Protests lack unifying leadership


Student protests in several parts of Indonesia have become an almost daily occurrence since mid-February. Will they be able to sustain their efforts in the months ahead? DERWIN PEREIRA in Jakarta finds out.

INDONESIAN universities are turning into battlefields these days.

Barricaded inside campus grounds by phalanxes of riot police and soldiers, students across the country are protesting almost daily, demanding changes in the 30-year-old New Order regime.

Such calls are becoming bloody rituals as students face off against the soldiers whose key role is to keep them off the streets – and far from propagating their “liberal ideas” of change to the masyarakat, or society.

In the worst instance of violence in Indonesia since mid-February, rocks, molotov cocktails and rubber bullets flew in places like Medan and Solo as students and security forces clashed.

And the situation gets bleaker here and in other traditional bastions.

Anger keeps rising over the economic crisis that began last July.

Students who began by rallying against high food prices are now demanding nothing less than President Suharto’s removal.

Even semester-end examinations have not deterred them from demonstrating.

The beatings and tear-gas inhalation from clashes have also not stopped them. Instead, they are getting bolder.

Mr Alamsyah, president of the University of Hasanuddin Student Union in the South Sulawesi capital, Ujung Pandang, said that for the first time in many years, students all over the country shared a common platform.

“This is not just about asking the government to fix the economy,” he said.

“We are facing a crisis of confidence and the only way to get that confidence back is for a change in national leadership.

“As students and the future leaders of this country it is our moral right to defend the interest of the masyarakat.”

Student sentiments in other parts of the country strike a similar tone.

When compared to movements of earlier generations, analysts believe that the current student activists are guided by a new and distinct radical-populist mood or visi kerakyatan.

In fact, the stirrings of the students’ political consciousness can be traced to some of President Suharto’s policies.

For example, the youngsters grew up in villages where organised political training and defence campaigns were arranged.

Noted one student activist in Yogyakarta who did not want to identified: “Many people tend to only look at Suharto and the military as the only power brokers in Indonesia. We students are the third force.”

Indeed, students played a significant part in overthrowing founding President Sukarno in 1966. Student support helped give the new regime the crucial mandate.

This contribution has not been forgotten by the Indonesian armed forces (Abri) which explains its fixation to keep the students off the streets.

Said an Abri officer: “The trends we see now in the movement go back 15 years but are becoming more pronounced because of the economic crisis.

“It gives many of these students a chance to jump on the bandwagon to defend society.”

In fact, public demonstrations by student activists have been an almost daily occurrence, especially since the late 80s.

The most common issues include restrictions on the right to organise political activities on campuses, arrest or trials of activists and the ban on news magazines.

What is significant now is that the new wave of activism is more widely and evenly dispersed throughout the archipelago.

Demonstrations in the 60s, 70s and 80s tended to be concentrated in Jakarta and Bandung.

With tertiary education now available to more Indonesians with the mushrooming of private institutions, demonstrations are breaking out in most university towns of Java: Jakarta, Bandung, Bogor, Semarang, Yogyakarta, Solo, Salatiga, Surabaya, Malang, Jombang and Jember.

Outside Java, it is Bali, Lombok, Mataram, Medan, Ujung Pandang and Manado.

Political analyst Priyatmoko from Surabaya’s Airlangga University said that this added to Abri’s problems in maintaining national security given other latent threats such as labour unrest.

“The students are not armed but their huge numbers make them a force not to be ignored,” he said.

But some observers believe that one key drawback of the growing student movement is the difficulty in establishing a nationwide network. There are political differences and a lack of funding.

Said prominent Indonesian criminologist, Professor Sahetapy, who has kept watch over the activities of earlier generations of activists: “They seem cut off from one another and this could be a drawback in the long run to launch a concerted effort against the government.”

Another problem is whether the students have the stamina and leadership to achieve their goals.

Mr Ehma Najib, a religious scholar who has acted as a mediator between Abri and students in Yogyakarta on several occasions said that the “students could run out of steam and ideas if there is no coordination”.

He observed that “there does not appear to be any leadership”. Noting for example that student groups had different responses to Abri’s call for a dialogue.

Students were also split on how to stage protests. Many wanted a peaceful protest, but a minority as those in Medan, preferred violence.

Said Mr Najib: “Without a leader, there is little chance of the student-movement becoming a large-scale movement.”

Observers here point to Islamic scholar and government critic Amien Rais as the man to lead the students.

Recently, he came out openly in support of the protest: “I am totally committed to the students’ struggle. I have visited them from campus to campus and I always encouraged them to have the moral courage to defeat the regime of Suharto.”

Mr Rais seems well protected as head of the Muhammadiyah and has links with a number of senior Abri officers.

Sources said that there were some generals who were attracted to his calls for greater democracy and reform and were giving him the leeway to be brazen in his political views.

Abri sources said that the military would not arrest him because there might be a “backlash”.

“We don’t want to throw him in because there will be a response from the students and ulamas,” said an Abri officer.

“Human rights groups and the foreign media will also be out to get us. We don’t want black marks on our human rights record.”

For the same reason, he said that Abri would not “use excessive force” or shoot openly at students.

He acknowledged that senior officers had different opinions on how to resolve the protests.

One Islamic scholar, who declined to be named, said one military camp was pro-reform and another was anti-reform.

“Privately, some officers support and sympathise with student ideals but publicly they toe the line,” he said.

This explains why Abri in some provinces have wanted to use talks while others preferred repression.

The historic “student-military” partnership coloured student protest in Indonesia in the 60s and 70s.

The students today know that Abri’s backing will be necessary for any change in the regime. But there is also an underlying strain of distrust.

Activist Mulyadi Tadampali from Hasanuddin University echoed the sentiments of many when he said:

“The military is not as powerful or important now compared to the past.

“President Suharto is the only person that matters and we want to deal directly with him.”

Moves towards any alliance between students and Abri are thus being complicated by intra-military rivalry and strong anti-military sentiments which did not exist among Abri’s potential allies in 1965 and 1966.

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