Watching this last few weeks of politics in Indonesia has been like watching a bad Indonesian soap opera (called sinetron over here) unfold.
Earlier in the year, the Jokowi Government filed Budi Gunawan as the sole candidate for the Chief of Police to Parliament .
But then the KPK (Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission) announced Budi Gunawan as a suspect three days following this dodgy appointment (Gunamawan is alleged to be Megawati’s boyfriend. His inauguration was due to happen on Megawati’s birthday !?!).
Gunawan was suspected of accepting bribes and gratuities while serving as Chief of Police Career Development Bureau from 2003 to 2006, as well as during other positions during his servicein the police.
The KPK ensnared Budi Gunawan with Article 12 paragraph a or b, Article 5, paragraph 2, Article 11 or Article 12 B of Law No. 31 of 1999 in conjunction with Law No. 20 Year 2001 on Corruption Eradication in conjunction with Article 55 paragraph 1 of the Criminal Code to-1..
The Parliament however announced Budi Gunawan (Megawati’s alleged ‘boyfriend’) was qualified despite the KPK allegations, and he was inaugurated by President Jokowi. This announcement became a heated political situation in Indonesia during mid-January 2015 and, under increasing pressure, Jokowi finally canceled Gunawan’s appointment and appointed Badrodin Haiti as acting police chief instead.
But on Friday, the KPK and Polri (Indonesia’s police service) have been engaged in a new battle, as the chairman of Indonesia’s Anti Corruption Institution was arrested on suspicion of being involved in alleged abuse of authority or omission or coercion during his time as a lawyer. A perceived direct tactic of systemic retaliations by Indonesia’s police service on behalf of their hard done Gunawan .
The alleged case which conveniently saw the arrest of KPK chairman Bambang Widjojanto was alleged to have occurred several years ago. And this case was been brought to the attention of POLRI (Indonesian police) by a man who has been involved in multiple suspect and alleged criminal activities himself. (I’ll add a link about the alleged case of this man later as cant find it right now – it was in print media in yesterday’s Kompas newspaper. It involved acts of physical violence and abuse against a rainforest activist in his region of Kalimantan).
So anyway the ‘gossipy’ side of this (Megawati’s and Gunawan’s realtionship) was just stuff I heard round that traps in Jakarta, but the frightening thing is that the chairman of the KPK WASarrested, and for reasons the criminal justice system can hardly justify on an allegation brought to the attention of the police (conveniently, years later) by a dodgy thug! This whole saga just continues to become sicker and sicker.
But the protest banner pictured says it all, really.. “Killing the KPK is the same as killing this nation”.. As that is what many anti corruption activists in Indonesia fear is happening right now!
There’s so much more to these minor points about this that could be discussed. But that would require more time. It’s all incredibly disappointing, particularly from a ‘leader’ such as Jokowi who carried the hopes of so many on his shoulders 😦
My contribution to last month’s Kashmir Walla Magazine on Jokowi’s Cabinet line-up, focussing on some of the 8 female Minsters in the Cabinet
Jokowi Widodo was sworn in as president of the world’s third-largest democracy, Indonesia, on October 20 amid an atmosphere of high hopes amongst supporters, winning a narrow victory over former Military Prabowo in July. The Jokowi Presidency marks the first time a member outside of the political and military elite has been elected as President and his campaign promised a government who would represent hope and change.
Jokowi announced his Cabinet line-up on Sunday October 26. After delaying the announcement for three days, speculation arose that Jokowi was wrangling with leaders in his coalition who were insisting on nominating problematic candidates.
There has been a level of disappointment expressed by some observers and analysts with what some see as political compromises in the final Cabinet line-up. Aspinal, a Professor of Politics at the Australian National University argued that Jokowi has “failed his first test” at promoting a truly reformist government stating that, while it is “possible that some of the ministers will emerge as strong reformers […] at first glance, this cabinet is far from being the fresh start that Jokowi promised”. Connelly from the Lowy Institute claims there are signs of “both of principle and compromise” in the appointments.
In a move that has drawn wide praise however, Jokowi has appointed eight female ministers to his cabinet, including the first female foreign minister in Indonesia, career diplomat Retno Marsudi.
Professor Yohana S. Yambise who became the first woman from Papua to become a professor, now represents the first Papuan woman to become a minister. She has been appointed to the position of Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection.
