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Boycott is our only real choice, say frustrated students

Sydney Morning Herald - April 5, 1997

The Government seems to be widening its crackdown on political dissent but students argue that this tactic will simply cripple the next generation of leaders, writes LOUISE WILLIAMS from Yogyakarta, central Java.

Around a grubby cafeteria table a group of students are debating their first opportunity to vote in the upcoming national elections. The most useful choice they can make, they conclude, is to throw their vote away. Instead, they say, they will hold a mock election on their campus in the central Javanese city of Yogyakarta to criticise the Soeharto Government's electoral process, which ensures victory for the ruling Golkar group and offers little in the way of alternative candidates.

For two days this week hundreds of students breached a government ban on pre-election rallies to express their support for opposition leader, Ms Megawati Sukarnoputri (pictured), who has been banned from contesting the elections. At least five students were beaten unconscious in battles with police, scores arrested and eight charged with inciting the public not to vote.

"I don't want to vote because it is of no use. Most of the students will boycott the elections," said one young man. "It is only a short-term solution, but it is an expression of frustration. The gap between what the Government says about the role of the young generation and the reality is huge."

Political restrictions on students, they said, have crippled the next generation of leaders by limiting any useful public debate or acknowledgment of social problems. At the same time, they complained, school students are recruited to campaign for the ruling Golkar party.

"In Indonesia the reality is corruption and abuse of power in our political system. We don't know this from reading the papers, but we know it from our daily life," the student said.

A recent survey in the prosperous town of Malang in east Java found over 95 per cent of young people did not intend to vote in the May national elections. A similar survey on campus in Yogyakarta found at least 60 per cent of students would boycott the elections. With about 15 million young people qualifying to vote for the first time this year the potential boycott, or "golput" vote, is being seen as the only available measure of frustration within Indonesian society.

The conspiratorial tones around the cafeteria table do not exaggerate the political environment in which the "golput" campaign is being discussed. President Soeharto has already warned that he will crack down on anyone calling for a boycott and one prominent anti-government activist was charged with subversion earlier this month after sending out greeting cards with the message not to vote.

"The problem for young people is they have no opportunity to participate in this system. Our elders want to stay in power but we need some experience in politics for the future," said another student.

They are earnestly debating the ills of modern Indonesia: corruption, abuse of power, violence. The system they are criticising does not allow them to make such statements outside the campus.

The students of this university, in particular, know first hand the limits of tolerance of the Soeharto regime. From this campus came the illegal anti-Government party, the People's Democratic Party (PRD). Its leader, former student Budiman Sujatmiko, is facing sedition charges carrying a maximum penalty of death, and scores of his contemporaries are in jail.

"We have to be more careful now, we have to have a lot of secret student activities," said one of the group. The students' point is clear: unless such deep-seated problems as mob violence, religious and ethnic riots and government corruption can be discussed openly the potentially explosive frustration within Indonesian society will continue to grow. They also say that as future professionals they will be unprepared for globalisation and free trade in the next century without free discussion. The Government, however, is approaching the problems from the opposite direction, widening the crackdown on political dissent.