Paid protesting, or the process by which political groups hire people to turn out for protests in order to enhance the appearance of opposition or support for a particular issue, is a longstanding feature of Indonesian politics. It is such a common practice that Indonesian outlets have adopted the term “nasi bungkus brigade” to refer to these protesters, a reference to the fact that they tend to be provided with cash and a packed lunch in return for their enthusiastic participation in the democratic process.
While paid protesting is domestically recognized as one of the worst kept secrets of political chicanery in Indonesia, the “rent-a-crowd” phenomenon has so far been largely neglected in international coverage. Global media paid significant attention to the November-December 2016 protests surrounding the alleged blasphemy of Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (commonly referred to as Ahok), which saw some 200,000 citizens take to the streets to voice their outrage.
The exact extent to which the protesters could be considered “genuine,” however, is a matter of some uncertainty. In one report, an anti-Ahok protester confessed to having been paid some 200,000 rupiah to show up for the march, while another admitted that he still intended to vote for Ahok in the February 15 gubernatorial elections in spite of his participation in the protest. Ahok himself has claimed that other protesters received an exorbitant 500,000 rupiah per day, around $37. Sums like these are far above the average wage. With 380,000 persons living under the poverty line in Jakarta alone, it is not hard to see why an individual might respond to a WhatsApp group message calling for a day of protesting in return for nasi bungkus and a handful of cash.
Protests are ubiquitous in Indonesia, and throughout the post-Suharto era political parties have frequently utilized mass assemblies as a means to pressure the government and influence elections. While this is indicative of a healthy respect for the freedom of assembly, the rent-a-crowd method of political engagement also tends to result in situations where some participants appear to be unclear as to what exactly they are protesting.
Paid protesting is by no means limited to the November/December marches. A cursory glance reveals that paid protesters were reported to have been used in the 2014 presidential election, in the 2001 dispute between Megawati and Gus Dur, in further stops on the Ahok re-election campaign, and recently even in a parade in support of pluralism. While Indonesian netizens tend to paint the problem as having become quite prolific, it is unclear as to exactly how widespread paid protesting is within Indonesian political culture. The grassroots nature of the organizing that gets boots on the ground in the form of protesters — paid or otherwise — is logistically complex and difficult to track. The money and “material support” behind the anti-Ahok protests alone came from a dizzying variety of sources, including the FPI party, numerous Muslim charities and community organizations, and an obscure range of private donors.
This is not to discount the fact that Ahok’s comments have generated sincere outrage in many parts of Indonesia, particularly since the proportion of “genuine” protesters participating in the marches versus hired protesters cannot be accurately ascertained. But the phenomenon of paid protesting does raise questions about the extent of the influence of money politics and manufactured dissent on Indonesian democracy. As Indonesians continue to exercise their rights to protest in the lead up to the Jakarta elections, it may be incumbent upon international observers to view further footage of protesting crowds with a more discerning eye.
Sally Andrews studies Law/International and Global Studies at the University of Sydney, and is currently on exchange at the Law Faculty of Universitas Islam Indonesia. She was the 2016 Indo-Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs and a 2016 winner of the National Australia-Indonesia Language Awards.