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The efficacy of youth protests in Indonesia

Sarah Wilson | Indo-Pacific Fellow

In early September 2019, Indonesia was gripped by mass youth protests in response to a proposed controversial new legislative agenda that was seen as a significant threat to Indonesia’s rule of law, liberal institutions (including Indonesia’s much-beloved Corruption Eradication Commission) and freedom of expression. This proposed agenda provoked tens of thousands of students to take to the street to protest for seven clear demands, including ending militarisation across the country and resolving existing human rights violations.

Indonesia has seen this dynamic before, with the student rallies in 1998 that contributed to toppling the dictator Suharto and facilitated Indonesia’s transition into a multi-party democracy. The proposed legislative agenda of 2019 is symptomatic of the very same forces of corruption and elitism, that reigned supreme under Suharto, re-emerging. This is creating a hybrid political regime that values its democratic institutions and norms less and less. In the face of this, could Indonesia’s youth protestors again prove key?

Democratic Regression

Islamism and conservatism are gaining power in Indonesia, endangering social, political and religious freedoms. In the past couple of years, the country has witnessed the widespread erosion of human rights and protection of minorities, including women, the LGBT community, and political and religious minorities. Further, as religion spreads throughout social life, politicians are feeling the pressure to conform. Previously secular politicians are using Islam to gain power and influence, while politicians that continue to promote a liberal and secular agenda are accused of blasphemy. This is creating strong social pressures that push politicians to adhere to Islamic laws and principles and through this, erodes the space for genuine religious and political freedoms.

This is partially due to Jokowi’s lack of strong ideological leadership. Jokowi’s near-singular focus on economic development has created the political space for Indonesia’s military and political oligarchy to re-emerge and re-establish their stranglehold on Indonesia’s politics. Jokowi has also actively entertained conservative and controversial military, religious and political figures throughout his presidency, recently on display when he unveiled his cabinet, affording them increased power and control.

Youth and Student Pushback

The youth protests are a key resistance to these forces. Having grown up in post-Reformasi Indonesia, the majority of the youth are increasingly open to more liberal values, including gender equality, democratic political process and freedom of political opinion. They are also ‘disenchanted’ with the ‘dirty’ and corrupt political system. The proposed legislative changes proved to be the tipping point in the growing swell of dissatisfaction with the Indonesian government, creating a ‘youth rebellion’ of strength and fervour not seen since the 1998 student rallies.

Beyond this, the youth protests in Indonesia are part of an emerging regional trend. In the past year, youth throughout the region have proved increasingly willing to protest unwanted changes within their countries, as observed in Hong Kong and the recent climate protests across the region, including in Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines. This provides regional support for the Indonesian youth, emboldening the protestors by creating a network of like-minded youth that they can look to for inspiration and support to keep going. This regional rise of youth protests is a key sign of hope in a region semi-authoritarian governments and democratic drift.

A Sustainable Transition?

It is easy however, to be swept up in the sensationalism of the protests. Focusing on the size, strength and passion of these youth protests can risk creating a false sense of optimism about the change these youth can impact. While undoubtedly the protests are a sign of hope and potential progress in Indonesia, the forces of elitism, corruption and Islamism are increasingly woven into the fabric of Indonesian society. Indeed, there was a similar sense of optimism during the 1998 Suharto riots that has since proved short-lived.

True change in Indonesia will be grounded in tedious, slow work; the demands and goals of this protest must be continued long past when the excitement and passion has died out. While protests are effective for ‘toppling’ a government or forcing a quick decision, the youth’s demands require the very structures of Indonesian society to be re-built and re-written. This will require exhaustless energy, constant engagement with Indonesia’s political process, constant activism and an iron will.

The youth also need to ensure they are working to include the older generations in Indonesia. While this may be complex given ideological gaps between the generations, the problems facing Indonesian society are significantly bigger than the ‘generational divide’ narrative being constructed around the protests – in which it is the ‘youth’ who are the solution. Without genuine attempts to engage across the different levels of Indonesian society, the youth risk ostracizing potentially powerful allies and miss out on a whole wealth of wisdom. The older generations, some of whom were a part of the 1998 Suharto protests, have been where the youth are now. Engaging across the generational divide will only help the youth agenda.

Even with these measures, the protests may not necessarily create the desired change in the desired timeframe but they are still a sign of hope. With the regional support of a like-minded youth network and a continued commitment to their agenda, Indonesia’s ‘youth rebellion’ could achieve real change. They just have to play the long game.

Sarah Wilson is the Indo-Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.


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