Activist Archives: Youth Culture and the Political Past in Indonesia

Activist Archives: Youth Culture and the Political Past in Indonesia

by Doreen Lee

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In Activist Archives Doreen Lee tells the origins, experiences, and legacy of the radical Indonesian student movement that helped end the thirty-two-year dictatorship in May 1998. Lee situates the revolt as the most recent manifestation of student activists claiming a political and historical inheritance passed down by earlier generations of politicized youth. Combining historical and ethnographic analysis of "Generation 98," Lee offers rich depictions of the generational structures, nationalist sentiments, and organizational and private spaces that bound these activists together. She examines the ways the movement shaped new and youthful ways of looking, seeing, and being—found in archival documents from the 1980s and 1990s; the connections between politics and place; narratives of state violence; activists' experimental lifestyles; and the uneven development of democratic politics on and off the street. Lee illuminates how the interaction between official history, collective memory, and performance came to define youth citizenship and resistance in Indonesia’s transition to the post-Suharto present.  

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822374091
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 04/28/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 296
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

Doreen Lee is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Northeastern University.

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Activist Archives

Youth Culture and the Political Past in Indonesia

By Doreen Lee

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2016 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7409-1



Bambang "Beathor" Suryadi was an outspoken youth activist from Jakarta with a nickname that matched his feistiness: "Beathor the Trickster King" (Bitor si Raja Bandel). A graduate of Pancasila University and a member of the radical organization Pijar, Beathor had been causing a stir since his student days in the 1980s. In January 1990 he was sentenced to four and a half years in prison for the subversive act of distributing selebaran gelap (lit. dark leaflets). The act of passing out two thousand leaflets in three neighborhoods in Jakarta turned Beathor into a political prisoner, proving that the charge of "insulting the head of state" (Pasal Makar) was a very effective tool to silence dissidents in New Order Indonesia (fig. 1.1). But Beathor the Trickster King did not stay quiet. Instead, after his arrest he switched from one activist form of paper, the newsprint selebaran (leaflet or pamphlet) to another form, and then another. A four-page bundle of materials at the IISG demonstrates his strategy of deploying paper to further his political agenda succinctly. These documents were collected by a fellow activist who was active at the same time as Beathor and donated as part of a student movement archive to the IISG. The materials consist of two resistance poems and one set of demands typewritten at three different police and military detention centers, two clippings from a newspaper detailing Beathor's trial proceedings, and a homemade flyer advertising his trial. A quick look at the longest of these documents, a poem dated November 20, 1989, suffices to give us a sense of student politics and their documentary output during the period often referred to as the height of the New Order.

Not content with passing out his subversive leaflet, which was titled "Kampus Perjuangan Bergema" (Campus of struggle reverberates), no copies of which have surfaced in the archives, Beathor composed a statement while in police detention in the form of a prose poem directed at President Suharto. It addresses Suharto with the informal and lowering "you" (kau) and speaks on behalf of all the New Order's victims. Accordingly, the poem lists the ridiculous "crimes of subversion" that citizens were accused of committing, along with the real perpetrators (Suharto and his cronies) shameful deeds. Through the simple poetic structure of a litany, Beathor's poem marks the place and time of various acts of repression that colored the 1980s and which deeply concerned student activists, such as the death of three youths in Ujung Pandang, the expulsion of students in Bandung, the deaths of religious activists in Tanjung Priok, and the "Mysterious Shootings" (Penembakan Misterius, shortened to "Petrus") campaign, carried out by the military under Suharto's orders. The poem is simply titled "You, with Your Military Democracy."

