“A society is democratic to the extent that its citizens play a meaningful role in managing public affairs. If their thought is controlled, or their options are narrowly restricted, then evidently they are not playing a meaningful role; only the controllers, and those they serve, are doing so.” (Chomsky, 1991, Deterring Democracy)
Indonesia itself is a democracy, and a quiet one that probably doesn’t cause the governments of the world many troubles. Obama even came here last year to revisit his old childhood home, and to shake hands with the democratically elected President, SBY. And to reassure each other that they were still friends and that Indonesia would continue to allow the US to mine and drill and the Americans would continue to use Indonesia as a cheap labour source and what other areas of business they had with each other. It was democracy at work and the people shouted “hurrah” as the already overpacked streets of Jakarta were shut down and the people patiently sat for hours trying to get home and waiting for the President’s security, and then the President himself, to drive by so that the lights would turn green.
To be honest, I never really watch the news or read the newspaper. Sometimes this brings shame at the lack of knowledge I possess over current events, but other times I feel that the news is such a propaganda machine, that I don’t know who to trust. I feel that events, whether large or small, that are happening in the world, are totally outside of my control, and that what drives them, is beyond my meager comprehension. And that if I truly knew, and the horrors of the world were revealed to me; my brain would explode. And world leaders would be revealed to be the alien lizards that David Icke talked about.
Of course though, the news of Tunisia and Egypt has reached me. Even my Indonesian friends who rarely speak politics or about world affairs asked me the question, “so how about Mubarak?” to which I replied “Who?” and was met with looks of surprise. Then I felt that I better take a look, because if Indonesians are talking politics then something important must be happening.
So when I read about the revolutions in these countries I got a little excited about the power of people to join together, even after years of being oppressed, to have the will to stand on the street and risk being shot at to say “we don’t want to be slaves anymore”. I have lived in a ‘democracy’ all of my life. In Australia, we are taught to believe that we are free to choose our own lives; that our government is serving our best interests, that we will be looked after when we are in trouble, that there are support networks to provide for us if we lose our jobs or find it difficult to feed our families. And wrapped in this blanket of safety we go to school or work, and we go shopping, and we buy houses and cars, and use our credit cards to spend money not yet earned, but which we believe we can pay off one day.
We know really that democracy doesn’t mean the same thing to different people. I think that democracy is supposed to mean that all the people have a voice in the public arena of the country they live in. If I think about Indonesian as a democratic nation then I wonder whether all the people have a voice at all; or if financial hardship keeps their eyes down low, and the religious belief bonds them together. There are no safety nets in Indonesia; if you get sick no government will fund your hospital stay; rather, the people in your community will look after you and collect money to pay for your expenses. One of the main philosophies of Islam is to look after people less fortunate than you; so it is the people of Indonesia, rather than the governments, who can be relied on, and thus the value of community is at its highest here. So I guess within communities, there is democracy. But on a national level, I question whether it exists.
What scares me about democracy is how the public is manipulated first to believe something is true about the world, and about the people in a different part of it, and then after the propaganda machine has effectively done its work, then the little people can then have a say. For example in Australia we are manipulated to believe that muslims are terrorists, that Indonesia is dangerous, that refugees are potential threats to our safety and need to be kept apart from the public, and a politician’s stance on these issues (even allowing refugee’s boats to sink under the eye of the Australian navy) can democratically win them the election.
People use their democratic power to vote for a leader who has been working with the media to manipulate opinions, and who will only be in power for a short term; and in this term he/she must earn him/herself a good reputation, make some money for the country (doing deals with super multinational powers who can use this fine leader as a puppet as they wave trillions of dollars lost or gained in his face), inject money into health and education (whilst sucking up to the big wigs who control these departments and who have turned these institutions into companies run to make a profit), justify trillions in military spending and then try and retain some of the values that made them human, while signing documents allowing troops to bomb cities or stand by as some despotic leader exterminates their population to which it has been decided that your country and its allies have no interest and should leave them to their own devices as they have nothing of value to offer you.
Democracy has become a word loaded with so much power that it can justify a war or two, justify the deaths of civilians, and let people watch from a distance and feel that a certain amount of deaths are acceptable in order for a country to become democratic. It is a word that can be pulled into the political arena any time a country isn’t doing what the world leaders want them to do.
What scares me about current political events is the power of governments, particularly the US government of course, to decide who is good and evil on the domestic and the world stage. They have always done it; they have created ideologies about who is good and evil within their country and outside of it, and people have to agree, or be punished. They are smart; some of the smartest people in the world, working behind out backs, under our feet, over our heads, and eventually entering into our brains through education and media, implanting ideas. Implanting leaders in control of countries of interest. And removing them again if they don’t do as they are told.
Before the revolution in Egypt, when I thought of that country, I only had pictures of deserts and pyramids. As Egypt was quiet, it stayed out of the news. It accepted money from the US, was ruled by a dangerous and greedy man, yes, and he was oppressing his people, yes, but they kept quiet, so no need to intervene. Just send them the weapons and let them keep their people quiet. And then all of a sudden, the people weren’t quiet. And now Egypt isn’t a land of pyramids and deserts in my head, it is a land of people; of families, of cultures, of citizens who want to be heard and who want to be able to live their lives freely. But what is going to happen to them when their sense of freedom and of at last having a voice, meets the rest of the world? What type of leader will they get that will be acceptable to America? What will that leader have to do to bring back the sense of calm to the country which makes them easier to rule? Am I too cynical?
If I come back to Indonesia and think about democracy here; how this came about, what treatment of Indonesians was tolerated by the world, and the ways that Indonesia has been treated in its history, then my stomach starts to turn. As I have met many expats this year, who have arrived in Indonesia, fresh from their own country and who are amazed by the kindness of Indonesians, surprised by how safe it is, and of course blown away by how cheap it is to buy things or to hire someone to iron your clothes and cook for you, I think, what has the world done to Indonesia? Why are the people struggling to survive? Why do they earn $1 a day? Why is this acceptable? Is it because, like the Egyptians before the recent events, they are quiet about it? Is it because no one has bothered to educate the majority of Indonesians properly?
I don’t know. These are merely my musings. But sometimes I think I catch a glimmer in an eye here when they talk about Egypt, and maybe that’s all that is possible now.