- Activist Archives: Youth Culture and the Political Past in Indonesia by Doreen Lee
Almost two decades after the fall of the Suharto regime in May 1998, we still know very little about the student movement that was the driving force behind Indonesia’s turn to democracy. In the post-Suharto era, the student movement lost the limelight to other actors better equipped for the game of politics, and thus moved ever deeper into the realm of collective memory as a feverish episode in history, aligned with the longer history of pemuda (youth) activism in Indonesia. Yet, as Doreen Lee persuasively argues in Activist Archives, it is from the edges of history that “pemuda fever” continues to “infuse the present with urgency and legitimacy” (p. 3), animating a “youthful culture of democracy” that firmly established radical styles and ideas within the political and cultural landscape of Jakarta.
Remedying the dearth of literature on post-New Order student activism, Activist Archives offers a sophisticated ethnography of “Generation 98”, ingeniously structured around key tropes of the “material and ideational spaces” that student activists inhabit. With a keen eye for detail and paradox, Lee delves deep into the micropolitics of these spaces, starting with the “Archive”. She shows how activists’ feverish “drive to document, consign, and assemble signs of pemuda nationalism” (p. 11) served as an “authenticating practice” to compete with state discourse, which was, however, complicated by the concurrent need for secrecy, epitomized by the tacit rule: “Burn after reading”. By highlighting the social life behind the documentation, Lee uncovers significant findings that many other researchers might have overlooked. A charming example is a scene reconstructed from scribbles found on the back of official statements used during the 1997 subversion trials; it shows how two activists, waiting for their turn to testify, exchanged insolent jokes, conveying “the undercurrent of youthful nonchalance and puerile lightheartedness even during the gravity of the subversion trial” (p. 55).
Youthfulness also pervades the chapters on “Street” and “Style”, which show how the performativity of protest and the carefully cultivated pemuda look helped to make subversive symbols of the left trendy and less threatening, thus creating “a new model of citizenship for Indonesian youth by making political participation desirable and accessible” (p. 91). In an engaging section on the production and circulation of protest T-shirts, Lee further illustrates [End Page 220] how this visual economy served purposes of collective identity as well as propaganda. But while she properly contextualizes the iconography in political history, crucial differentiations in style between different activist communities, which symbolize the deep fractures in the post-Suharto student movement, are neglected. Not all student activists identified with the appearances of the Molotov cocktail-throwing urban warrior pictured in two illustrations (pp. 92–93). Though this image dominated protest scenes and media reports in the early years of reform, it was acceptable to certain groups only, and rejected by others opposed to their mode of protest. Leaving the image unproblematized risks making a caricature of negotiated self-presentation, as happened with the clichéd image of the revolutionary pemuda of 1945 that many Indonesia scholars uncritically accepted.
The chapter on “Violence” presents a more careful analysis, introducing the notion of “student counterviolence” as a dynamic practice that solidifies and simultaneously disrupts students’ moral superiority over the state. This is illustrated by various fascinating vignettes. But most gripping is the story of former student activist Iblis, who was abducted and tortured by the military in the 1990s. With great sensitivity, Lee recounts his sense of devastating defeat at realizing his nothingness as a sacrificial scapegoat subjected to his torturers’ whims. Eluding “the general consensus among victims that they would work to transform the story of human rights abuse into a political resource for the student movement” (p. 130), his response speaks of deep trauma that cannot be reduced to the political. It is a powerful reminder of the significance of irreducible intimate experience, which is, however, not followed through. The rest of the chapter discusses how students “lost their...