Rise of the Indonesian student movement

Wednesday, November 13, 1991

By Michael Tardif

Political opposition in Indonesia today is largely led by university students. In contrast with the 1970s generation, student activists today have a strong orientation of solidarity with other sectors of society, primarily peasants and workers.

The student movement of the 1970s was socially isolated, exerting what it described as a "moral force" on the government. This orientation left the movement with no social base. The movement was left wide open to manipulation and cooption by sections of the regime.

A military crackdown in 1978 broke the spirit of the movement, and that generation of activists never rebuilt the movement.

A new generation of activists emerged after 1982. The banning of all political activity forced the new movement to consider new methods of organisation and reassess past strategies.

Rebuilding the student movement at first took the form of off-campus study groups. At the time a flood of new ideas was entering the country as students returned from studies in the US and Europe.

While re-establishing a process of political thought and criticism, the study groups became limited to theoretical debating clubs. Their activities and often the theories they were discussing had little relevance to social realities.

But the study group phase of the movement normalised political discussion and laid the organisational basis upon which students could begin to network nationally.

Eventually this process led to the formation of new organisational structures by a large section of the study group participants. Having analysed the mistakes of the 1970s, the activists recognised the need for a mass movement with a social base. They realised that students alone remained powerless to effect social change. They needed to form an alliance with peasants and workers.

Because any political activity would be met with brutality by the military and the police, initially demonstrations were organised around issues they knew were of little concern to the government. The students needed to establish open political expression as an acceptable activity.

Beginning with issues of little concern, they soon moved on to form alliances with peasants affected by land disputes. Having worked in the peasant communities, developing political analysis and building confidence, the students would assist the peasants to mobilise in direct defence of their land and houses.

In the late '80s student organisations such as 1>IMS (Solo) and Forum Komunikasi Mahasiswa Yogyakarta (Yogyakarta Students Communication Forum) allied with peasants in land disputes.

At the Kedung Ombo site, these groups and the local communities mobilised against low compensation for land flooded by the waters of a dam. In Cilacap, an alliance was formed against the forced eviction of 1000 families and the destruction of their homes by the state-owned oil company Pertamina.

In Lombok Forum Komunikasi Mahasiswa Mataram (Mataram Student Communication Forum) organised against the effects of the tourist industry. Whole communities and local industries are being swept away as developers rush onto the island to exploit the opportunities of attracting the tourist dollar.

The movement also aims to help workers organise themselves. They felt that the economic power needed to bring pressure upon the Suharto regime lies with the workers of Indonesia.

The regime is becoming increasingly nervous as the movement for democratic change begins to spread to the workers. Recently the government has increased the number of military personnel stationed in industrial areas.

In the renewed struggle, already peasant and student activists have been murdered and others imprisoned. n

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