One of the female appointees to the Cabinet who has been the subject of much discussion in Indonesia is Susi Pudjiastuti. With an incredible real rags-to-riches story that rivals even Jokowi’s, Pudjiastuti’s career began in the fish markets of Pangandaran West Java where she began work as a high-school dropout. Opening her business with a start-up capital of only $75 USD, Pudjiastuti’s business continued to grow, and in 1996 she set up a fish processing plant. As the fish processing business expanding into Asia and America, Susi created an air transportation company that quickly became one of the largest export companies in Indonesia. Pudjiastuti is the Minister of Marine and Fisheries.
The appointment of these women, amongst several others, represents a great opportunity for Indonesia to bridge the gender divide in representative politics. Particularly given the non-elite background of the selectees. While these appointments indicate positive change for Indonesia, several studies indicate that there generally needs to be at least 30 per cent women for them to have the confidence to support one another and to support issues important to women . However, this 25 per cent is very pretty close to that 30 per cent and these female representatives have a much better chance of getting things done than most governments in the world. Particularly those represented by Indonesia’s closest Southern neighbour, Australia, who only has one female Minister in parliament.
Despite disappointment expressed by observers and analysts at the purported lack of reform-oriented Ministers in the newly announced Indonesian cabinet, the line-up of women represents a real change for Indonesia. With Indonesia’s thriving civil society, these new ministers however will now not only have to face the challenges of managing their portfolios, but also must face heavy scrutiny from Indonesian society and media. From the fundamentalist religious right, to the progressively democratic wings of civil society, these highly engaged groups will utilize the many channels available to them in post-Suharto Indonesia to voice their opinions and demands of their leaders.
My piece on extraordinary developments in today’s Presidential Election count in Indonesia, for The Kashmir Walla Magazine
Indonesia’s General Election Commission (KPU) held its’ final meeting today to finalise votes in the Presidential Election counted at the level of districts and provinces, with the final official count as of 5pm today showing Prabowo-Hatta with 43.83% and Jokowi-JK with 53.17%. However, Prabowo Subianto, leader of Indonesia’s Gerindra Party, withdrew from the Indonesian presidential election just hours before the KPU’s official count announcement, attacking the institution and accusing the KPU of not properly investigating alleged cheating at the polls.
The former military general made the announcement during a press conference in Jakarta this afternoon, stating the party will use their “constitutional rights, namely the 2014 presidential election rejected the implementation”. Suhardi, Chairman of Prabowo’s Gerindra Party added sternly “we reject the flawed implementation of the election law and withdraw from the process. We are not willing to sacrifice the mandate of the people who have been tricked and diverted,”
In a message posted on his Facebook at 3:20pm Jakarta time, Prabowo repeated that he had been “robbed”, citing districts in Papua and East Java, as well as the more-than-5,000 problematic polling stations in Jakarta.
The Jakarta Globe has reported that Prabowo’s decision may put the election in a legal grey area, with Irman Putra Sidin, constitutional law expert from Hassanudin University stating that “there had never been a candidate who rejected the whole process of the presidential election and withdrew himself from the election”.
Prabowo has three days to challenge the result once it is announced by the KPU, something he has promised to do if his’ legal team has the evidence, however several analysts said Prabowo would find it difficult to provide the evidence necessary to justify delaying the election results.
This has been the closest Indonesian Presidential election since the fall of the Suharto regime. For the Indonesians who voted for Jokowi-JK, the leadership represents a symbol of hope and change. For those voting for Prabowo, their voted represented a desire to maintain the status quo in Indonesia.
I spoke to several young voters today who had all been active in various aspects of the campaign period, and who were still holding their breath waiting on the count.
Fahd Djibran represents the voice of the Indonesian diaspora. An author of several books, Fahd is currently studying International Relations at Monash University in Melbourne. For Fahd, this has been the best election after the reform period and “shows that Indonesian democracy has continued to grow and mature the better”.
Regarding the distinctly different candidates and their constituents, this represents the development of Indonesia’s hopes. “If Jokowi win the election with approximately 52% (as predicted by exit-poll counting), I think that’s give us clear picture about the maturity of Indonesian democracy. This shows us there is a clear separation between people who want ‘change’ and those who enjoy the status quo”.
For Cuwie Muchtare, a copywriter and mother of a young daughter, also based in Jakarta, Jokowi represents a leader who has “finally allowed the the voice of Indonesia to be heard. No matter what religion, tradition, or ethnicity you come from, Indonesian is one. Historically, we have been a pluralistic multi-religious country, and for me, Jokowi represents my hopes for a unified Indonesia which respects and celebrates difference”.
