Indonesian students' attitude to new government

January 26, 2000

MAHAMMAD MA'RUF is a member of the central leadership committee of the People's Democratic Party and editor of the PRD's newspaper, Pembebasan (Liberation). This interview was translated by Green Left Weekly's JAMES BALOWSKI.

Question: How is the student movement orienting to the new government?

The formation of the new government has created a degree of confusion. President Gus Dur [Abdurrahman Wahid] and vice-president Megawati Sukarnoputri have a significant base of support among ordinary people, many of whom have strong illusions in the new government.

Many students still see themselves as a "moral force", whose role is to pressure the bourgeois opposition — who are now the government. Even though the student leaders recognise that the new government is not fundamentally different from the previous one, they aren't sure how to move forward and what campaigns to conduct.

The issue which continues to unite the student movement, and safeguards their radicalism, is the military's continuing role in politics.

The number of seats allocated to the military in parliament had been reduced by half, to 38, and the new government is attempting to bring the military under more civilian control. However, the territorial command structure remains intact.

Military command posts and detachments are deployed at all levels of the civil administration: provincial, district, sub-district and village. It provides the organisational framework for the military to act as a political security force throughout society.

Question: Could you explain the government's proposed "higher education autonomy plan"?

This is another issue which has the potential to galvanise the student movement. The term "autonomy" is being used to manipulate students. In essence, it is the privatisation of universities and has nothing to do with increasing student autonomy.

Demands by students for more autonomy on campus — for political and academic freedom and an end to bureaucratic and military intervention on campus — go back to the 1970s. Campaigns for increased autonomy on campus reemerged in the '90s.

Five of Indonesia's most prestigious universities have been targeted in the initial stage. Up to 70% of these state-owned universities will be sold off.

Universities will no longer be funded by the government and will have to seek funding from private businesses. This means that the educational programs will be controlled by business interests. Those courses which are not "marketable", such as literature, philosophy and politics, for example, will be "de-emphasised".

Question: How are students responding to the plan?

The most coherent response has been from the National Student League for Democracy (LMND). The LMND was formed last July with the goal of establishing a national student organisation that can present a real political alternative.

Although it has been difficult to mobilise large numbers of students because of exams, Ramadan [the Muslim fasting month that ended in early January] and the new-year break, the LMND has initiated joint actions by a number of campuses in city, and nationally coordinated actions. We can expect a major upsurge as students begin to return to the campuses in February.

The LMND also reasserted that in order for the student movement to grow and consolidate, it must build links with other parts of society: workers, peasants and the urban poor.

This is important in overcoming the weaknesses of the student movement, so that it can easily orient to the fluid political situation and be ready to respond to new mass upsurges. Such upsurges are inevitable as neo-liberal "reforms" further undermine the living and working conditions of ordinary Indonesians.

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