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OP-ED: Indonesian Youth in the Post-1998 Era of Democratisation

SINGAPORE, Apr 9 2012 (IPS) - May 1998 was a terrible and magical moment in the history of Indonesia’s youth movement.

It was a time of deep social trauma and the start of the transformation of young Indonesians into agents of democratic change after more than three decades of living under repressive authoritarian rule.

The political moment began on 12 May when Indonesian security forces opened fire on unarmed student protesters from Trisakti University in Jakarta who demanded the resignation of President Suharto. The “Trisakti tragedy”, as it was commonly called, left four students dead (Elang Mulia Lesmana, Heri Hertanto, Hafidin Royan and Hendriawan Sie) and dozens more injured, giving birth to the first of a long line of “reformation heroes”.

Set against the backdrop of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, which hit Indonesia the hardest out of the affected countries, the Trisakti riots quickly spread to socioeconomically distressed cities throughout the country and forced the collapse of Suharto’s New Order regime on May 21, 1998.

That explosion of Indonesia’s student-led reform movement onto the national political stage raised expectations among many young people that they would become active participants in the rebuilding of a more democratic Indonesia.

Indeed, Indonesian youth collectively constitute a potentially formidable force for social change with almost 40 million men and women between the ages of 15 and 24 years, comprising 18 percent of the national population.

Yet, more than a decade after the first flush of democratisation, the palpable mood of social solidarity that once united Indonesia’s youth movement in the face of a common enemy – the New Order regime and its supporters – has given way to fragmentation and diversification in the demands and expectations of young Indonesians.

The extent to which today’s youth feel able to participate in the public realm is often linked to individual experiences of inclusion and exclusion within Indonesia’s unfolding democratic framework.

There are still plenty of angry youths who see themselves as the moral pulse of the nation and as a bulwark against the New Order’s legacy of producing corrupt and self-serving local political leaders (e.g., the civil society organisation SPEAK, Suara Pemuda Anti- Korupsi/Youth Voice of Anti-Corruption, and GEPAK, Gerakan Pemuda Anti-Korupsi/Youth Against Corruption).

In every city there are also angry unemployed youths who join gangs of thugs because they feel marginalised from civil society and denied a sense of belonging and purpose within Indonesia’s democratic project. For many young Indonesians, religious activism offers a panacea for society’s moral maladies and the abrogation of responsibility for injustices in an increasingly open and capitalistic national landscape.

However, the same youth who rail against the inequitable distribution of wealth and uneven life opportunities under the current neoliberal system are frequently themselves enthusiastic consumers of free market policies rather than active participants in community cooperation programmes.

The manner in which Indonesian youth articulate their needs, aspirations and activism in the public sphere has shifted somewhat since the initiation of democratisation.

In the early years after regime change, student-led mass demonstrations about specific policy issues were commonplace, as were urban-based riots and sporadic acts of political violence by disaffected youth. While young Indonesians still take to the streets in public protest, they have made growing use of the Internet over recent years.

Like young people everywhere, Indonesian youth have been the fastest to adapt to new forms of social media. Numerically they are among the most energetic users of Facebook, twitter, foursquare and blogs in the world.

Youth organisations like the Islamic activist JPRMI (Jaringan Pemuda & Remaja Masjid Indonesia/Youth & Adolescent Network of Indonesian Mosques) and the Indonesian Youth Parliament (Parlemen Pemuda Indonesia) are continually expanding their nationwide networks by coordinating online activities with offline programs.

With mobile phones now available to even the poorest street vendor, youth activism is reaching broader public audiences and at a faster rate than ever before.

The deepening of procedural democracy in Indonesia, combined with increasing computer literacy and access to social media technologies, has created a situation in which Indonesian youth now have unprecedented opportunities to pursue their civil and political rights to freedom of expression.

This does not mean that the voices of young people are always heard by Indonesia’s decision-makers. Reform-minded youth organisations and individuals continue to encounter challenges from sections of the state bureaucracy and from family oligarchies that tend to operate above civil society and without regard for its wellbeing or environmental sustainability.

The legacy of the 1998 generation of student activists, then, is the enduring hope that today’s youth will use their increased agency to think and act creatively in the ongoing struggle for a more democratic and equal Indonesia.

*Dr. Michelle Miller is a research fellow in the Asian Urbanisms Cluster at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore. Her research focuses on the interplay between decentralisation, conflict resolution and urban change in Asia, especially in Indonesia.

© 2012 Global Experts, a project of the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations.

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