INDONESIA: Students and the rise and fall of Suharto

In a hospital in Jakarta, the former president of the Republic of Indonesia is dying. Suharto’s 32-year reign over the archipelago brought development at a high cost and for most his name is inextricably connected with corruption, collusion and nepotism. Students and academics have played a major role throughout the modern history of Indonesia, especially in the Suharto era, but many courageous men and women gave their lives in the struggle for change and freedom.

Few will remember Suharto as Bapak Pembangunan (the ‘father of development’, as he was fondly known in his better days). Among the few bright spots in his dark history is his realisation of near universal primary education. In terms of higher education, his legacy includes the expansion of the Indonesian higher education system by establishing universities in all provinces in the vast country and by allowing private providers.

But activities in and around these institutions became under the increasingly strict control of his New Order regime. In the early years of the regime there was little campus-based opposition to Suharto. Leftist students and scholars had been purged and those who remained were largely supportive of his commitment to opening the economy to world markets.

Tightening control, however, became apparent in the early 1970s and its hostility to political life, its embrace of foreign investment, and close relationships with wealthy businessmen, drew criticism from some former campus supporters and a new generation of students.

On 22 January 1970, student protests were banned following a series of demonstrations against corruption. These were sparked by the findings of a Suharto-appointed commission that found corruption was widespread throughout government. The commission was shut down soon afterwards.

Later, in 1971, anti-corruption demonstrations were staged again by students, this time to protest against Taman Mini Indonesia Indah (a park portraying a miniature version of Indonesia), an extravagant project and a brainchild of Siti Hartinah, Suharto’s wife.

Suharto declared he would use all force at his disposal against opposition to the project but in the next years, student protests continued. These were aimed at increased foreign influence, the government’s open embrace of foreign capital (in the early years, largely Japanese) and poor economic conditions – but also at ongoing corruption.

The 'rice crises' of 1972 and 1973 pushed many Indonesians back into hard economic times and led to political instability, expressed mostly again by student demonstrations. In early 1974, the protests culminated in to the so-called Malari riots (Malapetaka Lima Belas Januari or January 15th Catastrophe).

During a visit of Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, student demonstrations broke out involving tens of thousands and led to violence, looting and fires. Students targeted the most visible symbol of the Japanese presence in Indonesia: the showroom of Astra, the local firm which imported Toyota cars from Japan. The riots were brought under control a day later but only after army troops killed about 11 demonstrators.

The Malari riots had far reaching effects, especially for the free expression of critique. Afterwards hundreds of Indonesians, among them many students, were put on trial and prominent student leaders and several faculty were imprisoned. Critical journalists were also jailed and six of Jakarta’s most independent newspapers, including two that had supported Suharto in 1965 to 1967, were closed down.

The central government assumed greater control over students, including a requirement that they obtain a permit for all on-campus activities and regulations forcing formerly party-affiliated student groups to join a single organisation controlled by the government. Academic freedom and freedom of expression were gradually called to a halt.

A major student protest movement emerged in 1977 in the wake of parliamentary elections in May that year. Public criticism of the government grew, with critics continuing to attack economic policies they saw as favouring a handful of wealthy capitalists with access to Suharto.

In the run-up to the general session of parliament, scheduled to hold presidential elections in March 1978 (with Suharto up for a third five-year term), student leaders in the major student cities staged a series of rallies calling for Suharto’s replacement and an overhaul of the economic and political system.

The government clamped down and, through a policy formally known as ‘Normalization of Campus Life’ and the establishment of a ‘Campus Coordinating Body’, the government banned political expression and placed all student activities under the supervision and control of university rectors. Student councils ceased, campus newspapers were heavily censored, public meetings on current events were banned. Rectors were made accountable to the military and to the Ministry of Education and Culture.

Universities then became important sites for military intelligence operations. Undercover agents attended seminars and campus-based ‘Student Regiments’ increasingly served as an on-campus intelligence network to monitor the activity of other students. Student rallies were routinely broken up by security forces.

After 1978, scores of students were imprisoned for political crimes, many under broadly worded laws criminalising deviation from the state ideology, disrespect for the president or vice-president, and public expression of hate or insult directed against the government.

