Feb 26, 2024 Last Updated 12:52 AM, Feb 22, 2024

Book review: Civil society elites

Published: Aug 14, 2023

Tim Mann

A notable feature of the presidency of Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo has been the recruitment of prominent civil society activists into the state bureaucracy. The most well-known is former Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation (YLBHI) senior lawyer and Indonesia Corruption Watch (ICW) director Teten Masduki, who now serves as Minister of Cooperatives and Small and Medium Enterprises and was previously head of the Office of Presidential Staff (KSP). Several other civil society figures have also joined the KSP, including former Indonesian Forum for the Environment (WALHI) Secretary General Abetnego Tarigan, former Consortium for Agrarian Reform (KPA) activist Usep Setiawan, and scholar-activist Noer Fauzi Rachman. These are far from the only activists that have crossed over into government roles.

The activists who have been able to make the transition into state agencies are generally those who have already developed elite status within civil society. But how are these civil society elites formed? What are the implications of foreign donor funding for the formation of civil society elites? How and why do these civil society elites interact with or choose to join other elite groups in the state, party politics, and the business sectors? This important new volume, Civil Society Elites: Field Studies from Cambodia and Indonesia, co-edited by Astrid Norén-Nilsson, Amalinda Savirani and Anders Uhlin, probes these questions.

This is a worthy project given that there is such an extensive body of academic literature examining political and economic elites, but comparatively far less attention has been paid to interrogating power relationships within civil society. The editors define ‘civil society elites’ as people who ‘hold dominant positions within civil society and often [exercise] significant influence beyond civil society’. They may have substantial influence within a specific issue area, such as anti-corruption or agrarian reform, as in the examples above, or may have influence more broadly in the sector. In analysing how these civil society elites have been able to occupy influential positions, the authors draw on a highly useful framework that reflects on elites’ possession or control of various forms of capital. This includes political capital, economic capital, social capital (referring to networks within and beyond civil society), knowledge capital, and, in some cases, symbolic capital (such as the religious capital possessed by a religious leader).

The authors justify their selection of Cambodia and Indonesia for comparative analysis because of the contrasting trajectories of civil society development in the two countries. Cambodia is described as experiencing a significant contraction in political space for civil society since 2015, while Indonesia ‘has moved in the other direction’ with considerable expansion in the space for civil society after the collapse of the New Order in 1998. Some readers may bristle slightly with this characterisation. Although the authors certainly refer to recent declines in democratic quality in Indonesia, and the outsized influence of oligarchs over the policymaking process, it does feel as though an opportunity was missed to engage more deeply with issues surrounding shrinking civic space in Indonesia and the implications this has for civil society elites.

The book comprises three parts. Part I consists of three chapters, outlining the theoretical framework and providing a broad overview of the status of civil society in the two countries. The Indonesian chapter (Chapter 4), by Willy Purna Samadhi and Norin Abhiseka, provides a helpful update on the status of civil society in the country, describing some of the anxieties about competition and fragmentation in civil society that are a preoccupation of activists there.

Part II then continues to examine how elites are formed in civil society. Chapter 5 analyses the processes of elite formation in youth organisations in Cambodia and Indonesia – Perspectives Cambodia and Politikoffee in Cambodia, and Ininnawa and Ketjibergerak in Indonesia. While social capital and knowledge capital is described as important for elite formation in both countries, proximity to the state and political elites is found to be essential for elite formation in the more repressive Cambodian context. Chapter 6 provides a fascinating account of two prominent environmental networks in Cambodia, the Monks’ Community Forest (MCF) and the Prey Lang Community Network (PLCN) and how their leaders accumulated and mobilised capital to influence forestry conservation efforts. Meanwhile, Chapter 7 looks at how foreign aid has contributed to the emergence and reproduction of civil society elites in the anti-corruption and human rights sectors in Indonesia, focusing on Indonesia Corruption Watch (ICW) and the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation (YLBHI).

