Student power: the Indonesian example


By Chris Latham

Last year featured the largest protest movement in the history of Indonesia. These protests, which mobilised millions of people, ended the dictator Suharto's 32-year reign. They were primarily built by students.

How did students, a section of society which we are told has no economic or political power, bring about the downfall of the region's longest surviving dictator?

The protests developed around two key issues: the economic crisis and the lack of democracy in Indonesia. The collapse of Indonesia's currency, the rupiah, in early 1998 led to massive inflation and unemployment. The International Monetary Fund's (IMF) economic restructuring package required a reduction in government subsidies on rice, cooking oil and kerosene, causing shortages and hardship for millions.

Widespread dissatisfaction with Suharto was expressed in the lead-up to the March 10 meeting of the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR), Indonesia's parliament. This reflected a growing recognition that the MPR was simply a "rubber stamp" for decisions already taken by Suharto and the ruling elite.

On March 10 in Yogyakarta, the day of Suharto's reappointment as president for a seventh five-year term, 10,000 students marched chanting, "Bring down prices, bring down Suharto!".

Throughout 1998, the Suharto and B.J. Habibie regimes had attempted to intimidate and smash the student movement. At first attacking protests that attempted to leave campus, the regime became increasing desperate as the rallies began to grow and become more radical. They resorted to abducting, murdering and torturing student activists, and firing on protests.

These attacks only served to highlight the need for change and strengthened public awareness that students were suffering at the hands of the military because they were fighting for the people. The shooting of four students at Trisakti University on May 12 provoked outrage throughout Indonesia.

Between May 14 and 20, students took over the state-owned radio stations in Surabaya, Malang and Semarang, and the TV stations in Padang, West Sumatra. Occupations of regional parliament buildings occurred in a number of cities.

In Jakarta, students met after the shootings to discuss tactics. The more radical students proposed the mobilisation of workers, who were ready to join the students for the May 20 rallies. In a debate within the Jakarta-wide Forum Korta (Forkot), conservative students from the Tertiary Students' Student Senates argued that the involvement of non-students would lead to rioting.

The radical People's Democratic Party (PRD) argued that the urban poor would come out on the streets anyway and that students should build alliances with these forces and provide clear political direction. The more conservative students won the vote.

On May 20, approximately 500,000 people mobilised in Yogyakarta. In Jakarta, 150,000 occupied the grounds around the parliament. Forkot students established check points to physically prevent people without a student card from joining the protest.

Suharto's Resignation

In the face of mounting opposition, Suharto resigned from the presidency on the morning of May 21. Suharto's resignation and his replacement by Habibie had a demobilising effect on the movement. How could a movement which had succeeded in removing a dictator be mollified with such small concessions?

Suharto resigned not because of the immediate impact of the movement but because the regime feared the protests could escalate and the radicalisation deepen. Such a development could have resulted in the student movement in Jakarta following the lead of students in regional cities by forging links with peasants, the urban poor and workers. Suharto's resignation removed the focus of mass anger without requiring any real reforms or redistribution of the vast assets controlled by Suharto and his family.

The more radical students did attempt to restart the student mobilisations in late June to call for Habibie's resignation. These protests were met by counter-mobilisations by conservative students who argued it was necessary to give Habibie time to prove himself.

On November 9 to 13, a special session of the MPR, composed of the same individuals who had re-elected Suharto president in March, met to set the date for national elections and determine the composition of the parliament. On November 11 to 14, mass protests occurred in Jakarta against the session. Four demands united the protesters: reject the special session of the MPR; abolish the dual role of the armed forces (called dwifungsi); put Suharto on trial; and establish a provisional government.

There was some disagreement about what was meant by a "provisional government". The Jakarta Student Senate Communication Forum demanded a presidium made up of figures in the political elite who have real mass support and a reputation of being free of corruption. Forkot demanded a people's committee comprising a broad range of figures and organisations active in the democracy movement.

The PRD, the Student and People's Committee for Democracy, Workers' Committee for Reformation Action (KOBAR) and Megawati Supporters' Committee campaigned for a democratic coalition government made up of progressive forces that have struggled consistently for democracy. They argued that it should be controlled by people's councils established from the district level.

The early protests mainly consisted of university students, although some urban poor were involved. The number of urban poor, however, grew to massive proportions in the later protests. The first day mobilised 5000 people, and the second day drew 10,000. On the third day, November 13, the numbers reached almost a million and virtually surrounded the parliament.

The protests were attacked by 30,000 troops and brigades of thugs (pan swakarsa) armed with sharpened bamboo. Eleven protesters were killed by the military. During the fighting, the urban poor defended the students, killing four members of the pan swakarsa. They placed 20,000 rupiah notes on the bodies to indicate they were paid vigilantes.

Organising Workers

Students involved in the PRD and its student organisation, Students in Solidarity for Democracy in Indonesia, have played an important role in organising workers in Indonesia. Through establishing the Indonesian Centre for Labour Struggle and involvement in KOBAR, the PRD has fought for workers' right to organise in trade unions.

The movement has undermined the government's propaganda that workers were being "used" by "communists". It has become easier to involve workers in actions around political, as well as economic demands.

The national elections scheduled for June 7 will dominate Indonesian politics in 1999. Many students will act as election monitors. The PRD's participation will allow it to reach many people and will highlight that it is the only party to oppose the IMF's austerity package and to consistently call for an end to the military's involvement in politics.

The dramatic events in Indonesia show the power of student political protest. Students were able to detonate a mass movement for democracy and continue to lead the movement for fundamental change.