In case it wasn’t clear: Indonesia is not okay.

University students took to the streets of Denpasar on Tuesday, 24 September, 2019. Photo by Sheany

Once upon a time, there was a little Indonesian girl who knew so little about the world. At a young age, she learned that people viewed protests and demonstrations in a negative light, as if they were the harbinger of chaos. Thankfully that little girl grew up and saw the world, and soon discovered that taking to the streets to speak up about issues that matter is a form of freedom of expression, and therefore part of a basic human right.

In time, she also learned how it was the students’ movement and protests back in 1998 that brought an end to the authoritarian regime in her country — something her secondary education somehow missed altogether — and that the birth of democracy she’s known and enjoyed for most of her life is the result of the courage of so many students then, some of whom lost their lives in the struggle, who took to the streets to voice their anger and disappointment across the country.

That little girl is me. While there’s frankly a lot more I can tell you from that brief intro, it would only be appropriate to do that another day. For now, I have other things to attend to.

As you’re probably well-aware, especially if you’re Indonesian, there is no shortage of troubling news from Indonesia in recent months. It’s like, where to even begin?

Shall we begin with the forest fires destroying parts of Sumatra and Kalimantan and causing some of the worst haze the world has ever seen where the skies appear as if it’s from Mars? Do we now discuss the revised law governing the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), which activists and academics argue is designed to weaken the independent anti-graft agency? Or the draft revisions to the country’s Criminal Code (RKUHP), which at this point has not yet been passed but it’s only right that we fear it might be seeing as how problematic it is, as one of the articles would actually fine people loitering on the streets? Perhaps we should actually start with the human rights crisis in Papua, where this week’s unrest have reportedly killed more than two dozen people?

You see, I can still go on. These are just several of so many things going wrong right now, illustrating the extent of the problems that Indonesia is facing at the moment, and how we are at that point where the dangers seem to be coming from our own government and elected leaders, which makes me, and a lot of other people, feel that this country is taking a huge step back from democracy.

The banner says: “Be careful the New Order may rise again.” Photo by Sheany

This is why you’ve been seeing news of university students taking to the streets to voice their anger and disappointment, demanding our government and lawmakers to do better. It is why the hashtags #MahasiswaBergerak and #HidupMahasiswa are trending on Twitter, why some wonderful professors are explicitly allowing their students to skip class in order to join the movement, and why we should be doing everything we can, in our individual capacities, to learn, inform and show our support.

A part of me wondered if I were too naive in April, when I made a choice to vote for one of the candidates with the mindset that he’s the lesser of two evils. I have good enough reasons to think this now, as each passing day seems to tell me that this couldn’t be the stance of someone who values human rights and democracy as I once believed. Just in random conversations that I’ve had with friends in recent weeks, I’m reassured that I am not alone: many are wondering, too, if they had made the right choice at the last presidential election.

The ever-optimist in me wants to believe that this man has time to prove himself to his voters and the rest of the country, and a little part of me still do. That is not much of a consolation, of course, which is why I am quickly reminded that the April election and the vote I had given is exactly the sort of bargain I have to be willing to make as a citizen in a democratic country. It is this system, one that Indonesians demanded and fought for in 1998, which allow my fellow citizens and I to speak the hell up when something is wrong. And you best believe we will be exercising our hard-won right.

I’ve been thinking a while about why I feel the need to write this piece. It’s been brewing in the back of my mind for some time now, and perhaps finally ignited by the protests we’ve seen this past week, the urgency of the expected passing of the revised criminal code, and the rising death toll in the Papua unrest.

Well, let me tell you that I grew up in an apathetic environment where politics is a topic I didn’t dare bring to the dinner table or everyday conversations. It’s a little confusing now as I wonder what the heck we even talked about, for I can’t imagine life without talking about so many different causes that are affecting people’s lives, especially marginalized communities.

