Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Angry Young People: Musings on the 1990's Student Movements of Indonesia

[Note: This article was published in CRITIQUE, Vol-1, Issue-3. Critique is a Quarterly brought out by the Delhi University Chapter of New Socialist Initiative (NSI)]

By Ken Ndaru


Back in the 90s, a campus life was one of a surefire way to move upward in the social ladder. Especially for those who enjoyed the opportunity to enroll in a state university. We were hard working students, yes; we were dedicated to getting as many A’s and B’s as possible. The competition was fierce. We had no time for life outside the three realms: Books, Love and Campus’ Parties. (The campus parties were mandatory in what we call today ‘network building’.) 

This situation was the direct result of a decree in 1978 by the then Ministry of Education and Culture, Daud Jusuf. The decree called for a “normalization of campus life” (“NKK”) and the formation of “student coordinating bodies” (“BKK”) that would be headed by the Rector’s Third Deputy. Both entailed a blatant stomping on political life within all Indonesian campuses. Anyone caught carrying out political activities in campus would be expelled, with a further risk of getting his/her name into the good book of the feared Command for Security and Order Recovery (KOPKAMTIB, the extra-judicial arm of the Indonesian Army). 

With news of Security Operations everywhere in the country, and the summary killing spree in the capital city that was dubbed “mysterious shooting” by the media—targeting those who the security forces called “outlaws”, the students chose a philosophy of “hearing no evil, seeing no evil and speaking no evil”. We simply ignored the life outside the campuses. 

We had, after all, a bright future. As long as we ploughed our way diligently. And heeding the siren call of the regime. 

Nevertheless, such a life is considered decadent by some. They were only a handful. And they worked in utter secrecy and they were almost invisible. It took them a full year to assess and approach me before asking me to join them. And I joined for the simplest reason that I was bored with the campus life. And I was angry. The discrepancy of what was taught in the classes and the stark reality of life staring us in the face every day when we got back to our lodgings or rented rooms was too great to ignore. Maybe most of the students were born with innate ability to shrug off inconveniences. But for a tiny minority those facts were not just “inconveniences”. They were real. 

And so we were. The angry young people of our generation.


After the NKK/BKK decree, politics died in all Indonesian campuses. Students’ ringleaders were either jailed or expelled. All other activists “went to ground” to avoid persecution. Nobody talked politics in campuses. Even the student organizations formerly associated with politics, and were instrumental in toppling of President Sukarno in 1966, now dissociated themselves from the word “politics”. They had used the term “ormas” (organisasi massa, or mass organization). After the NKK/BKK, they changed the meaning of the term “ormas” into “organisasi kemasyarakatan” or “public organization”. When I enrolled into one such “public organizations”, they even advertise themselves as “preparing students to have more competitive value at their future jobs”. 

And so, the disgruntled students held political discussions in the rented rooms or lodgings. By canvassing, the student activists visited the “prospects” one by one, holding a brief discussion on the current campus affairs, pretending to be interested in the personal affairs of such prospect, inviting the prospects to card games, and eventually asking the prospect to review a very obscure document—with no name printed as the publisher, no date, and very political. That was how the Study Circles were organized in my day as a freshman at the Agricultural Institute of Bogor (IPB). 

Study Circles were the main method of organizing the student movement then. It was not very efficient, only less than ten recruits every year for each such circle. But it was thought to be the safest way of organizing. We wanted politics, but we also wanted to be as far away from the military secret detention centers as possible. And we still wanted that lucrative jobs waiting for us after we graduated. 

This “safety first” mentality proved to be the death knell to the Study Circles. Around the time I joined one, the Study Circles has been entering a prolonged process of stagnation. What we did seemed to bear no impact on anyone. The older members graduated and then the movement lost them as they got their jobs, married and settled down (not necessarily in that order). In short, Study Circles organized just to preserve their existence, nothing more. 