You silence our campus, because you fear criticism

You massacre our friends, in Ujung Pandang just because of helmets

You arrest us, when we were in dialogue with people's representatives about electricity tariffs

You arrest and imprison our friends, in Yogya just because they were having a discussion

You arrest and expel our friends in ITB [Institute of Technology Bandung], only because they refused your Minister (entry)

And you let sweet Muslim girls be pushed out of your schools

You killed our young friends in Tanjung Priok and Lampung, because they didn't understand about Pancasila

You mysteriously shot our young friends, because you were unable to provide work for them

You shot an officer, because you loved your daughter too much

And you have been unable to uphold the law in your 23 years in power

You let Corruptors and Manipulators rule with impunity in front of you

You let your children, your siblings, your friends have economic monopolies over the weak

And you let the people be oppressed and evicted, because of development

While your son, you let gamble in Macao, meanwhile our national debt grows higher

You say you are anti-totalitarianism and anti-militarism, but to the Military you give a greater share

You control all information until we are impotent

You are a dictator because you refuse an opposition

And you step on our feet, until who knows when, then you say this country is democratic! Are these actions of yours not insulting???


Beathor was initially accused of engaging in fitnah (libel) through his pamphleteering, and from the harsh language of his "defense statement" above, we can see that he did not hold back in his moral condemnation of Suharto. Each "you" in the poem acts as a righteous finger pointed at Suharto. In response to the prosecutor's charge that he had insulted the head of state, Beathor retaliates by asking rhetorically in the final line of the poem, "Are these actions of yours not insulting???" There is no attempt in any of his writings to defer to the status of "Bapak" (Father) Suharto or to plead for clemency. Instead he launches a cross-examination that exposes Suharto's many personal and associated weaknesses, using an argument similar to the one Hannah Arendt offers in her treatise On Violence (1970): that state violence reveals once and for all the evacuation of the state's claim to legitimate power rather than its tactical strength. In Beathor's eyes, the injustice against a youth activist such as himself delegitimized the dictatorship further.

Beathor was keen for an audience to lend support at his trial. Appended to the front of this stapled set of documents was a simple flyer, designed with a word processing program, that invited supporters to his trial on January 8, 1990 at the North Jakarta district courthouse. It began festively: "Attend! Freedom of Thought on Trial!" As expected, Beathor was found guilty by the judge and ended up serving time in Cipinang Prison in Jakarta, home to some of the New Order state's most targeted and disenfranchised political prisoners. Beathor was released after three years but was shortly after sent back to prison for daring to organize a free speech demonstration following the widely publicized publishing ban of the news magazines Tempo, Detik, and Editor in 1994.

Of those two thousand leaflets Beathor was convicted for, it is unlikely that any still exist, since such selebaran are often printed on cheap and small-sized newsprint. They wet and crumple easily. Thus, the very presence of these four documents beg questions of their survival and production, indeed, of activism as a kind of artisanal workshop for graphic forms and moral language. The legal facts preserved by Beathor's slim packet of papers can be verified by reading international human rights reports or by searching for additional news stories from the time. Such acts of verification are mandatory for historical fact-checking of the subversion trials and how they determined Beathor's fate, but I remain distracted by these four pieces of paper and their relationship to subversion and what Indonesians call "youth spirit" (semangat pemuda). Instead of trying to see Beathor the activist through the filter of an Indonesia Country Report on Political Prisoners, I can see more of Beathor the Trickster King in these taunting and disrespectful poems and flyers from an earlier era of student activism. I am therefore receptive to the duality of the student movement materials — they are both social things and things of extreme thinginess — paper-as-text and paper-as-artifact. Reading them becomes an act of graphology that employs a material attunement to the documentary details of the paper; engaging their textuality allows surprising biographical affects to course through; in Beathor's case and for many others, "I did this, because Suharto did that." The "social life of things," their circulation, their changing values and contexts over time, can begin to emerge (Appadurai 1986). Remember, it all started with an illegal leaflet Beathor wrote, printed, and distributed. Upon arrest, he used a manual typewriter. Likely, his friends outside helped him with the design and distribution of the trial flyer. Engaging Beathor's words and paying attention to the formats in which he presented them illuminates the contemporary pemuda stance inherent in his activism.

