Being a tourist in Myanmar

By Kristina Jönsson, Associate Professor
Department of Political Science, Lund University

The political changes currently seen in Myanmar (former Burma) were for most observers unthinkable only a few years ago. I am not a specialist on Burmese politics, but have over the years followed the developments in the country from a regional perspective in relation to the neighbouring Laos and Cambodia, countries I have studied more closely.

Recently I travelled in Myanmar for three weeks, not as a researcher but as a tourist on an organised trip. Although I spent my time doing touristic activities, enjoying the beautiful country and friendly people, I could not help making a few observations based on my academic background.

Men wearing longyies in Yangon

Men wearing longyies in Yangon

I was not certain what to anticipate, but my impression of the country was more positive than I thought it would be – probably because of all the negative publicity over the years. Practicalities did overall work better than expected during the tour, and my impression was that Myanmar is a country with great potentials to develop rapidly under the right circumstances. Yangon with its bustling atmosphere reminded me of Thailand, the tourist spots made me think of Cambodia and the countryside of Laos.

However, the pace of change varies. To mention a few examples, modern materialism, such as cars and smart phones have been made affordable to the non-elite after years of exorbitant prices. ATMs and the use of credit cards are spreading as international business and tourism expand. These changes co-exist with the widespread use of traditional longyies. It is impossible for foreigners to use their cell phones with a foreign subscription. Also, most of the country has yet to get electricity and the indicators for health and education are among the worst in the region.

Still, the political development is the most noteworthy change. The control over media has relaxed and political prisoners are released en masse. The by-election in 2012 was a victory for the National League for Democracy (NLD), and Aung San Suu Kyi is now a member of the parliament. President Thein Sein has even indicated support of changing the constitution in order for Aung San Suu Kyi to run for presidency (which is currently impossible because of her marriage to a foreigner).

Aung San Suu Kyi and her father, the national hero General Aung San, are highly present in everyday life through pictures and calendars, both in Yangon and in the countryside. We saw many NLD offices in the villages but only a few bureaus of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). In general, the support of the opposition seemed widespread except where the army has its bases (e.g. close to conflict areas).

Party office of National League for Democracy

Party office of National League for Democracy

The outcome of the 2015 election will be an important indicator of the real political changes. What will happen if NLD wins a landslide victory as in 1990? Will the result be accepted or will there be a backlash? Are current political changes a serious attempt to democratise the country, or just a survival strategy for the regime to achieve ‘performance legitimacy’? The top-priority of the regime is clearly stability, and what we can see so far is a strictly controlled top-down transformation. This has been going on since 2003 by implementing the seven-step roadmap towards the establishment of a ‘disciplined democracy’, including a new constitution and elections.

Many issues threaten a positive development. For instance, the issue of ethnic conflicts is still unsolved, the drug trade is apparently increasing, and communal strife between Buddhist and Muslims is increasingly violent – amply illustrated by the persecution of the Rohingyas. And even if the ‘freedom of press’ has improved, journalists have recently been arrested and there are reports of the army assaulting civilians.

Party office of Union Solidarity and Development Party

Party office of Union Solidarity and Development Party

Moreover, there is an emerging symbiosis between business and the state, supporting crony capitalism and corruption empowering a narrow oligarchy, not the least in the borderlands. Besides the extraction of natural resources, the tourist sector is booming. Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake may have difficulties coping with the influx of foreign visitors, but the prices for hotel rooms etc. are increasing, enabling lucrative business. Ordinary citizens may benefit from this development, although it is probably the elite, the army included, who make the largest profit.

The development in Myanmar may not be unlike other Southeast Asian countries that have experienced similar development trajectories. Some draw parallels to Indonesia due to historical similarities. Others make comparisons to Cambodia, where external pressure led to the introduction of democratic institutions without significantly altering the political-economic powers structures under the authoritarian rule of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Another issue is the effects of the political changes in Myanmar regarding regional dynamics. Myanmar used to be ‘worst in class’, but now the regime gets international praise and heads of states have been queuing for audience with President Thein Sein. From 2014 Myanmar even holds the chair of ASEAN. This development indirectly puts pressure on countries like Laos and Vietnam to introduce political reforms.

So, what are the ‘pros’ of being a tourist on an organised tour? You see a lot of the country (even if some areas are not accessible because of opium cultivation and armed conflict), you do not have to apply for permits (the guide takes care of that), and you experience comfortable hotels as well as unpretentious home-stays.

Tourist spot Bagan

Tourist spot Bagan

But perhaps this is also the ‘cons’ of being a tourist. You have a pleasant experience, but only see changes on the surface in parts of the country where people gradually are improving their lives. Those with lesser means probably will have to wait a long time for a better life, while others with the right connections rapidly can further their wealth.

Sources and further reading:

Croissant, Aurel & Kamerling, Jil (2013) Why Do Military Regimes Institutionalize? Constitution-making and Elections as Political Survival Strategy in Myanmar, Asian Journal of Political Science, 21(2): 105-125

Holliday, Ian (2010) Ethnicity and Democratization in Myanmar, Asian Journal of Political Science, 18(2): 111-128.

Jones, Lee (2013) The Political Economy of Myanmar’s Transition, Journal of Contemporary Asia, 44(1): 144-170.

Jones, Lee (2014) Explaining Myanmar’s regime transition: the periphery is central, Democratization, DOI: 10.1080/13510347.2013.863878. Published online 28 Jan 2014.

Renshaw, Catherine Shanahan (2013) Democratic Transformation and Regional Institutions: The Case of Myanmar and ASEAN, Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs, 32(1): 29–54.

Rieffel, Lex (2012), Myanmar on the Move: An Overview of Recent Developments, Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs, 31(4): 31-49.

Taylor, Robert H. (2012) Myanmar: From Army Rule to Constitutional Rule? Asian Affairs, 43(2): 221-236.

Taylor, Robert H. (2013) Myanmar’s ‘Pivot’ Toward the Shibboleth of ‘Democracy’, Asian Affairs, 44(3): 392-400.

Farming is Ugly: Reform, Friction and Bishan Commune

From 2014, Anhui Province will pilot a reform of the residential land market in China, thus integrating rural Anhui in the national housing market. On the opposite note, artist and activist Ou Ning has proposed the Bishan time money currency, intending to establish an alternative economic circuit in Bishan Village.


Bishan Village. A new and an old Hui-style house side by side, fronted by a very blue tele company commercial.

Bishan Village. A new and an old Hui-style house side by side, fronted by a very blue tele company commercial.


Bishan Village, Yi County, Anhui Province

At first sight, Bishan village doesn’t come across as a poor village; the traffic conditions are good, the small county seat is only 15 min away on electric scooter, the preferred vehicle of most villagers, and the county seat can boast of a new hospital, a new school, rows of new townhouses and apartment blocks, construction sites and smaller factories. There are similarly plenty of newly build houses in Bishan. Nevertheless, the wealth represented by these new houses, does not come from the local economy, but is almost entirely based on young people going to the city to work, sending money home, building houses they do not themselves reside in. Old people and small children constitute the actual population as most young people have left to work in the more developed urban areas. Furthermore, many families, who have migrated to the city, have had no legal way of selling the land they no longer reside on, leaving the village dotted with empty houses.

Yi County is renowned for its well-preserved Hui-style villages, and the growing reliance on tourism through the past ten years has altered the economic foundation of these villages considerably. Bishan is, however, not one of these tourist sites. Even though Hui-style remains the predominant architectural feature, the many newly build houses cause a lack of visual, rural authenticity so crucial to urban tourists. Nevertheless, Bishan has become attractive to investors, mainly within the hotel sector, who wish to take advantage of its proximity to famous tourist destinations and good traffic conditions.

In this Huizhou village on the foot of the Yellow Mountain range, artist, curator and editor Ou Ning and his colleague Zuo Jing initiated Bishan Commune in 2011; a call for a return to the countryside and a renewed relationship between urban and rural areas, countering the official line of further urbanization.


Ou Ning's house Buffalo Institute

Ou Ning’s house Buffalo Institute


A house for Bishan Commune

An old compound in traditional Hui-style in the centre of Bishan constitute the headquarters of Bishan Commune. Ou Ning bought the house in 2010 and called it Buffalo Institute. In the spring of 2013, he moved permanently to Bishan with his family (mother, younger brother, nephew, girlfriend and her son). The move indicates a significant turning point for Bishan Commune, entering a phase of action and interaction.

A constant flow of visitors, foreign and Chinese, urbanities and local villagers, pass through the house and stay for longer or shorter periods, either to work and discuss with Ou Ning, to do smaller projects like investigations of the local folk music or handicrafts, fieldwork studies of the countryside or, as many do, experience the traditional Hui-style houses in a new condition.

The house occupied by Buffalo Institute used to be the dormitory of the sent down youth during the Cultural Revolution. A story that now somehow repeats itself, albeit under very different circumstances. Buffalo Institute is a gathering space of free, independent learning and sharing and where elaborate discussions on the unfolding of Bishan Commune and the future of Bishan village continuously take place, which is also the result of Ou Ning and his family’s warm curiosity and generosity.