I broke free of that environment, as you can probably tell, but I do believe that sadly, so many others still live within their bubbles of ignorance and inaction. Perhaps it is by the grace of your privileges, or the burden of your responsibilities, that you remain indifferent to what is going on; and while I cannot assume to know your situations, I shall use this little space I have at the moment to implore you to do a little more.

Hundreds of students participated in the rally in Denpasar on Tuesday, 24 September 2019. Photo by Sheany

On the momentum that is taking place right now across Indonesia, it is high time for us to unite in solidarity and support of one another. We don’t have anyone else but each other, as so many of our elected leaders seem to have chosen to simply betray us.

From the safety of your homes, you can still learn about what is going on, because remember: knowledge is power. The more informed you are, the more you can share what you learn with those around you, and the more united we will be as a nation. Don’t forget that words get twisted easily and disinformation is a real threat. But sometimes we lack the prowess to pick out the truth right away, so why not use the time you have to level out the playing field? Power also makes people greedy, and greed is perhaps what drives these so-called leaders into depriving our country of a sustainable future, and so we must fight it by being in the know.

Indonesia, where so many of us use Twitter and Instagram, could certainly utilize the platforms to engage one another respectfully and effectively, even to simply show our solidarity with those who are making time to be out there. It’s also useful to update (and be informed of) the situation on the ground, as to make sure we all have eyes on what is going on and not being simply fed by “official narratives.”

In addition, you can also donate to a crowdfund supporting the students’ movement (some students were injured during today’s rally that they will be needing medical attention, too, but for the time being this crowdfund has surpassed its target and was closed by the initiator).

There may be some of you out there who is of the opinion that moving your butts to join the rallies will not be making any difference; but let’s take a good minute to remember Hong Kong. Protests in the country was first sparked as a movement against a controversial extradition bill, which later grew into larger protests about the future of Hong Kong. It should be noted here that Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam finally announced the bill’s withdrawal earlier this month, but protesters have decided that they will continue with their protests until all of their five key demands are met.

For quite some time now, I fear that we have taken democracy in Indonesia for granted. I know too many people who simply “couldn’t care less,” and it breaks my heart. I’m not an expert either, and I’m still learning how I could be a better citizen, journalist and activist, and I hope you’ll embark on a similar learning path for your own respective roles in society. The reforms we have achieved 20 years ago are being corrupted, are we going to let it go without a fight?

Democracy cannot survive without the willing participation of its citizens, and that should be a continuous act that goes beyond the voting booth. Maybe you have a lot going on in your life at the moment, and I understand that we all have our own shit to face at the end of the day — but this is also our collective future that we are fighting for.

Photo by Sheany

Don’t think for a second that one person cannot make a difference, guys! In fact, there has never been a better time to believe otherwise, for we have the amazing example of Greta Thunberg. The 16-year-old climate activist from Sweden has inspired millions of people across the world to take part in the Global Climate Strike, and she (literally) began the movement on her own, being the only person who decided to take time off school in order to demand stronger climate action.

As one university student told me at the rally in Denpasar, Bali earlier today: “I am here because something in my heart is moved by all that’s happening right now …This country is not doing fine, and that’s why we must move and urge the government to do better.”

With what we have been witnessing in the protest movements across the country in recent days, we know for certain that we won’t be alone. We have courageous students, activists, members of the public, who have been on the forefront of the movement, speaking aloud on matters that would determine the direction of our country and that we cannot ignore or let slide. We have supporters of the movement who are keeping a watchful eye, providing for the needs of the cause, and sometimes just posting their support in a tweet and echoing the urgency of what’s happening to the world.

In my humble opinion, this is just the beginning. The fight is not over, and we still have plenty of reasons to worry. If we are to truly address these problems, to call for the action we think is necessary for our future, and to see Indonesia as a country we believe it could be, then this will only be the beginning of a long, but important journey.

To all the university students, activists, and members of the public who have done your part — thank you.

I believe we all have our own parts to play; so no matter how small, make sure yours count.

Photo via The Jakarta Post

Indonesian journalist, currently based in Bali.

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