Nov 30, 2023 Last Updated 8:29 PM, Nov 27, 2023

Behind the student demands

Published: Sep 29, 2007

STANLEY is impressed with the latest generation of students demonstrators.


After three months of continuous demonstrations, many observers are asking where the student actions might lead as they become more angry and violent. Will they really persist in their demand that the 'Old Man' Suharto step down? Or will the history of 1966 repeat itself and the students peacefully return to their classes while the army brings the situation under control with gradual reform?

A growing wave of demonstrations has spread to campuses in almost every province of Indonesia. In disturbances at the North Sumatra University in Medan, and at Mataram University on the island of Lombok, both on 25 April, troops opened fire and killed several demonstrators. The shootings created an important new phase for student activists. Would they press on with their demands, or go along with reforms proposed by the government in a dialogue led by armed forces commander General Wiranto?


Serious incidents since then have convinced many observers that attempts to hose down the fire of the students' passion is a waste of time.

Student and IMF demands for reform have been answered by the government with a series of inconsistent responses. For example, the national logistic board Bulog, which has a monopoly on distributing essential food items, was abolished, only to be replaced by a new marketing organisation called Goro, headed by the President's son, Hutomo 'Tommy' Mandala Putra.

The credibility gap makes the students reject any invitation for dialogue. 'We only wish to deal directly with the president,' said one of the student groups in Jakarta.

The head of the student senate at the prestigious University of Indonesia, Rama Pratama, was among those who declined the invitation to dialogue with General Wiranto. 'It is better to engage in direct dialogue without the presence of a mediator. Anyway, dialogue is not the point of the students' struggle,' said Pratama, in the 1993 economics class.

Meanwhile his comrade-in-arms, Teguh Agung Budi Utomo, a student at Airlangga University in Surabaya, declared: 'The 1945 constitution proclaims the sovereignty of the people. To be absolutely constitutional, a dialogue must take place through the People's Consultative Assembly, the MPR.' He was referring to growing demands for a special session of the MPR to call the president to account.

'This refusal of the students is really humiliating for us as assistants to the president,' complained Information Minister R Hartono.

Old regime

The students' logic in rejecting the invitation for dialogue is really the same as that of the students in 1966. Both refused to dialogue with an old regime on the brink of destruction. 'We will only conduct a dialogue with anyone who can change the so-called New Order of Suharto,' said a group of students from 11 March University.

Senior officials who up until now have been famous for being 'allergic' to entering university campuses have suddenly fallen in love with the idea of having a dialogue with the students. Everybody knows that the 'New Order' regime has up until now been anti-dialogue.

The military have not appreciated the fact that university students since the 1980s have themselves become allergic to anything to do with the men in green. They have always been critical of the Generation of 1966, who they hold responsible for the military domination of the country since then. We all know that the military as a group, as well as a section of the 1966 student generation, have paid excessive homage to the preservation of Suharto's power.


Indeed, the dialogue planned for 6 April ended in failure. All the invited student representatives boycotted it. By means of sheer hard work and plenty of manipulation, it took Abri headquarters till 18 April to put on another dialogue. It was held in the Jakarta suburb of Kemayoran.

Most of the students who turned up belonged to official government organisations like Ampi and Knpi. A few student senates did send representatives, but far more considered the dialogue just a farce. All the students knew that the point of the dialogue was to stop the students from doing anything.

In order to create a spectacular impression, the 18 April dialogue brought together hundreds of people from various backgrounds. Besides 60 student representatives, dozens of representatives from other social organisations, from intellectual groups, and heads of universities were brought along to join the merry throng. No fewer than 16 cabinet ministers were in attendance. Armed forces commander General Wiranto turned up with his entire staff.

What was the result? Students thought it was a nice break from their studies. Cabinet ministers and military officers said seriously that they would attempt to implement the student demands for reform, of course 'in a constitutional manner, through the right channels, and gradually'.

Even more ironically, the president's daughter Siti Hardiyanti 'Tutut' Rukmana declared: 'Your demands for reform are ours as well. These are not just the demands of our younger brothers and sisters, the university students.'

There seemed to be a desire to bury the demands of the students by changing the word 'oppose' to 'all of us together'. Of course this really infuriated the students. One from Surabaya said: 'Don't you know that all the while, behind the demands for reform, the students are demanding Suharto step down from the presidency?' This declaration naturally shocked a considerable number of the dialogue participants.

Counter dialogue

While the army held its dialogue in Jakarta, students put together a 'counter dialogue' at the Agricultural University (IPB) in Bogor at the same time. The dialogue rather resembled a rally to be on the alert. Over 4000 students attended from tertiary institutions in Java and Bali. Several IPB professors supported the event.

