Indonesia's fractured student movement losing power to effect change


Police fire tear gas at students demonstrating against proposals to extend the presidential term limit, in Jakarta on April 11. - AFP

JAKARTA, May 22 (Jakarta Post/ANN): Indonesia’s student movement is struggling to retain its role as an agent of change, as previously united fronts fragment and alliances with the governing elite are nurtured, not avoided.

Over the past five years, a number of student demonstrations have been staged in protest of state policies deemed detrimental to the welfare of the people and to democracy. However, these protests have either been ignored by policymakers or have been met with state violence.

During the 2019 #ReformasiDikorupsi (reform corrupted) protests in opposition to several controversial pieces of legislation, for instance, university students took to the streets in cities across the country alongside workers’ and farmers’ unions.

The students opposed the electoral candidacy of former graft busters, as well as plans to revise the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) Law and the Mining Law. They also called for ongoing human rights abuse cases to be resolved and for state security forces to withdraw from Papua.

But the biggest student protest since 1998, in which five people were killed, failed to overturn even one government policy.

The KPK was defanged despite massive waves of protest, largely because the political elite banded together to support the controversial changes to the institution, said Wijayanto, the director of the Institute for Research, Education and Information on Economics and Social Affairs (LP3ES).

"The elite in general support the new law. The oligarchy is still very much united on the revision," he said recently.

Student protests of yore were rather more successful. In 1998, university students were at the forefront of overthrowing then-president Soeharto, who ruled the country with an iron first for 32 years.

Wijayanto said the 1998 protests were successful because the elite of the time were divided, with some believing that the strongman had stayed in power for too long.

The majority of the general population also sided with the students, as the country faced severe economic headwinds from the Asian financial crisis.

“Change can be enacted if the movement is strong enough and the timing is right – that is, usually when the elite class experiences a rupture,” he told The Jakarta Post.

In 1966, anticommunist university students played a major role in the political transition from the Sukarno era to the New Order. The fracture among top political actors was clear and culminated in Sukarno’s transfer of power to Soeharto.

At the time, the term “student movement” began to gain recognition, in step with the number of universities that gradually opened after independence, according to historian Edward Aspinall in Student Activism in Asia.

The term was not used during the colonial era, although many prominent political actors were students at Dutch schools or higher education institutions. The nationalist movement of the time was mostly driven by pemuda (youth) of various backgrounds, not necessarily university students.

Few mass movements since the 2019 demonstrations have been successful, in large part due to the fragmentation of student alliances. Many once united groups have opted to stage separate rallies, even if they are fighting for the same thing.

The split in the National Association of University Student Executive Bodies (BEM-SI) in April 2021, for instance, resulted in the creation of the BEM-SI Kerakyatan (Populist) faction led by Abdul Kholiq and the BEM-SI Rakyat Bangkit (People Rising) faction led by Kaharuddin.

Both factions took the same stance on the KPK Law and on calls to postpone the 2024 elections.

Kaharuddin said Rakyat Bangkit had staged a number of protests against the proposed postponement of the general elections, including on March 28 near the Presidential Palace in Central Jakarta.

The group laid out six demands, including that the plan to develop the new capital city be revised and that the presidency remain limited to two five-year terms.

Members held a follow-up rally on April 11 on other issues as well.

BEM-SI Kerakyatan is part of the Indonesian University Students Alliance (AMI), which was formed ahead of the 2019 protests and is made up of approximately 35 university student bodies, including from universities that are not members of BEM-SI.

“On April 21, we did not take part in the student march because our demands had been met," Kaharuddin said, referring to President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s instruction on April 7 to stop calling for presidential term extensions.

A similar schism occurred in the Archipelagic Association of University Student Executive Bodies (BEM-Nusantara), resulting in a faction chaired by Dimas Prayogo and another by Eko Pratama.

Unlike BEM-SI, however, they were on opposite sides of a number of issues. The alliance led by Dimas supported the Constitutional Court’s decision to reject a judicial review of a controversial civic knowledge test for KPK employees last year, according to local media reports.

Meanwhile, Eko’s camp gained notoriety for founding the Indonesian Student Party (PMI) earlier this year, after taking over the Indonesian Christian Party of 1945 (Parkindo 1945), which itself was established in 2000 in an effort to revive an independence-era political vehicle.

Tempo reported that Eko and fellow student activists from the faction had met with Wiranto, the head of the Presidential Advisory Council (Wantimpres), prior to the April 11 rally.

Kaharuddin criticized the party for contradicting the spirit of the student movement, which he said was supposed to side with the people.

He noted that many student bodies had rejected the PMI for that reason.

“We don’t want anyone to misuse the ‘student’ label, as if they are representing us,” Kaharuddin said.

Separately, Delpedro Marhaen, a spokesman for the Student Political Bloc (BPP), expressed his concern that the PMI could encourage students to side with the governing party elite.

"When students get involved in practical politics, they lose their position as guardians [of democracy]," said Delpedro, a member of a student executive body from a university near Jakarta that was formerly part of BEM-SI.

BPP was born out of a desire to include students from outside the university system. - The Jakarta Post/ANN

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