Does Indonesia’s student voice carry the same weight today as it did 21 years ago?

Protestors in Bandung, West Java. Photo: Lab Nusantara

Recent controversial bills have awakened a student movement in Indonesia that resembles the iconic 1998 protests. Is the student voice of today as strong a political force as in 1998?


Thousands of students across the country have taken to the streets in recent weeks to urge Indonesian president, Joko Widodo, to halt several problematic bills designed to sharply reduce personal freedom and to weaken the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK).

The revised criminal code contains several contentious articles. It includes a ban on extramarital sex, which would essentially outlaw homosexuality, introduced jail time for women who get abortions, and makes insulting the president a crime.

A separate bill seeks to curtail the authority of the KPK by placing limits on its investigative powers and ability to confiscate evidence. Under the bill, the powers would be transferred to a president- appointed supervisory council.  

The demonstrators have enjoyed some success. The government has postponed the confirmation of the new criminal code (KUHP) into law, and Jokowi has said that he would consider issuing the Perppu (emergency decree) to revoke the new KPK bill.

Unlike 1998, there is no single, clearly defined enemy

The recent protests have signified the largest student movement since the fall of Soeharto’s regime in 1998. A central theme of the 1998 protests was the restriction of civil freedoms. The new bills echo these restrictions as a deliberate attempt to curtain democratic oversight and restrict sexual liberties and freedom of speech. However, one must be cautious about drawing too many parallels between the two movements.

There is a major difference between the student movement of 1998 and the protests of today. The 1998 student movement focused on one single issue: the removal of Soeharto and his regime. The establishment of a single, shared enemy helped the movement build a united platform and garner support from other elements in Indonesian society that opposed the New Order ideology. 

A rally in Bandung, West Java on September 24, 2019.
Photo: Lab Nusantara

By contrast, today’s demands are multidimensional, covering a wide range of issues, blunting the movement and leaving it vulnerable to fragmentation.

The absence of a single common enemy has left room groups with alternative aims to hijack the movement. Elements with no intention of peacefully demonstrating legislation have attached themselves to the movement, including groups who wish to prevent Jokowi’s inauguration on October 20 and wreak havoc in the upper house.

This was visible on September 30, when police arrested 649 people during a demonstration at DPR-MPR building in central Jakarta. Brig. Gen. Dedi Prasetyo, the National Police spokesman, confirmed that not all of the demonstrators were students.

“The protest was not purely staged by students. They attacked security officers and burned public facilities down,”, Dedi explained.

Social media has been both a catalyst and a vulnerability

The students have harnessed social media to raise public awareness of the issues and launch a call to action. However, the online medium has also fallen victim to the same pitfalls as the public demonstrations.

The hashtag #TurunkanJokowi (Bring Down Jokowi) emerged online, prompting concern that the student movement harboured a desire to topple Widodo’s government. Big data consulting company Drone Emprit later confirmed that the hashtag did not emanate from accounts affiliated with the student movement, but the damage was already done.

Students must find common ground and support outside the movement to sustain it

The students are fighting for the future of Indonesia’s democracy and the preservation of civil freedoms. But, as in 1998, they cannot do it alone. The 1998 movement was adept at drawing on the wider population for support.

Disenfranchised by the price hikes caused by the 1997-1998 financial crisis, ordinary Indonesians found plenty of common ground with the student protests. The student movement was able to leverage this frustration to build a sustainable popular movement. To build a sustained, powerful movement, today’s students will need to draw public support and find common ground with the Indonesian public.  

The challenge lies in opening the movement up enough to benefit from public support, while simultaneously being cautious of groups who try to infiltrate their cause for other interests. These outside groups will only disperse the focus and undermine the credibility of the movement.

If the government fails to uphold its democratic commitments, the birth of a larger movement from the student protests, similar to that seen in 1998, is not out of the equation. If Jokowi doesn’t issue an emergency decree to revoke the KPK bill and the popular anti-corruption body is left impotent, the student movement will find many sympathetic netizens ready to join the cause.

Although the students’ voice of today is not as loud as their forebearers in 1998, one thing is certain: the power of the people is still very much alive. The young generation is still an active political force in safeguarding the country’s democracy.