Informal land market

Ou Ning was not legally allowed to buy the house in 2010, so the proof of ownership still carries the name of the previous owner. In the countryside there are roughly three categories of land: farmland (collectively owned by the villagers), state owned land and residential land (the land your house is built on). Farmland can be expropriated and converted into state owned land and then sold or leased to developers and the like, but residential land can so far not be traded within the law. However, circumvention of state regulations unofficially sanctioned by local officials has created an informal residential land market in Bishan and Yi County making it possible for Ou Ning, Zuo Jing and others to purchase houses in Bishan. Due to the unofficial character of this residential land market and the consequential lack of real estate agents, it still requires good connections with the villagers to purchase a house, since you need introduction to the farmers who are willing to or can be persuaded to sell. Moreover, not many people dare to undertake the costs of buying a house without the necessary legal protection in case of expropriation or the like, further limiting the scope of this informal residential land market.

To address these issues, Anhui Province is from the beginning of next year piloting an official market for residential land in a selected number of counties (, including Yi county under whose jurisdiction Bishan is placed. This pilot residential land market makes it possible for external actors to purchase or lease houses and land within Bishan village legally, something which can potentially transform the appearance and demography of Bishan once again.


Zhang Yu, to the left, from Young Official's Garden visit a local horseradish farmer.

Zhang Yu, to the left, from Young Official’s Garden visit a local horseradish farmer.


Farming is ugly

Ou Ning explains that it is often urban people of wealth who are able to buy the old houses and undertake the high costs of restoring them. Mrs. Liang, who has recently purchased a house in Bishan, expresses that she wants to convert the land in connection to her house into a flower garden, since “it is not pretty to look at cultivated farmland”.[1] This statement suggests a problematic attitude towards the rural cultural landscape.

If the further opening up of the housing land market implies an invasion of unscrupulous capital with no consideration for and appreciation of the existing rural cultural landscapes and practices, then Bishan might be on the path of a dangerous development, turning the village into an urban playground, designed to fulfill the ever-expanding needs of urban residents and tourists. When not properly integrating the rural residents in the decision making process, this kind of development tends to neglect the needs of the rural population by not creating any real job opportunities for often uneducated farmers and causing a fluctuation in housing prices and general living costs.

This is also an aspect where the presence of Bishan Commune in Bishan can be a significant factor. Bishan Commune and their like-minded continuously make an effort to influence newcomers to the area as well as local villagers and officials of the importance of preserving rural culture as a visible feature of Bishan and direct the development in a more sustainable direction. If they succeed, then Bishan might be able to change for the better, providing job opportunities that will allow young people the possibility to choose to stay in Bishan. The need of Bishan to develop economically is a stated priority of many of the local residents, who generally support expropriation of farming land, since it allows capital to enter. Ongoing discussions with the villagers on this subject, make the economical aspect a concern Bishan Commune have had to take into consideration. Even though they might not always agree with Bishan Commune on the terms of development, local villagers and officials show great support for the initiative.


The common space at Han Yu's Pig's Inn no. 3, which used to be an old oil station. Most of the furnitures are second hand, bought or found in the area.

The common space at Han Yu’s Pig’s Inn no. 3, which used to be an old oil station. Most of the furnitures are second hand, bought or found in the area.


Alternative economic circuit

As a means to establish an alternative economic circuit in Bishan, Ou Ning recently proposed the Bishan time money currency, where smaller tasks such as housekeeping at the local guesthouse Pig’s Inn or helping in the fields of Young Village Officials Garden, can be exchanged for a meal at the local hotel Tailai, books at the soon-to-open branch of the Nanjing bookstore Librairie Avant-Garde, or second hand artifacts donated to the shop Ou Ning will open at Buffalo Institute and so forth. All the Bishan time money members listed above agree to this system of exchange. Even though the system valorize labour in a manner maybe not entirely consistent with Kropotkin’s  concept of “mutual aid” advocated by Ou Ning and maybe won’t bring any direct job opportunities, it still provides an important alternative to the existing model and manages to incorporate the villagers’ concerns for some sort of economic possibilities. Furthermore, Bishan Commune can be an important marker of identification and will give Bishan a special standing in relation to the neighboring villages, providing that “something different”, which will be important when attracting the right kind of “caring” capital to the village.

The Bishan time money has yet to be put into effect, but Ou Ning expects it to be set in motion sometime around next spring. In my opinion, the most interesting aspect of the Bishan time money, is how the villagers will embrace this new system, if they will make it their own, thus creating the possibility of this alternative currency to exceed the core members and entering the village society as a whole. When asked whether Ou Ning has discussed making an independent monetary system in Bishan with the local officials, he answers: This I do first, and then I ask.

The coming years will show, how the presence of Bishan Commune in the village and the introduction of Bishan Time money combined with a reformed residential land market will affect Bishan and which direction the development will take. But to answer the question Tom Cliff asked in his introductory article on Bishan Commune: Is intention sufficient? I think it is safe to answer, that with this kind of project intention can never be sufficient. But intention is an important trigger for agency, and in Bishan Commune’s case it is an agency that is constantly reinvented and renegotiated in collaboration with local actors, thus aiming at creating new spaces of possibilities in Bishan and beyond.

Mai Corlin is enrolled as PhD fellow at Aarhus University, Department of Culture and Society, China Studies. Her project is entitled Utopian Imaginaries in Rural Reconstruction – Urban Artists in Rural China and is concerned with socially engaged art in the countryside of China.

[1] Informal conversation with Mrs. Liang, Yixian, October and November 2013.

The dice that always land on red

About a week ago, Thailand’s capital Bangkok, saw the largest demonstrations since the political turmoil that gripped the country in 2010. Back then, supporters of Thailand’s exiled former Premier, Thaksin Shinawatra, took the streets. That didn’t end well – when the smoke cleared after the demonstrations, 92 people had lost their lives and over 1000 people were badly wounded. So in these past few weeks, fear of repetition of the black days in spring 2010 has had the city on needles.  

Tuesday last week, police where hurling gas canisters at protesters to stop them from entering the Government House by force. But then everything very suddenly stopped: Thursday was the King’s Birthday, and the fighting parties decided to hold a truce out of respect for the King. 24 hours later, police were receiving flowers and hugs from the very same protesters they just fought and peace befell the city for a little while.


After a short intermission celebrating the King’s Birthday together, Bangkok is now gearing up for a second round of demonstrations.

Demonstration leader, Suthep Thaugsuban, has repeatedly set several deadlines for toppling the government over the course of two weeks now, and calls for Monday to be “do or die” – the Big Battle day. Monday is the day where the protesters once and for all seize control of the Government House and bring down the redshirt-movement, current Prime Minister Yingluck, big brother Thaksin, the government and everyone else affiliated with the powerful siblings.

And once again, the tension rises and the police take their place on street corners and in formations protecting government offices.  With five dead and 200 hurt last week, there is very valid concern of how things may play out now.

But actually that’s not what we need to be concerned about. There is little to do about that, other than keep calm and hope that everyone else does the same.

What we need to be concerned about is this:

There is in Thailand an elite of people with strong conservative, feudalistic values. They are high up, and they are powerful. Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban is one of them. The arch-enemies of the red-shirts – the yellow shirts – are also part of this elite. Several influential families. Parts of the Thai military, generals, decision makers, business leaders. All of them ready to fight for a complete break-down of the current system to rid it of the Shinawatra influence. Those are the people that are represented by 100.000 protesters marching around in Bangkok, taking over government offices these days.

Thaksin Shinawatra, on his side, is the leader of a movement, which has enormous power in Thailand due to a die-hard loyalty from red voters, particularly rural farmers from the North. At the same time, however, he is supported by enough money to keep voters happy and his affiliations are a spider’s web of powerful people reaching very far into the core of the system. Thaksin – or one of his affiliates – have won every single election they’ve ever participated in. If there was to be another election after these protests…they would win it once again. In short: Thaksin has effectively hijacked democracy in Thailand – he and his redshirts not afraid to put any disagreements to the vote, because they will always win.

This is what the protesters are trying to put a stop to, which is arguably a valid point. There is one problem, though: The alternative they present is even worse:

Their point is this: Because of the poor track record of voting in people who are corrupt (and always affiliated with Thaksin), the anti-government protesters argue that voting has to be suspended altogether. The electing must instead be taken care of by other means until the masses are educated enough to they know what they are doing. A minority with “higher moral standards” – presumably appointed by the King – must take care of governing the country instead.

Yup. That’s what the protesters in the street are out there fighting for. And with that fairly extreme stance, the options of what will happen next limit themselves to these three:

  1. If the government survives the current squatters’ siege, an administration with an eerily tight grip on majority – and a habit of taking corruption to a whole new level – will stay in seat.
  2. If there is an election, they will get re-elected.
  3. If the anti-protesters manage to take over, the country will then be led by an elite whose disregard for common people is so monumental they genuinely believe people are too stupid to vote.

Regardless of where the democratic dices land in Thailand this time, one thing is certain: All of these options lead to deeper divide in the nation. The split in between the redshirts and the opposition is only worsening over these re-occurring seemingly endless protests, and when the demands are so far from democracy that they are borderline unconstitutional, there is very little to work with. There has been no dialogue, no resolution, no common ground within the current political turmoil, so there is not really anything to drive the process of reconciliation forward. Well – maybe there is ONE thing: The fact that the entire country just days ago together in peace listened to the King’s annual speech in which he spoke beautifully of Thailand as a united nation of peace and prosperity.

