It's after midnight in Jakarta and, below a highway overpass, a party is just getting started. Students and the unemployed are listening to well-worn cassette tapes, swigging from bottles filled with a cocktail of beer and local wine and loitering in front of Movement Records — a punk-music shop that has become a nexus for local youths. It is also home to Onie, one of Jakarta's self-proclaimed original street punks, who both works and sleeps on the premises. "It is very quiet at night," Onie says. "The shops are closed, so society is O.K. with us being here. My friends can come at night and argue, laugh and fight for as long as they want."
Although they are from different backgrounds, Onie's cohorts all proudly call themselves punks — a name first coined 30 years ago. His gang must be one of the last anywhere in the world to use the term today, and stepping inside Movement Records is to walk into a shrine to another era. Posters and stickers of their heroes — bands from the 1970s such as the Sex Pistols, the Ramones and the Clash — adorn every inch of wall space. "Punk is about freedom," says Onie. "People can choose what they want to do and what they want to say." When the punk movement first surfaced in England in 1977, its nihilistic posturing and contempt for cultural and pop-music traditions rattled both the social and entertainment establishments. Long after the movement petered out or became commercialized elsewhere, it took hold for the first time in Jakarta in the mid-1990s — at a time when the music's belligerence seemed to perfectly echo the hostility many young people felt toward the authoritarian regime of then President Suharto.
Onie recalls listening to Guns N' Roses and boy band New Kids on the Block and never feeling a real connection with the music. "Then an Indonesian friend told me that I had to listen to Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols and I loved it," he says. Punk soon proliferated as rapidly as cassette duplicates of the albums could be made, and Onie and his friends would meet nightly at Blok M — beside Jakarta's main 24-hour bus terminal — to swap bootlegs of albums by the likes of American punk rockers the Casualties and Scottish four-piece the Exploited.
"The youth were attracted to the freedom and rebellion that punk offered," says Trax magazine's music editor, Farid Amriansyah. "They were looking for an identity and punk gave it to them." Onie's friend Aca found his mood reflected in the stark lyrics of Fight Back, the 1980 protest anthem by English hardcore-punk band Discharge: "People die in police custody/ Where's the justice in that?/ Don't see none/ Fight the system, fight back." These words directly inspired Aca to join street protests in 1998, when he was tear-gassed and bludgeoned with the butts of police rifles. "I felt so alive then," he says. "I learned from punk and I was ready to fight no matter what." Eko, the owner of another record store, Anti Music Records, and a former member of one of Jakarta's first punk bands, the Idiots, says he constantly lives by punk's rebellious code. "I am always in a punk state of mind," he declares, as if electronica or hip-hop had never happened. "Punk is better than religion to me."
Amriansyah explains that there are thousands of punks in the country. "Through an underground network of fanzines, record trading, the growth of independent distribution outlets and the power of the Internet," he says, "the scene is widely spreading to every region in Indonesia." But these days peer support, not protest, is one of the main attractions. One of Jakarta's youngest punks, 11-year-old Doing, meets up with his friends every afternoon at a playground near Blok M. With calloused bare feet and PUNK tattooed on his fingers, he survives by playing his ukulele on buses for money. "Punks are my family," Doing says.
At this family's core are the members of Marjinal, a punk band that has helped over a thousand street kids earn cash by teaching them how to busk. "Music gives these kids a way to survive, to make some kind of living," says Mike, Marjinal's lead singer. "Punk, to me, is addressing the things that are rotten in society. It tells us that we have the ability to be independent and take care of each other."
There isn't a kid at a Marjinal show that doesn't know the lyrics to every one of the songs. "How are you, everybody?" sings Mike to a crowd of around 200 children, five years old and up. "Including the one who lives under the bridge, under the heat of the sunshine, the ones that live on the streets. How are you?" The children sing along as they pile onto the stage. "Let's share the good and the bad times together!" Mike exhorts over the roar of their voices. It may be 30 years late, but for many of these kids punk is the best thing that has ever come to Indonesia.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s administration, in fact, launched a surprising new offensive on free speech last year with an intensity not seen since the Suharto regime, which brutally ruled Indonesia for more than 30 years before being toppled in 1998.
Such autocratic restrictions returned to the public’s radar in December when the Jakarta Foreign Correspondent’s Club canceled a screening of the film "Balibo" — which depicts the 1975 killing of five Australian journalists by the Indonesian military in East Timor — for fear of legal reprisals after being told that authorities had banned the film.
The government’s growing penchant for the blacklist contrasts starkly with Indonesia's ferociously free press, possibly the most unfettered in Southeast Asia. That freedom was on display as nearly every newspaper, television and magazine organization in the country derided the censor’s decision to ban "Balibo."
The Indonesian Journalist’s Association openly defied the order, organizing dozens of screenings using text messages and social networking. Copies of the film are also easily found at numerous pirate DVD outlets around the capital Jakarta and clips are widely available on the web.
“There is no point in banning anything these days,” said Anhor Gonggong, a professor of history at the University of Indonesia who has spent a lifetime fighting censorship. “There is no use. If a film is banned we can still find it. If bookstores don’t carry a banned book, we can easily read it online. It’s no problem.”
Not that the government isn’t trying.
A new film law passed last September requires producers to now submit their scripts to a committee of red pens before shooting can begin. Even “slasher” films are getting slashed. The directors of the internationally acclaimed gore fest, “Rumah Dara (Dara’s House),” said the censors forced them to cut several particularly gruesome closeups.
But censors have been the most busy with the oldest of old media — books. More than 200 books are now listed as banned. After Suharto’s ouster, some books, including ones by celebrated Indonesian author Pramoedya Ananta Toer, were taken off the blacklist and the practice in general nearly ceased. Between 2002 and 2008, the government banned only six books in total.
Five books were banned, by contrast, in 2009 alone.
Anything that can disturb the public order can be banned from circulation,