Colleges back student protest

December 4, 1998

Indonesian students have won the tacit backing of university authorities for their anti-government protests. The institutions, once a keystone of the country's stultifying education system, have recently become hotbeds of protest against President B. J. Habibie.

According to K. Tunggal Sirait, rector of Christian University of Indonesia: "The students are critical, creative and innovative. They are seeking their own world and they think they can do it better than us."

Ten years ago, the UKI was a quiet, private university on the dusty, southeastern fringe of Jakarta - a place where few students dared discuss politics. Today, the most radical of the student groups, Forum Kota, uses a house in the grounds to plan strategies and demonstrations. Mr Sirait believes that the activists should come and go freely, as long as they do not break the law. "All rectors have the same attitude: we cannot forbid them," he said.

Last month, the rectors of 154 universities and other higher education institutions signed a declaration calling for faster democratisation of the autocratic political system created by President Habibie's predecessor, Raden Suharto. Although President Habibie is committed to democracy, some students fear he cannot be trusted.

They want Suharto put on trial and a stop put to the influential political role of the military. Since the killing of seven students and several other demonstrators by troops in Jakarta on November 13, UKI students have called for the dismissals of the chief of armed forces, General Wiranto.

UKI does not provide direct aid but moral support from UKI and other universities means that students have somewhere to retreat from agents provocateurs. Wibowo, rector of the private Mustopo University in southern Jakarta - like many Javanese, he only uses one name - said that five suspicious people were detained by students around the campus on that night. One later confessed to being a paid agitator.

In this era of new-found political freedom, the rectors seem unconcerned about a government backlash. Education minister Juwono Sudarsono is not popular with student radicals but wins praise from the rectors. "He has a good approach," Mr Sirait said.

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