Students seek staying power as activists

Indonesian students pulled out the theatrical stops yesterday when thousands of them rallied to commemorate four students killed at an antigovernment demonstration one year ago.

They came armed with purple orchids, which they tucked into the shirts of baton-wielding riot police blocking their path. They stomped all over a pair of camouflage pants while mocking the military men who looked on.

But a year after students helped topple former President Suharto, people are wondering how much substance backs up the style. Their movement has fragmented and lost some of its luster. Disagreement over the pace of democratization has weakened their ties with opposition political leaders.

Student leaders say this is all part of their evolution into a permanent political presence. To meet this goal they are scrutinizing student activism in other parts of Asia and are building structures that will enable their movement to renew itself.

Analysts are skeptical and say long-term success depends on the political situation, but the students say they are here for the long haul. "We're planning an infrastructure that will allow students to be a permanent pressure group and balancing power," says Rama Pratama, a student at Jakarta's University of Indonesia. "We have to make students aware this is their responsibility. They are all ready to take the first step; we need to find ways to make sure they continue."

Mr. Pratama and friends have formed a "Pioneer Organization" with current and former student leaders from universities across Jakarta that discusses long-term political activity. It is one of many student groups that cut across campus lines.

Pratama's group wants to foster political awareness through campus discussion groups, he says, though he won't offer details. They also consider political activity after graduation. "Ours is a long-term role," he says. "We have a multidimensional crisis and it won't be over for a long time. After I graduate, I'll work in economics to make change."

Ensuring the student movement has staying power may take some work, as students (along with most of the opposition) are political Rip van Winkles. Suharto silenced campuses in 1978 with a law that crushed university political activity and effectively repressed any kind of opposition.

Two decades later, Asia's economic crisis provided the first chink in his armor. Students began small campus protests about high prices and, amazingly, nothing happened. Financial trouble meant the world was watching Indonesia, and this might have made a draconian response impossible. The small protests became larger, spread nationwide, and the pressure they created forced Suharto to step down.

Pratama and his colleagues are aware that student movements can be ephemeral. Indonesian students who helped unseat former President Sukarno in 1966 are now part of the power elite, and other Asian student movements have been stymied.

China's pro-democracy activism ended abruptly at Tiananmen Square in 1989, when its leaders were taken into custody. Burma's was crushed when the ruling junta simply closed the universities in 1996. (Some remain closed.) South Korea's efficient and active movement is a model that Pratama and friends admire.

But observers say students here are too fragmented to be effective in the long term.

"I've never seen it as a unified movement," says Jakarta-based political analyst James Van Zorge, who adds that students here need a common enemy to function. "Once we have a new government there will be a focal point for students to rally around," he adds.

But in the sultry heat on the Trisakti University campus, student Dorri Herlambang respectfully disagrees. "If we have an intellectual and moral basis, if we avoid a political affiliation, we'll last," he says.

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