Jun 14, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Mobilise or perish

Published: Sep 12, 2007
After the victories of '98, why did '99 not become another glorious year for student demonstrators?

Dave McRae

Indonesian student activists started 1998 without a national network, and with little consensus about tactics. The same remains true today. In that respect little has changed. Yet 1998 will long be remembered as the year students toppled Suharto. Nothing underlined the special position students assumed better than the attention given to the deaths of four students at Trisakti University in May, and perhaps thirteen at the Semanggi overpass in November, in a year when hundreds, even thousands more non-students met innocent and futile deaths.

Activists had great success mobilising in 1998. Only two weeks into the campaign, a demonstration at Gajah Mada University in Yogyakarta on 11 March was already the largest in twenty years. Big years of mobilisation are landmarks in the student movement's history. Before 1998 came 1978, 1974, and 1966. Today's activists are acutely aware of this history. They have appropriated an even longer tradition of dissent dating to the turn of the century.

Yet in certain key respects they were determined in 1998 not to emulate their forerunners. First, they did not want a small group of prominent central leaders to emerge. Many felt that previous movements had been co-opted by the government after their leaders were first compromised. Not all agreed with this new trend. Some later said that the lack of new leaders was one reason why the student movement 'failed' to become a popular revolution.

Second, they were determined not to forge any alliance with more powerful partners. The armed forces, Abri, in particular were taboo. In 1966 a military-manipulated student movement helped hand power to Suharto. In 1974 students became pawns in a conflict between two generals. Student claims last year that Abri was 'returning to the people' were merely rhetorical.

When Suharto resigned on 21 May, mobilisation had lasted for about 13 weeks. It ended several days later. Its first peak was on 11 March - the final day of the parliamentary session (MPR) that installed Suharto for a seventh successive term. It then continued unabated until late April. In the last week of April and the early weeks of May violence escalated. News emerged that several missing activists had been abducted and tortured by soldiers. The campaign now entered its final stage. In the week before 21 May the number and size of demonstrations actually decreased, as all awaited the rumoured national day of protest on 20 May, Education Day.

Initially, activists affiliated to existing student organisations formed new organisations more suited to mobilisation. Their very success ensured that many activists, and the majority of protestors, had never participated in the much smaller demonstrations of previous years. It also created a certain diversity among the demonstrators, though most were students.

Many of the organisations behind the demonstrations were loose alliances involving activists from varying backgrounds. This blurred but did not destroy ideological divides between them. The strength of these new organisations is often exaggerated. Student fronts that claimed to encompass dozens of campuses usually had only limited representation at each university. In fairness however, the fronts became so numerous precisely because they proved effective in mobilising large numbers of students.

The mobilisation at times saw hundreds of thousands gather. But its success cannot be explained only by the activists' energy. After years of silence, the chance to criticise and even mock Suharto from the anonymity of a large crowd was a potent drawcard. The new organisations with unfamiliar names allowed students to join demonstrations without taking on the historical baggage of past activities. The intensity of mobilisation in itself was also an asset, as it prevented protestors from dividing according to their various convictions. It was not uncommon for non-Muslim students to attend the most overtly Islamic demonstrations.


Clashes were often due to Abri brutality, but certain activists deliberately provoked violence to increase the size and impact of demonstrations. Abri's attacks on demonstrations in fact injured only a small percentage of participants. The thousands of protesters who remained unhurt saw Abri as impotent. Even the injured usually returned to demonstrate again. Onlookers, meanwhile, were often outraged by Abri's cruelty.

Demands before 21 May were by no means uniform, but even calls for lower prices were usually considered an implicit reference to Suharto. Some demands were unequivocal, such as appeals to 'Reject', 'Overthrow', 'Prosecute', and finally 'Hang' Suharto. Suharto's name proved a potent symbol to arouse anger. The concept 'reformasi' was in reality quite vague. But the name meant that many demands in the end devolved into one simple demand: overthrow Suharto. The focus on Suharto made it easier for the elite to finally move against him. They had less to lose than if they had had to deal with wide-ranging demands for reform. But once Suharto was gone it also meant that mass support for activists who wanted to continue the protest evaporated.

