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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story


The military is making friendly overtures to vocal Suharto critics. Why?

By Jose Manuel Tesoro / Jakarta

THESE DAYS IN INDONESIA, on-campus and off-campus are separate realities. Universities bristle with protest. Among students, activism is encouraged, often admired. Immediacy is the rule; demonstrations follow discussions. Banners and posters demand political succession, economic reform, change. But off-campus, Indonesia's political scene remains as plodding and airless as ever. The parliament is in recess, the cabinet just out from closed-door negotiations with the International Monetary Fund. Publicly, ministers and generals urge that change, if any, be managed and managed slowly. The contrast between the students and the national leaders, the youth and the political system, the storm and the calm could not be starker.

In the past two weeks, there have been signs that this attitude might be changing (as has so much else in the country), at least with Indonesia's second-most important institution after President Suharto. That is the military, which Indonesians call ABRI. In late March, ABRI commander Gen. Wiranto agreed to a dialogue with the youths, arranged by a group of former student activists. At the same time, senior generals have been paying compliments and visits to Muslim leader and intellectual Amien Rais, a prominent government critic. After years of intolerance toward sources of opposition, why is the military now engaging different -- and critical -- groups in Indonesian society?

For one thing, talk might be the only way ABRI can quell the unrest on the campuses. The momentum of rallies and demonstrations has not abated, despite mid-term examinations at all state-run universities. Though the students have by and large kept their agitations peaceful, the frequency of protests has increased confrontation with officialdom. On April 2 and 3, Jogjakarta authorities went after students who tried to march into the central Java city. The encounters ended with scores of people injured. The clashes follow similar student-police exchanges in other Java and Sumatra cities. The education minister has told university rectors they can crack down on political activity on campus and even call in the military. But ABRI may be reluctant. Parliament's deputy speaker, retired general Syarwan Hamid, says such a move "would be pouring oil on fire."

At any rate, student leaders have rejected the Wiranto proposal, which would have paired 34 students from 17 universities with himself and various cabinet ministers. These were to include the trade and industry head, Mohamad "Bob" Hasan (perhaps Suharto's closest crony), and Social Affairs Minister Siti Hardiyanti Rukmana, the president's eldest daughter. Mistrust of the military may be one element in the students' decision; annoyance at the fact that the dialogue was arranged by a third party without consulting students may be another. "The dialogue is one-sided," the head of the student senate at Jogjakarta's Gadjah Mada University told The Jakarta Post.

The youths' rejection has evoked divided reactions. Some say the students are better off maintaining the high moral ground -- and the pressure. Hariman Siregar, who once chaired the University of Indonesia's student senate and led similar anti-government demonstrations in 1974, believes the students should not allow themselves to be co-opted by those in power. "They are now playing the student card," he says. But others think the youth have squandered a historic opportunity. "The students forget one thing," notes political scientist Amir Santoso. In the 1960s, student demonstrations helped sap Sukarno of his power. Back then, he says, "they were supported by ABRI and the Muslim community." The rebuff, he argues, means students have lost a potentially valuable chance to forge an alliance.

Under Suharto's watchful eye, however, a dialogue between military and campus leaders would always be more ceremonial than substantive. Students, grown cynical and disillusioned with formal politics and its representatives, now want to speak directly to Suharto. The president has agreed, but only after the students meet the ministers and the military.

Between soldiers and students yawns a gap of generations and experience. The same does not exist between senior generals and prominent Islamic figures. The past decade has seen a resurgence of Islam in Indonesia. The reasons for this development are diverse, but much of it can be attributed to the maturing of a generation educated after Independence, when Islam had been freed from colonial disapproval. The degree of comfort between top ABRI officers and Islam helps explain the fond words recently shared between military brass and Amien Rais, who heads the 28-million strong Muhammadiyah organization focusing on social and educational activity. On Mar. 25, the army chief of staff, Gen. Subagyo Hadisiswoyo, said of Rais: "Well-meaning advice intended to improve the current situation will always receive a good response from society and from ABRI." Members of Subagyo's family are Muhammadiyah members.

Two days after Subagyo's comments, the chief of ABRI's social and political affairs division, Lt.-Gen. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, invited Rais and his aides to talk. After the conference, one aide gushed: "It was a meeting of brains and hearts." Rais himself added: "I see a strong will on the part of ABRI to listen to the people and heed their aspirations." This is the same Rais who a month earlier had said he would give Suharto six months to solve the economic crisis. This is also the same Rais whose associate, businessman Arifin Panigoro, is under investigation for attending a meeting at which Rais allegedly called for a popular revolt against Suharto. Still, on Mar. 28, Subagyo said that "ABRI had never considered Amien Rais an enemy."

ABRI's accommodation with students and with Rais contrasts with the heavy-handedness the authorities usually show toward activists. For weeks, human-rights advocates have been complaining that students and activists are missing, including a senior official of an associaton formed in support of Rais and opposition politician Megawati Sukarnoputri. An ABRI spokesman has denied the military is responsible for the disappearances.

That the students and Rais cannot be treated the same way is significant. The political equation in Indonesia has changed so much that ABRI must now include both parties in its calculations. Amorphous and many-headed, the student "movement" cannot be crushed by storming a few campuses. Having allowed the protests to escalate, ABRI has to handle the students more gingerly. As for Rais, he represents a wide swathe of Indonesian society -- Muslim faithful -- that ABRI may want to court or, at least, avoid offending. For the military, a realization may be taking hold that it can no longer resort to coercion as easily as it once did.

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home



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Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

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Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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