Johannes Nugroho: Saeni and Civil Disobedience

The sweeps have been officially banned although the continue each Ramadan month. (Antara Photo/Muhammad Iqbal)

By : Johannes Nugroho | on 3:09 PM June 21, 2016
Category : Opinion, Columns

It probably didn’t occur to Saeni, a simple middle-aged food stall owner, that her encounter with the municipal police (Satpol PP) of Serang, Banten, would have life-altering consequences. Earlier this month, Saeni had her humble “warung” raided as it was open for business for lunch during the Islamic fasting month.

This was a violation a regional regulation in Serang, which bans the sale of food and drink during the fasting hours. The incident was widely reported in the press and was shared on social media. In response, netizen Dwika Putra Hendrawa set up a fundraising campaign which netted around $15,000 in solidarity for Saeni.

The success of the campaign surpassed all expectations. It was heartwarming to see thousands of Indonesians come to Saeni’s aid. Her plight became nothing short of a cause célèbre: even President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo contributed money to her cause. But we should probably pause here. Was it really her cause? It was no doubt her misfortune that her stall should be raided but did she envisage the outpouring of support that followed?

The answer is probably no. The fundraising seemed to have attracted two types of donors: first, people who sympathized with Saeni for her loss of livelihood during Ramadan and wanted to be charitable; second, people who saw the raid as a manifestation of injustice, not to mention a violation of Saeni’s rights, and contributed as a form of protest.

The majority of the donors in all likelihood belonged to the first group. For people in the second group, however, their act was in a way political. It was an act of defiance, bordering on civil disobedience, against the ban on the sale of food and drink during the fasting hours in Serang and other areas with similar rules.

Within a young democracy like Indonesia, such civic action is exciting and even conducive to the formation of civil societies. Unfortunately, in Saeni’s case, they may have picked the wrong cause to fight under. As far as Saeni was concerned, she had no cause at all; her only fear was that her inability to open shop might play havoc with whatever plans she had for Idul Fitri.

So Saeni only unwittingly became a symbol for the fight against the law which only favors the strong and the majority. Did the citizens who rallied to her have just grievances? The answer is yes ─ if the secular nature of our constitution were to be maintained and upheld. Article 28 of the 1945 Constitution unwaveringly guarantees every Indonesian’s right to his or her means of livelihood. So by breaking up Saeni’s shop, the municipal government of Kota Serang infringed upon her constitutional right to earn a living.

Nevertheless, it is doubtful Saeni realized the inconstitutional nature of what befell her. She must have been pleasantly surprised by the fundraising but, judging by her response, it’s only fair to say that she fails to see the donation beyond a mere act of charity, certainly not an act of defiance against.

In the (imaginary) fight for justice by the second group, Saeni herself in the end enacted an anticlimax when she admitted on national television that she had been in the wrong, apologized to the nation and promised not to open her stall again during Ramadan.

In the (imaginary) fight for civil liberties, the fight ended as its central (though unaware) figure surrendered. Through her capitulation to the regulation, Saeni dashed the hopes of the civil society that rallied behind her.

But Saeni wasn’t to blame here. If she was the person upon whom the dreams of secularism and democratic ideals had been heaped, she never asked for such a role. Nor did she ask anyone to rally behind her. She was just a simple woman who wanted to have enough means to celebrate Lebaran properly.

Unwittingly again, she also typifies why civil disobedience in Indonesia rarely works as an agent of democratization. Firstly, not too many Indonesians are versed in the history of democracy and other comparative systems of government to carry out acts of civil disobedience successfully.

Secondly, it goes against the instinct of most Indonesians, which is to prize consensus above anything else, even if the consensus is more often an enforced compromise on one of the parties. A consensus-based society like Indonesia is prone to producing the conformist rather than the individualist, which is a term in the Indonesian language en par with antisocial.

The last major show of civil disobedience in the country was the 1998 mass demonstrations organized by university students, which ended President Suharto’s rule of 32 years. Yet the Indonesian inclination towards consensus birthed a compromise: Reformasi rather than Revolusi.

Many democracy activists now look back on 1998 and believe the changes were superficial and not thorough enough to address the real problems Suharto’s iron-fisted reign had produced.

Like Reformasi, Saeni’s incident has left some unfinished business. While it’s comforting to know that she won’t have to worry about Lebaran this year, she will surely have to abide by the ban next year.

Perhaps the greatest irony is that in Indonesia is that, in the face of similar bans across the country, the central government stands by while the constitution is assailed and the basic rights of citizens sullied.

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