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( A version of this article was published in the Jakarta Post, June 29.)

On June 19 I spoke an a panel at a public forum in Jakarta with the theme “Is it time for the young leaders to come to power?” About 300 people attended the forum, cramming in to a rather smallish room in the Sahid Jaya Hotel. The forum was organized by the activists-talking mailing list and the Peoples Democratic Extended Family, an association of former members of the Peoples Democratic Party (PRD). The PRD led many protest actions against he Suharto government in the 1990s and is still active today. Former members of the PRD are to be found in almost every other party, inlcuding Megawati’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP). Many are also to be found in the academic world, in the press and in NGOs.

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From L to R: Max Lane, Andi Arief, Boediono from PBR, Budiman Sujatmiko, Agus Jabo, Sylvester from Pelopor

There were two former members of the PRD speaking at the seminar, the current Secretary-General of the PRD, and two representatives of other small parties represented in the parliament, the Bintang Reformasi Party (PBR) and the Pelopor Party. Neither of the last two have any long-term past relationship with the PRD, although a former Chairperson of the PRD is a leading official in the PBR.

All of the speakers tried to explain the reasons for the lack of any regeneration of leadership in the political field. Budiman Sujatmiko, chairperson of the PRD during the Suharto years and a former political prisoner, assessed that there was an ongoing regeneration in the business and academic world, with younger people coming to the fore, but not in the political world. In discussing the different tactics being pursued by the younger generation of political leadership, he identified three trends, each representing an attitude towards political parties. The first was a position of rejecting involvement with political parties, concentrating on community organizing or just professional career paths; the second was the approach of trying to build a new party, such as he himself had once been involved in and the third was to enter into an existing party to try to seize it away from the older generation that currently dominated it. Sujatmiko left the PRD some time ago and has become an activist in the PDIP.

Agus Jabo Priyono, PRD secretary–general and also Chairperson of the Unity Party for National Liberation (PAPERNAS), put the case that the younger generation struggling for change needed a political instrument of their own while also building a unity with other forces. The theme of unity among the younger generation was also a feature of the presentation by Andi Arief, a spokesperson for the PRD while it was banned during 1996-1998, and now active in a board governing a state-owned enterprise. He complained of the “separatism” that kept younger leaders isolated from each other in their own areas of activity. He indicated that he thought the PRD should have tried to merge with the PDIP in the 1990s and also supported the idea of the PRD/Papernas, PBR and Pelopor uniting. The spokesperson for the PBR announced that the PBR and Pelopor would be uniting to contest the next election, bringing together Islam (PBR) and nationalism (Pelopor).

There was about one and a half hours of discussion with several interesting contributions. Bonnie Setiawan, from the Global Justice Institute, argued that change must not necessarily come through political parties but through mass organizations that could build up their own social weight in society first. He asked why there were no young leaders from mass organizations on the panel. Another older gentleman argued that the ideals of the younger people present involved changing the whole system and questioned whether that required an extra parliamentary strategy. A leader of the Muhammidiyah youth called for a broader spectrum of youth to be involved in presenting their views.

What was lacking any exposition of what this aspiring leadership thought were the solutions to the country’s problems, manifested in poverty, unemployment, no access to health and education and a subordinate position vis-à-vis the major Western powers. While the issue of unity was raised, unity around what policies or solutions was never discussed. Sometimes there was an assertion that such unity of ideas already existed and it was just a psychological or organizational problem that the unity did not have an organizational form.

Last year I also attended a public event on the occasion of Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s 81st birthday. At this event he posed a question which he also often raised in private discussions: how could such a remarkable and successful movement as the student movement that forced Suharto to resign not then give rise to any national leaders? In one of his other speeches, he seemed to answer this himself when he argued that the reformasi movement of 1997-1998 was divorced from the previous long struggle for liberation, that had begun with Kartini around 1900, followed on by Tirto Adhsuryo and later Sukarno up until 1965. As a result it lacked a sense of historical direction and therefore lacked any means of encapsulating for the nation any solutions to the problems that the New Order has left Indonesia.

The youth-led democratic movement of the 1990s did re-establish some continuity with the country’s history. It re-legitimized in the eyes of the people street protest and mass action, the method of struggle of the early liberation movement popularized by Sukarno, something that the New Order had violently suppressed and made taboo during the 1965-78 period. There is much more to be re-won from the past, including even re-winning knowledge of the very history of Indonesian political struggle. It is from a love of this history that will come what is essential for any national leadership: a passionate commitment to explaining specific national solutions, such as resuming sovereignty over the country’s national economic assets (oil, gas, minerals), bringing to the people their forgotten national cultural heritage (history and literature) and reviving the political life on a national scale through dynamic mass action organizations.
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Max Lane is Lecturer in Southeast Asian Studies, University of Sydney. He is author of Bangsa Yang Belum Selesai, Indonesia sebelum dan sesudah Soeharto, terbitan Reform Institute, available in Gramedia Bookshops. maxrlane@gmail.com

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