampung Guji Baru is a strong base not only of the SRMI but also of the People's Democratic Party (PRD), the radical party born in the reformasi movement that toppled the Suharto dictatorship. The PRD flag flutters above this settlement, which abuts a fetid and poisonous canal. One resident, who declined to be photographed, sported a missing thumb -- lost in the street battles in the late 1990s when a molotov cocktail exploded too early!

Developers want to build multistorey towers on this land to house yet more giant shopping malls and apartments to cater for the wealthier minority in this megacity. But now the land mafia is resorting to “legal” methods. Using falsified documents signed by former residents who are now dead and and other concocted “evidence”, they managed to get the courts to issue an eviction order last year. But the residents are not budging.

“I live here, I grew up here and I have a young family here”, Obbie Maulana, a young SRMI activist said proudly. His partner has a wooden cart from which she sells little burgers in the narrow lanes of the shanty town. It's exotic (but cheap) food there. “Some people have lived here for more than 30 years. We will fight very fiercely to defend our homes.”

Sitompul also comes from a poor family. His father had died in 1998 and his mother worked as a traditional masseur (tukang urut, a job commonly done by poor women) and a later as a travelling clothes seller (tukang baju keliling). These travelling clothes sellers eke out a precarious existence. Typically, having no capital, they have to borrow money for the clothes in each transaction they make.

Fighting the system

Born in 1983, Sitompul only had a few years in primary school before he went out to help the family survive. He worked from childhood as a parking boy and as a street busker. This was what he was doing when in 1998 when he was swept up in the reformasi movement against the Suharto dictatorship.

“I jumped into the movement and, in the movement, I obtained my political education.”

Sitompul began to gain an understanding that "poverty is a result not just of individual situations but a result of the system”.

“I realised we have to fight the system if we really want to end poverty. And we also have to fight the state that upholds this system. And if I wanted to make a real contribution to the struggle to fight that system I would have to make a serious commitment.”

Sitompul broadened his movement experience from working with the organisation of street buskers to advocating for emergency aid to the poor who became victims in the terrible floods in 2002. He also defended the urban poor victims of deliberate burnings of homes by gangsters of the “land mafia” and fought for poor people's access to hospital care.

Looking around the circle of activists in the small clearing in Kampung Guji Baru, Sitompul introduced the other local activists. Among them is Ibu Halimah, who organises the women's group and is head of a local SRMI chapter in Kampung Kebon Jeruk. There was Iswadi Hitam Manis, the head of SRMI in Jakarta who is also a resident of Kampung Guji Baru (later, while taking me on a walk through the settlement, he proudly picks up his daughter and lifts her onto his shoulder). And there was Pak Harto, a leader of the Residents' Communication Forum of Guji Baru. Younger activists and local residents, Rudi Sabrawi and Agus Jablay, were also present. All are playing important roles in the struggle against the eviction order.

There's a very rich history of struggle in this movement of the poor. The SRMI worked hard to help thousands of poor people to keep their homes, get access to hospitals and to emergency aid when their shanty towns were hit by floods and other disasters and SRMI has won massive respect in the process. But it has also carried out political education and mobilised the urban poor bases in all the major mass struggles around national issues. Look at any progressive mass demonstration and the urban poor masses make up the majority. They are the backbone of what's called the “parliament of the streets”.

SRMI and the PRD

The SRMI now organises 30,000 members across 17 provinces around the country. Even the official poverty figures are more than double those of Jakarta out in the more remote provinces.

The SRMI now is the largest section of the mass base of the PRD. PRD leaders estimate that a further base of 20,000 is organised through peasant groups affiliated to the National Peasants Union (STN). SRMI leaders who are cadre in the PRD strongly support the party's recent decision to relaunch itself as an open party.

“I see the congress as a good consolidation step, one based on an assessment of the practices of the politics and ideology of our movement over the last five years”, Sitompul told Green Left Weekly/Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.

“But for me, the most important thing is that the PRD was brave enough to become an open party with a political perspective which sees winning votes in elections, building anti-neoliberal coalitions and building the PRD as an alternative party as important.

