'If we are afraid, the nation will be destroyed'

The students holding Jakarta's parliament building were defiant to the moment the army acted, reports Stephen Vines
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ON THE night before Indonesian President Suharto finally folded his cards and stepped down from office a tiny group of students were standing guard in a committee room on the third floor of the parliamentary building they had occupied. There were rumours of an impending attack and the students were a little nervous.

How were they intending to repel such an attack, I asked. They pointed to some sticks they were carrying, the sort of sticks which would have quickly snapped in a serious brawl. I said nothing about the sticks but mentioned that there were only a few people in the building, hardly enough to repel a serious assault.

So what, they replied, if we have to leave, we'll leave and come back in the morning with even more people. The attack never materialised and as dawn broke there was another rumour about Suharto's resignation doing the rounds.

It is hard to believe he was toppled from office by a bunch of students armed with little more than optimism. Days before, protesters at Jakarta's Trisakti University had learned the price they would have to pay for challenging Indonesia's ageing dictator when six students were shot dead following a peaceful demonstration.

One of the army's generals had warned the Muslim opposition leader Amien Rais that there would be no compunction about carrying out an Indonesian version of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

It seemed as though the nation which donated the word "amok" to the English language was about to prove that it was still in the market for serious violence. Even after Suharto had resigned as president, Muslim associations supporting the new President, BJ Habibie, looked as though they were going to create trouble when they burst into the parliamentary compound early yesterday, challenging the occupying students. However the students refused to be provoked and the challenge fizzled out. The protests may fizzle out now that Suharto has stepped down.

Martin Maunurung, an economics student at the University of Indonesia, was one of those occupying the parliament. He admitted he was afraid the army might clear them out but said: "This is not the time to be afraid. If we are afraid, the nation will be destroyed."

Defiance was the order of the day. Arnold Serworwora, a student leader at the Christian University of Indonesia, said: "If the students at Trisakti can be sacrificed in the cause of [reform], why can't we?"

It sounded like heroic posturing but the students were earnest in their protests and amazingly self-assured, so much so that they did not think it remarkable that they had managed to topple the leader of the world's fourth largest nation. "Students really understand the Indonesian situation," says Devi Ariani, a foreign languages student at Borobudur University.

There is more than a hint of elitism in the student's attitudes, which is reflected in their refusal to join any protests other than those they organised themselves. "We are students, our minds are stronger than other people," said Hendrawan, an economics student at Trisakti, "we are not easily cheated by the leaders."

The determination to keep their protest "pure" and free of the looting and violence which has characterised other demonstrations meant that the students carefully monitored who joined the parliamentary occupation. Anyone wishing to enter the complex had to walk through a corridor of students checking identity cards. Non-students were turned away.

Often they marched into the compound in big groups wearing the brightly coloured jackets of their respective universities , creating the appearance of a patchwork of clashing colours around the ugly buildings they were occupying. Indonesian students have a strong loyalty to their universities and take pride in flaunting their membership.

In contrast to the other students, who appeared to have little consciousness of the history of student uprisings in Indonesian history, Kiki Saleh, an economics student from Darma Persada University pointed out that "in 1966 Suharto became president because of student demonstrations almost like this. We thought about that and hoped to make the same thing happen again."