So, Happy Birthday, King. Let’s hope Suthep and other destructive hotheads listened too.


By Anya Palm

Freelance journalist focusing on Southeast Asia and NIAS Associate.



Developing Vietnam with whom?

Restoration 2.0 for the Resurgence of Modern Vietnam


By Mia Ji Sørensen

”Wouldn’t you define Vietnam as a middle-income country?” I was asked this rhetorical question last week. Despite its emerging economy status, with a growth rate of approximately 7 per cent during the past two decades, it is still one of the poorest of the ‘Next 11 Countries,’ and even though Vietnam has been in vibrant development, it is now faced with stagnant economic growth. There is a lot of potential for Vietnam to move up the ladder, as it has a vast young workforce, 50 per cent of the population being younger than 26. In addition, Vietnam has gone through a gradual shift from the agricultural sector towards an industrial sector that has attracted a great amount of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). FDI has been the primary focus of many developing countries over the past decade, as most host countries have liberalised their FDI regulations. FDI has been the primary source of the buoyant economic growth in the Southeast Asian economies, and in contrast to other regions, which over the past years have experienced a decline in their FDI inflows, Southeast Asia increased by 2 per cent annually ($110 billion)[1]. Here, Singapore is the leading host destination for FDI, which also improves FDI levels in the lower-income countries in the neighbourhood such as Vietnam, Myanmar and Cambodia.

According to the IMF, Vietnam is defined as a lower-middle-income country (also referred to as a developing country), as its GNI per capita falls in the range between $1,026 and $4,035. Developing countries are regularly stimulated by aid from developed countries, and this is also true of Vietnam. Before the end of the Cold War, the Soviet Union was one of the central donors to Vietnam. After the conquest of South Vietnam in 1975, and the strain between the Chinese and the Vietnamese, the elimination of Chinese aid in 1978 compelled Hanoi to look to Moscow for economic and military assistance. This made the Soviets the largest contributors of aid, in addition to being a pivotal trade partner. But frequent occurrences of distrust between the two, in the context of Sino-Soviet contemplations, entailed that the Soviet resented their enormous aid burden in the beginning of the 1980s, as they perceived it a wasted investment. As a consequence of the Soviet experience, Vietnam is uneasy about dealing with its donors.

Developing interaction with developed countries

The European Union (EU) is by far the largest donor to Vietnam; 2013 disbursements are measured to be EUR 743 million, and the Union is also the second largest investor of FDI, surpassed only by Japan.  Nevertheless, there has been a vibrant wave of European donors shifting their relationship with Vietnam from disbursing millions of euros for Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) towards developing their respective partnerships into a more strategic manner. This goes hand in hand with more EU member states gradually phasing out donations.

In fact, during the past decade, Vietnam has conducted more than ten partnerships. Of these, four are European: Italy (2013), Germany (2011), the UK (2010) and Spain (2009). France is currently negotiating one, and two European member states have contracted sectoral partnerships that focus on climate change. Deepening relations with external partners is clearly an important aspect of Vietnamese foreign policy. The partnership agreements with the European countries should match the strategic importance in regard to the security, prosperity and international standing of Vietnam. Strategic partnerships are established to diversify the external relations of a country and for proactive integration of it into the world, by helping to develop the country and make it more resilient to external shocks. From this point of view, a partnership with real potential to create prosperity for Vietnam is the one with Germany. Germany is one of the most important EU members when it comes to economic relations, as it accounts for more than one-fourth of the overall two-way trade between the EU and Vietnam. Germany is also the second largest contributor of ODA, subsidising 8.4 per cent of overall EU grants. In 2012, the EU market became the largest export market for Vietnamese products, overtaking the United States, which had until then been the central export market ever since the trade-embargo was lifted between the two partners in 1995. It is not just because of Germany’s economic strength that Vietnam draws a great deal from this European partner. The common history of the two Germanys and the two Vietnams has connected the former DDR and North Vietnam in the framework of socialist solidarity; also, a German-Vietnamese University will be established in order to promote sustainability in the relationship between the two countries.

In April this year, a conference between Vietnam and Germany was held in Hanoi in order to discuss the process of developing a social market economy in Vietnam, utilising Germany as an example. Social Market Economy stands for an ideal compromise between two ideological ways of organising and coordinating an economy: social democracy and economic liberalism. Soziale Marktwirtshaft was an idiom introduced by former German chancellor Konrad Adenauer, and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Hanoi was thus the host of this event. Several prominent academics were invited to the conference to elaborate on the importance of reaching this ideal compromise.

Avoid the middle-income trap

In this regard, and in numerous other international gatherings between European partners and Vietnam, the Vietnamese rhetoric of what Europe can do for Vietnam focuses on avoiding the middle-income trap. The middle-income trap refers to a situation in which a middle-income country fails to transition to a high-income economy due to rising costs and declining competitiveness. A situation only a few developing economies have managed successfully, as seen in East Asia where South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore have made a transition to advanced economies. Domestic forces drove the transitions on a political and bureaucratic level for each country, albeit with different national obstacles. For Vietnam, there are several detrimental challenges; one is the correlation between growth, public governance and corruption. This is a challenge when aiming for a less closed and dynamic Vietnam, because the government maintains austere control. As the legacy of Stalinism remains, the Communist Party of Vietnam and its one-party structure largely determine the outcome of any reform and proceeding. The government maintains strong control over land ownership and enterprises of the most influential sectors, which is why the State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) remain powerful, and thus impedes private enterprises in becoming more competitive. In the current context of booming free trade agreements taking place in Asia (more than 30 were completed in the Asia Pacific in the past two decades), the SOEs and their influential presence in the Vietnamese economy is a factor crucial to the lack of sustained economic growth. As the SOEs in Vietnam are a pivotal income source for public officials, these officials are hesitant in negotiating free trade agreements.

Since the economic reform, the doi moi introduced in 1986, Vietnam has recorded impressive growth rates. Doi moi means restoration in Vietnamese and was intended to push forward a much-needed renovation process in order to reshape the regional and international agenda of the country. The Vietnamese restoration process has contributed to a successful escape from the poverty trap into the emergence of a middle-income country. Notwithstanding, there is still a long way to go; the economy is now characterised by slow growth and frail international competitiveness. For seven years, the average GDP growth rate was recorded to be 8.7 per cent (from 2000 to 2007) whereas in 2012, the growth rate has dropped to 5 per cent[2]. In the latest investment outlook conducted by The Economist (2013), Vietnam’s macroeconomic troubles have taken the shine off the country’s once strong appeal as investments and growth have a cohesive and reciprocal effect (investors are more attracted to invest in countries with a high growth vis-à-vis investments help to create growth). One of the main challenges to economic growth in Vietnam is the SOEs, and in order to continuously sustain growth, there is a demand for restructuring them.

The asymmetrical relation between private and public enterprises is a paradox because of the significant performance of the private sector in Vietnam. After the doi moi, private enterprises gained legitimacy, and their contribution to economic growth has been remarkable. According to the General Statistics Office of Vietnam, the private sector accounted for 50 per cent of the total industrial output in 1989, whereas 15 years later, this figure nearly reached 73 per cent. The private sector is also responsible for creating the majority of new jobs in this period.

By contrast, the SOEs are challenged with debt, while the public authorities, the owners of SOEs, give favourable conditions to the SOEs. The government’s mismanagement also entails a society with incomplete domestic supply chains, creating dependency on other supply chains (such as China’s) to provide the necessary components, which in turn leads to wage inflation and less attractiveness for investments. Subsequently, before we can start talking about a competitive state circumventing the middle-income trap, there are domestic obstacles that have to be dealt with by the government – obligating the public officials in showing true strength. This will require a new model of thinking within the Vietnamese government and public officials, who are rather rigid and still bound to traditional socialist ideologies.

Obviously, the German model of a social market economy seems appropriate for Vietnam because of the shared ideologies about market and state, but it will only function in practice with true political determination of adapting to it, particularly in relation to market reforms. The central idea of a social market economy is to protect the freedom of the market participants, on both the demand side and the supply side, while securing social equity. If the country is to avoid falling into the middle-income trap, there are domestic challenges that have to be solved, as there is restricted freedom for private enterprises, which creates a gap in social equity. If the officials are serious about a social market economy, one of the key responsibilities for the government is to establish a policy framework which is effective for competition. This will require openness and transparency and a serious alternative to ingrained public preferential treatment. This is the challenge in a one-party state and the process is now in a reactive phase, rather than a proactive one; hence a significant demand for change has already arisen. Ultimately, if the Vietnamese politicians and public officials want to put Vietnam in focus, overcome stagnant growth and middle-income traps, it all begins at the core of the one-party system.

What is necessary is a new doi moi, a restoration process 2.0 in order to make the essential shift from rhetorical promises to action taken to start/create a structural reform that can renovate and renew the notion of a modern Vietnam.


