- The Internet in Indonesia's New Democracy
One day in February 1998, during the reformasi movement which demanded President Soeharto to step down, there was a sudden message e-mailed to me. The message was short, "Hanya ada satu kata: Lawan!" ("There is only one word: Oppose!"). The sender was Wiji Thukul, an activist, idealistic poet, and head of the PRD (Democratic People's Party) cultural department. That short poetic line became very popular in May 1998. It had strengthened the spirit of students and activists to oppose the authoritarian Soeharto government.
This little event which took place eight years ago has returned to my memory, triggered by David T. Hill and Khrisna Sen's new book about the role of the Internet in the political dynamics of Indonesia. It seems that this book goes into greater depth than their earlier book published six years ago in 2000 entitled Media, Culture and Politics in Indonesia. It had a brief mention of the Internet which, in the latest book, becomes the focus of their study. This is not to say that a focused discussion is too micro or boring but on the contrary is indeed interesting.
This book has eight chapters, which can be divided into three sections, namely: (a) chapters on the role of the Internet in Indonesia's democratization process (Chapters 1 to 5); (b) chapters on the role of the Internet in national freedom (in the case of East Timor); and (c) the role of the Internet in communal conflict (the case of Maluku). The final chapter is basically both authors' re-emphasis on the capability of the Internet in delivering social, economic, political, and cultural advantages to its users. One emphasis is that in Indonesia's contemporary democratic literature, it is not just a matter of balance of forces between state and society or the issue of representation in government and the division of party politics that is important to the discourse but also the role of the Internet in the republic's democratic transition.
For readers who are not familiar with the studies on media and politics, the first part of this book will make them aware of the differences between other media (print media, radio and television) which can be controlled by the government and the Internet which cannot be easily controlled. The role duplication of each Internet user, as simultaneous user and producer of messages, in effect renders all media control agencies to be non-existent (p. 13) as they are incapable of censoring the messages circulating in the virtual world. [End Page 352]
In the context of the reformasi era, the inability of control agencies to censor Internet made them answerable for the spread of democratizing movements to challenge the authoritarian Soeharto regime. Internet (in the form of e-mail news groups, websites, and e-mail) already became the potent weapons because of real-time characteristics resulting in opposition forces (activists and students) being able to exchange information and hasten consolidation. It is not surprising if the conclusion was reached — whether by anti-Soeharto forces or by pro–New Order supporters — that the Internet played a central role in the downfall of the Soeharto dictatorship (p. 53).
After Soeharto's fall and Indonesia entered the reformasi era, the political role of the Internet changed: it is no longer the weapon of activists to smash the network of authoritarian forces but serves as a catalyst for the consolidation of the democratic process in the republic. This function becomes increasingly significant in view of the fact that a large number of ordinary Indonesians can access the Internet thus causing it to expand exponentially. Internet kiosks are set up and from year to year have increased in numbers (p. 57), while the users themselves no longer reflect the monopoly of the highly educated (p. 71).
In such a situation, the Internet slowly but surely enters a widened public space. It enters the new democratic realm in Indonesia. All the political activities, like campaigning and general elections, cannot be...