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The 1994 Medan 'unrest'

By Jana D.K.

In April 1994 for more than a week, tens of thousands of workers took to the streets of Medan, North Sumatra, and its satellite cities, in some of the most violent demonstrations seen here since the 1970s leaving one man dead, 12 injured, 150 shops ransacked and looted and cars set ablaze. Despite a massive deployment of security personnel and a ban on further street demonstrations by the authorities, this had little effect. The protests continued unabated and are spreading to other cities.

The demonstrations started peacefully on Friday April 14, when some 20 thousand workers went on strike in 24 factories in Medan and the industrial zones of Deli Serdang.

The strikes were sparked by the mysterious death of a fellow worker Rusli, 22, who was found floating dead in the Deli river on March 11, two days after leading a strike at P.T. Industri Karet Deli. Official reports said that he tripped and fell into the river during the commotion when security forces attempted to break up the strike.

Workers however said that he was beaten to death and wanted the government to conduct a thorough investigation into the case. Witnesses claim that they saw Rusli being pursued and clubbed by security personnel on March 9 and that he jumped into the river in an attempt to escape. Furthermore, they pointed out that he had grown up near the Deli river and knew the area well, was an excellent swimmer and it is unlikely that he could have drowned in water only a metre or so deep. The failure by the police to release any official report into his death after one month fueled speculations of an official cover up.


Workers also demanded an end to military intervention in labour disputes, that the daily minimum wage be raised from 3,100 (AUS$ 2.20) Rupiah to 7,000 Rupiah, the right to organise and specifically that the government recognise the trade union SBSI (Serikat Buruh Sejahtra Indonesia, (Indonesian Trade Union for Prosperity) as well as the reinstatement of 360 workers dismissed by P.T. Korek Api Deli, a match factory, following the strike in March.

At 6 a.m. workers from a number of factories in the Medan industrial zone began gathering in a line five kilometers long on Jalan Medan Belawan, a road which boarders a number of factories. At 7.30 a.m. they began walking in to Medan, some 11 kilometers away where they gathered at the Merdeka Square in Central Medan. Workers form other areas also began arriving and the crowd quickly swelled to more than 30 thousand people representing as many a 50 factories.

Unfolding thousands of placards and singing songs of struggle, at 10.30 a.m. they moved off in an orderly fashion toward the offices of the North Sumatra Governor, Radja Inal Siregar. The posters carried slogans such as "A Minimum of 3,1000 a day is only enough to eat", "We are not Work Horses", "Give us the freedom to organize" and "Long live SBSI". Upon arriving at the Governor's offices they collected outside the gate, filling the street for a distance of half a kilometer and blocking traffic for over five hours.

After debating for an hour and-a-half with security guards it was agreed that 23 representatives from 23 of the factories would be allowed inside. Negotiations began at mid-day attended by an officer from Bakorstanasda (Badan Koordinasi Stabilitas Nasional Daerah, Territorial Body for the Coordination of National Stability), the head of the Social Guidance Bureau, along with the regional representative of the Ministry and the Governor's Public Relations Officer. Unknown to the workers, the Governor himself was in fact away for the week. Although the authorities promised to address the workers' demands they failed to give any concrete answers when questioned further and forced the workers to terminate the negotiations. Workers remained outside the offices pressing for a clear response to their demands until the Governor's public relations officer addressed the crowd promising that they could meet directly with the Governor the next day knowing full well however, that he would not still be unavailable.

Military moves in

At 3.00 p.m. the security forces moved in, forcing the demonstrators back from the gates and after half-an-hour, protesters moved off followed closely by security personnel. At 4.30 p.m. as the crowd reached the Jalan Glugur By-pass and turned in the direction of Jalan Medan-Belawan, anti-riot police moved in, fireing tear gas into the crowd and rushing them with riot batons. The confrontation quickly turned into a full scale battle which lasted for at least four hours as protesters and riot-police pelted each other with rocks. It was during this incident that protesters turned their anger on nearby houses, smashing windows, destroying shops and overturning and destroying vehicles. 20 workers were arrested and early the following morning at 2.00 a.m., Ridwan Lubis (the secretary of SBSI Medan) was arrested at his house by the North Sumatra Police.

