Jul 19, 2024 Last Updated 5:22 AM, Jul 16, 2024

Book review: Activists in transition

Published: Feb 01, 2022

Jonathan Peter Tehusijarana

Over twenty years after the fall of Suharto and his New Order regime, questions around the progress and quality of Indonesian democracy still linger, to the extent that some experts describe Indonesia as ‘retreating’ from democracy. Though it was published two years ago, Activists in Transition's focus on progressive social movements and their ability to adapt to Indonesia’s post-authoritarian political landscape remains pertinent today. While operating in even more restricted democratic spaces due to the government’s COVID-19 response, social activists have innovated, finding creative ways to maintain their activism in the face of a global pandemic. The resilience of Indonesia’s activists in the face of adversity is one of the main themes explored in this book.

In their introduction to the volume, editors Dibley and Ford provide the broad theoretical framework of the book. This is largely based on Rossi and Della Porta’s work which analyses social movements and their role in facilitating democratization and outlines four distinct phases in the process. The first, resistance, marks the period where progressive, pro-democracy movements operate clandestinely under the rule of an authoritarian regime. During the second phase of liberalisation, said regime is pressured, either through internal or external means, to begin loosening its control. The third phase, transition, is marked by active cooperation amongst pro-democracy movements and actors to overthrow the authoritarian regime. After a successful transition, there are two paths for pro-democracy actors. The coalition can either disband, or enter a period of expansion, where they can help contribute to a deepening of democracy that goes beyond the implementation of a free and fair electoral process.

Dibley and Ford argue that Rossi and Della Porta’s phases largely fit with the experiences of Indonesian social movements. Many progressive groups clandestinely resisted the New Order during its height in the 1970s and 1980s, before using the spaces afforded by the keterbukaan period of liberalisation in the 1990s to forward their agendas. The period of transition that occurred following the fall of Suharto in 1998 and continued until the two-term presidency of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (2004-2014), was also marked by the active participation of many progressive pro-democracy groups in local and national politics.

This is where the similarities end, however. Dibley and Ford’s main critique of Rossi and Della Porta’s thesis is that it does not recognise the potential for a reversion to authoritarian rule, instead treating the notion of democratic expansion as a kind of ‘inevitability.’ Dibley and Ford argue that the period of expansion was never consolidated in Indonesia. Instead, the experience of most social movements in post-authoritarian Indonesia, in particular during the Yudhoyono administration, has been one of stagnation or in the eyes of some even regression.

Activists in Transition offers a thorough assessment of the historical experiences of different social movements, and also provides fresh insights into the challenges faced by these movements today. It paints a vivid picture of the strategies implemented by social activists, highlighting the changes in what Tilly calls the ‘repertoires of contentions’ of different movements.

Each chapter largely follows a similar format which begins by tracing chronologically the stories of different social movements including, among others, those related to disability, women’s, and liberal Islamic activism. The authors focus particularly on the actions each group took to resist the New Order regime examining the strategies these groups adopted, such as the formation of clandestine activist networks, or even through participation in the myriad of mass organisations the regime sponsored. With the fall of the New Order, each chapter shifts to analyse how progressive social movements have adapted to the opportunities and challenges afforded to them by democratisation. This section provides an excellent summary of the strategies adopted by different social movements, such as the cultivation of international activist networks, the signing of ‘political contracts’, as well as the use of social media to bring more attention to their causes. Each chapter then concludes with an assessment of the relative success of each movement as they have tried to weather the changing tides of post-authoritarian Indonesia, and how they have faced the increasing trend of democratic stagnation.

Activism after authoritarianism

The different kinds of social movements that the book attempts to cover across each of the phases of democratisation makes it ambitious in scope. It is a testament to both its editors and authors that it largely manages to fulfil these ambitions, while simultaneously being an engaging and exciting read. While each chapter follows a different movement, many of which are comprised of competing groups, the authors expertly discuss the subtle nuances of each movement in such a way that readers can easily follow, despite the infamous alphabet soup of organizations that dot the Indonesian socio-political landscape. The insights provided in each chapter are exceptional, as authors use correspondence and interviews with activists to showcase first-hand the opportunities and challenges faced by social movements today.

While the progressive groups discussed in Activists in Transition are diverse, ranging from the student movement to disability rights groups, commonalities emerge in groups’ responses to Indonesia’s democratic transition. One shared narrative is a perceived loss of legitimacy.

Sastramidjaja’s chapter on the student movement, highlights what has long been perceived as an important social movement within Indonesian politics. Their prominent role as an opposition group to the New Order cemented their reputation as the ‘moral’ force of Indonesian politics. Indeed, it was widespread student protests and the subsequent heavy-handed government response in 1998 that sparked the series of riots and civil unrest that eventually brought down the Suharto regime. However, as Sastramidjaja shows, post-authoritarian Indonesia has not been an entirely friendly place for the heroic student movement. While students continued to protest government corruption and the persistence of New Order figures and structures, the general public grew increasingly less tolerant of related disruptions to daily life, eventually side-lining student protestors such that they became ‘orphans of democracy,’ detached from the very system they helped bring about.

