Students debate how to win democracy

May 27, 1998

By Max Lane

Over the last two weeks, the Indonesian New Order regime has been forced into emergency measures to try to stop the momentum of the massive street demonstrations initiated by the student movement.

First came the panic statement by a long-term Suharto business crony and loyalist political hack, parliamentary speaker Harmoko, who announced on TV that the parliament wanted Suharto to resign. Suharto responded with his own measure attempting to pre-empt the protests: he announced a cabinet reshuffle, a reform committee, early elections and that he would not again stand for election.

These concessions were rejected by both the student movement in all cities and the current spokesperson for the elite opposition, Amien Rais.

The students and Rais announced that a massive demonstration would occur on May 20. The students spread the misinformation that the demonstration would take place in National Monument Square in central Jakarta, thereby causing the military to concentrate its forces to block access to this area.

However, the students mobilised, as really planned, at the parliament building. By the afternoon of May 20 at least 150,000 students had assembled to demand that Suharto resign.

In Yogyakarta, an estimated 500,000 people mobilised. Throughout Indonesia, students came out onto the streets in militant protests.

Between May 14 and May 20, students took over the state-owned radio stations in Surabaya, Malang and Semarang and the TV station in Padang, West Sumatra. The stations were used to broadcast demands for political reform. In several cities, provincial parliament buildings were also occupied.

The size and militancy of the demonstrations were particularly frightening to the whole ruling class because they took place despite attempts by leading elite opposition figure to call them off.

The head of the Nahdatul Ulama, Abdurrahman Wahid, called on the people not to demonstrate on May 20. So did the hitherto militantly speaking Amien Rais, who appeared on TV to call off the demonstration. Megawati Sukarnoputri has not been heard from.

To the workers?

Among students in Jakarta, moderate forces were able to stave off calls for non-student masses to join the May 20 demonstrations.

Student mobilisations in Jakarta in recent weeks have been organised through the Forum Kota (City Forum), involving activists from 40 campuses. Three groupings have emerged in the Forum Kota.

The most conservative are student officials from the Faculty Senates, organised in the Tertiary Institutions Student Senates (SMPT). A somewhat more militant layer, dominated by the People's Democratic Alliance (ALDERA), is grouped in the National Front. The most radical section is referred to as Jabotabek, the name of the industrial area which also includes residential areas of students at the University of Indonesia.

Following the shooting of students at Trisakti University on May 12, the Forum Kota met to decide tactics. The militants proposed to mobilise workers, who were ready to join the students, on May 20. The SMPT moderates argued that this risked provoking more riots.

The militants argued that more riots would indeed occur if the student movement failed to give a political focus to mobilisations of the non-student masses. They also argued that only a broad mobilisation could force a major retreat by Suharto.

When the vote was taken, the moderates won the day; the student movement declined to call on the workers or urban poor to join the mobilisation. During May 20, SMPT set up security to check that people entering the parliamentary compound had student ID cards. This was carried out with the agreement of the armed forces on guard at the parliament.

While a statement on behalf of the People's Democratic Party (PRD) read out to the students received a strong positive response, moderate activists tried to hinder the distribution of PRD leaflets calling for the overthrow of the government through a people's uprising.

Second round

The retreat by Amien Rais and the student moderates moderated the character of the May 20 mobilisations. They were massive enough, especially the 500,000 in Yogyakarta and the trend towards occupations in other areas, to force another pre-emptive move by Harmoko and then Suharto. But the retreat also allowed Suharto to water down some of his previous concessions.

On May 21, Suharto resigned, handing over the presidency to B.J. Habibie. In this process, any specific mention of early elections was dropped, and it was made clear that Habibie expected to stay on as president until 2003. The political establishment decided that the easiest concession to make was the resignation of Suharto, but without any clearly stated accompanying reforms.

The cabinet that Habibie announced on May 22 was again stacked with Suharto appointees, only the most unacceptable figures being removed, such as Suharto's daughter Tutut, billionaire crony Bob Hasan and the fascist-minded education minister, Wiranto Arismunandar.

The military increased its representation in the cabinet, General Wiranto retaining his defence minister portfolio and position as commander in chief of the armed forces. The positions of coordinating minister for political and security affairs, minister of information and minister of home affairs went to senior military figures.

The only significant liberal figure to be included in the new cabinet was a 1960s student activist and researcher, Adi Sasono, who is also secretary-general of ICMI (Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals Association), which Habibie headed before he became vice-president. On May 21, Adi Sasono was quoted in the media as calling for political prisoners to be released, for reform of the electoral laws and for new and early elections.

He is arguing that the government could organise such reforms without the parliament meeting, doing it rather through regulations. At the moment, he is likely to represent a very small minority in the cabinet.

Suharto's resignation and the appointment of Habibie are provoking a clarification among the opposition about the next step. Among the elite opposition, the moderate students and the militant democrats, there is a consensus that there must be elections under new laws.

However, figures such as Abdurrahman Wahid, Amien Rais and Emil Salim (former Suharto economic adviser and environment minister) have said they will give Habibie time to prove that he will carry out reform. This has been a de facto call to de-escalate, if not completely stop, protest mobilisations.

A factor increasing pressure on Wahid and Rais has been the mobilisation on May 22 of right-wing Muslim groups in support of Habibie. Both Wahid and Rais must take account of reactions in their Muslim constituencies.

Protests resume

Among the growing section of militant students, there is anger that Suharto has gotten away with this fake change. Among this section, the call is for an extraordinary session of the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR) to organise new elections.

On May 22, students from five campuses in Surabaya organised simultaneous actions demanding the immediate convening of an MPR session to get an accounting from Suharto. They also demanded that new laws be passed immediately to allow free elections.

It is expected that similar protest actions will begin in Jakarta and other cities, increasing pressure on the elite opposition to harden its stance against the Habibie regime.

Suharto remains in control of the government from behind the scenes. But he has lost control of the overall political situation.

There is an explosion of discussion in the media, almost all opposition figures, as well as the student movement, getting significant coverage. The position of the National Front students has also been reported, though not given major coverage.

Student demonstrations are about to resume. The elite opposition still seek some kind of transition to a situation where they can get representation in the government or parliament.

Discontent among the masses remains high. There is a lack of basic goods and medicines for the population.

The demand for elections and the institution of a parliamentary system increasingly threatens the institutional role of the armed forces. There are no signs of the armed forces retreating from their role as a major political player nor from their defence of a strong presidency.

The possibility of a confrontation between the mass movement and the Suharto-Habibie regime over an extraordinary session of the MPR and free elections remains high. The next round is about to begin.

[Max Lane is on a speaking tour in Europe. He is in frequent contact with activists in Indonesia through e-mail and telephone.]

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