How the Internet influenced Indonesian politics

September 15, 2005

How does the Internet influence public opinion about political movements? Dutch-sponsored researcher Merlyna Lim investigated the role the Internet played in the Indonesian reformation of 1998.

Merlyna Lim investigated the relationship between the Internet and political protest based on two model situations from Indonesia. From these two examples she drew general conclusions about the role of the Internet in the formation of public opinions and the consequences of this for political relations.

The Internet facilitates creative interaction between people and between people and their environment. Due to its openness, this technology is less sensitive to domination by a small number of elite groups. Although the Internet has the potential to generate and support collective protest, Lim believes that the worldwide web will never replace the importance of cultural and interpersonal contacts in collective actions.

The researcher based her findings on two historical situations. The first was the use of the Internet during the 'reformasi' of May 1998. The 'reformasi' is the political renewal movement which forced former president Soeharto out of power in 1998. Lin discovered that in this period, the Internet made a unique contribution to the political activism which led to the fall of Soeharto. There was a flurry of messages between the Internet and the conventional media, and with student activists, taxi chauffeurs and ordinary citizens in the so-called warung - kerbside food stalls.

Moluccan conflict

The second example was the use of the Internet by the Jihad Troopers, a radical militant group involved in the Moluccan conflict. This example illustrates how the Internet became the place where the original ethnic-religious and social identity was relived and deployed as a mobilisation strategy. This local identity could be enlarged and made more aggressive by directly providing information about violent incidents elsewhere in the Islamic world. As a result of this the conflict grew in size and lasted longer.

Although the researcher has drawn general conclusions, the Indonesian cases studied are not universal. More research in non-Western countries is necessary to gain a fuller picture of the social, historical, political and cultural dimensions of the Internet's role. Lim's research results can already be used to inform public organisations in developing countries about the relative importance of the Internet for the process of democratisation.
Merlyna Lim's research was funded by NWO-WOTRO.

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