INDONESIA: No change without youth



JAKARTA — Sukarno, the first president of Indonesia, was 27 years old when he became chairperson of the Indonesian National Party in the 1920s. Mohammed Hatta was a similar age when he took over the leadership of the nationalist Pendidikan Nasional Indonesia a little later. Sukarno and Hatta were the central figures of the independence movement when they were in their 20s.

Of course, they were in their early 40s when they assumed leadership of independent Indonesia in 1945. It was repression by the Dutch colonial authorities which delayed their taking leadership of the country before then.

Before the August 17, 1945, proclamation of independence, during the guerrilla and diplomatic struggle of 1945-49 and during the next 16 years of nation building, young people provided the energy and the semangat (spirit) that ensured advances in the struggles of the people. The word semangat took on a special weight in the new Indonesian political culture.

There was a strong consciousness that society could advance only by the mobilisation of the energies of the mass of ordinary people in achieving the goals of independence.

It has been young people, especially the students, who have been the motor for political change during the last four decades in Indonesia. Every wave of reform since 1972 has been driven by the student movement.

The more than 30 years of military rule that followed dictator Suharto's seizure of power in 1965 resulted in the role of youth in political leadership being ignored. The political culture created during Suharto's New Order regime, which still prevails today, has turned against the best traditions of Indonesian history.

Today, to stand for president, a candidate must be over 40. Apart from being a clear violation of the democratic rights of citizens under that age, this provision eliminates from candidacy some of the most dynamic figures in Indonesian society and politics. One example: Dita Sari, who has won international recognition as a trade union and women's leader, cannot be a candidate for president.

This also excludes more than 70% of the population. Even for the position of governors there is age discrimination. To be a governor, a candidate must be 30 years old.

One important political outcome of the student opposition to the Suharto regime during the 1990s was the formation of the Peoples Democratic Party (PRD). Although a small party, it has won respect for its consistent struggle for democratisation of Indonesian society.

The PRD considered standing a candidate for the position of governor of Jakarta against the military commander of Jakarta during the Suharto period, Sutiyiso. They selected woman student leader Zelly Ariane, who had led some of the mass actions against Suharto's Golkar party during the presidency of Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur). But she could not proceed with her registration as a candidate because she is 22.

The discrimination against age goes beyond the electoral laws. During Suharto's rule, the rebelliousness and energy of youth — semangat — was suppressed. Within the repressive, corruption-driven, highly bureaucratised New Order political culture, active young people were patronisingly referred to as anak-anak (children). During the struggle for independence, young people struggling for change were never referred to as anak-anak. They were known as pemuda, a term that literally meant "youth" but referred to those at the forefront of the struggle for change. The Indonesian national revolution is often referred to as the revolusi pemuda.

When the student leaders and organisers of the 1990s, who led the struggle to overthrow Suharto, gained popularity, the over-40 elite politik that monopolises politics sometimes referred to them as anak-anak baik yang idealis (good, idealistic children).

Even within pro-democracy circles and non-government organisations, this prejudice can exist. I have heard NGO activists denigrate the PRD, for example, because it is a "student party" with nobody "of any age" in its leadership. Generally, there is a deference to the older political elite even as this elite as being criticised as politically and intellectually bankrupt.

At this time in Indonesian history, if any discrimination is necessary, it should be against those who are over 40. The campaign for democratic and social reform, for reformasi total, is almost entirely led by young people. Reformasi is a project of those sections of Indonesian society who are free of the New Order political culture, and this means, more or less, people under 40.

How can total reform take place if those who are the movement's prime source of energy and ideas are excluded from the top leadership positions of the government and are not the dominant force in parliament? How can there possibly be total reform unless at least 70% of the members of parliament are under 40? Society should be on the look-out for "student parties" or young parties, rather than looking down upon them.

In the end, the discrimination against Indonesia's young people is a measure to protect the political dominance of the New Order generation. Of course, there are people over 40 who fought against Suharto. And there are people under 40 who still have a New Order mentality. But the reality is that reformasi is an idea that springs from the youth, is being fought for by the youth and it was youth that paid the supreme sacrifice, such as on May 12, 1998, when security personnel shot into student protesters from the Trisakti University, killing four students and injuring several.

[This is an abridged version of an article published in the July 2 Jakarta Post. Max Lane is a visiting fellow at the Centre for Asia Pacific Social Transformation Studies, University of Wollongong. Lane is also national chairperson of Action in Solidarity with Asia and the Pacific. Visit <>.]

From Green Left Weekly, July 17, 2002.
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