Mia Ji Sørensen,

MA Student in International Studies and Social Science, Aarhus University,

Affiliated Workplace Student at Nordic Institute of Asian Studies Political Science, University of Copenhagen



  • Freedom House: Countries at the Crossroads 2012
  • United Nations Conference on Trade and Development UNCTAD STAT Database
  • General Statistics Office of Vietnam (GSO)
  • East Asia Forum – Economics, Politics and Public Policy in East Asia and the Pacific: Developing Asia and the middle-income trap
  • EUROSTAT Comext Statistical Database HS2,4
  • International Monetary Fond, 2013
  • The Economist Corporate Network 2013: Investing in Accelerating Asia
  • article published April 26, 2013 “How many strategic partners are enough for Vietnam” by Le Hong Hiep
  • Nguyen, T.T. & Dijk, M.A. (2012). Corruption, growth and governance: private vs. state-owned firms in Vietnam. Journal of Banking and Finance 2012.
  • Kokko, A. (2011). EU and Vietnam: From a Parental to A Competitive Relationship. Retrieved from

[1] UNCTAD: United Nations World Investment Report 2012

[2] Data and own calculations retrieved from UNCTAD 2013.

On Testimonial Therapy & the Life Project


What testimonial therapy does is try & bring private suffering into public & political spheres.

Igner Agger


Inger Agger (IA) is a psychologist, currently working with the Danish Institution Against Torture,(DIGNITY) and the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies. She visited Hong Kong in early March to conduct a workshop on Testimonial Therapy, which is her area of expertise. Basil Fernando (BF), Director Policy & Programmes, Asian Human Rights Commission, spoke with Ms. Agger, exclusively for Torture magazine. 1)


BF: First, could you start by sharing your personal background? How did you get involved with developing Testimonial Therapy?

IA: Actually it goes more than 40 years back, all the way back to the 1970s, when I was part of a consciousness-raising group, in a women’s movement known as the “Red Stockings Movement”, and there we worked with testimony. That was the first time I tried giving testimony. One of the main methods of the consciousness-raising groups was for women to give testimony about their private lives and try to see their personal experiences in a political perspective. Our slogan was “to make the private political”. So we tried in giving testimony about our own lives to see how we, as women and girls, had been oppressed by the patriarchal society, in which ways this oppression had shown itself in our own lives and become conscious of that. So that was the main objective of the consciousness-raising method. In this consciousness-raising group I gave testimony about my own early childhood trauma. For the first time I was able to speak about the loss of my mother and my separation from my family when I was four to five years old, and to see how this painful story related to the post-war situation in Danish society in the 1940s, in which many women – of which my mother was one – could not get any education that enabled them to support their children if they got divorced. When a child is separated from their parents they will often blame themselves and feel shameful about not being like other children. The consciousness-raising group helped me to see my “private pain as political”, and this empowering experience gave me the initial strength to start a lifelong process of liberating and healing myself. I was gradually able to formulate a “life project” of exploring ways of healing trauma – both for myself and for others. I actually wrote my thesis about it for my masters in psychology. So that was the first time I tried giving testimony and I thought it was such a powerful experience that I never forgot it and I have worked with it in different variations ever since, in everything I’ve been doing.

BF: Your Masters was in that?

IA: Yes, on the Consciousness-Raising Method in the Women’s Movement 2). It was published in 1977, in Danish, by the Danish Pedagogical Institute. This method included testimony as a main principle for connecting the private, individual level with the political level. One of the aspects of testimony that I experienced at that time and have met many times since is the fascinating way that testimony can change the energy in a group. When someone says: “Let me tell you what happened…” it can have an almost palpable, electric effect on the audience.

BF: You are touching the heart of the issue here. So what testimonial therapy does is try to bring private suffering into the public and political spheres.

IA: Exactly. I spent my first six years of in a so-called “free school” which had been created by a group of parents opposition to the “black” authoritarian school system we had in Denmark at that time. The “Free School Movement” was amongst others, inspired by Grundtvig, and think that the method of creating liberating testimonial narratives, which I met in the Movement, touched me at a deep because this spirit of freedom, poetry, creativity, and discovery had also been an important part of my learning experience in “free school”. It is so interesting that you Basil, have also been inspired by Grundvig have promoted his ideas in the “Folk School Movement” among human rights in Asia.

BF: Grundtvig was very important to my own development and that of the Asian Human Rights Commission. I fact, I discovered N.F.S. Grundtvig on my own.I came across one of his quotes in a book, and felt, it said something very close to the way I was beginning to see things. I then inquired about him and I was told that the library in the Lutheran seminary, may have some of his writings. In fact, I found three books there. Later, I told some friends at the Danish Institute of Human Rights that I wished to know more about him and his work. The Institute provided me a fellowship for three months. I came to Copenhagen, met many people associatedwith the Folk School Movement and was able to read a lot more about Grundtvig. I visited the home for elderly people where there is a large statue of him, close to the central bus stand in Copenhagen. During those three months I wrote a book, comparing the ideas of Gruntvig and the Indian political leader, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. It was later published under the title “Demoralization and Hope”. At the AHRC we adopted the folk school approach as a framework for our discussions and educational work. Everyone who participated in our programmes have expressed appreciation for the “folk school style”.

Now returning to your work, this, in fact, has quite strong philosophical roots. The whole idea of the development of consciousness and what you are really advocating is not just that public politics, but also that the private lives of individuals should be brought into the public sphere, and that a working method for implementing this should be created.

IA: Yes exactly, and I think it’s all connected with the radicalization that was also happening at that time among the students in the Western World – in the sixties and seventies. I thought a lot about that when I was in Hanoi last week, and visited the Hoa Lo Prison museum (called the “Hanoi Hilton” by the American pilots that were detained there during the Vietnam War). There I saw photographs from the demonstrations of the Vietnam Movement in France and the US, and I remembered how it was a very powerful experience for myself to participate in these demonstrations. In 1967 I worked as a volunteer at the Russell Tribunal, also known as the International War Crimes Tribunal or Russell-Sartre Tribunal, which was a private body organized by British philosopher Bertrand Russell and hosted by French philosopher and playwright Jean-Paul Sartre. One of its sessions, concerned with the US aggression towards Vietnam, took place in Roskilde, Denmark. Representatives of the Black Panther Movement also participated in the Tribunal and told us how “Black is Beautiful”. Of course, as everybody else I knew, I participated in the Vietnam demonstrations in front of the American embassy in Copenhagen, where we met regularly and in which we ran while we shouted “Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh”. All this happened while I was studying psychology, and so I realized when I was standing there in the Hanoi museum, how important that had been for my own radicalization or politicization of my consciousness and that this inspiration had given me the wish to work politically with psychology, not just to view a person’s psychology as an individual phenomenon, but as connected with their context – their surroundings and society. It was very important for us at that time, for the radical psychologists, to fight for this viewpoint: we were not trying to change people so that they became better at accommodating a repressive system; no, we wanted to support them in liberating themselves from oppressive structures. This meant that we had to see and understand people’s suffering in political terms and not as an individual trauma or mental health problem. “They are not ill, they are suffering from the dictatorship and the oppression”, as the Latin American psychologists said at that time, and that brought me into the Latin American understanding of things which helped me connect psychology and the fight for human rights. In 1969 I had gone to Cuba and lived there for a year, and as many others at that time, I also went on pilgrimages to other communist countries: the Soviet Union in 1973 and to China in 1976 in search of alternatives to our own, capitalist societies. Later on, many of us became disillusioned with the ways in which these utopian dreams had been realised by authoritarian, centralized governments. Instead we turned towards the development potential of grassroots movements in local communities, and searched for other ways in which people could organize and liberate themselves.

I travelled to Latin America in the eighties and experienced the approach of the Latin American psychologists and psychiatrists, who saw mental health as strongly linked to human rights. Their discourse was based on the principle of connecting “human rights and mental health” (derechos humanos y salud mental). This was an approach they had developed as a response to the various dictatorships in Latin America, in Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay at that time. Many doctors, psychologists and social workers who were part of the left-socialist movement had been imprisoned and tortured, and they developed their approach as a resistance against these dictatorships. As I had learned Spanish in Cuba I was able to read the documents of the Latin American psychologists, and in reading these conference papers I read – for the first time – about the testimonial method that Chilean psychologists had developed as part of their resistance movement. This method was very similar to the consciousness-raising method I had met in the Women’s Movement and I felt very familiar and “at home” with it. The Chileans had – sort of accidentally – discovered that when the lawyers from the resistance movement made testimonies with victims to keep as evidence against the dictatorship, it also had a beneficial and therapeutic effect on the victim. Lawyers of the resistance collected testimonies of human rights violations during the dictatorship in Chile under the protection of the Catholic Church. They kept these testimonies of torture hidden with the purpose of using them after the end of the dictatorship as evidence. But then, while recording these legal testimonies they discovered that this process also had a psychotherapeutic effect on victims. So they started working more consciously with this method and started writing about it. Later, in 1983, a Chilean psychologist and a psychiatrist under pseudonyms published a very famous article in English about their testimonial method3) . The real name of the main author was Elizabeth Lira, a prominent Chilean psychologist whom I interviewed later as part of a research project in Chile in 1988-89.

