Indonesian students abroad take to the streets

Indonesian students abroad take to the streets
Overseas Indonesians living in Paris stage protests against President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Sporadic demonstrations have broken out against the success of the Red-and-White Coalition in passing of the law that abolished the rights of the people to directly elect regional heads. Most of the protests and criticism were channeled through social media.

The situation, however, is quite different abroad. From Washington DC, New York, Perth, Melbourne to Amsterdam, Indonesian political activists have united, taking advantage of social media to hold protests against efforts to curtail people's democratic rights.

In New York, dozens of students gathered at Times Square. In Washington, a group of Indonesian students demanded President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who was on a visit to the US last month, to stop betraying the nation.

The House of Representatives recently passed the Regional Elections Law, which curtails people's voting rights. Under the new law, governors, mayors and regents are elected by legislative councils instead of directly by the people. Indonesia began holding local direct elections in June 2005 in Kutai Kartanagara as mandated by Law No. 32 on regional head elections, one year after Indonesian voters directly elected their president for the first time.

Millions of Indonesians are disappointed by the new restrictive law.

The same disappointment has encouraged Indonesians living abroad to organise protests against the law.

One of the biggest protests occurred in Melbourne on Saturday, with more than 60 people taking part. Standing in one of the biggest public spaces in the heart of Melbourne, protesters carried signs and wore masks depicting political actors who are being held responsible for letting the new bill pass.

Poetry readings and a short theatrical act were also organised as part of the protest.

One of the student coordinators, Aulia Latif, told The Jakarta Post that the protest was aimed at putting more international pressure on President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and political elites in Indonesia.

"What we have learned about the President is that he is really concerned about his image. For the last 10 years, we have seen him building his international image. So I hope this [protest] puts [more] pressure on him," he said.

It took the organizer of Melbourne's protest less than a week to organise everything and gather the masses."We can easily organise everything using social media," said Aulia, who also took part in student protests to topple president Soeharto in 1998.

Facebook and Twitter enable people to voice their opinions about the government and facilitate protests and other political movements.

A more coordinated approach has been adopted by other groups of Indonesians living abroad in response to the passing of the Regional Elections Law. Through social media, Indonesians in Perth, Amsterdam, Canberra, Berlin and Vancouver coordinated with each other to organise a non-violent protest against the law.

The mastermind behind the movement, Diah Kusumaningrum, said that the idea behind the unique concept was to raise global awareness of the issue and invite the international community to participate.

"For us, it is important that the wakes are seen as events where world citizens - not just Indonesians - mourn a rollback of democracy," said Diah, who is based in Austria.

Ironically, there have been no major protests on Indonesian streets. The most vocal reactions have been expressed on social media.

The creation of the hashtag #ShameonyouSBY, which was later replaced by #ShamedbyYouSBY are a part of the online movements criticising the passing of the law. The hashtag #ShameonyouSBY went to the top of Twitter's worldwide trending topics list.

Yet many believe that voicing criticism on social media is not enough. Some political activists see the need for the masses to take to the streets and be part of protests such as those that were held in 1998.

Nanang Indra Kurniawan, a PhD candidate at Victoria University and also a lecturer on politics at Gadjah Mada University, said that political activism in 1998 and today was incomparable.

"The situation is different. Back in 1998, our enemy was clear - Soeharto and his authoritarian New Order regime - but the problems have become more plural," he said. Nanang was also involved in the 1998 student protests.

It seems that Indonesia's intelligentsia living abroad have taken one step ahead by staging protests not only on social media but also on the streets.

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