Dida Darul Ulum of The Megawati Institute added that Jokowi holds a democratic vision for the country, “in stark contrast to Prabowo who has indicated otherwise, showing us that he does not respect the democratic process. We can see this in particular with the counting process of the KPU as we speak” he said frustratedly as we waited on results earlier today.
The military, special forces, and police remain on stand by across the country and outside the KPU headquarters in Jakarta as the country anxiously awaits the outcome these recent developments.
“We believe that, no matter what happens and no matter who wins, we could never slip back into something resembling the Suharto era. It could never happen. There are too many people watching, we are all watching. And we all know that Indonesia has come too far for anything like that to happen. Foreign observers should not underestimate us. We would never sit back and watch our country deteriorate” – 1998 pro-democracy activist
An article about Indonesia’s Presidential Elections I wrote for this month’s Kashmir Walla Magazine: a magazine of art, politics, and society. The magazine also currently features extensive eye-witness coverage of the conflict in Gaza, as well as on-going coverage and commentary on the situation in Kashmir
“We Indonesians believe that no matter what happens and no matter who wins, we could never slip back into something resembling the Suharto era. It could never happen. There are too many people watching, we are all watching. And we all know that Indonesia has come too far for anything like that to happen. Foreign observers should not underestimate us. We would never sit back and watch our country deteriorate” – 1998 Democracy Activist (active in recent campaigning, who decided here to remain unnamed)
Indonesia, the world’s third largest democracy with 187 million voters including 67 million first-time voters, voted last Wednesday July 12 for their next President. By the time the exit-polls had been counted, it felt like the nation exhaled momentarily. But that relief has been short-lived.
Although the official results of Indonesia’s presidential election yesterday will not be known until July 22, both candidates, Joko Widodo and Prabowo Subianto, now have claimed victory based on exit polling and quick counts. As a result, political tensions in Jakarta are rising, and Indonesians are growing increasingly anxious as to what this means for Indonesia’s democracy.
Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono today urged the election chief to ensure a transparent vote count following the disputed presidential poll, after both sides raised fears the other may party may tamper with the ballots. And this is not without reason.
Indonesia is one of the world’s most graft-ridden countries, and the country’s political elite is part of a very intertwined network of power and privilidge. Even though Indonesia made the transition from dictatorship to direct presidential elections a decade ago after the fall of dictator Suharto in 1998, Indonesia is still ranked 114th among 177 on a 2013 Transparency International Survey, with the nation’s judiciary, police and parliament ranked among the least trustworthy institutions.
Although the election was violence-free, a result perceived as questionable by either side still risks major public protests. Speaking ahead of the election, the army chief of staff General Budiman had already said the potential for conflict between supporters of Prabowo and Jokowi was “high,” as the Jakarta Post reported on its website July 7. This is a particular risk given the very vast differences between the two candidates and their respective supporters: Jokowi is the “man of the people” candidate, from humble beginnings and without ties to the political elite, whilst Prabowo is a former military general and the former son-in-law of Suharto alleged to have ordered the abduction of democracy activists before the Suharto’s downfall.
At a rally for Gaza yesterday Prabowo told journalists “there are reports that some election boxes have been stolen, our witnesses are being intimidated”. In making statements like these, it appears the former military man will not go quietly.
The quick counts give Jokowi a lead of around 8 million votes, which is a margin of about 4 percentage points. And it is this slim margin that has given rise to growing tension.
Fears of tension and potential violence by analysts are not just about the close margin, but more about what the some candidate’s supporters are capable of, in particular, Prabowo. Some analysts have expressed concern that with his history, his ties to military, citizen militia groups, and extensive and powerful networks across the country that he might try to bully the election commission or engage in violent protest.
But despite all the public discussion and debate about the potential for unrest, many Indonesians I have spoken to over the past week, from street merchants to members of Indonesia’s parliament, are quietly optimistic. This is in contrast to the many foreign observers.
For ordinary Indonesians, perhaps that comes with the experience of watching the country go through so much turmoil and change over the past 16 years. As one Indonesian who was active in student protests during the Suharto era told me, “we Indonesians believe that, no matter what happens and no matter who wins, we could never slip back into something resembling the Suharto era. It could never happen. There are too many people watching, we are all watching. And we all know that Indonesia has come too far for anything like that to happen. Foreign observers should not underestimate us. We would never sit back and watch our country deteriorate”.
