JAKARTA – On Jan. 15, 1974, then-Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka might have never expected that his four-day visit to Jakarta would incite an anti-Japan riot in the Indonesian capital that left scores of people dead.
His visit unfortunately coincided with student protests that began in the capital a few days before his arrival. The students were protesting economic development strategies introduced by the administration of the strongman at the time, Suharto.
A big banner with “Tanaka Out!” written on it greeted him at the airport in Jakarta after his plane touched down.
For the student activists, Suharto, who came to power in the late 1960s partly with the help of student protests against his socialist predecessor, Sukarno, relied too much on foreign capital, particularly from Japan, to grow the country’s economy.
“The students viewed how Suharto’s regime had changed the country to be a capitalist one and forgotten his own people,” said 70-year-old historian Anhar Gonggong in a recent interview.
Inspired by a popular uprising spurred by anti-Japan sentiment that had put an end to a military dictatorship in Thailand just three months before, the Jakarta student protests were the biggest since the fall of Sukarno in 1965-1966 and the subsequent creation of Suharto’s New Order authoritarian regime.
A day after Tanaka’s arrival, the Jakarta protests turned violent with Japanese products being destroyed and set ablaze.
Popularly known as Malari, which stands for Malapetaka Limabelas Januari, or the Jan. 15 Tragedy, the anti-Japan riot morphed into an anti-Chinese riot, claiming 11 lives and injuring over 300 others, while almost 1,000 vehicles — mostly Japanese cars — were torched.
Student activist Hariman Siregar was the central figure behind the event. Then the chairman of the Students’ Senate at the University of Indonesia, he was later sentenced to six years in jail under the regime he had earlier helped bring to power.
Forty years later, Siregar’s leadership spirit has not faded away. Still full of passion and energy, he spoke about the past, the present and the future with jokes in between.
“We didn’t want Suharto to use development only for (economic) growth without fair distribution of wealth, because it would only widen the gap between the rich and the poor,” Siregar said on his reason for leading the 1974 student protest.
At that time, he said, Japan very aggressively invested in Indonesia, building companies with Chinese-Indonesians as their business partners and dominating the country’s economy.
According to research by the Japan External Trade Organization, Japanese businessmen were seen then as unfriendly and arrogant toward most Indonesians and preferred to build ties with ethnic Chinese.
“The government gave loans, credits to Chinese-Indonesians, while the natives could only sit behind the fence, watching,” added the 63-year-old, who was a medical student at the time.
Under Siregar’s leadership, the Indonesian student movement was very powerful, with support from the lower and middle classes of society and good relations with Gen. Sumitro, then the deputy commander of the Indonesian armed forces, who after the Malari incident was forced to resign for allegedly provoking rioters.
The students, he said, opposed Sukarno because his policies of opposing imperialism and neocolonialism, and of engaging in confrontation with Malaysia had made people suffer.
They hoped that Suharto’s New Order government would care more about people’s welfare, but instead he invited foreign capital that killed many small and midsize industries, he said.
Conditions today, however, are much more “frightening,” Siregar said, referring to the administration of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and its policy of economic liberalization.
“It will kill the whole nation,” the activist said. “For sure, we need foreign capital, but not for small things. Why should you give a business license to Starbucks if you can make your own coffee shop? If we can make our own, why should we need foreign capital?”
“We have been naked now. . . . We have nothing to protect our economy,” added the activist, who is often called “the Indonesian political hawk.”
Historian Gonggong shared a similar view, saying Yudhoyono has not learned from the Malari incident and is instead striving to make Indonesia a “fully capitalist nation.”
“The government doesn’t take a lesson that the policy used by Suharto was not in line with the goals of Indonesia’s independence that would fight for the people’s welfare,” he said.
“The land, the waters and the natural resources within (Indonesia) shall be under the power of the state and shall not be given to foreigners, but now, we can see how foreign capitalists are exploiting the land, waters and natural resources,” the professor at the Jakarta-based Atmajaya Catholic University said.
According to Gonggong, Indonesia has freedom, but not independence.
“Japan still dominates our economy because of the government’s policy, which is not pro-people. And this is worse than the situation in 1974,” he said.
But when asked what he will do, Siregar said that while Indonesians still need to fight for their “independence” and other activists keep encouraging him to lead another student movement, “I am too old to lead them.”