The deaths of six students in Indonesia this week is a tragic confirmation of the dismay and foreboding felt by many observers at the mounting student protests and demonstrations against President Suharto's regime.
With memories still fresh of military suppression of similar demonstrations in Myanmar and China it was always possible that in Indonesia, too, the regime would lose patience and crackdown as brutally, ignoring the short-term consequences of outraging international opinion.
This week's deaths were at the hands of the police. The key issues all relate to the military: Will it eventually throw in its lot with the students and other opposition voices? Will it remain loyal and undivided in its support for Suharto? Or will it begin to fracture and if so along what lines? And what precisely is the relationship between the military and the students? An answer to the last question can perhaps be discerned in a brief review of Suharto's 30 years as president.
Suharto, a military general, came to power between 1966-1968 with the support of the army and on the backs of students and, as the evidence increasingly suggests, with help of the CIA. How precisely this came about is a story still waiting to be told, but we know sufficient now to be able to say with assurance that the student protests against President Sukarno in 1965-66 were orchestrated by a faction in the armed forces. The combination of the army and the students led to the ousting of Sukarno. In a specially convened session of the MPR, the supreme legislative body which constitutionally meets usually only once every five years to elect the president, power was transferred to Suharto. The students were delighted, but to say "students" is misleading, as those students who had been supported by the army in fact represented only part of the large student body, namely those in Moslem and Christian student organisations who had been vehemently opposed to Sukarno from the early 1960s when he had appeared to be flirting dangerously with communism. The student body at that time had been deeply and violently riven between the pro-Sukarno and anti-Sukarno factions. With the rise to power of Suharto the nationalist and communist student organisations were wiped out, often in gruesome fashion.
Ultimately, the Muslim and Christian students achieved their aims: the PKI (the Communist Party) was destroyed, Sukarno resigned and an economic policy that took its direction from the prescriptions of United States advisers was initiated. The economy began to pick up quickly in the 1970s and university campuses saw a return to something like normality, with the government making strenuous attempts to improve education. However, there was still disagreement within the ruling elite and factions would occasionally try to jockey for popular support. Thus there were protests in the mid-1970s about apparent Japanese economic penetration, corruption and lack of democratic freedoms. But Suharto and his advisers outmanoeuvred the opposition and student protest. A key plank in the strategy was the declaration of the then education minister Nugroho Notususanto, who had been an anti-Sukarno intellectual, that students should stay on campus, get on with their studies and leave politics to others.
In the mid-1980s, however, the cocoon that Suharto had wound round himself so securely began to unravel. The reasons are complex but there were significant consequences for the politicisation of the students. The army, for example, was less inclined than it had been to defend Suharto and his family against criticism. Many of the generation who had supported Suharto against Sukarno were now unwilling to remind the younger generation of the contribution Suharto had made to stability and economic prosperity.
Suharto's decision in 1990 to endorse the establishment of ICMI, the organisation of Moslem intellectuals, under the nominal leadership of the man who is now vice-president, B. J. Habibie, was an attempt to regain popularity he had lost among intellectuals and their student followers.
Student protest erupted again, however, in the year leading up to the 1997 general elections. The manipulation of the political process, through interference in the political party of which Sukarno's daughter was the leader, evoked strong student reaction, and there was some suggestion that army factions had been happy to see the regime embarrassed. Although Suharto got his way, a sufficient groundswell had built up to make the presidential election of 1998 a contentious issue even before the economy declined.
Events in Indonesia are the product of the confluence of intellectual protest at the way in which the political process has been manipulated and street protest at rising prices. The difference this time is that student protest has the backing of many more influential figures than a year ago. A number of elder statesmen including the much respected Emil Salim, a former environment minister, have added their voice to the demands for greater accountability. Sympathy for the students must give the military pause for thought, since it is qualitatively different from the strident criticisms of such spokesmen as political science lecturer, Amien Rais. Rais had been coopted into ICMI to channel his criticism into constructive support but he resigned saying he disliked ICMI's apparent conformism.
One of the most startling developments, however, has been the manner in which ICMI has taken a more independent line. Perhaps remembering its own student days the ICMI leadership has suggested that the MPR should be reconvened for a special session to consider those political reforms. The suggestion has been taken up by some military figures. On the political sidelines those opponents of Suharto must now be contemplating how the whirligig of time brings in its revenges.
The political temperature is rising rapidly. Parents, remembering the dark days of 1965-66, ask their children to be cautious but are sympathetic to their aspirations. If serious political reform is in the offing and strategic alliances can be forged then students can pride themselves on being the catalyst that spurred significant others to take the necessary action. The game is one of wait and see.
Bill Watson is senior lecturer in anthropology at the University of Kent.