Whilst alert to the all possibilities of what could happen over the next two weeks, it appears many Indonesians hope that the candidates and their supporters will accept and honour the results of the election, and that when the final results are revealed on July 22, the wheels of Indonesian democracy will keep turning.
“I would not be willing to promote a win by making the culture of discrimination in Indonesia worse. That would be a poison that would continue to undermine the public even though the election is over. A mature political consultant should also concerned with the growth of democracy and the rights of the nation” – Denny JA
A Presidential election is not only a battle between two presidential candidates and two political machines, it is also a battle between strategists. This was also true in the case of the Indonesia’s 2014 Presidential campaign, where we saw the playing out of a battle between campaign strategies prepared by an American PR consultant in camp Prabowo, and those of an Indonesian expert in public opinion and voting behavior in camp Jokowi.
Rob Allyn joined the Prabowo campaign team this year and is a political consultant who studied under Henry Kissinger at Georgetown, helped George W. Bush become governor of Texas in 1994 and consults for large corporations like Coca Cola. Denny JA at camp Jokowi is an anti-discrimination campaigner and also known as the founder of the tradition of political consultancy to Indonesia.
It has been widely reported in Indonesian media that Prabowo hired the American political consultant who is a well-known expert in negative and smear campaigning, with Tempo.com confirming the fact with Prabowo’s Gerindra Party on July 5, 2014.
Negative Vs Positive Campaign Tactics
The Prabowo versus Jokowi battle became increasingly colourful in it’s last weeks, as it also involved a battle between two political consultant types: between “black” or smear campaign tactics, and “positive grassroots and targeted” campaigning.
The most decisive part of the battle between Prabowo and Jokowi really happened in the last 20 days. Based on an LSI survey (Indonesian Survey Foundation) done in early June 2014, the margin to victory in the Jokowi camp was at 6.3%. But at the end of June 2014 it plunged again to only 0.5%, below the margin of error. Under these conditions, losing and winning became dependent on penetrating the intelligence of the voters until the final days before the election.
The Black Campaign
The alleged “Black Campaign” involved the spreading of lies about Jokowi’s ethnic and religious identity and, according to Denny JA, saw a marked drop in Jokowi’s popularity throughout the period in which they were employed.
These stories described Jokowi as a non-indigenous Indonesian, from a religious minority (some described him as begin a “secret “Chinese Christian”), and later accused him of having a PKI (Indonesian Communist Party) background.
Stories about Jokowi were circulated to remote villages. Even small children in slum alleys were heard shouting:” Jokowi hasn’t been circumcised yet.” And false news like this is enough to influence voters who come from conservative Muslim backgrounds, regional voters, and those from middle to lower socio-economic groups, according Denny JA and the LSI.
Based on the LSI survey between January – June 2014, support to Jokowi in the segment of voters was down from 50 percent to below 40%. Not surprisingly, there was a shift of support from Jokowi to Prabowo.
The black campaign against Jokowi was systematic, and could only be carried out by leaders who understand the behaviour of voters.
Denny JA Joins Team Jokowi
Denny JA spoke by phone with Jokowi on Saturday April 26 around 20:30, and it was at this time that Jokowi accepted his offer to join his team to prepare a strategy outside the official campaign team.
The next day, on Sunday, April 27, 2014, Denny JA met face with Jokowi in Luhut Pandjaitan. At that time they discussed how the Jokowi team would utilise the strength of civil society and volunteers, rather than relying on political parties and the media.
As support for Jokowi continued to decline, opinions had formed amongst Indonesia’s elite that Jokowi was going to lose the election. At this point, the team strategized a positive campaign against “black campaign” devised by Rob Allyn. This campaign was targeted at grassroots voters and the upper middle class.
The Strategy of Team jokowi
The strategy employed by Team Jokowi and Denny JA utilised networks in 11 provinces of Indonesia, more than 70% of the Indonesian population. Thousands of trained volunteers engaged voters in door-to-door campaigning. Through this strategy, Denny JA says millions were reached. Concentrated effort were also focussed on Indonesia’s 3 largest provinces: West Java, Central Java and East Java.
To program this strategy, Denny JA cooperated with Timses Volunteers under Eriko. Denny asked Eriko provide 30 volunteer groups in every province. Focus was also made on the campaign trail.