Pemuda fever suggests that Indonesian students had such an attachment to a historical understanding of their present-day selves that they sought to document each action, each gesture, at every turn, through every medium available. In her book Refracted Visions (2010), Karen Strassler provides the antecedents of this documentary and liberating turn by students, liberating because student acts of documentation counter statist narratives and claims to a single authority as a matter of course. Strassler argues that Indonesians value the importance of a "culture of documentation" as proof of a technologized modernity and value it all the more because they see themselves as lacking a culture of documentation that would firmly root national history within a teleology of global progress. Because the New Order state so successfully affixed its seal of authority upon the idea of documents as "national resources" to be managed by the state, documents themselves became viewed as uniquely historical "material resources of the historical imagination" (2008: 217). Still, the historical awareness about this particular resource deficit and its supplemental need was a middle- and upper-class privilege that largely excluded the rakyat from having any claim to a historical imagination. Reformasi overturned the stability of New Order historical narratives, normalizing what Strassler calls the "documentary fetish" among students who assumed the role of "archon," or steward of history (219).

My research in this chapter pushes this timeline back, to show that pemuda fever was providing another powerful fetish that aligned with the desire for documentation long before Reformasi hit. Student activists like Beathor Suryadi deployed documents to produce and circulate critical discourse against Suharto in an act of counter-hegemonic imagining. However, student activists understood that the literature they produced was inherently fragile and disadvantaged. Their documentary work depicts the state as oppressor and the nation as the oppressed in matter-of-factly insurgent and romantic tones, blurring the line between propaganda and social analysis. The artifacts of the politics they dreamed of and sketched out are abundantly available yet largely decentralized and incidental to the movement's later development. The dispersed, but nonetheless fetishistic, quality of activist documents is well illustrated by the following example. At the end of my fieldwork in 2005, Nurdin, an older activist from Bandung who had been active since the 1980s, promised to share with me the unpublicized reports from the ad hoc National Human Rights Commission investigation on the May Riots and mass rapes of Indonesian-Chinese women in May 1998. He had been a member of the investigating team and had kept a full set of the reports before they were redacted or shelved. Because of the sensitive nature of the issue and continued government denials that the rapes took place, the documents were of paramount historical importance, of which Nurdin was well aware. I was surprised when he showed up for our meeting in a public place bearing an ordinary, transparent supermarket plastic bag stuffed to the brim with paper. The reports were copies with corrupted tones and faded pages. I took the heavy bag from him and promised to return it once I had photocopied the report. The return of the files was delayed for a few months as I finished up my fieldwork, during which time I received several insistent and pleading emails and text messages from the activist to please return his files, for they were very important to him. When I did return the documents, I presented them in a sturdier paper bag, in the order I had found them in. He made no remark on their condition.

Student and activist materials thus have a quality of disarray and assemblage, loss and contingency. Paper was their techne of choice. As Heidegger explains in "The Question Concerning Technology," techne is a mode of revealing that asks us to go beyond the instrumental notion of paper as form, idea, and content (1977). Instead, techne is a bringing forth, a way of knowing and a means of making essential truths known. Why focus on paper when there are other means of accessing history, such as oral histories, interviews, and other anthropological tools in trade? Why should scholars fetishize the very materiality of the thing they study? I call attention to the techne of paper to challenge the idea that paper is mere trace and supplement to the real, live witnesses of history and that there are certain preconditions to be met for naming the activist archive. As Foucault has famously described the archive, it is a system of laws that determines what can and cannot be said, it produces regularities and marks differences, it composes distinct formations and relations (1977: 128–129). The archive is none other than "the system of ... enunciability," and activist paper's prolific reproduction, disarray, and dispersal begs to be seen as such a parallel system of political enunciations by youth. The technical aspect and technological contribution of paper is maintained in my usage of techne, but more important, thinking about paper as techne reveals the documentation practices of student activism to be social texts. Paper as techne indicates the way of things, and paper itself is the thing that remains. By this understanding, every activist text is charged with the burden of awareness, of a strong sense of wrong happening now that Agamben has called the identifying mark of the contemporary. Sifting through the paper record, this chapter uncovers the proto-history of the student movement in the archival assemblages and graphic forms that activists pioneered in their struggle against the repressive New Order state. Their archive is not a story of the state. It is a story of a type of communication and communicability thought to belong purely to students as the exemplary youth of the nation. It is a story that continuously rewrites the morality clause into nationalism in times of crisis.