“The democratic environment in Indonesia – even though it is still hijacked by the elites – actually provides an opportunity for the movement to build in the open. Yes, we realise that building alternative political parties is not easy as only it is in only a few parts of the country democratic values are upheld.

“Participating in elections is not just about winning political positions but more importantly about how these positions can be sustained by our efforts to build a alternative party and help build that alternative. Therefore our plans to win elections have to be in line with out work to build the influence and structures of the PRD.

Overcoming obstacles

“In Indonesia there are still obstacles to the political ideology with which we can build an alternative party”, Sitompul added referring to the violent attacks on meetings, conferences and offices of the electoral front, the National Liberation Party of Unity (Papernas) that the PRD had tried to build from 2006-2008.

Sitompul believe that coalition tactics are important, particularly in the electoral sphere. “True, the poor should have their own party and their own ideology. By owning their ideology and party they can break from the shackles of oppression by the elites. But a struggle based only on sectoral interests cannot lead to victory for the struggle to liberate the poor'', he explained.

“Currently, it is difficult for us to get even a small win in elections using our own party. That is the hard reality. Therefore, in the PRD congress we had to develop a strategy for a broader struggle to build a real party of the poor and to prepare to win the many political and ideological struggles that are still ahead of us in this struggle.

“We have to work even harder to ensure that the PRD can have a great deal of influence among the poor – ideologically, politically and organisationally”, he added. “PRD cadres have to believe and work hard to fight for influence over the people, before the the people can won over to the idea that we have a party that can truly fight for the liberation of the poor and for socialism.”

Struggle to defend bases

“If we and the residents fail to defend the right of the people of Kampung Guji Baru to have the land to live on”, explained Sitompul, “this would clearly present a serious threat to the expansion of the base of the PRD and the broader people's movement.

“The systematic eviction of poor settlements is not merely a result of government negligence and oppression of the poor, but it also expresses the ruling elite's need to block the expansion of popular movements like SRMI-PRD.”

“As SRMI activists and cadres of the PRD we are consolidating our close ties with the residents of Kampung Guji Baru”, Sitompul told Green Left Weekly/Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal. “The officials in the local government bodies Rukun Tetangga (RT) and Rukun Warga (RW) who we believe to have participated in this evil eviction plot have been exposed before the residents of Guji Baru. We have also launched actions at the offices of the village chief and the mayor and we have we also have developed a plan of struggle.

“We and the Guji Baru people are determined to fight to the finish. With them we are running a big campaign in Jakarta around a motion of no confidence in Governor Fauzo Bowo and President SBY because they refuse to seriously listen to our protest.

“Thousands of poor people have signed a mass protest letter to the governor and the president [see below]. Also mass actions have been held at the governor's office and the presidential palace. So campaigns against the governor and the president have become part of the struggle to defend Kampung Guji Baru. Other mass organisations and political parties are being asked to join in solidarity with this campaign. We also ask for solidarity from our friends in other countries. For a start, they can send a protest letter to the Indonesian government against the planned eviction of Kampung Guji Baru.”

* * *


To: Mayor and Government of West Jakarta DKI Jakarta

Guji Kampung Baru residents have already moved their settlement location since the 1970s. Previously, this location is a swamp and no man's land, but then started to change into people's housing. Since the 1980s, the number of people who live in this place has been increasing. Along with the rapid development around this location, starting from the campus, shops, malls, etc., some parties are planning to turn this village into a business facility. And, in the year 2009, the mayor has issued a decree for the forced demolition of our homes in Guji Baru.

Justice has been trampled upon, and the truth has been manipulated by the owners of the power and money in their interests. To that end, the Residents' Communication Forum of Guji Baru invites you all to sign this petition as a form of protest against greed.

Our demands are:

1. Reject unilateral eviction.

2. Eradication of land mafia.

3. Give the residents land certificates.

Letters of solidarity and protest can be sent to:


Fax/telephone: +62 21 568 7402

[Peter Boyle is national convenor of the Socialist Alliance of Australia and attended the PRD's national congress as an observer.]