During the 1980s, the entire academic community suffered from the pervasive security presence on campus and the government’s hostility to independent political expression. Pressures on faculty to conform were imposed through a variety of measures, including central government control over promotion decisions, denial of travel privileges to critical professors, monitoring academic seminars, and press and book censorship.

As civil servants, faculty at public universities were required to pledge loyalty to the Golkar party, and to wear civil servant uniforms on designated days each month.

Economic growth had resulted in sharp increases in overall enrolments and a proliferation of new private higher education institutions to serve the children of an expanding middle class. At the same time, a wide range of Indonesians (including an important segment of the new middle class) was increasingly demanding greater freedom of expression and the opening of the political system to broader citizen participation.

Student activists, who had been driven underground and radicalised by the repressive campus policies instituted in the late 1970s, were an important source of pressure. Throughout the 1980s, students formed off-campus discussion clubs where they debated political and social theories.

The first arrests associated with such a study club occurred in 1988 when three members in Yogyakarta were arrested and sentenced on subversion charges to prison terms ranging from seven to eight-and-a-half years. This helped spur students and they began to join forces with NGOs to defend the interests of peasants evicted from their land for development or commercial purposes, and workers deprived of the right to organise.

A new higher education law passed in 1989 and a government regulatory decree in 1990 included guarantees for both academic freedom and scientific autonomy while Suharto himself publicly endorsed broader openness in Indonesian society.

On campuses, this was reflected in a decree allowing the re-establishment of campus-wide student senates for the first time in over a decade. Some government officials and campus administrators informally began to allow more room for campus-based activities. Many academics and intellectuals took advantage of the opening to push for more fundamental reform.

The government however repeatedly insisted that the kind of openness it endorsed was “responsible openness”. But because there was no real protection for basic rights, citizens never could be sure what the exact meaning of 'responsible' was and how far the opening extended.

Faculty as well as students became more active and more vocal on social and political issues in the 1990s. Academics spoke out on behalf of academic freedom, joined off-campus human rights and democracy advocacy groups, and lent their expertise to NGO campaigns on a range of issues, from women’s rights to legal reform. While students and faculty played an important role in the push for greater openness, they also continued to define the limits of government tolerance.

Public demands for change and openness continued and, in the run-up to parliamentary elections in May 1997, students organised an open ballot campaign calling for an election boycott. Calls for reform also increasingly came from social scientists in the universities and even the national research institutes.

The monetary crises that raged throughout Southeast Asia in 1997 and 1998 also hit Indonesia hard. The beginning of the end for Suharto really took off in January 1998, with the collapse of the Indonesian rupiah and an outpouring of demands for an end to his 32-year rule. But opposition leaders failed to pose any significant challenge to Suharto and Indonesia’s parliament unanimously elected him for a seventh five-year term. Again, the student protest movement became the nationwide focus of opposition.

I was in Indonesia from March until early May in 1998 and the country was moving to boiling point. The man in the street was disillusioned with politics. People were hit hard by the high prices for basic necessities but, in accordance with the IMF packages, government subsidies on commodities like petrol, rice, sugar and cooking oil were cut, and price hikes occurred daily.

The young were angry and bitter but at the same time they embodied the aspiration for change. All this anger and hope came together in the student movements that bubbled up in and around campuses across the country. These involved hundreds of thousands of students from hundreds of institutions, private as well as public, secular as well as Muslim and Christian, in large and small cities. They could not be ignored by the country's leadership, neither could they suppress it, so change slowly became inevitable.

Meanwhile, massive peaceful demonstrations occurred in many parts of the country. After the riots, Assembly Speaker and Golkar party head Harmoko asked Suharto to step down. Suharto appeared on television and said he would not step down but that new elections would be held and he would not run. In May 1998, thousands of demonstrating students occupied the grounds, lobby and roof of the parliament building in Jakarta.

On 20 May, half a million Indonesians marched in Yogyakarta and large demonstrations were held in Surakarta, Medan, Bandung and other cities. On 21 May, Suharto announced his resignation and Vice-President BJ Habibie became the new President of the Republic of Indonesia.

Students had experienced not one but 30 years of living dangerously – and they had won.

*Dr Eric Beerkens is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Sydney. His research focuses on the global spread of the idea of the knowledge society and the implications for universities in Southeast Asia.
A full copy of his paper is available here