Did pemuda fever burn slowly? It would seem so if our vantage point began with a history of the present through the lens of Reformasi. In the introduction, we have been made aware of a missing sequence in pemuda history. Nationalist and official historiography records nothing between the pemuda generations of 1978 and 1998. Thus there are twenty years of student absence from politics to account for. Was it true that those in-between years were in fact peaceful and prosperous, with university campuses churning out diplomas and factories producing goods dutifully? Just three years prior to Reformasi, Anders Uhlin, a political scientist reviewing the odds of continued authoritarianism versus grassroots democratization, concluded that "popular upsurge leading to the breakdown of the authoritarian regime" was "not a likely scenario for Indonesia. The authoritarian state is too strong and the popular movements too weak to make this a feasible alternative. Besides, there is little external support for such a path of democratization" (1995: 155). In a cautious caveat, Uhlin continued, "This scenario could, however, not be entirely ruled out. Some people compare the Indonesian society to a volcano that might erupt violently and unexpectedly" (155). The flawed analysis of "amok" resurgence notwithstanding, Uhlin's sense of the unexpected brewing within Indonesian society describes a general feeling of unrest without knowing its source.

Observations such as Uhlin's are partially accurate in that it took over a decade of "quiet" subversion and underground organizing for student-led resistance to appear on the national stage in 1998, when students mobilized in significant enough numbers to destabilize Suharto's crisis-stricken government. However, this commonly accepted narrative about the sudden eruption in 1998 commits two disservices to students and grassroots politics. First, it dismisses the continued nationwide interventions of students during the prior zaman normal (normal times). Second, it assumes that the Campus Normalization Act of 1978, which forced students "back to campus" and dismantled the organizational structures of student politics, successfully instilled a long period of dormancy for the most critical segment of Indonesian society. In fact, as Edward Aspinall's work reminds us, the "proto student movement" (a term I will use henceforth to refer to pre-Reformasi activism) was deeply critical of Suharto and hit the streets in protest, but their small numbers and sporadic protests accord them (at best) the status of handmaiden to the next, more eventful chapter of pemuda history. Many of the innovations that activists discovered during Reformasi, such as national-level networking, connecting to the grassroots in the urban poor, labor, and agrarian sectors, and the creative use of public space for political protest, existed in a smaller scale in the 1980s, yet these practices appear novel later on. The proto student movement looked "polite" and conservative in comparison to the radical street politics that emerged off campus in the mid-1990s and erupted during Reformasi.


Excerpted from Activist Archives by Doreen Lee. Copyright © 2016 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

Preface  ix

Acknowledgments  xiii

A Note about Names  xvii

Introduction. Pemuda Fever  1

1. Archive  25

2. Street  57

3. Style  85

4. Violence  117

5. Home  147

6. Democracy  179

Conclusion. A Return to Home  209

Notes  219

Bibliography  247

Index  269

What People are Saying About This

A Certain Age: Colonial Jakarta through the Memories of Its Intellectuals - Rudolf Mrázek

"Following the students through the city's streets, highways, dormitories, cafes, and other city spaces, Doreen Lee brings Jakarta to life, and what she tells us is truly enlightening. Activist Archives makes a significant contribution to Indonesian studies and to the study of youth activism in the world generally."

Refracted Visions: Popular Photography and National Modernity in Java - Karen Strassler

"Elegantly written, rich with ethnographic and archival material, and bursting with theoretical insights, Activist Archives offers novel analysis of one of the most important subjects of contemporary Indonesia. In Doreen Lee's sensitive ethnography the student activist emerges expressing a mix of fiery passion, intellectual idealism, irreverent playfulness, hipster self-consciousness, nostalgia, rivalry, and disillusionment. Artfully tacking between theory and the activists' everyday experiences, Lee shows how 'generation 98' has both sustained its identity and faded in relevance. Activist Archives will be a classic."

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