The following day, on April 15, most shops were closed and security guards and soldiers guarded major department stores. At 8.00 a.m. workers from the industrial zones of Binjai and Tanjung Morawa, attempted to return for the promised meeting at the Governor's offices. However their route was blocked by ranks of security personnel (Police, solders from the Zipur, Brimob and Linud Battalions, the District Military Command and Military Police) who were armed with batons, riot shields and tear gas with tanks waiting nearby and helicopter patrols above. When workers attempted to break through the security cordon, fighting erupted with the two sides again pelting each other with rocks. The demonstrators were eventually forced to retreat and began gathering in the roads outside factories in the industrial area. Some one thousand workers were able to break through but upon arriving at Merdeka Square their path was also blocked by soldiers.

By mid-day workers were still demonstrating in the industrial areas. In an attempt to disperse the protesters security forces fired over the crowd and workers ran into the central part of the industrial complex.

One of the companies which had closed its gates and refused to let them enter, became the target of their anger. The glass walls of the building were smashed, office equipment destroyed and 12 company vehicles damaged. It was in the midst of this conflict that a local Chinese businessperson July Kristanto, the owner of P.T. Sumatra Blau was found dead slouched over the wheel of his car.

On Saturday April 16 protests continued in the industrial area with workers wielding posters demanding wage rises and direct dialogue with management. During a demonstration in Pematang Sianter, 90 kilometers south-east of Medan, a number of the women strikers were injured after clashes with police.

By Sunday April 17, protests had died down but the situation remained tense with nearly 80 factories in the Medan industrial zone and other areas around the city closed. Strikes continued however in other towns such as Pematang Siantar, 90 kilometers south-east of Medan, and in the satellite towns of Delitua, Tanjung Morawa and Lubuk Pakam. Over the next few days shops and businesses in Medan remained closed with thousands of police and security personnel deployed in the shopping areas and in the industrial zone between Medan and the seaport town of Belawan.

After tremors

Despite reports of a ban on further street demonstrations by the authorities, on Wednesday 18 protests erupted again involving an estimated 9,000 workers from 22 factories in the city and outskirts. There was also sporadic outbursts at a number of factories in one case 15 cars were damaged. Protester also thronged to predominantly Chinese areas and in Pematang Siantar, damaged the Department of Labour Office and mobbed its chief, Poltak Manurung who was able to escape with assistance from local security officers. Despite a massive security presence, demonstrations continued with reports of strikes at 15 factories on April 21 with a number of attacks on local shops and 20 more workers arrested.

Official response

The official response has as usual, attempted to "depoliticise" the issue, focusing largely upon the violence and destruction. The Director General for Industrial Relations and Labour Standards, Suwarto for example said that the rallies were illegal and therefore the organisers should be prosecuted. He went on to explain that the rallies and riots were not a labour issue but a criminal case which affected national and economic stability. The Indonesian Armed Forces (ABRI) accused SBSI of fermenting "race riots" and vandalism. The Chief of the ABRI General Staff, Lieutenant Colonel HBL Mantri told reporters that "We have data indicating that SBSI [...] masterminded the violent worker rallies." He added that ABRI would deal firmly with those involved and that the strikers' tactics were reminiscent of the methods of the PKI (Partai Komunis Indonesia, the outlawed Indonesian Communist Party). In Medan, Police Lieutenant Colonel Sukardi "verified" that the motive behind the worker protests was anti-Chinese.

Puppet union's response

The chairperson of the government controlled union, SPSI (Serikat Pekerja Seluruh Indonesia, The All Indonesian Workers Trade Union) Marzuki Achmad, said that the security forces should take harsh action against the "brutal" demonstrations saying that he fully backed the decision of the North Sumatra Military Commander General A. Pranowo, who banned street protests and demonstrations in the area but then went on to say that he hoped that they wouldn't last long so as not to deprive workers of the right to strike. He called upon all SPSI branches fight for workers' interests through "legal" means to avoid further incidents of this kind.