In 1984, I started working for the Rehabilitation and Research Centre for Torture Victims (RCT) 4) in Denmark, as a clinical psychologist, and this gave me a unique opportunity to work with political refugees from Latin America, and in this way work “politically” with psychology. I have to thank Inge Genefke for giving me that opportunity. I tried using the testimonial method with the refugees and I published my first international article about it in 1990 – that’s 23 years ago 5) . I also used the testimony method in my PhD research, in which I had made testimonies with 20 Latin American and 20 Middle Eastern women who had been tortured and were political refugees in Denmark 6) .

BF: Could you say more about the Chilean approach? You said you started reading their papers during your visit to Chile. Can you say more about what they were doing, what those people were trying to do?

IA: Are you familiar with their work? The radical mental health professionals in Latin America worked on basis of the same understanding as the radicals in Europe and the US: that “the private is political”. Their way of phrasing it was by connecting human rights and mental health, and they were always emphasizing that we should not pathologize victims. They are not “ill” – they are suffering from the dictatorship. So the Latin Americans emphasized that we should always see the suffering of torture victims in a political perspective and that this approach would be the most healing for victims of human rights violations. One of the objectives of these Latin American psychologists was to try to re-establish the connection of the victim to his or her political project – the “life project” as they called it. At that time, torture victims in these countries were often politically active people in the socialist movement. They could be political party or trade union leaders – people who were active in politics and whom the dictatorship tried to crush. And so the therapeutic goal was then to strengthen the victim so that he or she could re-establish this project, the life project, which gave their life meaning. I describe this approach in detail in a book based on our research in the Chilean Human Rights Movement 7).

BF: Is this in English?

IA: Both in English and it was also published in Spanish, in 1996, in Santiago de Chile. The Spanish edition was edited and revised by Elizabeth Lira 8) . I had received a grant to do a post-doctorate research project in Chile and based on this research I wrote the book in cooperation with my ex-husband, who is a psychiatrist. We went to Chile and interviewed psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers from the Human Rights Movement and that was just in the transition period at the end of the eighties, when Pinochet was ousted and they had their first democratic elections. So that was happening at the time of our arrival, actually. It was a very interesting period to be there. So, now the mental health people could talk freely about their work and we interviewed many mental health professionals who had been in prison and tortured themselves.

BF: Could you say more? Because I think you are now touching something dynamic. You are really linking the element of mental health and the political ethos. In the post-Hitler period, the psychologist, Alexander Mitscherlich, who wrote Inability to Mourn: Principles of Collective Behavior, did his clinical work with patients and then he came to the conclusion that the things that his patients were complaining about had nothing to do with illness, but was a result of their inability to come to terms with Germany’s political past. The repression of the political problems that were associated with the Hitler’s regime period was causing the mental illnesses. In Asia, this has not been brought forth in a forceful way. Still, psychology is about individual health, the individual person. You try to< help them get out of depression or something like that, but the larger issue, that political repression is a cause of disturbed mental health, is ignored.

IA: I would say that the main conclusions we drew from the research in Chile was the importance of a movement, the Chilean Human Rights Movement, as a protective shield or context for the victims and for the mental health workers in the resistance movement: they were not alone. They were part of this large movement which they had developed very expertly in Chile. We also noticed the way in which the mental health people had developed a system of helping victims organize themselves in groups, such as groups of former political prisoners, or family members of torture victims, or mothers of disappeared people. These groups were very good at organising in Latin America and seemed to have a great therapeutic effect on the victims.

So we observed the activities of the groups and wrote about it. I guess that was the main conclusion from our research, how important it was to support these kind of protected networks in situations of human rights violations, and in Chile, the Catholic Church had an important role as a part of this protective network. When I later worked as a researcher from 2010-2012 in Cambodia, I did not see this type of protective organisations for victims to the same extent, although some NGOs were trying to promote it. In Cambodia, I found that Buddhism had an important protective and healing role.

BF: That’s very important. I think it was the Jesuit priest from El Salvador, Ignacio Martín-Baró, who, in his work on social psychology, pointed out the need for dealing with the structural issues, which cause mental illness.

IA: Yes he was a great inspiration for me also, and for the Chileans, definitely. I have during my whole career been opposed to a medical, clinical approach to torture, to what the Chileans call a “medicalizing” of political problems.

BF: Can you explain that, why you are opposed to it?

IA: Yes, because by medicalizing, by diagnosing, and pathologizing victims of torture, and victims of political oppression, you are in a way giving them the responsibility for their pain. It’s like saying they are sick or “crazy” because they are “weak” and could not resist. Mostly, victims do not appreciate that. You should instead place their cause of their mental suffering where it belongs, in the political structures. By doing this you might also support them in becoming conscious of the reasons for and the meaning of their mental symptoms, of how they have been persecuted, and learn that their symptoms are a result of that outer pressure, not because a personal illness or weakness or of being mentally ill, crazy, suffering from PTSD, or whatever people believe about themselves. This can enable them to become survivors and participate again in their “life project”.

BF: So it is getting a person to come to a recognition, or understanding, that his problem is related to what has taken place in his society and giving him a method of understanding the process of healing, while also trying to support him in engaging with his society.

IA: Yes absolutely. Many other psychoanalytic or psychological theorists have also emphasized re-connecting to the “life project”, but they have used other terms for it. I have found the writings of Carl G. Jung, the great Swiss psychoanalyst, very important, especially his autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, in which he describes his own self-actualization process which has involved what he calls “transcendence”, the integration of the diverse systems of the self toward the goal of wholeness and identity with all of humanity. Transcendence also includes a spiritual or religious dimension, which is an integrated part of self-actualization.

BF: That is a very dynamic thinking process.

IA: Yes, and that is what you can encourage when you are making a testimony with an individual victim. That’s why the attitude of the human rights defender who is helping the victim make their testimony is so important, because the human rights defender can help the victim to become conscious of this. So the human rights defender is active in his or her response to the victim, and should help victims to contextualize their suffering. This includes helping victims to understand how their testimony can help other victims and how it can become a weapon in the fight against dictatorships. Essentially, this means helping victims to see the political meaning of their private pain.

You can work with testimony in many ways, and the model, which includes a culturally adapted testimony ceremony at the end of the therapy process, is a special Asian brief therapy version of the method. Supported by the RCT, I developed this model in an action research project from 2008-2010 with the RCT’s local partners. We started with a pilot project in India 9), and continued in Sri Lanka, Cambodia and the Philippines. This work with testimony ceremonies also brought me in closer contact with Asian spirituality and the great resources for healing, which are part of many Asian cultural and religious traditions, and inspired me to continue my testimony work with a research project in Cambodia on local approaches to healing of trauma.

BF: So the idea of developing the document, the testimony, is working with the victim to get him to realize that what he is going through is related to much larger issues, helping him to come to that recognition, and then holding a public ceremony where he makes a declaration about it.

IA: Completely correct and very well expressed. Yes. And this is why it’s so important to train human rights defenders to understand that this story is not just something which is out there that they just need to record, but that they are helping the victim to come to that understanding – to see their suffering in another perspective and to record that. The public ceremony at the end of the testimony process also plays a very important role, because it links the victim to the community through a public acknowledgement and mobilisation on basis of the narrative about the human rights violations suffered by the victim 10). This public ceremony can also be seen as a re-connection with the life project or, in Jung’s terms, a ritual in which the victim can re-connect with his or her spiritual and transcendent self.

BF: So the testimonial therapy method is really not a teaching process, it’s a dialogue?

IA: It’s a dialogue! Just as you and I are having an important dialogue right now about certain aspects of my life story.

BF: To get him or her to come out, to express their story.

IA: Yes, but one of the problems is, of course, to help those victims who were imprisoned by accident, or who were not politically active. It is quite common that people are arrested and tortured maybe because they have the same name as someone that the police is looking for, or by another error or just by accident. So it’s actually more difficult to provide psychotherapeutic help to these victims who maybe do not have a life project or a cause they are fighting for.

BF: So a person develops a meaning. A meaning! They are developing something to fight for; to live for. See, this is very different. Victor Frankl’s idea of looking for meaning comes in.

Now, the difference is now in Asia, in a number of places, there is an idea of dealing with mental illness by helping people to forget. Now, for example, in Cambodia, before this new period with the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, they had many ceremonies, rituals, conducted by the Buddhist monks, and various other people, including water purification ceremonies. The victim, who is feeling down and dark, is encouraged to go through a whole process in which the monk tries to make him feel happy internally. By these methods, the monks help him to become a little lighter and then the monk says “forget this”. The same thing was done in Sri Lanka.

IA: Of course I would be very much against that approach. You shouldn’t forget, but maybe forgive! In Buddhist Vipassana meditation and “mindfulness” which I have been working with over the past five or six years, the main principle is not to forget, but to accept and then let it pass. That is a very different process. I also think that meditation is very good for calming the nervous system. By including the body in the therapeutic process the victim can be supported to restore self-regulation and the sense safety and goodness, (which has often been destroyed by torture) as explained by Peter Levine in his book In an Unspoken Voice. In later years I’ve been very interested in combining the Asian spiritual knowledge – represented in the West by, for example, mindfulness andyoga – with the more political approach represented by testimonial therapy. In the testimony ceremony the two approaches come together. The political and the spiritual dimensions mutually reinforce each other. A human being is both mind and body and we must pay attention to both when we search for the restoration of resilience and involvement in the world.


