« Deleted Scenes #03: E-Voting in the 2000 Arizona Primary | Home | Deleted Scenes »

Deleted Scenes #04: The Uprising in Indonesia

Posted on Sat, Feb 11, 2006 at 11:49 AM by Andrew Chadwick

This passage on the role of the Net in the rebellion against the Suharto regime in 1998 didn't appear in the final version of Chapter 06: Interests Groups and Social Movements: E-Mobilization.

An example of how an Internet and technology driven approach to development can have unintended consequences for the political system may be found in Indonesia's troubled transition to electoral democracy during the 1990s. In common with Singapore (and many other South East Asian countries operating according to a 'developmental state' model), during the 1980s, the Indonesian government rolled out an ambitious programme of infrastructural IT and network development. Overseen by President Suharto and led by the activist Minister for Research and Technology, B. J. Habibie, the programme established research networks linking universities and government bodies. By the mid-1990s, the country had a private ISP sector, and growing levels of Internet access. Habibie, who briefly became the country's President following the collapse of the old regime in 1998, had been inspired by a vision of a high-tech Indonesia that would leapfrog its way to economic development. Yet the regime believed that this would occur within the established confines of the Suharto regime's authoritarianism, in which media were censored by the state, their ownership concentrated in the hands of an economic and political elite sympathetic to the regime (Several of Suharto's family owned the major private television stations).

Indonesia not only consists of thousands of islands, making even internal travel difficult, but also its relative isolation in relation to the larger mainland areas in the region has traditionally made it more difficult to establish external links. Ironically, these kinds of communication problems spurred Habibie's development programme to create a large number of publicly subsidised Internet cafes, colloquially named 'warnet' (in reference to 'warung' - traditional Indonesian community meeting places). These proliferated during the mid-1990s, and eventually came to be used by pro-democracy campaigners to communicate their messages away from the official media (Hill and Sen, 2000; Lim, 2003).

By May 1998, censorship in Indonesia had all but collapsed, and the regime had been toppled. The Internet played a major role in the democratic revolution, allowing student rebels to plan their actions, such as the occupation of the Parliament building during May, using email and private bulletin boards. It allowed journalists to publish articles that were cut from the mainstream press by the censors. And it also made it possible for human rights groups in the West to make links with campaigners inside Indonesia. The Net was instrumental, not only in bypassing official censors, but also in overcoming many of the limitations imposed by the geography of the archipelago. The network of warnets were not only important in providing access for Indonesia's poor, they also functioned as important nodes in communication networks beyond the Internet. The latter included critical expatriates who were willing to publish information about the regime on bulletin boards and web sites, as well as intermediary groups such as taxi drivers, newsagents and street traders. Rather than a simple case of an 'Internet revolution', it was the way in which the Internet interacted with pre-existing social spaces that mattered (Lim, 2003: 284).


Lim, M. (2003) 'The Internet, Social Networks and Reform in Indonesia' in Couldry, N. and Curran, J. (eds) Contesting Media Power: Alternative Media in a Networked World (Rowman and Littlefield, Oxford), pp. 273-288.

« Deleted Scenes #03: E-Voting in the 2000 Arizona Primary | Top | Deleted Scenes »