Try Suharto, students demand

June 12, 1998

MUSLIM students led protesters outside the Indonesian parliament last week demanding that former president Suharto be tried for corruption. Their action is one of many across the archipelago by students trying to maintain the momentum of their campaign for radical political reform.

It was their anti-government demonstrations that sparked popular unrest, leading to rioting in which 1,188 people were killed, many more injured and buildings and property looted or destroyed.

The deteriorating political situation forced President Suharto to resign on May 21 after 32 years of "New Order" rule. But presidential elections are unlikely to be organised before the end of next year, it was announced.

The students have found themselves on the crest of a wave, but they are unsure exactly what the wave is or where it is heading. Their dilemma is that the academic year is about to end and the momentum that a political about-turn has built up could dissolve in the three-month holiday.

The student movement itself is hardly a movement at all. In pre-reform movement days political activists were few and very discreet, and contacts between students in different cities were informal and infrequent.

Non-political contacts, however, have been long established and most students are aware of their privileged status in a country where fewer than half the population has more than seven years of schooling.

Students have to perform compulsory social work as part of their course and were encouraged by President Suharto to regard themselves as privileged with responsibilities to the greater public.

This responsibility meant toeing the government line, but the economic catastrophe Indonesia has experienced since late last year caused increasing numbers of students to question their government and to reflect on where their true responsibility lay.

The relationship between the government, the students and the public has been one of the trickiest problems. While claiming to be of one mind with the public, students went to great lengths during the demonstrations to screen participants so that non-students, who have been blamed for the rioting, could not take part.

Hence, the students took to the streets in their college blazers and, in Bandung at least, co-operated with the police and army to restrict access to demo areas.

The fear was as much of pro-government provocateurs as of the uncontrolled masses, but it underlined the students' caution and discipline.

Yet the impromptu organisation that emerged during the demonstrations does not seem to herald the appearance of a unified student voice. Meetings are still organised on a local basis with little communication between different cities and no common agenda beyond the "reform now" demonstration slogans.

Many long-term activists are suspicious of outsiders trying either to jump on the student bandwagon or to co-opt them into their own organisations.

Many newer recruits are unsure of what they want anyway, but are simply enjoying the unprecedented excitement of being able to discuss political issues openly and honestly and with the prospect that their actions will have some effect.

A common sentiment, echoed by the Muslim leader Amien Rais, is that in political terms Indonesia has just left primary school and now has to complete university in record time.

The long-run importance of the student movement for many seems to be not so much the agenda or leaders that emerge, but the mass political awakening and seizing of responsibility that has gone on.

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