1 (Conversation transcribed by Meredith McBride)

2 Agger, I. (1977). Basisgruppe og kvindebevidsthed: En analyse af basisgruppemetoden som udviklingsproces (Consciousness-raising group and women’s consciousness: An analysis of the consciousnessraising
method as developmental

3 Cienfuegos, A.J., & Monelli, C. (1983). The testimony of political repression as a therapeutic instrument. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 53, 43-51

4 Now: Dignity – Danish Institute Against Torture.

5 Agger, I., & Jensen, S.B. (1990). Testimony as ritual and evidence in psychotherapy for political refugees. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 3, 115-30.

6 Agger, I. (1994). The blue room: Trauma and testimony among refugee women. London: Zed Books. Spanish edition (1994). La Pieza azul: Testimonio femenino del exilio. Santiago de Chile: Cuarto Proprio.

7 Agger. I. & Jensen S.B. (1996). Trauma and healing under state terrorism. London: Zed Books.

8 Agger. I., & Jensen, S.B. (1996). Trauma y sanacion bajo situaciones de terrorismo de estado. Santiago de Chile: CESOC.

9 Agger, I., Raghuvanshi, L., Khan, S.S., Polatin, P., & Laursen, L.K. (2009). Testimonial therapy: a pilot project to improve psychological wellbeing among survivors of torture in India. Torture: Journal on Rehabilitation of Torture Victims and Prevention of Torture, 19 (3): 204-217.

10 Agger, I., Igreja, V., Kiehle, R. & Polatin, P. (2012). Testimony ceremonies in Asia: Integrating spirituality in testimonial therapy for torture survivors in India, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, and he Philippines. Transcultural Psychiatry, 49(3–4): 568–589.


This article was originally published in


Unearthing the Past: From Independent Filmmaking to Social Change

Wu Wenguang, considered the father of independent Chinese documentary film, has since 2005 slowly but surely been handing over the camera to people on the margins and to younger generations of Chinese documentary filmmaking. In 2010 Wu and Caochangdi Workstation initiated the Folk Memory Documentary Project, where young filmmakers go to the countryside to gather and document memories of the Great Famine (1959-1961) from elderly villagers.


Wu Wenguang introduces his film "Treatment".

Wu Wenguang introduces his film “Treatment”.

Bumming in Beijing

Wu Wenguang is known as one of the first to make independent documentaries in China. His first documentary film, Bumming in Beijing – The Last Dreamers, aired in 1990 and soon after the film toured the international film festival circuits. Wu started out in 1988 filming five artists, a writer, some painters and a theatre director all involved in the production of art on the edge of Chinese society. The artists had, for the most part, no Beijing registration and they stayed with friends or in shabby courtyard houses on the outskirts of Beijing close to the old summer palace while trying to practice their art in the China of the late 1980s. Only one of the five artists portrayed in the film remained in Beijing, by 1990 the other four had left China to pursue their dreams elsewhere in the world.  Wu’s documentary was the first in China to give the characters of a documentary a space to voice their concerns and dreams of the future, letting the narratives of their stories weave together presenting lives on the edge of Beijing, both figuratively and literally.

For the next ten years, Wu produced several documentaries concerned with people living on the margins of Chinese society and films related to sensitive historical issues. Meanwhile, he toured the international film festivals and presented and discussed his work with international filmmakers and audience. In 2000, when he again found himself at an international film festival and was yet again asked the question: What will your next film be about? Wu realized that he was not interested in ‘the next topic’, making ‘the next film’ or filmmaking in general for that matter. What he wanted was to make change possible by creating the conditions for change in people.  Wu believed the camera could be instrumental in this process: by giving people the opportunity to record and re-experience their lives through the lens of the camera, there was maybe a possibility of creating awareness of the marginalized person’s own position and thereby a possibility to empower this person.

Initial steps

The initial steps in the direction towards engaging in possible social change were taken in 2001, when Wu and the dance choreographer Wen Hui made the performance and documentary film Dance with Farm Workers. 40 migrant workers, originally from Sichuan Province, were hired to be part of a dance performance in collaboration with Wen Hui’s international dance troupe. Nine days of rehearsing culminated in a public dance performance which took place in an old, empty factory in Beijing. The process was intended to establish a relationship between the people who build the city (the migrant workers) and the people living in the city (in this case the dancers and documentarists), while it also directed attention to the poor conditions migrant workers often worked under and the local urbanities prejudice towards them.

Even though the intentions were sympathetic, and the film features moments of sincere interaction between the migrant workers and the dancers, the performance still seemed to reproduce an existing hierarchical relationship between migrant workers and urbanities. The workers remained workers in this new context. Nevertheless, Dance with Farm Workers represented a new attitude in Wu Wenguang’s documentaries moving towards a more engaging kind of filmmaking.

Handing over the camera – the Village Documentary Project

In 2005 Wu Wenguang initiated the Village Documentary Project – an EU-funded initiative projected to document the village self-governance system introduced in the 1990s with democratic elections at village level. Instead of going to the countryside himself, Wu decided to hand over the camera to the villagers themselves. The idea was that the villagers, by looking at their own community through the lens of a camera, would see the community with fresh eyes and reach another level of awareness. Wu advertised nationally for villagers willing to participate in the pioneering project and in the end ten villagers from all over China were chosen. They were given a camera and taught to use it through intensive workshops at Wu Wenguang’s Caochangdi Workstation in the north eastern corner of Beijing. Each villager made a film which related to the village self-governance system in their own village. The ten villager films feature very different perspectives on and circumstances for democratic elections in rural China, presenting diverse rural communities full of good-will, corruption, laughing children, misunderstandings, close relationships, stubborn village elders, younger generations with new views on society and in some cases seemingly democratic elections in village China. Wu Wenguang has with the Village Documentary Project taken a step back in order to provide a platform for the villagers from where it is possible to transgress social barriers and present rural problematics to a greater audience.

Collecting memories – The Folk Memory Documentary Project

Building on the experiences from the Village Documentary Project, the Folk Memory Documentary Project was initiated in 2010. Young people, some still in school and some recent university graduates, were engaged to go to the countryside to gather and document the memories of the Great Famine from 1959-1961 from elderly villagers, telling the previously untold stories of the millions who died because of the famine. Most young people in China today are taught that the famine was caused by natural disasters and debt to the Soviet Union, a narrative the filmmakers and the villagers come to question once they unearth the memories of the people. Each of the young filmmakers went to a village with which they had a personal connection, either they were born there themselves, their parents or grandparents had grown up there or a family member had been sent there as ‘sent down youth’ during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). The young filmmakers spend three months every winter in each their village collecting memories of the troubled and agonizing years of the great famine and being part of the rural community. The interviews with the elderly villagers are used in the documentaries and are gathered in a memory archive at Caochangdi Workstation.

At Lund University. From left to right: Zou Xueping Wu Wenguang Zhang Mengqi and Shu Qiao

While the young people are in the villages to shoot their documentaries they are advised by Wu Wenguang and Caochangdi Workstation to set up small scale, socially engaged projects. The young filmmaker Zou Xueping organized screenings of the Folk Memory Project films and arranged garbage collecting activities, to address one of the more pressing problems in many Chinese villages. Another participant of the project, Zhang Mengqi, made a public library to make books more accessible in the village and to create a place for sharing. A third participant, Shu Qiao, raised funds for a monument to commemorate those who died during the great famine, a way to create awareness in the village of the wrongdoings of the past. Furthermore, he engaged a school class (11-12 year olds) and had them collect and document the memories of their village elders. In this way, the memories of the great famine were transferred to younger generations and thus seized to be the taboo it had previously been. These films collects memories of a forgotten past of suffering and a the same time document young people’s journey into this past as they rediscover themselves through a process of interaction and engagement in an effort to dissolve taboos and traumas of the past.

With the Folk Memory Project, Wu Wenguang has handed over the camera to villagers and young people of China using the camera as a tool of unearthing the unknown and of transforming the present by rewriting history.

Mai Corlin


Wu Wenguang and the three young filmmakers Zou Xueping, Zhang Mengqi and Shu Qiao visited Lund University, Nordic Institute of Asian Studies (NIAS) and University of Copenhagen in April 2013 where they presented Caochangdi Workstation’s Folk Memory Documentary Project. Most of the films of the project can be viewed for a small fee on China Independent Documentary Film Archive: For more about Caochangdi Workstation please visit their website


Mai Corlin is enrolled as PhD student at Aarhus University, Department of Culture and Society, Asia Section. Her project is entitled Utopian Imaginaries in Rural Reconstruction – Urban Activists in Rural China and is concerned with socially engaged art in the countryside of China.



Wu Wenguang presents the Folk Memory Documentary Project “Memory: Hunger – Protest Amnesia through Documentary and Theater”:

 Clip from Bumming in Beijing – The Last Dreamers:

 Clip from Dance with Farm Workers:


How to Win Elections in Indonesia?

