It was one day in the mid of May 1998, the year of living dangerously in Indonesia following the prolonged 1997 economic crisis which led to severe socio-political calamity. During the days of riots and mayhem, I found myself on the street of Jakarta with thousands students and social activists, challenging the government to cease power. During a severe attack by military, we were forced back from the famous “Semanggi” bridge in the central Jakarta. A violent strike forced us to retreat and hide, otherwise being targeted by the real bullets. We then hid in the morgue at the Jakarta Hospital near Atmajaya University. To our panicking mind, hiding in the place of dead bodies was the only way to keep safe from the armed military personnel who ran after demonstrators violently. I honestly thought that it would not be long before they found us there.
Whilst in hiding, I received information through my mobile phone and an old ‘pager’ from our ‘information centre’. A friend updated us with the progress of the military action, as he managed to tap into the military radio communication. It was literally the SMS and paging messages that saved us at that very moment. We were being led, informed about safe and secure routes, to leave the hospital’s morgue in order to return to our campuses and centres of movement safely, to prepare our next actions. I, too, fled to the ‘information centre’ where I was assigned. With some friends, we updated our colleagues with the latest news from the street which would then be spread out to other activists –in Jakarta and in other cities, in Indonesia and abroad—through SMS, paging, fax, and emails.
Just like many other activists, I had a first-hand experience of how meaningful and significant the role of the ‘information centre’ was during the heightened period of political reform (‘reformasi’) in Indonesia. Emails were sent to tell the world about what happened in the country –the list ‘apakabar’ moderated by John McDougall was our main channel to broadcast the latest news about Indonesia. The Internet was vital to mobilise support –moral and material—to the students and activists protesting the regime. Messages were spread across activists via SMS and pager, pinpointing the locations of military blockades so that they could avoid them in their rallies and demonstrations. There were many more.
Many years later, in the mid of this research in Manchester, I read a book, “The Internet in Indonesia’s New Democracy” (Hill and Sen, 2005, Routledge) with a great interest. Not only was it important to my research, but it reminded me about my personal experience being a part of the reformasi movement. It concluded how the Internet “played a central role in the downfall of the Soeharto dictatorship” (p.53). If one was not at the “Ground Zero” during the reformasi in Indonesia, it would be rather difficult to figure out how the Internet could play such a role; or to imagine what kind of Internet technologies could have backed up the massive social movement at that time. Unfortunately, the book never revealed what it really was. But, I still remember in detail, until this very moment, one of the ‘information centres’ that I was assigned to at that time. It was a small room, with a second hand PC-AT486 connected to the Internet via a dial-up modem, a HT (handy-transceiver) we seized from the anti-riot troops during a demonstration, an old facsimile, and an outdated mobile phone at the size of a pencil case. That was all. And the rest was spirit, commitment, and solidarity among us, the activists.
This research has looked at how different organisations in Indonesian civil society today use the information and communication technologies (ICTs), particularly the Internet. This research is aware that in the civil society domain, too, there are techno-optimists who see the Internet as a new ‘Athenian forum’ where without it civic engagement and civil society dynamics will be dull. There are also techno-pessimists who fear alienation brought by the technology and its domination in the civic interaction will destroy the civil society sphere. But the research shows that both are wrong –they have both ignored one part of the equation.
A different approach is needed to understand the impact of the Internet on civil society. It needs a more differentiated and graded perspective that should be positioned in-between ‘boom’ and ‘doom’, accepting both enabling and constraining factors of the technology, combining continuity with discontinuity in civic activisms. The perspective should accept the dangers of concentration and domination, but at the same time recognise that social movements are benefiting from the same technology. This research has argued that many uses of the Internet by Indonesian CSOs –and very possibly other CSOs across the globe—can be seen as a continuation of what social
movements have always done, but in a more efficient, faster, direct, and cheaper way. Thus it shows the Internet does bring something “new” in the domain.
It is not easy to come to this conclusion, however. During the whole research, I have been haunted endlessly by one question: can I properly study about something that I was, am, and will be, a part of? Will the analyses be biased by my personal experience? Will the suggestions be too influenced by my subjective judgement? Or, will my long experience with Indonesian CSOs serve any good to this research – not only to mobilise valuable respondents to give rich data but also to help me reflect the findings deeper and to give more nuanced perspective in the explanations?
This question has partly been answered now. When I carried out my fieldwork in 2005-2006, after each conversation with my respondents, be it in the interview, workshops or focus group discussions, almost all of them asked me to let them know about the result of this research. So I felt very lucky to have a chance to present this whole thesis back in Indonesia, to some of the CSOs who were involved in the study. In August 2007, in a one-day small gathering of 23 CSOs in Jakarta, I shared my 3-year research journey. The meeting was interesting. The discussion was vibrant. The debate was challenging. I felt very relieved: the participants –my fellow activists—shared similar views to mine. So, even if this thesis were seen at all subjective, it would still confidently represent some Indonesian CSOs’ views on the topic. But most importantly, I felt that a responsibility had been fulfilled. The gathering was a ‘report’ for Indonesian CSOs, to whom this research is dedicated. It was not just a matter of ‘repayment’ for the organisations which had helped this research with invaluable data and information, but it was an occasion which I hoped would be another phase for me to maintain a genuine involvement with the Indonesian CSOs.
That workshop was not the only one that assured me I was on the right track in my research. On the 22nd February 2007, SatuDunia, a local franchise of the UK-based OneWorld portal for NGOs, was established in Indonesia. Its aim was to unleash the potential of the Internet for the development and the progress of civil society in the country. I was glad to learn that quite a number of respondent CSOs in my study played some important roles in the development of SatuDunia. In an email one colleague wrote to me, “I am now involved with SatuDunia. I have been more aware of the complexities of the issue since we spent hours and hours talking about the topic. Good that you asked me to participate in your study”. Then, on the 4th August 2007, the Media/ICT programme of HIVOS, a Dutch NGO operating in Indonesia, felt it important to sponsor me to fly to Kuala Lumpur, to present an excerpt of this thesis in the “Internet and Politics in Pacific Asia” panel during the 5th ICAS (International Convention of Asian Scholars) International Conference. To HIVOS’ Media/ICT programme, my research apparently had some value that it should be disseminated. I was so glad that my presentation attracted many useful comments. The forum in Kuala Lumpur was attended not only by scholars, but also civil society activists. Finally, one day in September 2007, during a hectic period of writing up, an email arrived in my mailbox, inviting me to give a presentation at the opening of an Asian NGO’s workshop in Indonesia focusing on the challenges and opportunities for freedom of expression in the region. The organiser of the workshop felt that my experience and my research would suit the forum well. Unfortunately they did not realise that I was still in the UK – they did not have enough money to sponsor my flight.
To me this is all a clear sign that I am not alone in my endeavour to understand the dynamic relationship between social movement and the ICTs, particularly the Internet, in Indonesia. Indeed, CSOs are unique –and studies into CSOs are often seen as not easy. But so are business firms and government agencies. But it is actually in their uniqueness that they learn from each other –as amply documented in this study. However, if I were to claim a uniqueness that really stands out when CSOs adopt a technological innovation, it would not be the different types of innovations they choose. It would neither be the way they adopt, manage nor implement the technology. I would confidently say that what really matters is the commitment to the movement, after all.
I have an expectation that this research would inspire other scholarly research in this area. But much more than that, I would really like to see that this research could be of some real use for my fellow CSO activists when they adopt and use the Internet.
(this is taken from page 321-323 of my thesis – the picture was taken from the pedestrian crossing bridge in front of atmajaya university during the semanggi II event)