But things were about to change. Soon after I joined a study circle, a whole new series of books were published in Bahasa Indonesia. Most of them were on Latin American experiences on social policies. The “openness policy” promoted by the New Order in the beginning of 1990s in order to open the country to a new influx of foreign investment interests also opened the country to what happened in other countries. The EDSA revolution of 1986 in the Philippines that overthrew Marcos regime, in particular, was of a great interest within the student movement. Many student leaders went to live a short stint in the Philippines. And soon afterwards, new circulars calling for more “direct actions” were distributed among the study circles.


To make the “openness policy” more attractive to the foreign investors, Gen. Suharto’s New Order carried out several harsh economic, social, political and legal measures. The devaluation of Rupiah (IDR) came first; hitting the common people so hard that the real income plummeted by approximately 50% in the short years after the policy was announced, prompting the government to issue a new banknote of IDR 20,000 (the highest value before that was IDR 10,000). Then there were a slew of new legislations aimed at regulating sectors such as the transportation, housing, city planning, and land allotment. The New Order then began to promote cheap labor as a “comparative advantage” in the international market. 

Students clash with police in Trisakti University Campus, May, 1998
The new legislations soon came in clash with the interests of the working classes. The transportation workers staged a national strike in 1992 to protest the new Transportation Law. The peasantry was also roused to action by the forced relocation efforts carried out by the government, in order to grab land for the industrial infrastructures and businesses. These relocations were carried out by deploying military units to the places that must be vacated. And bloody clashes broke in many places, most notably in Badega (West Java) and Kedung Ombo (Central Java). 

The heroic stories from those clashes with the military rippled into the campuses, and into the study circles. Many people within those circles felt the inadequacy of their methods. More and more they wanted to be in the thick of the action. But the older leaders were still largely bound by the “safety first” mentality and failed to respond appropriately. And thus there were splits everywhere. The younger students moved outside their campuses; some more brazenly, others more hesitatingly, but move out they did—while the older leaders of the study circles watched helplessly as their former protégés flew away to form a new movement. 

Student Committees sprung up virtually in every state university and the bigger private universities, especially in Java, the most populous island of Indonesia, where land deprivation has long been a prominent feature of the peasantry. These Committees provided a vital link between organizing works among the students and the countryside. Demonstrations became more frequent, almost always met with violence by the police or the military. In several campuses, such as the Jakarta’s National Science and Technology Institute (ISTN), where the student demonstration in 1992, demanding a reverse in the tuition fee policy, escalated into an occupation. The Mobile Brigade of the Police Force attacked at dawn and at least one student was killed. (The number is uncertain because several committees from other campuses sent reinforcement, but never reported back on their casualty.) 

Another vital development was the reintroduction of Marxist literatures into Indonesia. The country had been virtually devoid of anything even mentioning Marx or Marxism since the 1965 Massacre of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) cadres and the cadres of the radical wing of the Indonesian Nationalist Party (PNI). In fact, three students were jailed in 1988 for having in their possession an anti-Marxist article, simply because the article contained words such as Marx, Marxism, and communism. The contact with popular movement in the Philippines eventually netted a network, and the rest is history. 

Meanwhile, the country was having a field day with the foreign investors. In 1993, at least one source said that the country was enjoying a 7.1% economic growth—a strong growth rate that did not translate into the well being of the poorest sections of the population. All those statistics belied the daily life of the workers and peasants. In 1993, the workers “enjoyed” a monthly salary of 11.5 US Dollars in a country with GDP per capita of 770 US Dollars. The annual income per capita in the countryside was even lower, at approximately 10% of the GDP per capita. 

Armed with the newfound theoretical foundation, the Student Committees went further in their struggle. In 1993, a new formation was conceived, talks started to be organized amongst Committees. Committees in the same cities held conferences at an attempt to unification. City Committees were formed in the cities with the most fervent student activities, especially in Java and Sumatra. Agendas for a new national student union were being discussed. I know that some students have started to discuss the idea of a political party at this time, but that discussion was not widely known at the time. 

However, one can not study something today and hope to become expert at it the next day, or even the day after that. And so, the newfound theoretical foundation was useless in preventing a great split within the student movement right before the planned congress to put the national student union into reality. 

The real issue for the split is still not known but what was put forward at the time was that some City Committees were too “soft”. One of the key issues was that whether the student movement should put forward the call to abolish the Military’s Dual-Function, which hitherto has been the doctrine and justification for the military to keep their clawed hands in civilian politics. Bringing the fight into that “sacred” military doctrine was deemed unnecessary and harmful by the “softliners”. And thus they split from the nascent national formation. The hardliners carried on to form the first political student union during the New Order: the Student Solidarity for Democracy in Indonesia (SMID). 

The last great debate before SMID finally had their first Congress was between those who wanted to organize in the urban areas, and those who wanted to make rural areas paramount. In folly or wisdom, we dubbed this debate as “Leninism versus Maoism”. The result of this debate was a sort of pragmatist compromise: those who wanted the urban areas could have it, and those who wanted to organize in the rural areas also had green light to go ahead. The SMID would only act as a national coordinating body, building solidarity between the rural and urban areas. However, SMID would become predominantly urban because its strongest bases came up in the decidedly urban areas.


SMID held its first congress in 1994, and soon afterwards gained enough momentum to become the largest political student body in the country, with dozen of branches in the hotbeds of student resistance. Lots of student activists “went to the factories” and organized the workers. Soon, dozens of massive workers strikes were launched in the key industrial centers: Jakarta, Medan, Semarang, and Surabaya. SMID went to become a high profile organization with the success stories of strikes such as the Great River Factory strike (13,000 strong, the first workers strike to unfurl the banner “Abolish the Military’s Dual Function”) and the Indoshoes Factory strike (3,000 strong, the first worker strike to try and occupy the Parliamentary Building in Jakarta). 

SMID also embarked on such high profile campaigns, such as the occupation of the Russian and The Netherlands Embassies, and calling for a Self-Determination Referendum in East Timor. (East Timor had been under Indonesian occupation since 1975.) The feat was executed in December 1995, in collaboration with East Timorese student alliance. 

The adrenaline rushed, and towards the end of 1995, the SMID leaders were beginning to discuss the possibility of forming a political party. Boosted by the formation of new radical unions—the Indonesian Center of Workers’ Struggle (PBBI) and National Peasants Union (STN)—the student leaders revived the then defunct Democratic People’s Union (PRD-persatuan). 

The impetus that propelled the formation of a political party was the shooting in Makassar (the provincial capital of South Sulawesi), April 1996. The students of Islamic University of Makassar (UMI) held a campus occupation in order to demand cancellation of a tuition fee hike. The military attacked with live bullets, killing at least 11 students and an unverified number of civilians supporting the occupation. The country was galvanized into action. Hundreds and hundreds of solidarity committees sprung up across the nation. Students everywhere staged violent clashes with the police and the military, fortunately with no more death tolls. 

By necessity or by chance, the New Order regime had been worrying about the newfound radicalism amongst the members of the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI). PDI was the result of the systematic “simplification” of Indonesian political party system, carried out by the regime since 1978, leading to fusion between the remnants of Indonesian Nationalist Party (PNI), the Indonesian Catholic Party, the Indonesian Christian Party, the Popular Deliberation Party (Murba), and the Supporters of Indonesian Independence Party (IPKI). In 1993, the Party Congress of PDI in Surabaya chose Megawati Sukarnoputri, a daughter of former President Sukarno, as the chairperson. The New Order was allergic to anything that bears Sukarno’s name, and resorted to scheming and designing in order to topple Megawati. This met a very resolute resistance from the mass-base of PDI, later known as “Pendukung Mega”—Supporters of Mega(wati). During 1994, and especially during 1995, the conflict matured from banner wars into clashes between the “Pendukung Mega” and “Pendukung Suryadi”. (Suryadi was the regime’s puppet within the PDI.) 

