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Guest Post | Fighting Back for Ahok and Indonesia’s Democracy: Why Now is Our Time to Act

Fighting Back for Ahok and Indonesia's Democracy

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Like many other Indonesians, I was shocked when I heard Ahok’s been sentenced to 2 years in prison. A lot of outrages and rallies ensued, demanding justice to be done. To be completely honest, I’m completely terrified that Indonesia will soon be taken over by people who want no diversity, and democracy will be a thing in the past. Adding to this is my skepticism of Indonesia that seems unable to protect its citizens’ rights. I’m also thinking, has my silence done a disservice in fighting the injustice?

What happened to Ahok was a slap in the face, to me and many others. I blame myself for not speaking up enough, and that’s gonna change. My friend, Ken Aura Matahari, is kind enough to write his experiences, thoughts, and hopes on this matter, many of which I also share. I hope after reading this, you’ll find optimism amid this grim situation to fight for justice and this country we call home, Indonesia. 


Feeling at home is one of the best feelings that many of us yearn for. It’s a sense of being at ease with everything in your surroundings. You feel that you can be yourself because it is safe. You can rest and you can grow as a person. It’s a privilege for someone to be born in a country where they can feel at home. Millions do not share that luck. My great-grandfather from my mother’s side packed his belongings into a suitcase and left China for what is now called Indonesia, in search of a new home. He started a family in a new country with a high hope of life better than the one he left behind.

Fast-forward to May 2017 in Indonesia, the country is in turmoil. Ahok – Jakarta’s Governor of ethnic Chinese and Catholic backgrounds – is given a 2-year jail term under the blasphemy charge. The world is shocked. The controversial figure is loathed by some and loved by others. To be clear, he is not a Saint. His confrontational communication style perhaps does not go too well in a country that maintains the tradition of keeping face. He has forcibly evicted the poor from the slum areas on the river banks. Yet, he is one of a select few leaders in politics that is (a) not corrupt (b) genuinely motivated to create change (c) come from minority backgrounds in a country where 87% of the population is Muslim. Ahok gives us hope that things were changing for the better until that hope was dashed in an instant.

For me who was born into a family of mix Chinese/Javanese and Catholic backgrounds, this feels like being punched in the guts again and again and again. Growing up, I was constantly reminded of how I did not belong to the society when kids in the local neighbourhood mocked my ‘chinky’ eyes or called me ‘Cina’ (Chinese). I was spat on because I looked different and I was told I was worshipping the wrong God. Family members on my mother’s side cannot legally own property in our hometown (Yogyakarta) because of their ethnic Chinese background. My mother often told me about how it made her annoyed, angry and humiliated to go to the government office when she wanted to renew her national ID card because she had to provide an additional paperwork due to her status as ‘non-native’ Indonesian despite being born in Indonesia, speaking Bahasa Indonesia and having an Indonesian citizenship. I also thought how strange it was for the family on my mother’s side to be officially required to have ‘Indonesian’ names and not allowed to use their Chinese names.

My family’s experiences are not unique. It’s a microcosm of the larger systematic discriminations meted out to those who are ‘othered’ by the state and Indonesian society. This has happened for decades. In May 1998, discriminations against ethnic Chinese Indonesians reached its peak when hundreds of shops belonging to ethnic Chinese Indonesians were burned down to ashes and hundreds of ethnic Chinese Indonesian women were mass-raped on the streets of Indonesian major cities, especially Jakarta. Little has been done to bring the perpetrators to justice since then, although the government gradually allowed ethnic Chinese Indonesians to embrace cultural expressions.

The calamity that has befallen Ahok sends shivers down the spines of many who share his minority backgrounds and those who believe in Indonesia as a democratic nation that embraces diversity. It sends a message of intimidation to us. It tells us that even though we are Indonesian citizens, we cannot hope to be treated as equals with those who are in the majority. The message tells us that we need to accept our second-class citizenship status and if we ruffle more feathers, we’ll get into troubles just like him.

Yet, I am sick of feeling oppressed and pitying myself like this. My great-grandfather took hundreds of miles journey so that we, his descendants, can have a decent life and contribute to our new home. But now, once again, we and million others Indonesians are being denied the door to our home.

We are now presented with a few options: do nothing and accept our subordination, fight, or leave the country for good. Each option has its pro and cons and everyone has their own reason to choose any of those options. I am not going to judge. For me personally, I have been living overseas in the last 10 years, and to be perfectly honest, my own life is probably not going to change dramatically whatever happens. But I cannot deny that I am still thinking about my extended family and my friends there. Plus, I would hate to have to feel like an alien when I come back to Indonesia someday. For me, the only logical option left is to fight for our rights to live as equal citizens in Indonesia and I hope you consider this option too.