The patron-client relationships that characterised the New Order have survived the regime’s downfall, acting as a barrier to fuller democratisation. The influence of these relationships is examined in Anugerah’s analysis of the peasant-dominated land rights movement as well as Wilson’s discussion of Jakarta’s urban poor. Anugerah argues that the land rights movement remains relatively fractured and unable to mount a unified resistance partly because of the enduring patron-client relationships between peasant groups and different power brokers. Wilson’s chapter highlights similar issues. Though reformasi saw the emergence of several progressive activist groups, the pressures of ‘everyday’ and ‘defensive’ politics encouraged poor Jakartans to adopt a more pragmatic mindset. Thus, most tended to follow ‘reactionary’ mass organisations who themselves often operate with the sanction of a powerful elite patron.

This is not to say that the post-authoritarian experience of social movements in Indonesia has been entirely negative. Democratisation has indeed opened spaces for activism for many of these groups, providing them with many opportunities, including access to international networks. The Indonesian LGBT rights movement, discussed by Wijaya and Davies, is perhaps the most significant of these. Reformasi provided the space for LGBT rights groups to open dialogue and collaborate with both each other and their international counterparts. The formulation of the Yogyakarta Principles in 2006 was a milestone for LGBT activism in Indonesia. Despite the lack of Indonesian LGBT activist groups’ involvement in its formulation, the principles were developed in Indonesia and is symbolic of the strides that many progressive groups have been able to achieve in the now open international activist space.

Post-New Order Indonesia’s trend towards decentralisation also enhanced the power of local grassroots movements. Caraway and Ford demonstrate that labour unions have been particularly successful in shifting their weight around at the provincial and regency level to achieve demands for higher local minimum wages, to such an extent that the central government has sought to increase its own control in how minimum wages are calculated.

At the same time, the opening of these spaces for activism has also allowed other, more conservative movements to contest the legitimacy of progressive activists. The most organised of these is conservative Islam, which features as the main challenger to many of the progressive movements discussed in the book. Emerging as part of a ‘backlash’ against the gains achieved by progressives in different fields, conservative Islamic mass organisations and political parties, such as the Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam, FPI), have provided rallying points for those opposed to the progressive politics of these social movements.

In some cases, these groups have achieved greater success than progressives. In her chapter, Rinaldo explains that among the different strands present within women’s activism, conservatism has emerged as one of the strongest. These groups, largely influenced by conservative Islam, have been among the more influential supporters of reactionary legislation. The most prominent example of this was the 2008 law against ‘pornography’ that also included draconian measures such as the prohibition ‘public performances that incite sexual desire.’ Those opposed to the law saw it as rendering women’s bodies immoral, while conservative women’s groups aided its ultimate passage. While progressive Islamic activists have sometimes worked with progressive women’s groups to help combat rising conservatism, their influence has been limited, perhaps due to the decreasing influence of liberal Islam as discussed in the chapter by Fealy.

Perhaps the most important challenge to progressive activism identified in the book is not how much things have changed, but instead how much they have stayed the same. While electoral politics has provided opportunities for some, the elite that dominates the political scene is still largely an entrenched holdover from the New Order with few changes. Aspinall brings this point forward in his concluding chapter, where he identifies the persistence of patron-client relationships in the Indonesian political landscape as a major hinderance for the development of progressive social activism. The dominance of clientelistic relations makes it easier for social movements to be co-opted into such relationships. Although this possibly enhances their stature and the resources available to them, it beholds them to their political patrons who are often not interested in progressive politics per se, instead keener on expanding their support base with reactionary groups opposed to progressive activism.

The conclusion of the book seems to point towards a grim future for progressive social movements in Indonesia. Indeed, when considering the common challenges that these movements continue to face as discussed throughout the book, it is easy to feel an atmosphere of doom and gloom. However, Activists in Transition ultimately also reminds readers of the achievements of progressive activism throughout the post-reformasi years.

Each chapter combines an analysis of the challenges and far-ranging achievements made by these groups within a fairly short period of time. That progressive activists continue to operate at all while still maintaining levels of support from a portion of their constituents in such adverse circumstances is remarkable in and of itself. It is important to recognise, as Dibley and Ford quote Beetham, that ‘democratisation is always and everywhere an unfinished process.’ If anything, the post-authoritarian experience of Indonesian progressive activists is a lesson in how resilient such movements can be as they face hurdles in this unfinished process, despite the difficulties in truly expanding their influence.

The diverse ways in which activists respond to the many challenges they face highlights their creativity and resilience in an increasingly reactionary environment. While the results of these efforts are mixed, they showcase a perseverance amongst activists that hopefully bodes well for the future of progressive social movements in Indonesia. Ultimately, democracy in Indonesia has been deepened through the tireless work of progressive activists, even if, as Wilson states, many of their achievements have occurred in ways that ‘do not capture headlines.’ It is perhaps, as Aspinall concludes, a question of time and the passage of generations before the efforts of progressive activists will more explicitly bear fruit. Until that time comes, Dibley and Ford’s call to recognise how progressive activists have worked to shape a ‘more democratic, inclusive and fair’ Indonesian society is one that should be heeded.

Thushara Dibley and Michele Ford (eds). Activists in Transition: Progressive Politics in Democratic Indonesia. Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press, 2019.

Jonathan Peter Tehusijarana (jpeter@student.unimelb.edu.au) is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Melbourne.

Inside Indonesia 146: Oct-Dec 2021

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