The University of Makassar Massacre happened at around the same time as the infamous Medan Congress that installed the puppet Suryadi as the new chairperson of PDI. The student radicalism soon merged with the grass root radicalism. Megawati Sukarnoputri was hailed as the “reincarnation of Sukarno”, the Indonesian Cory Aquino, who will bring down General Suharto, and help ushering in a new era of democratization for the nation. Fresh from their clashes with the police and the military, student committees would soon join thousands strong marches to support Mega and to reject the Medan Congress. 

More bloody clashes with the military were to follow. One of the most famous was the Battle of Gambir Train Station on 20 June 1996 where 15,000 strong demonstrators went for a clash for nearly an hour with the Special Commando Force, the elite army unit stationed near the Gambir Train Station. With panzers, the army succeeded in beating back the demonstrators, and the demonstrators retreated to the Headquarters of the PDI Party, then occupied by Suryadi’s supporters. The Supporters of Mega took over the building without much resistance from its previous occupants. 

And for nearly a full month after that, the PDI Headquarters held the Stages for Democracy which amounted to day-long demonstrations. Day after day, the mass gathering at the building got ever bigger. 

Amidst this developments the leaders of SMID, with support from PPBI and STN, held a congress in Yogyakarta, and announced the formation of the Democratic People’s Party (PRD)—the first leftish party in Indonesia since the massacre of the left in 1965. 

That was too much for the New Order. With a bang, the reactionaries dealt a heavy blow to try and curb all the fomenting of the masses. The Special Commando Force personnels, disguised as Suryadi’s supporters, attacked the PDI Headquarters in the dawn of 27 July 1996, killing an unknown number of Mega’s loyalists. Bodies littered the street and were thrown into the awaiting trucks, that then sped to an unknown destination. Blood literally painted the road surface red, said survivors, which then was washed down by awaiting water cannon tanks. 

In retaliation, the masses tried to retake the building, and ended up in the two days riot across the capital city of Jakarta. 

The regime took the opportunity to crack down upon the most radical elements of the movement. Its iron sight was aimed especially at SMID and the nascent PRD. Right after the 27 July Riot, the Chief Army Command for Social and Political Affairs, Gen. Syarwan Hamid, declared that PRD was behind the Riot. Three days after that he announced that the “witch-hunt” for PRD members was official. 

The military intelligence operation swept the country and arrested tens of PRD members, brought them for torture in secret detention centers and held kangaroo trials for several of the top leaders. This is not to say that I was one of the top leaders, but I was in the group that went through those trials. During this process, all the popular movement was in disarray. Most activists went into hiding. The masses, devoid of leadership, went on rampage to stage several riots in Java and Sumatra, of which the military’s reply was ‘shoot to kill’.


The year of 1997 marked a turning point in the struggle against the New Order. The so called Asian Economic Crisis hit the country particularly hard, the national currency’s value plummeted, and the economy practically collapsed. As always, the hardship was to be shouldered by the people in the lowest rungs of the society. And people got angry.

There were only three political parties during the New Order era: The Party of Functional Groups (or Golkar, the ruling party), the PDI, and the United Development Party (PPP). As in the case of PDI, the PPP party has long been a target of machination from the military, the ruling party and the New Order regime in general. Now, the PPP masses saw how the PDI members took to the street, having clashes with the hated military and the members of Golkar Party, and in general boasted that they were fighting for democracy. Eventually, the fire spread and the long-dormant PPP members roused themselves into action with the formation of the Mega-Bintang-Rakyat coalition. (Mega is for Megawati, Star is the banner of the PPP party, and “rakyat” is simply “people” in Bahasa Indonesia.) This is a broad coalition of the most radical elements within the PDI and PPP and sections of the students committees who survived the witch-hunt.