For hundreds of years, the people who inhabit what is now called Indonesia were shackled by the chain of colonialism. We were treated as slaves with no freedoms and human dignity. We were treated as inferiors by the colonial masters. Thus we started internalising the oppression and believing that nothing could change because we were indeed inferior and not fit to govern ourselves. That was the case for almost an eternity until World War 2 ended. Shortly, a group of Indonesian Independence fighters declared Indonesia as an independent country and successfully repelled the advance of the Dutch military that ensued soon.

The moment Indonesia was liberated from imperialism, our country fell into the hand of a ruthless and corrupt military dictator – General Suharto – who governed the country with iron fist for more than 30 years. Many of us at the time thought he was God-like and undefeatable. Again, that changed when 1998 Asian Financial Crisis took place and the student movements along with others in the broader Reformasi movement took him down from power.

We took down the goliath twice!

It was supposed to be a golden era of democracy after that. We are supposing to be reaping the fruits of freedoms and equality by now. We are supposed to be living in a free country by now. But that is not yet a reality so we need to make it into one.

The era of European imperialism is over. So is the era of military dictatorship. Today, our enemy is an amorphous entity. They can sometimes take the form of religious fundamentalist groups. Sometimes they can take the form of government authorities. Behind them is faceless power-hungry maniacs who care mostly about themselves. Like our previous generation’s struggles, this is not going to be a short and easy battle.

But it is not impossible to win. As we have seen before, those giants are eventually taken down.

Our country has a lot of young people with energy and innovative ideas. We are more prosperous and educated. We are more globally connected. We have hundreds of tools at our fingertips: from computer to social media, video-camera and others. We speak multiple languages: Bahasa Indonesia, local dialect, and English. We have access to a huge array of organisations in Indonesia and around the world. World media outlets are currently spotlighting Indonesia. The UN, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch are on our side. The world is actually on our side.

We do not need to make history. We already are on the cusp of a massive historical change right now. The question is how do we get organised to use all the resources we have to make a positive change. This is the time for new Reformasi movement to take shape.

If you believe in the freedoms and equality of all Indonesian citizens regardless of what skin colour they have, what religion they have and so on, now is our chance to make sure that Indonesia live up to those values.

Start with something simple. Whether it’s on social media or through a public action, speak out and encourage others to do the same. The more we make our voice heard, the more we inspire others to do the same. Stop bringing each other down. People make unique contributions in their own way. We need to unite as one. No need to use this as an ego boosting exercise. This is not the time to play hero.

If you have friends, family members and acquaintances who disagree with you, don’t just shut them down. Try having conversations with them about the situation. Granted, it may not be easy and it may end up in a shouting match. So be strategic. Pick your battle, listen actively and persuade rather than debating to win.

There are so many progressive organisations on the ground working to protect Indonesia’s ‘unity in diversity’ values. If you live in Indonesia, why not spare a few hours every week volunteering with KONTRAS, ELSAM, Imparsial and Wahid Institute. These are human rights defenders at the frontline who risk their lives championing democratic values for all of us every single day. Do not leave them to fight alone. They need our support. If you don’t have time but have money, why not donate to these organisations? They need more funding to operate more effectively.

If you are overseas to study, do your best to be the best student you can be and find like-minded Indonesians who share your vision to create Indonesia that respects diversity and human rights. They can be your comrades when you go home to make a change.

If you are living overseas permanently, you are likely to have a lot of connections with people and organisations from other countries. Use your voice and connection to maintain global pressures on the Indonesian government to take firm actions against those who compromise Indonesia’s democratic values.

There are probably a million other things we call can do. The key is not to succumb to hopelessness and keep fighting the good fight by taking actions.

Let’s not let Ahok’s imprisonment for nothing. This is our time to fight for our rights and our country.

When I return to the country someday, I hope to still call Indonesia home. I hope you and the future generations do too. So let’s fight for it to become our home (again).


Ken Aura Matahari is an Indonesian nomad stuck in Down Under, a human rights activist, and a chronic Facebook ranter who wants to use his rant to spark a change.

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4 Comments

  • Reply Stephanie

    Very well written. Thank you for sharing this, Dixie! :)

    May 13, 2017 at 5:27 pm
    • Reply Dixiezetha

      Thank you Steph. All credit goes to my friend Ken :)

      May 15, 2017 at 1:17 pm
  • Reply aggy87

    A beautiful piece of writing, also a great reminder for us all that there are many ways to fight this “battle”. Thank you for the reminder.

    May 17, 2017 at 2:03 pm
    • Reply Dixiezetha

      Thank you Gy. I felt like we all needed to be reminded not to lose hope, so that’s why I asked my friend to share his stories and thoughts.

      May 18, 2017 at 2:14 pm

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