Students Press Limits of Defiance in Indonesia

As Suharto starts his seventh term, students tried to broaden their protests - on campus

At 8:30 a.m. only a few hundred students gather to begin the protest. Three hours later it swells to perhaps 10,000 people calling for their president to hear their voice, to step down, even to hang. Then they burn him in effigy, hold their fists in the air, and read a final declaration.

As the crowd breaks up, sparse drops of rain cool the air.

So went yesterday at a university in the Indonesian city of Yogyakarta. In a half-dozen other cities, students and activists protested the swearing-in of President Suharto, who today begins his 33rd year as Indonesia's ruler.

In all but a couple of instances, the students played by the unwritten rules of protest in Indonesia today. They stayed inside their campuses, leaving the police outside to sit around in riot gear.

But all over Indonesia students are debating when to defy this restriction and take to the streets. Some say it should happen next week; others, in a few months. Unless students see change, they say, they will push Indonesia's turbulence to a new level, one that will pose difficult questions. As one former student activist here puts it, "How many will the Army kill?"

Protest's beginnings

As the original group of several hundred students winds through the Yogyakarta campus, they are joined by streams of others who have gathered elsewhere. Quickly their numbers expand.

At the front of the march, three male students walk haltingly, their eyes almost closed. They wear loincloths and have smeared their bodies with a chalky substance. One holds a red-and-white Indonesian flag in his hands. The students are trying to look sickly.

Other students explain that these young men symbolize Indonesia's poor, who have been most harshly affected by the country's economic crisis. In recent months, the prices of basic foodstuffs have doubled or tripled as a result of the country's weakened currency.

The protesters are careful to keep this issue front and center. Although their opposition to Suharto makes for good video clips, the students emphasize the solidarity they are attempting to build with peasant farmers and low-wage urban workers.

As organizers steer them along roads that will keep them on campus, the streams of protesters walk and chant together as the heat of the sun gains in intensity. The mood of the crowd sharpens as well, and shouts of "Down with Suharto" begin to displace calls for lower prices.

After an hour or so of walking, the chants grow more pointed. Some equate the president with a dog, others demand that he be hanged. The students are sensitive to their international audience. A poster reads in English, "Suharto: Dictator of the Year."

One student, seeing foreign reporters, begins shouting in English, "We want a new leader! We want democracy in this country!"

Student viewpoint

Nurhadi is a graduate student in anthropology at Gadjah Mada University, where yesterday's protest took place. At about 11 a.m. he stood under the glaring sun and calculated the size of the crowd around him at 15,000, though other estimates were lower.

Holding a megaphone, Mr. Nurhadi calls the protest "the peak" of antigovernment actions that began several weeks ago. Taking to the streets is "too dangerous," he says, but adds that student organizers are divided over whether to risk confrontation with police and soldiers. At the moment, Nurhadi says 40 percent want to protest off campus, but the rest oppose it.

Nurhadi may be an anthropologist, but he dresses like a business student, wearing a polo shirt and dress pants instead of jeans. The strip of green fabric across his brow is lettered with the Indonesian word for "reformation," a buzzword that hints at big change without calling for revolution.

The organizer acknowledges that the president may well remain in office for years, even as speakers and students shout "Reject Suharto" all around him.

Politics in Indonesia is tightly controlled and dissent is suppressed, because Suharto's New Order government has insisted that people lay aside differences and work together to develop the country.

Most Indonesians went along with this formula while the economy grew, but Indonesia's collapsing currency and its ripple effects have prompted unprecedented calls for Suharto to leave office. Even so, Nurhadi says, "it's very difficult for us to build solidarity."

Demonstration peaks

At about 12:30 p.m., after university lecturers and community leaders have addressed the crowd, student leaders dominate the microphones. Suharto's effigy is set afire and the mood of the crowd darkens. Several activists are in prison for "defaming the president," a crime under Indonesian law.

A group of three organizers leads the crowd in singing the university anthem and protest songs, sometimes raising their fists in the global gesture of defiance against authority. One wears a T-shirt with a likeness of the Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara.

Clouds have finally rolled in to block the sun as smoke from the still-burning fires swirls around the crowd. The students read out their demands, which call for an economy that is kinder to the poor and a political system with more checks on authority. Suharto's resignation is last on their list of six.

As the crowd disperses, two students stand around looking for friends.

They are asked if they are not afraid to call for the president's resignation, to be part of a crowd burning him in effigy, to protest in a country where such demonstrations are technically illegal. "Oh no, not at all," one of the young women says. "We believe it is no crime." But she will not give her name.

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