The meeting was the debut for a number of new student leaders within Indonesian campus politics. Among them were Cahyo Pamungkas from Gajah Mada, and Rama Pratama from the University of Indonesia. According to Cahyo, it was no longer necessary for students to sit around and discuss their vision. 'Our vision is the same: we all want change. Silence means betrayal and silence also means being oppressed,' he said. He declared that change could be constitutional or it could be unconstitutional.

Cahyo called on students to reject dialogue with the government, and also to reject calls by senior officials for them to come up with a political and economic blueprint. 'That is not the job of students, professors, doctors or other graduates', said Cahyo.

The meeting was also an opportunity to plan simultaneous actions throughout Indonesia, which took place over the following week. Some students agreed to overcome the impasse up till that moment by going out into the streets. They believed that by going onto the streets, the threat of being beaten up by the security apparatus would merely increase student militancy.

Others were going to try to enter parliament (DPR) and present a motion of no confidence in the representatives of the people. Another group wanted to visit the State Secretariat and convey a statement to President Suharto.


Students at the moment are virtually unanimous in demanding 'reform'. This is interesting because around the time of the March session of the MPR they were demanding that Suharto be rejected as a presidential candidate. 'Of course the word "reform" is a euphemism for "bring Suharto to justice"', commented Sukendro, a student activist from Dr Moestopo University. 'At the moment it is not possible to yell openly what we were saying during the March MPR session'.

Although the word 'reform' dominates the demonstrations, in free speech rostrums we hear that there are in fact Ten People's Demands. They are reform of the political, legal, economic and educational system; repeal of five notorious laws on politics; abolition of the army's 'dual function'; reduction of the price of basic foodstuff; reduction in the cost of education; rejection of the plan to raise fuel prices; elimination of corruption, collusion and nepotism; an end to kidnapping of activists; an end to unfair and unofficial charges in universities; and speedy attention to unemployment.

Some students are adding another demand to these ten, namely the swift convening of a special session of the super-parliament (MPR) to bring Suharto to justice.

Some of these demands were already put forward by Megawati's People's Democratic Party before they were crushed and declared an illegal organisation at the end of 1996.


As usual, the security apparatus are laying the accusation that mysterious others have infiltrated the students and are fomenting violent confrontation with the security forces. 'From the type of actions employed it can clearly be seen that there were extremist elements at work in the student actions at the Gajah Mada University campus. We see the influence of the PRD and Fretilin', stated the military area commander for Central Java.

Some see the accusation of revolutionary infiltration as just another tactic to intimidate the students and their parents. 'Oh, that's old hat. Everybody knows the only thing that has infiltrated us is our conscience', commented Rama Pratama. 'If we were to let this issue of infiltration bother us then students would never dare do anything. We will continue to move ahead', he added.

The issue of infiltration was dealt another blow when senior lecturers, professors and even the wives of government officials within Dharma Wanita joined the demonstrations and called out the same demands as the students.

By contrast with those who reject dialogue with the military, some other students declared they did not want to close their minds to the idea of an alliance between students and the military. 'As long as it ends in reform,' said Abdullah, a student from 17 August University in Jakarta. He added that information had come into student hands about whole units deserting from the armed forces. Apart from feeling the consequences of the economic troubles, he said, these soldiers were refusing to repress the students.

'It is these soldiers who have the potential to become our allies in the struggle. This time we are not afraid of being coopted by the military, as the students were in 1965/1966. This time the military will not be able to get on top of the economic crisis', Abdullah said.

30 April 1998. On 12 May, six student demonstrators were shot dead, apparently by military snipers, at Trisakti University in Jakarta.

Stanley is a journalist and author in Jakarta. David Williams, at the University of Southern Queensland, was the translator.

Inside Indonesia 55: Jul-Sep 1998

Latest Articles

Feminists and LGBT


Can they work together? Religious objections make it hard

Concerts for cash

Oct 27, 2023 - MICHAEL H. B. RADITYA

Indonesia has a plan to boost the economy through large-scale arts, cultural and sporting events, but are they ready?

Healing the nation? Part 2

Sep 13, 2023 - SASKIA E. WIERINGA

Recent attempts to address the Indonesian genocide after 1 October 1966

Healing the nation? Part 1

Sep 13, 2023 - SASKIA E. WIERINGA

Recent attempts to address the Indonesian genocide after 1 October 1966

Lontar Modern Indonesia



A selection of stories from the Indonesian classics and modern writers, periodically published free for Inside Indonesia readers, courtesy of Lontar

Subscribe to Inside Indonesia

Receive Inside Indonesia's latest articles and quarterly editions in your inbox.