The first strategy was the Jokowi “First 100 Days” Promise. During this period Jokowi promised to focus on addressing three major issues: economic, political/legal and cultural.
These election promises were then advertised. First through Kompas Media and then extended to mainstream media advertising, including billboards, banners and flyers. The team also engaged social media.
Second, Jokowi’s 5 point political contract with the “small folk” (orang kecil) was made concrete with the pledge of providing one million rupiah per month to poor families, increasing the salaries of civil servants, teachers, police and military, and the promise of creating 10 million new jobs. This contract was also widely advertised.
Black Campaigning “A Poison” in a Country with a History of Ethnic and Religious Discrimination
Denny JA countered the Allyn orchestrated “black campaign” with positive campaign to attract grassroots and upper middle class engagement in the Jokowi campaign. As Denny JA explained, ” I could have also used a black campaign style to detract from Prabowo’s edge. However, I was not willing to do so. I have been a long time campaigner for an Indonesia Without Discrimination,” he said.
Denny JA denounced the use of religion and ethnicity in political campaigning, although these tactics can engage voters through the politics of fear. As he explained, “I would not be willing to promote a win by making the culture of discrimination in Indonesia worse. That would be a poison that would continue to undermine the public even though the election is over. A mature political consultant should also concerned with the growth of democracy and the rights of the nation,” he said.
Denny JA claims he joined the Jokowi camp “without any official request” but out of a personal wish “to help Jokowi. Willing to spend from his own pocket if needs be, this was a matter of ideals”, he said.
Exit Poll counts show Mr. Widodo with a lead of 3-6 percentage points.
There’s been a horrific attack on Karachi Airport leaving 23 dead.
I’ve spent several hours in this airport on multiple occasions, but always felt it was a matter of time before something like this would happen considering it is a strategic port for the war in Afghanistan and the proxy war in Pakistan’s West Provinces which have left thousands dead. I always felt on edge here knowing it was a transit-zone for so much destruction.
I remember hearing a drone once near the Pakistan/Afghanistan border and I can tell you it was one of the eeriest moments of my life. Locals said the sound of these cold, empty machines echoed often through the valleys which they called home.
It is hard to comprehend the terror created by the sound of a machine manned by soldiers somewhere out there, designed to drop bombs based on targets created by strategic intelligence officers somewhere else in the world.
The War in Afghanistan is insidious and seems to have destroyed any semblance of security in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
It’s hard to accurately define who is behind these attacks in Karachi because it’s common knowledge that the Pakistani Taliban seem to be as intertwined with the Pakistani Intelligence Services as they are with Al-Quaeda. Sometimes counter attacks on such sieges seem like well-staged war theatrics to Pakistanis who have little trust left in national security organisations.
The war in Afghanistan has increased the threat of terror in the West, and has caused a huge spike in terrorism attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan, all targeted at civilians.
Thousands of lives have been acumulatively lost through spilling of the war in Afghanistan into Pakistan including through the Pakistani Government’s war against the Baloch in resulting in forced disapearances of activists under counter terrorism legislation established to combat the war on terror. Thousands more lives have been lost to sectarian attacks against Hazara and other minorities by Sunni militant groups. Add these tolls to the growing list of lives lost to the otherwise general civil unrest that has resulted in parts of the country being ruled by thugs and warlords despite the enforcement of Martial Law in areas and you have a death toll of over 50 000 people between the years 2003-2014.
So very cliched to ask the question, but is the world actually a safer place now?
Protests in downtown Jakarta (image courtesy Asia Foundation)
More than 100,000 workers are expected to fill the streets of Jakarta today to demand an increase to the minimum wage, workplace protections, and basic healthcare as Indonesia marks May Day as a public holiday for the first time.
Workers will march from several areas across Jakarta from the Pulogadung Industrial Area, KBN & Cakung converging at HI roundabout before heading towards the Presidential Palace in Central Jakarta, and will probably shut down the city – as May Day protests did last year. And I won’t be going into the city until later, so I should be spared the chaos.
Yup! Pay up, pricks!
Ex-Adidas workers who continue to protest their mistreatment will also march alongside unions. Women who worked at the Adidas factory in Jakarta reportedly earned around 50 cents an hour making shoes until they were sacked without severance pay. Adidas still hasn’t paid them.