SBSI responded by denying that they had incited the protesters to violence but admitted that they were involved in organising the protests and threatened to organise more strikes if the government refused to raise the minimum wage throughout the country. Vice-chairperson Sunarti said strikes would be organised in Lampung, Tangerang and Surabaya.

Bakorstanasda immediately began an investigation of 20 strikers involved in the demonstrations while 60 others were released on the Saturday after the demonstrations. However, in the months that followed numerous arrests ere made and now in 1995 over sixty workers and SBSI officials are still in gaol.

Violence engineered

While it is certainly true that there is an underlying anti- Chinese sentiment among workers -- often fueled by the Soeharto families close links with a number of powerful Chinese businesspeople -- there are a number of reasons to believe the violence was deliberately engineered. Banners with anti-Chinese slogans were not visible at the beginning of the demonstrations, workers only carried placards displaying their demands when they left the industrial zone. These only appeared later after the protests had reached Medan.

Furthermore, unlike the hand drawn cardboard placards initially carried by workers, these were professionally printed banners which could not possibly been produced on a worker's salary. The anti-Chinese leaflets which were distributed at the same time made no mention of the workers' demands and were written in an extremely provocative and cultivated language. It is very unusual for workers to circulate material in this form at protest rallies.

Political elite's machinations

Worker activists here assert that from the very beginning workers and SBSI were manipulated by sections of the elite for their own political interests.

Up until February, 1994 there had been a series of strikes and industrial disputes in Medan and its industrial zones. Without exception, workers took these protests to the DPRD (Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat Dearah, Regional Peoples Representative Assembly, Regional Parliament) and to the Ministry of Labour. An then suddenly, in the case of last weeks protests, they were taken to the North Sumatra Governor instead.

Two years ago during the election of the North Sumatra Governor, conflict between the elite crystallised into two camps, those who supported the current head of the North Sumatra DPRD, Modiono who was ABRI's candidate for the position and Radja Inal Siregar, the present governor, who was supported by Soeherto and ICMI (Ikatan Cendekiawan Muslim Indonesia, Association of Muslim Intellectuals). In recent worker disputes, Modiono has chosen to play a sympathetic role and apparently been responsive to worker concerns -- often encouraging workers and NGOs to continue their protest actions.

Sources in Medan say that there were as many as 14 NGOs as well as SBSI involved in organising the demonstrations. Although it remains unclear exactly who or which organisation suggested it, it is understood that members of these groups proposed that this time, the workers' protest be taken Governor's office rather than to DPRD or the Ministry of Labour. Through their links with Intel and the authorities, they would have known that the North Sumatra Governor would be away for a week and could not possibly have met with workers on the April 14 nor the day after as when they were ordered to return by Bakorstanasda. This would mean that the protests would be both ineffective and only lead to increasing workers frustration.

Up until the security forces attacked and arrested protesters, the rallies were entirly peaceful. The role of ABRI in inciting the protests was further confirmed in an interview with the newspaper Sinar Harapan Pagi on April 22 when two middle ranking officers from ABRI command admitted that they had infiltrated and incited workers.

On March 13 when workers took their demonstration over the death of Rusli to the Medan DPRD a video recording of the incident reveled an ABRI Lieutenant wearing civilian cloths shouting "Bubarkan Soeharto" (Dismiss Soeharto). Another source said that one of the workers involved in the demonstrations admitted to NGOs that he had been paid by ABRI to incite a riot.

The gains for the regime, and in particular ABRI are obvious. By inciting workers to carry out acts of vandalism against Chinese businesses and factories this first of all has the effect of "depoliticising" the demonstrations, allowing them to be portrayed as "racist violence" instead of workers demanding their legitimate rights and paves the way for further controls of workers, NGOs and the wild card SBSI. Furthermore, this provides ABRI with a "legal" basis to take what ever measures are considered necessary to control the "racist" violence. It also makes it far easier for the regime to enact regulations to control growing worker resistance in the region and in particular the influence of SBSI. Of course this also leaves the Governor open to criticism, that he is unable to control the situation and should be replaced by someone who can "deal" with the crisis, ABRI's choice for the position, Mudiono.

Jana D.K. is ASIET's Jakarta based corrispondent.

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