Student mobilisation virtually halted for several months after Suharto resigned. Most students disagreed with those activists who asserted that the struggle was far from over. Habibie's presidency was a reality, and many preferred to give him a chance. Demonstrations had also lost their novelty. Having learned from their experience before Suharto's fall, the military usually attended demonstrations only in small numbers, or not at all. This removed the hint of danger from demonstrations, and helped undermine activists' ability to garner mass support.

However it would be incorrect to depict Habibie's early days as a period when activists tried but failed to organise mass demonstrations. Several organisations turned their attention to consolidation or political education. Others continued to demonstrate but relied solely on their core group. This avoided the embarrassment of a demonstration where no one turned up, but did expose the actual weakness of many organisations.

No consensus

It is often said that mobilisation also declined because the agenda had become fragmented. After Suharto fell there was no common enemy, and no consensus about the next target. While essentially correct, this view needs some important qualifications. Long-standing conflicts between activists, obscured by the huge demonstrations, reemerged. In addition, although there was a common platform - almost every demonstration protested Abri's role in politics this could not create the same unity as the dissent against Suharto.

Many conflicts related not to demands but to tactics. Forkot, the largest student front in Jakarta prior to Suharto's resignation, splintered mainly through disagreement over whether or not weapons should be carried at demonstrations, although mutual distrust was also influential. Whether or not students should use violence remained one of the most contentious issues in the movement, even after Semanggi.

Large protests did not completely disappear after May 1998. Two big demonstrations occurred in early September: one in Jakarta and then two days later in Surabaya. Both were violent. The phenomenon of 'red date protests' also grew in prominence. This describes demonstrations organised on significant dates, such as Abri Day (5 October) and Youth Day (28 October), marked in red on Indonesian calendars. However, the simultaneous demonstrations in many cities on these dates merely revealed how obvious these occasions were for a demonstration, rather than any coordinated planning. In truth, red date protests were also common before Suharto fell, but their influence was hidden by the sheer frequency of demonstrations.

One event in the second half of 1998 did loom as a focus for dissent, namely the special session of the super-parliament MPR in November. Mobilisation succeeded in Jakarta, with thousands, and then tens of thousands protesting every day for a week. When protesters were slaughtered on 13 November at Semanggi (as well as the previous night), the shooting triggered a national mobilisation for about a week. Indeed, demonstrations continued in Jakarta until the Islamic fast began one month later. However, even here the mobilisation outside Jakarta did not remove disquiet among many activists over the tactics employed in Jakarta. They feared the focus on the special session would be counterproductive, allowing the government to depict students as extremists.

Student demands often did permit misunderstanding. Some activists themselves were unsure whether 'Reject the special session of the MPR' was a catch-cry or a political target. The government insisted it was the latter. Complex issues such as Suharto's trial, a transitional government, and Abri's dual function were addressed only with one line slogans, making it difficult to determine whether or not student demands had been met. Rhetorical devices were also misinterpreted. Activists switched from 'reformasi' to 'revolusi' because they felt reformasi had become a meaningless word. Yet their core aims remained the same.

In the run-up to the 1999 election, students found it harder to manage demonstrations because political parties were mobilising so many other large groups. Somewhat less significant was the new 'freedom of expression' legislation. Activated in December 1998, it has been used to arrest many activists. But the penalties imposed are not harsh enough for it to become the focus of further solidarity.

The greatest obstacle however, was the students' inability to offer a viable alternative to the election. Their demands for a transitional government never gained acceptance, nor were they well formulated. While some groups were demanding outright rejection of the poll, other students became involved in Unfrel, the student body to monitor the election. Students played a central and admirable role in making the election possible. Ironically, the very system activists have struggled for may have proved their undoing.

Dave McRae is an undergraduate at the Australian National University.

Inside Indonesia 59: Jul-Sep 1999

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