The final substantive section of the book, Part III, focuses on elite interaction and integration. It also consists of three chapters. Chapter 8 examines interactions between civil society elites and other elites in civil society, the state and political parties at the local level, focusing on Bengkel APPeK in Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara, and Ininnawa in Makassar, South Sulawesi. Chapter 9 focuses on the agricultural sector in Cambodia, offering an interesting examination of the differing experiences of two civil society elites, one who transitioned into oppositional politics and another who moved into the business sector. 

Chapter 10, by Haryanto, Ignasius Jacques Juru and Astrid Norén-Nilsson, is an especially important chapter, and focuses on ‘boundary crossers’ – those civil society elites in Cambodia and Indonesia who gain sufficient capital to have influence in other fields, such as the state, party politics or the economy. The Indonesian section of this analysis focuses mainly on Usep Setiawan and Teten Masduki, examining their motivations for moving into the state, how they were able to accumulate sufficient capital to do so, and the political implications of their transition. The authors describe how Usep and his fellow activists ultimately failed to put their stamp on agrarian reform, with the government continuing to favour distribution of land certificates over more substantive reform. Similarly, they note how the presence of Teten, one of Indonesia’s most prominent anti-corruption activists, in the higher levels of the government was not able to prevent the passage of reforms to the Law on the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) that have been described as ‘disastrous’ for Indonesia’s anti-corruption efforts. The chapter also captures how this boundary crossing has led to tension within civil society, as other members of civil society have grown frustrated with their former colleagues who have struggled to enact change from within.

Indonesia’s regression

An area where this analysis could have been taken further is in interrogating what boundary crossers do to and for broader civil society. The transition of civil society activists into the state bureaucracy under Jokowi has coincided with a dramatic reduction in civic space in Indonesia. In 2017, the Law on Mass Organisations was revised to allow the government to disband civil society organisations without having to go through the courts. Under Jokowi, defamation and hate speech criminal provisions have been weaponised to target activists and government opponents. Activists now complain about being shut out of the lawmaking process, referring to an emerging trend of regressive laws being passed hastily with minimal to no public participation. Local civil society organisations and international donors face increased government oversight and restrictions on the types of program activities they can implement. Digital attacks on activists and government critics are also on the rise.

It is a shame that the book did not engage more closely with these aspects of democratic regression occurring in Indonesia. Can embeddedness in the state help to reduce risks or provide protection for these boundary crossers’ peers in civil society? Given the developments described above, it does not appear that civil society elites’ interaction with political elites and integration into the state has had any impact on the broader operating environment for civil society in Indonesia. Nevertheless, I would have been interested in a deeper exploration of what civil society elites do to and for civil society in the context of shrinking civic space. This could have also offered another area for comparative analysis with the more authoritarian Cambodia.

Another area where the authors could have extended their analysis relates to the issue of gender. The editors rightly argue for a greater consideration of age and gender in the analysis of civil society elites. However, most of the substantive chapters do not address gender in any depth, aside from Chapter 7, which briefly describes how Asfinawati, head of YLBHI from 2017-2022, and her leadership team encouraged greater attention to women’s rights and gender equality within this historically masculine organisation, in part with support from foreign donors. These are both areas for further research.

This is an original and engaging book. The editors have compiled a strong selection of thoughtful and detail-rich chapters. The book will be of interest to scholars of civil society and social movements in Southeast Asia, and those interested in the role of civil society in democratisation. Hopefully it prompts greater attention, among both academics and practitioners, to processes of elitisation in civil society and their consequences for democratic change, both positive and negative.

Astrid Norén-Nilsson, Amalinda Savirani and Anders Uhlin (eds), Civil Society Elites: Field Studies from Cambodia and Indonesia, NIAS Press, Copenhagen, 2023 (available for Open Access Download).

Tim Mann is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies (NIAS), University of Copenhagen.

Inside Indonesia 152: Apr-Jun 2023

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