Sunday, October 08, 2006

Demonstration or Social Crowd?

By Perry PADA

Was it the “May 1998” demonstrations that made the most powerful Indonesian President Soeharto step down from office? There are a range of political views surrounding that question. To some, the answer is best sought in the fact that the decision to step down at that crucial moment was solely Soeharto’s. The accumulation of power accrued over the 32 years he reigned in Indonesia (1966-1998) provided him and his cronies with sufficient raw power to easily crush the dissidents. The immediate and clear example was the termination of almost half million the so called member of Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) in 1965 – 1966, plus a substantial number of one of our racial minorities. Finally, the famous demonstration in May 1998 yielded a lifetime social security guarantee for Soeharto and the crony families as a result of the “demonstration”

Eight years have now passed since Soeharto’s fall (1998-2006), during which time Indonesia has experienced four Presidents. They are consecutively (1) President Habibie 1998 -1999; ( 2) President Abdurrahman Wahid 1999–2001; (3) President Megawati Soekarno Putri 2001 -2004, (4) President Yudhoyono 2004 to the present. All of these administrations have been colored by demonstrations demanding the upholding of law and justice. To date, however, the reality is that that Soeharto has remained a powerful and untouchable man in Indonesian politics. Amidst the crowded demonstrations and the vacuous political statements, he is fully regarded as a “Guru” by many politicians. However, it is not my intention to discuss the above since we can easily find many clichéd views on the issue.

The interesting issue is that most Indonesians since then have come to accept a new praxis that demonstrations are a powerful tool for bringing about change. It is no wonder, since May 1998 until very recently in 2006, demonstrations followed by others of any size and forms have flourished in the country raising a wide variety of themes. Since earlier this year demonstrations have become the most popular means able to bring about elite changes in the broadest sense. But are those demonstrations able to contribute to a social change, in term of economic, social and political life?

In this short article it is impossible to fully elaborate these social movements but one can question if these demonstrations on many occasions are merely a social fallacy and have become a political commodity. Massive demonstrations have been conducted by the people in Indonesia particularly in many big cities since 1998 and certainly they can be identified as one of the elements of the development of democracy. But in the final analysis they are meaningless if they do not bring about significant social change. To this, I am tempted to raise the fundamental question as to why with so many demonstrations have we seen so little real improvement in peoples lives? Unfortunately, they remain laborers marginalized in society. If we look at the rural areas the situation is even worse, with famine, illiteracy and suffering from all other manifestations of poverty.

On the basis of limited and ongoing research, I must admit that it is difficult to fully understand the distinction between demonstrations which produce a solid public opinion resulting in change and demonstrations which merely whip up a crowd and result in no meaningful change at all. For this purpose, a crowd can be defined as “a sporadic mass action without any collective political consciousness while its connective action occurs is limited to the result of its temporarily needs and interests”. The crowd is just contributing to the stagnancy of the evolving of democracy itself. Some precise criteria are needed to judge whether growing demonstrations in all of their forms in Indonesia are gradually and steadily mounting symmetrically to the growing of peoples political consciousness of a democratic life.

Demonstrations, however, are not always identical with social movements that lead to an authentic democracy. Demonstration, I assume, can be an initial step or a prelude to a social movement. Theoretically, any kind of social movement is supposed to ultimately result in the creation of four consecutive levels of an autonomous movement according to some western social scientists, they are; (1) systematic social pressure followed by (2) formation of the public sphere and further to (3) formation of strong public opinion. And the last but not least, the existence of (4) a strong and decisive social class as a peoples guarantor. The development of each level is necessary supported by “good” and “autonomous” NGOs, Media and “People Parliament Representatives”. Of course a series of social, political and economic measures are needed to empower any movement.

It is unfortunate that in reality freedom of expression transformed into demonstrations do not significantly exhibit the essence of democracy that enables people to express their own genuine will. The quantity of demonstrations in Indonesia is numerically significant but the quality remains poor. Demonstrations have turned into street shows with ‘smart’ politicians utilizing them as a forum to increase their public performance. Therefore, rather than the development of a policy for improvement of social and political conditions, demonstrations are empowering the elite to increase and consolidate their privilege. To this point, it is very important to carefully examine whether peoples resistance and support or both of demonstrations, can be defined as a reaction against injustice or are they being manipulated? It is a fact that demonstrations can be easily engineered by some vested groups for their own ends.

In evaluating the effectiveness of demonstrations it is most important to examine the extent to which these events have provided the people with instruments of socio-economic and political empowerment. The easiest way to measure it, is to explore to what extent demonstrations are able to be the influential tool for the changing of reality or to the making of public policy seen by and felt by the people. The end product of public policy after all is that it has to clearly lean to peoples needs and interests.

What concerns us is the possibility that all recent demonstrations have merely been a euphoric psychological release after the experience of three decades of pressure. The worst case outcome would be that demonstrations have, unconsciously or not, been commoditized by a certain elite group. Should this be the case it would be a setback for the democratic process in Indonesia, as the demonstration would merely be a gathering of the crowd. The crowd will never contribute to the development of democracy.

Theoretically, within a society that is neither economically or educationally advantaged the people have not developed the foresight to be able to see beyond their immediate limited material interest. They unconsciously tend to give up their individual wills to powerful economic interests. These circumstances are exploited by fortune hunters to gain their goals through massive demonstration.

It is a fact that desperate people are very easy to be prodded in any direction and therefore, groups can easily be formed within days, and finally a resultant demonstration. Actually, there are current rumors that nowadays, some people have established a “company” specializing in providing masses of people ready to demonstrate on order on any issue as long as they are paid an hourly fee. The companies recruit and train unemployed people in street demonstration techniques. Demonstrations have become a profitable business in Indonesia. For the needy, being a demonstration participant is a shortcut to fulfill their basic needs that cannot be provided by the government. Political issues can be easily promoted, and have been, in this way.
With a population of 222 million, 70 percent under educated with little economic opportunity, Indonesia has faced great difficulty in bringing about significant social change.

It was formally noted by the Indonesian Statistical Bureau in March 2006, that 18 percent or almost 40 million Indonesians, live under the poverty line. Additionally, it is deteriorating with the increase of bourgeois-ism and the lack of “good people” within government circles. Under such circumstances, I have to be very frank that it is difficult to have a good quality of life, at least in the short run. The “fortunate people” who hold a position in the elevated social class are tending to be self centered pursuing their own material greed. Therefore, it is extremely difficult to clearly identify or to control those who usurp their elite position as part of the capitalist bourgeoisie who have come to enjoy profit from the misery of others.

To conclude, yes, the development of pluralism, formal/informal local democratic institutions and the growing of NGOs through demonstrations may be a prelude for the development of a democratic agenda. And yes, some demonstrations are successful in bringing about changes, but there is no single guaranty that they will lead to the creation of an open and democratic society. To this end, the core meanings of our social movements are clearly depending on the quality of the freedom measured by its success in improving the condition of the majority of our fellow citizens.

Jakarta, 28 September 2006

No comments: