Indonesia: Grassroots Movements In The New Indonesia


Professor Virginia Hooker

It has become a convention inside and outside Indonesia to describe traditional society in the region as based on the principle of 'gotong royong' or mutual help. The rhetoric developed during the Soeharto period drew on and strengthened the convention in the broader framework of the national ideology of 'family-ness' or 'others before self'. In practice gotong royong was better suited to rural rather than modern urban life and the current generation of Indonesians do not understand the term in the way their forebears once did.

The effects of the monetary crisis, however, have led to a resurgence of the spirit of gotong royong. As elite politics have become increasingly unstable and unpredictable, ordinary Indonesians have begun to draw on their own resources and take action at the local level. Housewives, workers, students, and farmers are joining self-help groups formed for both moral and material support. One of the more publicised groups is 'Suara Ibu Peduli' ('The Voice of Concerned Mothers') which was initiated in February 1998 by women's activist and philosophy graduate Dr Karlina Leksono to protest about the soaring price of food for children. Dr Leksono emphasises that the full effects of the monetary crisis on growing children will not be seen for many years. Hundreds of thousands of children are currently malnourished, are unable to continue their education and are suffering emotional trauma as a result of the civil violence they have witnessed or personally experienced. Her greatest concern is for the families of victims of the campaign of military terror in Aceh waged by the Armed Forces in the early 1990s. Children who saw their fathers killed and their mothers abused or raped are exhibiting signs of severe maladjustment with outbreaks of violence at school and bouts of depression. While neighbours and Muslim charitable organisations are doing their best to care for these children they obviously need special counselling and Dr Leksono is working to organise this.

In Jakarta she reports that Suara Ibu Peduli attracted 5000 members in its first six months and now has branches outside the capital. She does not initiate new groups herself but acts as a facilitator when approached by people who want to establish their own group. The organisation is coordinated from one small office which is staffed by members who work voluntarily for a day a month. In this way woman without office experience learn some basic office skills. Because groups arise according to need their concerns are varied but the existence of the movement offers a framework for mutual help at the neighbourhood level.

Movements such as Suara Ibu Peduli indicate that the spirit of gotong royong can be revived even in urban contexts. The emergence of such self-help groups also suggests that although there have been claims that Indonesia is descending into chaos, the scenario of total collapse does not seem credible while resilience at the local level is so strong and determined.

WATCHPOINT: The prospects for Indonesia will depend on more than elite politics or economics.


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