For one day of of protest, Indonesia’s workers are not asking for all that much
The minimum wage in Jakarta is 2,441 Rupiah or $209.00 USD per month, and is highest in the country. It is calculated as a workweek comprised of 7 hour days at 40 hours a week as a 6 day workweek, or as 8 hour a days at 5 a days a week. But most at the minimum wage end of the labour market do not receive the minimum, particularly in the informal and unskilled sectors. Those that do receive the minimum wage still struggle find it hard to survive with the cost of living in Jakarta rising each month.
Well here we are. Today the world’s third-largest democracy, Indonesia, will hold its’ parliamentary elections as precursor to the country’s third direct presidential vote in July
As those living in Indonesia may have noticed, parties here will employ incredible, sometimes ridiculous tactics to gain votes. For this year’s elections there are some pretty colourful candidates including a former Miss Indonesia, five former models, at least eight actresses, and nine dangut singers. Googling their names may bring up “leaked” nude photos, swimsuit or lingerie ads, and softcore sex scenes. Parties that recruit these sexy celebrity women as their candidates believe that their famous faces and public notoriety will win votes in a country where name recognition is low and campaign posters remain the best way of reaching voters.
Joko Widodo, expected by many to be Indonesia’s next president, is current governor of Jakarta, a former furniture salesman, former mayor of the central Javan city of Solo or Surakarta and heavy metal fan. His main contendor from the Gerindra Party (Greater Indonesia Party) is businessman, politician and ex-special forces commander Prabowo.
For most people I talk to, many aren’t overly impressed with the quality of candidates on offer, even when it comes to the most popular. Some feel that Jokowi hasn’t finished his duties as Governor of Jakarta and should have waited until the next elections and for this reason, feel that he is too much of a career politician. For Prabowo, his’ past as a commander under the Suharto regime continues to haunt him.
Initial results from the parliamentary race will most likely be released tonight or tomorrow and after that, the formation of the presidential candidate line-up will move into full motion, and the presidential campaigns will really begin.
To all my Indonesian friends in politics, Good luck!
Last night my husband and I stopped at a convenience store to get something (well, beers admittedly) before going home. It was about 10pm. I waited by the motorbike while my husband went inside as a little girl trudged into the parking lotto search through a rubbish bin for recycled goods for her Mum to sell.
I’ve been here in Jakarta for a year and half now but I still haven’t hardened to such sights.
Her mother was on the road with the wooden rubbish collection cart which she pushed manually and was really tired. Another child was asleep inside the cart and she was comforting him trying to help him to go to sleep amid the noise of the motorbikes fighting for space along the street.
I didn’t have much money on me but I gave her a little bit. She didn’t ask or gesture for it however. It was really heartbreaking. It always is) but against the backdrop of all these bullshit election campaigns here in Jakarta on the eve of the country’s 2014 elections, it just really got me down.
There’s so much ridiculous wealth here and it looks like the only winners in this year’s election will be the preman millionaires and residual powerbrokers of the Suharto era.
And you thought Australian Politics was depressing
How can you criticise human rights activism? It’s kinda like kicking a puppy, isn’t it? But I feel compelled to talk about activism critically, after reading this piece written by Manus Island whistleblower Liz Thompson.* In it she articulates why she recently declined a profile speaking gig at refugee support rally; and her concern about “lack of self-reflection on the amount of space taken up by white people” in the “refugee movement” which is now dominated by white faces.
The revelations Thompson made about the situation at Manus Island were obviously important, particularly given the military-style secrecy shrouding the implementation of the policy. But her refusal to hog the spotlight at the expense of those directly affected by the policy is remarkably rare, and that this should be the case is something we should be talking about.
Thompson was criticised by many for the points she made in the piece – her discomfort at the ‘”refugee movement’s” celebration of her as a whistleblower, and the need for those in the movement to examine their privilege. But this is an attitude, which I’m finding increasingly uncommon in the world of activism: humility and a focus on what it is that activism and advocacy is trying to achieve. So, I’d like to add to this conversation, and talk a bit about ego and Personal Branding, which is now so pervasive in activism today. And I think we need to talk about this, because ultimately this endemic narcissism really is shutting down our ability to effectively orgnaise.
At its very core, activism is about social and political change. History’s greatest activists have focused on the issues, not themselves. But these days I find it hard to ascertain the motives of activists. Are they working towards the achievement of social change, or towards the enhancement of their LinkedIn or twitter profiles? Too often it seems the ingredients for activism are 80% narcissism, 20% organising skill, ethics and the rest. It’s more about the activist – their good deeds and heroicisms, and promoting said heroicisms on behalf of the organisation they represent.
