The #ReformasiDikorupsi protests were the largest student demonstrations in Indonesia since the collapse of the New Order in 1998. Photo by Muhammad Adimaja for Antara.


Late September marked one year since the #ReformasiDikorupsi (#ReformCorrupted) protests. It was a short-lived movement – some observers even say that it failed, because the demands of the protesters have not been met. The most obvious of these was the call for President Joko Widodo to undo the revisions to the Law on the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) that significantly weakened its powers.


But #ReformasiDikorupsi has a larger significance that cannot be measured solely by the outcome of the protests. In fact, the ephemeral ‘failure’ of a movement sowed the seeds for a new generation of civil society in Indonesia. How did it do so?


To answer this, we first need to look at the trajectory of civil society over the past decade. In 2012, prominent scholar of Indonesia Marcus Mietzner noted that Indonesian citizens were strong supporters of democracy, and the country benefited from a robust civil society that seemed able to prevent serious democratic decline.


At the same time, however, he had already identified signs that the country’s democracy was stagnating. This he said, was largely the result of anti-reform elites who were attempting to dismantle the new democratic institutions established after the fall of the New Order.


Worse still, according to Mietzner, Indonesian civil society was largely on its own in efforts to protect democratic institutions, as international donors had shifted their focus to strengthening state institutions. Donors wrongly believed Indonesian democracy was secure, and collaborating with the government would now be more effective because it would have a larger impact.


Eight years later, Mietzner, like many other analysts, has concluded that Indonesia’s democracy has deteriorated from stagnation to regression. Moreover, he has also found that Indonesian civil society has become weaker as a result of the political polarisation arising from the 2014 and 2019 elections. According to Mietzner, political elites have taken advantage of this polarisation, and civil society has been less able to defend Indonesia’s democratic successes.


But one factor that is not sufficiently emphasised by Mietzner is that in 2014, Joko Widodo’s win was supported by the generation of civil society leaders who grew up and gained experience in the later years of the New Order. The 2014 elections could be described as the moment that this generation reached maturity, and entered government. This was demonstrated by the involvement of many prominent civil society activists in Jokowi’s campaign team, and then as public officials and commissioners of state-owned enterprises.


Civil society’s weakness after 2014, therefore, was not caused solely by political polarisation at the time of the election, but also because of its accommodation and co-optation after the elections. This is what seems to have determined the relationship of civil society to the state after the 2019 elections.


Many civil society activists now say that their former colleagues who have entered government should no longer be considered part of the civil society movement. The polarisation of the 2014 elections was just the beginning of civil society’s declining capacity – accommodation and co-optation, as well as disappointment over government political and economic policy, are also causes. Indeed, the latter is what eventually resulted in the #ReformasiDikorupsi protests a year ago.


Mietzner is right that the main victim of the 2019 elections was civil society. Civil society was affected by the damage to public discourse caused by partisan political campaigners, buzzers, and hoaxes. This was seen in the way that the small portions of civil society that advocated for not voting (golput) in the 2019 elections were attacked. Surprisingly, much of the vitriol came from intellectuals and activists with a civil society background.


The pressure on human rights activists and those advocating for golput suggests two things. The first is that the idea that democracy and human rights can only be saved by the election of the ‘right’ president is an illusion. This is an illusion because it ignores the broken human rights promises of the previous election. Second, there is a degree of arrogance in suggesting only the only ‘correct’ form of politics is practiced in state power. A healthy democracy can only be guaranteed by a strong civil society that is brave enough to both oppose the state and work with it.


The weaknesses in Indonesian civil society have therefore resulted not only from political differences at the time of the election but also the inability of the former activists who have entered the state to help protect the public sphere. The former activists who entered government have not been able to maintain their commitment to the causes of civil society and have instead simply replicated the behaviour of the elites in power. There needs to be space for critical and non-partisan voices from outside government.


This is where we see the critical importance of the #ReformasiDikorupsi movement. The movement’s agenda and demands revealed convergence and collaboration between the student movement and civil society in several major cities. Politically, the movement was able to overcome the political polarisation that resulted from the 2014 and 2019 presidential elections.


It also spelled the end of the old generation of civil society and signalled the emergence of the next generation of political reformers. The movement might have been short-lived, but it posed an important question of the older generation of civil society. Just like the posters at the demonstrations, this movement asked the 1998 activists: ‘Where are you?’


#ReformasiDikorupsi was calling on those who had entered the state, and those who had been caught up in the political polarisation of 2014 and 2019, to ‘return home’. Some responded to this call, but many others didn’t. In other words, even though #ReformasiDikorupsi didn’t have much of an outcome in terms of altering the structure of political power, it provided an important demarcation. Who is still part of civil society and who is in the lap of those in power?


Theory on civil society became popular in Indonesia in the late 80s and throughout the 90s, as an important part of the movement to oppose the New Order and promote democratisation and human rights. During the New Order period, organisations were considered either independent and autonomous or co-opted or controlled by the state. Without distance from the state, change would be difficult to achieve. Civil society was understood to be made up of organisations and individuals independent of the state.


Reformasi destroyed this demarcation between state and civil society, and created new spaces for civil society actors to enter or collaborate with the state. Former activists joined the newly established political parties, and the new institutions of a more democratic Indonesia, like the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM), the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), and the National Ombudsman.


But democratic regression and disappointment with Jokowi’s government has resulted in a major change in how the remaining elements of civil society view the state. The pressure and suffering they have faced over the past few years has, on one hand, exposed their weaknesses. On the other hand, it has pushed them to act according to the old demarcations maintained under the New Order. They now keep more distance from the state, and are more likely to protect their autonomy and reject intervention.


This is not necessarily a welcome development, considering that in established democracies, connections and dialogue between civil society and the state must always be maintained. But extreme disappointment and a commitment to keeping a distance now seems unavoidable.


This change in attitude will result in new challenges for civil society. But experience over the last few years has shown that, even during the restrictions of the Covid-19 era, civil society is still able to organise, to protest, and maintain a critical stance. The rejection of the so-called job creation omnibus bill, advocacy for victims of violence in the land sector, advocacy around accurate Covid-19 data, and media investigations and advocacy for greater transparency are just a few examples.


Indonesian civil society has had many ups and downs but has always managed to give birth to a new generation of reformers. It is Indonesia’s last hope, and has been proven to be resilient. Let us hope this remains true now.



An earlier version of this article was published in Tempo Magazine as ‘Civil Society Setelah #ReformasiDikorupsi’ on 26 September.


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