Not just agitating, organising

November 10, 1999

JAKARTA — On October 30, Green Left Weekly's SAM KING spoke with REINHARD SIRAET about the history and prospects of the student democracy movement in Indonesia. Siraet is coordinator of the international department of the Indonesian National Students' League for Democracy (LMND).

According to Siraet, there are five main national organisations within the student movement: the Indonesian National Student Movement, the Islamic Students Association, the Indonesian Student Network, the Indonesian Youth Front for Struggle and the LMND. The Jakarta-based City Forum, or Forkot, is also significant.

"All these organisations have a strategy of mobilising students against the military and use very similar immediate demands at their actions", Siraet explained. "Often the actions are organised jointly by some or all of these organisations. For example, all were active in mass protests that defeated the internal security act [in late September]." Picture

Siraet detailed a long list of common demands adopted by the student movement as a whole. The most important of these, he said, were: end the dual function of the military (which allows its intervention into political and social life); try Suharto and his cronies for crimes against humanity; and create further democratic reforms.

However, the concept of how far democratic reform should go varies greatly. The most common view held by large sections of the student movement is that the movement is the moral vanguard of society; they see the struggle against the military oppression of the masses as the highest point of a moral struggle in which the students act on behalf of the people as a whole.

This moralism is no new feature of the Indonesian student movement. It was elaborated by Arief Budiman, describing the upsurge in student anti-militarism in the 1970s. He likened the student movement to a large number of ants and the Suharto military dictatorship to a buffalo. The role of the "moral" ants, he explained, is to disturb the buffalo when it does something wrong.

The Indonesian Science Institute (LIPI) observed two streams in the contemporary student movement: those who are "anti-dictatorship" and those who are "correcting" the dictatorship. The anti-dictatorship forces reject the regime outright and therefore want to get rid of it and build an entirely new structure. The "correctional" forces disagree with features of the system or even the system as a whole, but do not hold out any alternative and can therefore try only to play the ants' role — bothering the regime if it gets too extreme and acting as a "moral" force.

In the 1990s, only one group consistently fitted the definition of "anti-dictatorship" — Student Solidarity with Democracy for Indonesia (SMID). SMID was ruthlessly crushed by Suharto because of its close relationship with the People's Democratic Party (PRD), which was banned in 1996.

While its national structure was wrecked, SMID's influence was not so easily defeated. Many SMID activists set up or joined existing campus-based organisations to continue organising for the same goal of fundamental change.

SMID never constituted a majority of the movement, but its influence was massive. Most of the student movement's demands during the May 1998 demonstrations that overthrew Suharto, for instance, were originally raised in the student arena by SMID. That includes the demand that is still held to be central by all shades of the student movement today: withdraw the military from social and political life.

Suharto's success in organisationally smashing SMID meant there was no coherent national organisation of this "anti-dictatorship" current during 1998. The resulting dominance of the moral "ant" stream of the movement and the consequent lack of any grassroots alternative model to Suhartoism helped conservative politicians such as Megawati Sukarnoputri, Abdurrahman Wahid and Amien Rais eventually to assume leadership of the anti-Suharto movement and prevent more fundamental changes.

Anti-dictatorship student politics lacked a national organisation right up until the founding of LMND on July 9-12 at a congress in Bogor. LMND united existing campus-based and regional anti-dictatorship forces from 17 cities. According to Siraet, the central task of LMND is to "complete the democratic revolution".

LMND has declared its opposition to the new government of Wahid and Megawati, claiming there are many similarities in personnel and policy with the Suharto dictatorship. It demands, "All members of the military and all other figures from the Suharto era should be cleaned out".

LMND declared publicly on October 28, "We will not stop our struggle until full democracy is achieved". Siraet explains, "The majority of the student movement has also come out against the government but knows no alternative to it".

Siraet said, "The student movement now is organised into hundreds of separate hotchpotch committees and alliances that often have no clear relationship to each other. This is okay if we are going to remain an opposition, moral movement, but it is not adequate to complete the democratic revolution."

In contrast, LMND argues for a national student council that, according to Siraet, "would strengthen the movement because we would be more coordinated and we could have a real debate about where the movement is going".

"Other sectors of the people have benefited from the democratic space opened up by the student-led mass movement last year", Siraet says. "There are examples of corrupt village heads being replaced and peasants reclaiming land stolen by the Suharto regime ... a number of new independent trade unions have sprung up."

However, this is not enough. "To achieve fundamental change, the student sector needs to gather with other sectors, primarily productive sectors of the population — they hold the real power. We have been conscious for a long time of the student movement's weakness if it stands alone. Up until now, most in the student movement have agreed in principle to organise with other sectors, but it is rarely implemented."

He said, "Achievement of a national student council able to unite the whole student movement organisationally would lay the basis for a strong cross-sectoral political alliance".

Siraet and his organisation see the student council as being one arm of a more powerful people's council drawn from workers, peasants, urban poor and students: "This people's council will form an alternative power to the existing regime".

LMND is the only major national organisation with such a vision. Forkot is closest to LMND's vision: it subscribes to the idea of a people's council, but it sees its own role as on the outside, as "moral guidance". Consequently, the massive and active membership of Forkot plays no role in building the people's council structure or forming cross-sectoral alliances. The other organisations have no such conception at all.

LMND is strongest in Solo, Surabaya, Lampung and Aceh. In Jakarta, three new organisations covering a range of campuses have joined LMND in recent weeks.

Asked what he expects from the new period, Siraet says, "The student movement has to be more patient; it is not going to be enough just to agitate. We will need to explain the issues fully. This period demands that we are more professional in building our organisation as an instrument for the education of the people. We will translate our program into language that ordinary people can understand."

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