Insights from the Campaigns for Jakarta Governor 2012

This online exhibition shows photographs, videos and other material from the 2012 election campaigns for the Governor’s office in Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia. It covers the two main pairs of candidates in the field: incumbent Governor Fauzi Bowo (Foke) and his running mate Nachrowi Ramli (Nara) vs. challenger Joko Widodo (Jokowi) and his running mate Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok).

The exhibition was designed to allow you to browse through and just pick individual sections that might be interesting to you OR read it as a story from beginning to end. As this is not an academic article it does by no means aim at presenting a comprehensive picture of the dozens of different campaign strategies followed by each team. Due to the mostly visual nature of an exhibition, several important but less visible elements of these campaigns can only be hinted at within this framework. Nevertheless, this exhibition aims at conveying an impression of how enormously contrasting these two pairs of candidates and their respective campaign approaches were and what has enabled Jokowi’s remarkable rise from small town mayor to Governor of Jakarta to most promising presidential candidate within just a bit more than a year.

Fauzi Bowo and Nachrowi Ramli mostly relied on typical strongman campaign tactics involving money politics, voter intimidation, campaigning based on ethnic and religious discrimination, and mobilisation of various ally groups from within their patronage network, but also staged media events and expensive advertising. While Fauzi was believed to win easily within the first election round, the radically different campaign strategy of challenger Joko Widodo turned the game around (Jokowi-Basuki 42.6 % vs. Fauzi-Nara 34.05%), leading to a remarkable catch-up race and his final victory after a second election round (JB 53.82 % vs. FN 46.18%). Jokowi and his running mate Ahok combined strategically located face-to-face campaigning with a clever marketing technique to capture the attention of the media. They performed on a good governance agenda of providing services for the population, against ethnic or religious discrimination, and promoting the inclusion of the population into politics.


The campaign strategy of Jokowi and Basuki was to a large extent based on face-to-face campaigning in the slum areas of Jakarta. Their arrival was often anticipated with a mixture of curiosity and sceptisism, however, mostly the candidates managed to switch the atmosphere to one of excitement and even euphoria within a few minutes.

They immediately pick up individual conversations with people of the kampung (neighborhood), while walking through the narrow alleys lined with tin-roofed huts and shaded by plastic sheets. Dozens of potential voters and even more kids follow them on their way through the densely packed kampung.

Every now and then Jokowi or Ahok stop to enquire about the often very visible problems of the area (flooding, bad water- and sanitation conditions, waste-disposal). They explain the most important points of their programme, such as a health card or cheaper education.

During the whole time their entourage of a few close campaign team members and party allies responsible for organising the event in that particular kampung remain quietly at a distance. Only their bodyguards in civilan clothes stick around closely but almost invisible. There are no speeches by local leaders, party members or the like.

This creates a very personal and lively atmosphere for the encounter. People are laughing and joking around as they follow along through the kampung or pose for the journalists’ cameras (or mine) to show the “rock ’n roll” campaign sign with three fingers. This stands both for the candidates’ no. 3 on the ballot and Jokowi’s love for rock music. Using this hand sign was new to most people and created quite some fun and confusion, when people tried to get it right. Over the course of the campaign it became so iconic that ever since no. 3 candidates in several other local elections all across Indonesia have taken it over as their own campaign sign.

An important direct effect of these face-to-face campaign events is, that the population feels genuinely respected by the candidates, as they even take time for several minutes of personal discussion, as Basuki here does in a several minutes long conversation with a pious Muslim man (Basuki is of Chinese descent and Christian, which plays a large role in his own as well as in Fauzi’s and Nara’s campaign – albeit in very different ways, as we will see later).

Many voters even feel honored to have the chance to meet Jokowi or Basuki and come up with their own creative ideas to support the candidates. In this case two women came rushing after Basuki with a caricature of him riding a bicycle, which they had made themselves and they wanted him to sign.

However, the central point of these campaign events was not to meet as many people as possible and directly convince them to vote for Jokowi-Basuki – an attempt which would have been doomed to fail in a city of more than 10 million inhabitants. This strategy could only be successful because it was paired with a highly clever marketing of these events via the media, so that the messages sent at these small events affected the perception of the wider population.

This marketing strategy via the media had actually begun several months before the campaign got to the grounds of Jakarta neighborhoods. Agenda-setting pushing selected issues of Jokowi’s performance as Mayor of Solo into the national media made him rise as a media darling as soon as his candidacy had been decided behind the scenes. Overall this turned out to be so successful, that the campaign for the local Governor’s office developed into a national event on a scale never seen before for any local election.


The incumbent Fauzi and his running mate Nara chose a very different strategy quite in contrast to the personal face-to-face approach of Jokowi and Basuki. During the first official two-week campaign phase in June / July Fauzi Bowo even left all the activities to his vice-candidate. Only in the evenings he would do campaigning behind closed doors.

The team carried out two main kinds of public campaign events, the first one being staged media events mostly taking place at their media centre with no electorate (other than journalists) present.

This group of pictures from the media centre shows typical scenes of these staged events: A group of celebrities has been taken under contract to voice their support for Fauzi-Nara. While Nara speaks they are obviously completely bored and don’t pay any attention to what is going on, until the moment they are asked to give their two-lines statement of support for the cameras. What they say is almost the same, uninventive and fairly unconvincing standard phrase. The journalists do not bother to ask questions, because they know the answers are meaningless. Then the stars and starlets get up to show the candidates’ sign no. 1 with the index finger, smile for the photographers and off they go. The media will make a brief news item out of this, saying celebrities X and Y have stated their support for Fauzi and Nara. During the rest of the campaign we will not hear from them again.


The second type of public campaign events by the Fauzi-Nara team took place outside and usually involved cloths-covered pavilions and chairs for the VIPs to sit, a stage, microphones to bridge the distance between the speakers and the voters and a line-up of local leaders, strongmen, party allies etc., all delivering longwinded but mostly empty speeches.

This set of five pictures is a prime example of such an event in a neighborhood in Central Jakarta. First, Nara sits together with several other VIPs on a shaded verandah in the back of the stage, while waiting for his turn to speak. He is hardly visible to the audience assembled in front of the stage, all niecely dressed up in brand new campaign shirts or shirts of ally organisations. When it is his turn he starts with a several minutes long list of acknowledgements towards the present allies. During the remainder of his speech he makes a few jokes, which make the audience laugh and bring a moment of ease into the otherwise tense atmosphere. Apart from these instances the faces of the assembled population remain between disinterest, sceptisism and discomfort.

The reasons for this are – among others – to be found in two little details: In the back of the audience you see several men wearing caps with the writing FBR (Forum Betawi Rempug or Betawi Brotherhood Forum) – a Jakarta organisation between ethnic gang, local mafia, strongmen, employer on the informal market and generally a powerful local actor, particularly in this area of Central Jakarta. Nara holds close ties to FBR and their significant presence in this event sends a clear message who to vote for in this kampung.

Secondly, a banner reading Anak Polisi Pasti Pilih Foke-Nara (the clients and members of the police will vote for Foke-Nara). This banner is more than a mere statement of support from the police – which as a state organisation should remain neutral – it can be read as a “friendly reminder” for the local population to be on the right side, if they want to avoid trouble.


Aksi SAPU (Aksi Satgas Anti Politik Uang) or Action Task Force against Money Politics perfectly merges the two campaign event types mostly used by Foke and Nara: staged media event combined with a “show of force” directed at the electorate, while at the same time making sure to keep a distance from them – both socially and physically.

This time the purpose is the declaration of a task force against the use of money politics in the campaign. As usual, it involves a large array of allies from various parties and other supporting organisations of Foke and Nara. The action is meant to counter the manyfold accusations against the team, exactly because of their widespread use of money politics.

Again, a cloths-veiled pavilion is set up in the background for the VIPs to be seated in the shadow of the burning sun. A line-up of speakers gives their obligatory recitations of support and condemnations of money politics, while standing on a small podest at a large distance from the assembled population – but directly in front of Tugu Proklamasi – the momument commemorating the declaration of independence, complete with the statues of the founding fathers of the Indonesian nation Soekarno and Hatta. Only the press is allowed to come a little closer to take pictures.

After Nara’s speech the whole press is called closer to take the key picture: central figures from the ally groups, all men in the prime of life, well nurtured, several sporting expensive watches and gold or diamond clad seal rings, and wearing sunglasses so you cannot see their eyes. On top of this they wear white caps and shirts with the “Task Force Anti Money Politics” emblem – after this event you will not hear about this task force again. Instead of posing with the campaign sign of one finger (for ballot no. 1), they show a typical strongman guesture with their fist raised right into the cameras, conveying a picture open to interpretation.


In their largest event towards the end of the first election round the main candidate Fauzi Bowo attended a public campaign event for the first time.

Again, this event combines typical features of their campaign style: The obligatory comfortable sitting area for VIPs. A few celebrities advertised on the huge stage-spanning banner in the background; most notably Rhoma Irama, a famous singer and Muslim conservative, who should spark an outcry of protest a few weeks later, when he preeches in a Jakarta mosque that Muslims should not accept to have a non-Muslim leader. Here he is greeting Fauzi Bowo after he finished the performance with his band. Then, again, there follows the range of prominent speakers, this time quite high ranking party officials such as Anas Urbaningrum (at the time still Chairman of the Democrat Party, recently he had to step back because of large scale corruption allegations); Edhie Baskoro Yudhoyono (son of the current president, Secretary General of the Demokrat Party, Vice Chairman of a sub-section in the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, until recently Member of Parliament); Wiranto (former military General infamous for being Commander of the Indonesian military during the last months of Soeharto’s dictatorship, former and future presidential candidate), and Sutiyoso (Governor of Jakarta before Fauzi Bowo and one of his sharp critics until he suddenly changed his mind half-way through the first campaign phase).

