Life

Working for change from
within


M. Taufiqurrahman, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

An expression encapsulates the transformation of the former leader of a radical student movement, Budiman Sudjatmiko: The only security human beings have is their ability to change.

Once a leader who took the helm of a mass movement that was aimed at bringing down the government, Budiman now works from within the system, believing that he can make more of a difference by becoming part of the establishment.

He was at one time a student who dropped out of college to organize laborers and peasants in impoverished parts of Java to rebel against their employers or landlords. Budiman is now a member of the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI-P), the second-largest party in the House of Representatives.

An organization he chairs, Volunteers to Defend Democracy (Repdem), was declared a youth wing organization of PDI-P in the party's congress in Bali, in December last year.

He now also holds the position of executive director of the newly established think thank, ResPublica Institute, whose mission is to deliver analytical and qualitative assessments on strategic policy making in technology policy, international relations and political economy.

With such a plethora of technical terms, one can imagine how much Budiman has changed.

Such a change was probably unthinkable in the latter half of 1996 when he was declared public enemy number one by the authoritarian regime of president Soeharto.

Then chief of the Jakarta Military Command Sutiyoso, on orders from his superior, issued shoot-on-sight instructions to members of the Indonesian Military (TNI) and the National Police with respect to Budiman and his collaborators.

This was on account of their alleged involvement in the July 27 riot, the first major conflagration during the Soeharto era, which also heralded the downfall of the regime, two years later.

Budiman was put on a wanted-persons list for his activities, which were deemed by the militaristic regime as undermining the state ideology and inciting students and workers to demonstrate against the government.

The 27 July riot, which Budiman said was an aborted and hijacked mass event, represented the pinnacle of his longtime engagement with the country's small and clandestine, yet robust, radical movement, which consolidated itself at the height of Soeharto's autocratic rule.

In his early twenties, Budiman and a small number of activists engaged in mobilizing laborers and peasants in rural Java to take a stand against perceived injustices.

The motivation to rally the poor emanated from his conviction that a student movement would be fruitless without having any linkage with the power of the masses, poor peasants and workers in particular.

Budiman and his fellow activists embarked on a dangerous mission, as the Soeharto regime was at the height of its powers, resorting to violent means to crush any opposition without hesitation.

Many would point to the mysterious death of woman labor activist Marsinah as an indication of how ruthless the regime was when it came to dealing with popular movements.

Budiman was apprehended several times by the military but somehow escaped prosecution.

His years of grassroots activism became the first consideration by members of the newly established Democratic People's Party (PRD) when they elected him as leader in June 1996.

The PRD was a small political party conceived by a network of young activists to sow the seeds of reform within a country under repression.

In reality, what the party demanded was nothing radical when viewed from the vantage point of a democratic system, but the items were considered taboo by the Soeharto regime.

PRD demanded a multiparty political system, a referendum for then-occupied East Timor, a dialog to find a peaceful solution for armed insurgency in Aceh and the phasing out of the TNI dual function -- all of which was later realized in the reform era.

To press its demands, PRD aligned itself with the PDI-P, then led by Megawati Soekarnoputri, daughter of the country's charismatic first president, Sukarno.

When Megawati was toppled from the leadership by the Soeharto regime -- a move that made her the country's first credible opposition leader -- the PRD stood in her defense and staged a mass rally to stand against the ouster.

Budiman delivered firebrand speeches at a mass protest organized at the PDI-P office in Jl. Diponegoro, Central Jakarta.

When an orchestrated attack against the protest took place, followed with widespread rioting in the capital, PRD, with its progressive political platform, was the perfect scapegoat for the incident.

Budiman and the PRD top brass were declared the offspring of a dormant communist movement that intended to destabilize the country -- one of the most damaging smears perpetrated by the regime -- and a nationwide manhunt was mounted against them.

""As ordinary human beings, we were totally scared but were ready to face the direst consequence -- death,"" Budiman told The Jakarta Post in a recent interview at a cafe near his ResPublica office in Kemang, South Jakarta.

Later, Budiman eluded death when he was arrested by plain-clothed members of the military at his hideout in Bekasi. After months of interrogation, Budiman was taken to court and given a 13-year jail sentence for subversion in April 1997.

This proved to be a blessing in disguise for the native of Cilacap, Central Java.

""During the time I was on the run and serving my time in prison, the party leadership passed to student activist Andi Arif. In the lead-up to Soeharto's resignation in May 1998, Andi became the number-one target of a kidnapping plot from elements in the military. It could have been me, if I had not been in prison,"" he said.

Some prodemocracy activists who were kidnapped in the plot have still not returned home.

Budiman was released from Cipinang penitentiary -- where he befriended Timor L'este independence fighter, now president, Xanana Gusmao -- after the administration of president Abdurrahman ""Gus Dur"" Wahid granted him amnesty in December 1999.

With some of his political demands becoming a reality, Budiman left the PRD in 2001, planning to pursue higher education abroad.

He applied for a scholarship for an undergraduate degree in the UK, but his guarantors gave the go-ahead for him to pursue a master's degree.

With little fanfare, Budiman left the country in 2002 and enrolled at the Leeds-based School of Oriental and African Studies (to study political economy) and Cambridge University (where he studied international relations). He returned to the country in early 2004.

After years of living on a roller coaster, Budiman decided the time was high for him to focus on his personal life. He tied the knot with a girlfriend he'd been seeing since April 2004.

""The union materialized only after a roadmap for my future had become more certain,"" Budiman said, while taking a last sip of cappuccino.

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