Damn, this really does feel as terrible as kicking a puppy, really, but it needs to be said. Speaking out against human rights abuses cannot be a get out of jail of free card for your own indiscretions. And solidarity cannot be absolute, especially when it allows bad-faith to infiltrate and compromise objectives. That it has become so difficult to distinguish between activists working towards social change, and those using particular issues as a professional branding opportunities is extremely problematic – and we need to deal with it.
I live in Jakarta, Indonesia. There is a thriving cohort of activist types here, and regularly hear tossers refer to “human rights being their thing”, being “largely interested in gender issues”, “environmental something or other”, blah blah blah [insert one of the innumerable things the world is worried about] being “their thing!” I’m now thirty and have only been around the activist community for ten years or so, and this shift has crept up on us somewhere in the last decade. No doubt it was a thing before this, but it now appears to be the dominant trend.
So, let’s get things straight. A plight is not a project. Human and societal failings are not areas of expertise to develop as your “thing”. A tragedy like that of the shooting death of a young on Manus Island is NOT a political or personal branding opportunity nor should it ever be.
This crap is happening at the personal level, but it also permeates organisations, campaigns and political processes. I witnessed with unease, the launch of the #withSyria campaign featuring the massive persona and artistic imagery of Bansky – a privileged (probably) white male. So loud is Banksy, and the calls to “join Banksy” that the #withSyria campaign is bereft of a genuine Syrian voice, and completely smothers the dedicated and often dangerous work of Syrian activists.
The cultivation of narcissism has slowly but surely crept into activist movements over a number of years, until here we are, dominated by privileged white noise. So what is going on? I suspect it probably does have something to do with the online profiling thing, and the feedback loop thing that academics and psychologists talk about (just bear with me here).
Existing in the online world has necessitated the cultivation of online presence and branding of our personas. And it seems, everybody who wants to be a fucking hero these days can and will be. The instant affirmation of “likes” and clicks has become a breeding ground for narcissists. We are stuck in feedback loop in which such attention-seeking behaviors are rewarded with online flattery and attention – thus perpetuating the cycle. Witness the selfie culture now adopted by activists: endless posts about their latest campaigns, and snaps with the “poor people” they claim to represent are now instantly rewarded by other chumps part of the same selfish movement. A system of perpetual buddy-praise – and we are conflating these virtual pats on the back with purpose and efficacy.
Amid all the energy being focused on the online sphere and all that fucken hot air and naval gazing that comes with it – it seems there are really very few examples of provocative and actually effective campaigning around today. There are campaigns, sure. But effective? As in, contributes in a measurable and meaningful way? We are #standingwithsyria – but how will this influence the political climate, the arms deals, how will it end the tyranny of vested interests and give rise to a peaceful inclusive Syrian future? We have Banksy…now what?
I argue, that there needs to be a comprehensive reassessment about our goals, and long hard consideration about the efficacy of our activism. Because from where I’m sitting, it seems like a LOT of the efforts of the past few years have been bloody useless. So, I guess what I’m saying is that when activist involvement causes confusion of motive, gives rise to fragmentation, or if it actually achieves very little of the intended social or political change – there needs to be a point at which activists take a big step back (and I’m looking at you privileged white folks here, but bad-faith comes in many guises). We need to have a long hard think, and to know when to sit the fuck down – because surprising as it may seem, at the end of the day it’s not actually about us, or the organisations we represent. If we want genuine social, political and economic change as profound as we claim – we need a fucking shake-up.
*A brief recap for those who don’t know: Australia’s system of exporting all asylum seekers who arrive by boat to a remote detention facility on Manus Island in PNG is largely staffed by contracted workers (and is operated by a private corporation). Liz Thompson was a contracted migration agent, and was sent to Manus Island to process asylum seeker claims. This process would, if genuinely intended to actually resettle refugees, would in fact result in resettlement. But Australia’s current policy is to deny resettlement here, and it will be effectively denied in PNG, because their cannot resettle them. Thompson was shocked at the directives to be willfully misleading in her work with the asylum seekers, and so decided to blow the lid on the farce of a “processing” system currently in place. She confirmed suspicions held by many, that “processing” simply involves paying contractors to provide asylum seekers with vague allusions to resettlement, while omitting the detail that resettlement is in actuality an impossibility with things being as they are. – Ed.