Soon, the Mega-Bintang-Rakyat coalition was able to hold tens of thousands strong demonstration, calling for the end of the New Order. These demonstrations often met with harsh measures by the military. The country was in chaos as news of clashes (often bloody) appeared the newspaper almost daily.

Towards the end of 1997, everyone was quite unsure of how to proceed. Suharto had been in power too long, no one could envision him dethroned. After a few hesitant discussions, there was a decision that in order to move forward, the fire must be brought into the capital. And in order to do it, the students must once again step forward and take the leading role.

Soon afterwards, almost all students in the Mega-Bintang-Rakyat coalition returned to their campuses. They carry the agitation with full fervor, frequently by barging into a classroom and calling for the students to abandon their seats and go out to the streets. The first campus to bear fruit to this method of agitation was Gajah Mada University of Yogyakarta, where in December 1997 the students held a three thousand strong anti-Suharto demonstration. After an agitation that called for Suharto to step down, the military opened fire. There was a three days battle in the campus where the students used stone, bows and arrows, Molotov cocktails, even self manufactured guns to hold off the military’s onslaught. 
The Dictator: General Suharto on Family Holiday
The news of the Battle of Gagah Mada University reached other campuses and spurred everyone into action. Entering 1998, nearly every campus has had its own student committees and those committees immediately took to the streets. And the fire did spread wildly in Jakarta. There were three big student coalitions formed in Jakarta, in the wake of the Battle of Gagah Mada University: the Students’ Action Front for Reformation and Democracy (FAMRED), the City Forum (FORKOT), and the Students’ and People’s Committee for Democracy (KOMRAD); and another committee set up exclusively in the University of Indonesia, the biggest university in Jakarta, the Big Family of University of Indonesia (KBUI). These four committees were instrumental in bringing down Suharto in May 1998, after nearly five months of street fighting, four students dead in the famous Trisakti University clash, and nearly a week long occupation of the Parliamentary Building in Jakarta


Did you get the overtone of this article? If you get feeling of that raw, raw radicalism, you’ve caught the whole atmosphere during those days in the 90s. We didn’t know much of any ideology. Theory came late in the development of student movement and was not utilized to the fullest extent. We only had one thing in mind: Indonesia without Suharto. We simply didn’t have time to study those theories; our daily lives were propelled forward by the ever escalating political tension.

We were young, we were angry. We didn’t think much else besides. We achieved what we set out to do, but not much else. I still can remember quite vividly the seconds leading to the announcement that Suharto stepped down. We were crying after hearing that on the radio. I was released from my imprisonment by the amnesty of the Acting President Habibie three months after that victory. But the world I returned to didn’t match my expectations. I had expected a democratic country, the new land of opportunity, or at least a nation without oppression. I found my hopes dashed. And we were angry once more. 

But this time, it’s different. We have learned from the harsh lesson: we had bled, we had suffered, but because we didn’t know how to wrest and wield power, others rose to power over our mangled bodies. 

Ten years into the so called Reformation Era, not much have changed. Sure, Suharto is now dead. But the Neoliberal Democracy has begun to show its teeth. Several peasants were shot dead in a land occupation several months ago in Central Sulawesi. News of torture in Papua still abounds. The workers still face union busting and low wages. 

Thinking back on those days from the 90s, I am convinced that radicalism is the driving force that could topple even an entrenched regime such as the New Order. However, without careful study of theory and diligently training ourselves in their implementation, the victory would not be ours. Even when that victory is bought dearly with our blood and our lives.
Ken Ndaru was a student activist and leader during the 1990s and was imprisoned by the Military Regime. Currently, he is a prominent leader of the Working People’s Association of Indonesia (PRP). PRP is a working class organization which endeavours to establish the first ever Communist Party in Indonesia since the massacre of 1.5 million cadres and the complete decimation of the erstwhile Communist Party of Indonesia in 1965.


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