Sun, 11 May 2003

Students succeed, reform fails: Hermawan

Novan Iman Santosa, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Five years ago, thousands of students gathered in the capital to protest the government's decision to raise fuel and electricity prices. This eventually led to the fatal shooting of four Trisakti University students on May 12, 1998, while residents of Jakarta and a number of other cities were gripped in fear as the riots spread throughout the country.

Political analyst Hermawan Sulistyo, has drawn up a study on the student movements of the late 1990s, which he supported. He also served on the expert team assisting a fact-finding team on the May riots, under the National Commission for Human Rights. He spoke to The Jakarta Post on student movements, past and present.

Question: After five years, how do you view the 1998 student movement that triggered the reform era?

Answer: If we really want to flashback through all the student movements, we must focus on the forgotten heroes, because activists in Jakarta are in a better condition as we can survive. But student activists in other cities find it difficult to survive with the same idealism that brought them into the movement.

It's quite ironic that we were defeated -- not only politically, but we're also morally marginalized. The ideals we fought for back then became rubbish ... people now say reform is bad and that it has made people suffer.

Indonesians' memory is generally very short. We completely forgot that the 1998 crisis was enormous, especially the economic crisis. The reform did not cause the crisis. In fact, the crisis started the reform.

Our role, as the avant-garde of a moral movement, was to topple an authoritarian regime, which we did. Our ideal back then was that after the regime was toppled, we would return to our daily lives. We would let the politicians and bureaucrats do their jobs and start all over again under a more democratic regime.

IT's not that we did not have a blueprint. We did have one for several issues in written form, concerning regional autonomy and the presidential bill. The problem was: Who should execute those reform programs? We put our trust in the political elite. It was their role. But it (the plan) failed.

Students, as a movement, did not fail, as their part was to topple the regime. Since we are disappointed, we'll make a comeback, somehow, to fill even the smallest role in this new context.

Now that the context is different, the student movement needs a different approach. How do you see the ongoing movement compared to 1998?

I believe the students still have to express a critical stance. The problem is that there are so many political outlets, while the political elite is fragmented.

Many groups of students now are trapped in a situation where they attack a certain political outlet, while directly or indirectly, give the advantage to another.

For example, when students attacked (former president) Gus Dur (Abdurrahman Wahid), they had moral reasons on the one hand. On the other, they provided a chance to political opportunists and the military to join in the game. It is just the same now when the students attack Megawati's policies.

It was easy to define the movement in 1998, but that is not the case now. Why?

We, the intellectuals, decided to move together with the students to avoid saying that we were the ones who provided the impetus for the movement. We never expected that there would be problems of greed or of individual and group interests.

We expected people like Harmoko (then speaker of the People's Consultative Assembly) and the like to be swept away automatically to allow new players in, to bring a fresh breath of air. It did not work that way. We really must have cut down one generation.

Indeed, many people then questioned our readiness to replace the entire regime...

Several figures from the 1966 student movement were then involved in the New Order regime. How did you keep the 1998 movement from making a similar mistake?

That particular historical experience made us refrain from joining the new system. We earned the students' trust that way. That was why they could accept me wherever I went.

I always said the fight was not for myself or for only a few of us, but for all of us. I told them that they could spit in my face if I became part of the new administration.

That was how we built their trust, because we had learned from the 1966 movement.

The intellectuals have established their own lives once the movement was over. What about the students' after the struggle?

That's exactly the case. Imagine -- the students who were struggling in 1998 were in the second or fourth semester at university and did not have enough technical skills to make a living.

What could they do after everything was over? They could finish their studies, but many of them dropped out. They had to do everything to support their lives by becoming, for example, an ojek (motorcycle taxi) driver, for those who tried to maintain their idealism. These people deserve to be treated as heroes, not those corrupt officials.

What has DPR done for the Trisakti case? It declared that it was not a human rights violation. So what is the meaning of the students' sacrifice?

Is there any regret about the reform's outcome?

I would say anger instead of regret. I'm angry when I see those officials who would not give us proper attention. The officials would not be in their current positions without the student movement back then.

Many officials, who came out of nowhere, now enjoy their positions, but treat us like outcasts. They refuse to see me, let alone the students. What angers me more is that there is this perception that the students are frustrated because they did not get a chunk of the wealth.

The point is, we decided to be outside the system to keep our idealism.

Will this disappointment explode sometime?

Definitely. We'll wait. Once we have passed the limits of our patience, you can expect us to plant bombs in their houses! Especially the students who opened the way for officials to attain their current positions. This has made us upset, and it is widely felt.

Wouldn't it be better to improve things from within the system?

We thought everyone had good intentions ... My friends then urged me to simply join the system when there's a second chance.

What about the future of the student movement?

In the near future, I don't think there will be another ideal and solid student movement, as there are so many political outlets now.

My anger is actually the representation of the greater public anger. What may appear will not be like the peaceful Portuguese Flower Revolution of 1974. Or what happened in the Philippines when there was a drastic political change, but with minimum casualties.

Are there any weaknesses in the current student movement?

Every kind of movement has its own physical limitation, just like a marathon runner. A runner won't have the endurance to run five marathons with only a very short period to rest in between.

There comes a point where we can no longer live on the streets anymore. Living on the streets means we don't bathe or have proper meals. How long can (students) survive in the current political structure and cultural constructs, in which people consider that political parties are the only way to make a living?

An authoritarian and solid regime like Soeharto's no longer exists. The common denominator has vanished.

For us, there's also a psychological problem: We find it useless to stage a rally when there's no risk.

There is no more romanticism in a movement. There's no more adrenalin being pumped through our veins.