Thursday, March 30, 2006

Blogs in Cyberasian political activism

Merlyna Lim passed through Utrecht yesterday morning and I had a cappuccino with her. I have known Merlyna since 2003 when I met her as a member of the World Summit Award (WSA) Grand Jury in Dubai; I met her again in 2005, when she was in Bahrain for the WSA Grand Jury. Merlyna was in the Netherlands for a series of lectures and discussions and happened to pass through Utrecht, so we planned a coffee, before she moved on to Amsterdam, where she was going to present a lecture last night.

Merlyna Lim at the Central Station meeting point in Utrecht

She is a young, intelligent and sharp lady. She is a trained architect, who graduated from Bandung Institute of Technology. But she changed direction and moved from physical spaces to virtual public spaces on internet. She has written a lot of articles, as her bibliography shows. Her main work is in describing the part internet played in the politics in Indonesia. So she describes the period of the fall of Suharto and the rise of Jihad fundamentalists. Merlyna Lim received her PhD on online activism in Indonesia from the Dutch University of Twente and is currently affiliated to the Annenberg Center for Communication at the University of Southern California where she is extending her studies to cyber activism in Southeast Asia, Cyberasia.

During our chat she indicated that blogging in Indonesia has become an outlet for thoughts on society differently from the mainstream media, which are still acting in the hierarchical order and are politically correct. Bloggers are stronger in wording their position than in the traditional Indonesian oral tradition. Merlyna is hoping that blogging and other media should influence each other, as this would yield an unknown openness in public space.

It was interesting to see the webcast of her presentation in Amsterdam last night where she tried to answer the question whether Indonesian cyberspace still does facilitate critique on the political system the way it did before the downfall of the Suharto-regime in 1998.

The answer is clear from her article Cyber-Civic space in Indonesia:
The Indonesian experience clearly shows that the internet can be a cyber-civic space where people can mingle without state intervention. Under Suharto, the state’s system of control and surveillance constricted such activity in all other potential civic spaces, so political activation through the internet became vital to political reform. Yet, in the post-Suharto era, it is not clear whether civil society will flower in the liberated cyberspaces of the internet, or will instead succumb to communal resistance and the disintegration of civil society itself. If the latter situation comes to pass, Indonesia is likely to experience a severely weakened state and a fragmented society, risking perpetual instability. In such a situation, some segments of society might even reinvent the Suharto era as halcyon days of national coherence and prosperity, forgetting the daily suppression of civil society. If, on the other hand, a vibrant civil society with a stable government under the rule of law emerges to overcome communal resistances, Indonesia will be able to chart its own destiny in a global age. In the final analysis, the paramount question concerns how to retain the integrity of Indonesian society in
a way that allows for the continuity of the nation-state. Civil society must be an active force in the formation of political communities that can work collectively to resolve rather than foment social divides.

The presentation of Merlyna Lim and Isaac Mao will be stored in the Waag video archives.

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