Interestingly, a few hundred supporters get squezed into the small space directly in front of the stage and directly in front of the media’s cameras, behind them a wall of large party flags and banners. In the videos and photos that will be used in official campaign material later on this looks like a sea of many thousands of supporters, while in reality behind the flags were mostly not more than a few dozen dispersed people. You can see the results of this in several brief scenes in the camaign video entitled Foke-Nara INSYA ALLAH Nomor 1 untuk 1 Putaran, which is displayed in the video section further below. This video shows many scenes filmed during this particular event. In line with this portrayal was the suspiciously equal “estimation” of all members on the campaign team claiming there were about 50.000 supporters present. My personal guess would be somewhere around 10.000.


Religion as well as ethnicity played a major role in the election campaigns of both teams. Having said that, there was a huge difference in how voters were attempted to be mobilised along those lines.

Jokowi is a moderate Javanese Muslim from the area Central Java. His running mate Basuki is a pious Christian of Chinese descent, originally stemming from an Indonesian archipelago far away from Jakarta (Kepulauan Bangka Belitung). The opposing Fauzi and Nara are both Muslims and originate from the local Jakarta ethnicity Betawi, which has a reputation for being rather conservative, compared to the more syncretistic traditional Javanese Islam. Therefore, it may seem natural that Foke-Nara were trying to attack this perceived weak spot of Jokowi-Basuki as not being “sons of the soil” (putra daerah) of Jakarta and not representing the religious stream of the local ethnicity.

However, this calculation neglected several important facts: Jakarta has a Muslim majority population of about 85 %, but with more than 10 % also a relatively large Christian population, mostly from the Chinese Indonesian minority (the term Chinese in this context refers to Indonesian nationals of Chinese ethnic descent, whose families mostly have been living in Indonesia for many generations). With an estimated 7 % – 10 % the Chinese hold a significant share of the Jakarta electorate. Furthermore, the local ethnicity Betawi has been strongly marginalized in Jakarta and today only makes up less than 30 % of the population. By far the largest voting block comes from the approximately 40 % of Javanese, who mostly follow the rather moderate form of traditional Javanese Islam.

Jokowi and Basuki understood how to take advantage from those figures. Generally the two performed on a platform against racial or religious discrimination, but this does not mean that they abstained from using racial or religious sentiments for their campaign purposes.


Rather silently and not very visible to the media or larger public Basuki ran an enormously successful underground campaign among Chinese and Christians, gaining the team remarkable 100% of the Chinese vote in the first election round and about 93% in the second. In public, however, the team was careful not to make his Christian belief a topic of debate, but rather countered the attacks against him by portraying Jokowi and Basuki as candidates for all religions and ethnicities in Jakarta. Meanwhile Jokowi devoted his evenings to tour through the Muslim communities of Jakarta and eat and talk with local Muslim leaders to portray himself in the media as a pious but moderate Muslim man.

During the fasting month of Ramadhan just after the first election round, he spontaneously made a small Hadj to Mekka, which was widely reported about. Ramadhan greeting cards with photographs from this Hadj were distributed among the population to be send to friends and relatives.

In these and similar ways they efficiently managed to counter the aggressive negative campaigning by Foke and Nara, who were trying to mobilize anti-Chinese sentiments and conservative Muslim ideas discriminating against other religious groups. Finally, Jokowi-Basuki even garnered about 48 % of the Muslim vote, drawing almost even with Fauzi and Nara among this voting block.


The term black campaigning (kampayne hitam) describes the use of discriminatory, illegal, or generally morally doubtful campaign strategies, such as defamation, personal attacks, spreading of lies etc.

Both campaign teams were accused of using black campaigning, however the attacks carried out by the team Foke-Nara were rather obvious, widespread and often particularly nasty. It was a major part of their campaign strategy, in particular in the second, more aggressive election round. Discussing the high risk such a strategy brings along, a team member even confessed “We know that it can backfire, but what shall we do? We have no alternative.” (confidential interview Jakarta, July 2012).

Hence, in the second election round the black campaigning was brought to full force. Regularly pamphlets against Jokowi or Basuki were spread in the city. In conservative mosques hate sermons against both candidates were to be heard frequently. The smear campaigns also spread online via the social media, most notably twitter. Both teams had hired groups of young people to fight the social media war for them. In Fauzi’s team, for instance, a group of 20-30 students assembled every evening throughout the second election round to follow a black campaign strategy specifically designed for the web: The messages were to be spread via one central twitter account, two “offspring” accounts (akun anakan) with a designated use of “blunt and open language” and another 400 minor twitter accounts, each student being responsible for administering 20 of those. These 400 accounts were to be used to retweet the messages of the first three accounts and counter other twitter users backfiring at them. Each student earned about 15 US $ per night. This went on for approximately one to two months during the second election round and the number of accounts was raised throughout this time to become about 600.

Among other things, the students were told to portray Jokowi as a tool for the 2014 presidential election bids of the party leaders Megawati and Prabowo; at the same time they should spread fear about Chinese vice candidate Basuki becoming Jakarta’s Governor in 2014, when Jokowi might run for presidential office himself; in a particularly impudent statement it was said that behind Jokowi-Basuki would be a hidden agenda of PKI (PKI is the former Indonesian communist party, destroyed in bloody massacres 1965/66, which brought dictator Soeharto to power; Communism is forbidden ever since and PKI does not exist anymore). After a series of fires in Jakarta’s slum areas the team of Jokowi and Basuki raised allegations against Fauzi-Nara of being behind these incidents, as the fires allegedly occurred in Jokowi’s strong support areas. The twitter team of Foke-Nara then was responsible for countering this attack by simply pointing the finger in the other direction: Jokowi and Basuki themselves would have created those incidents in order to defame Fauzi Bowo.

Interestingly, the teams usually tried to portray their defamations and allegations as “objective facts” supported by “evidence”. This can be nicely seen in the Anti-Jokowi flyer displayed here. The content of the flyer is translated in the separate document below.


In the early morning hours of the last day of campaigning before the final election supporters of both teams assemble at Bundaran HI, the large central roundabout and landmark in Central Jakarta. All of a sudden the campaign song of Jokowi and Basuki starts to play really loud. A small group of dancers performs a choreography telling the story of the campaign song. After 3 minutes of their performance the audience of about 3500 people suddenly starts to join in the dancing and pull off their jackets and shirts, revealing the iconic checkered campaign shirt of Jokowi and Basuki below. The song plays over and over again and the masses keep dancing, celebrating their candidates, who had just arrived at the scene.

This Flashmob had been organised during the previous two weeks via the social media. Somehow the organisers managed to get several thousand supporters informed and prepared for the performance, while keeping it a relatively well-kept secret. The opposing team did not know about this in advance, neither did many of the journalists covering the campaign events. This being said, it was of course made sure, that enough press, especially TV, was gathered in the right places to get good shots of what was going on. The event immediately went viral over the web, and TV stations broadcasted it over and over again for the whole day. (In the video section below you can see a video of this event and read an English translation of the song’s lyrics).

Therewith, it marked the peak of Jokowi’s and Basuki’s election campaign and sent a final key message to voters: Campaigning and politics can be done in a creative and positive way AND to make this work you should get involved and participate voluntarily to support who or what you believe in.

As if to provide a final counter evidence supporters of Fauzi Bowo and Nachrowi Ramli went around distributing flyers with anti-Chinese hate speeches directed against Basuki right at the same time and place (in the less crowded background of the photograph to the left).


Loosing the entire Chinese vote of the first election round to Jokowi-Basuki came as a shock to the team of Fauzi and Nara. Despite their aggressive anti-Chinese rhetoric no one had expected this. At least the rich and influential Chinese business community had been expected to be on the side of Fauzi Bowo.

Despite this defeat the anti-Chinese mobilisation grew even more aggressive in the second election round, as it was a crucial element to their dominant campaign strategy: the intensification of negative and black campaigning in order to weaken the enormously positive image of Jokowi and Basuki.

This type of campaigning was mostly aimed at a rather poor and uneducated Muslim electorate and based on widespread anti-Chinese stereotypes such as the corrupt and rich Chinese entrepreneur. It also built on a taboo from Soeharto times (Indonesia’s authoritarian leader from 1965 to 1998), stipulating that Chinese Indonesians cannot be in politics. This was paired with a radical Islamic demand not to accept a non-Muslim leader.

However, this does not mean that Fauzi Bowo and Nachrowi Ramli would be anti-Chinese, Muslim fundamentalist radicals. This approach certainly needs to be regarded as a tool in the face of lacking alternatives. Five years earlier during his first election into office Fauzi Bowo himself campaigned on an open and pluralist platform in order to counter his only rival – a Muslim hardliner.

In this context it also needs to be seen that the educated Chinese community of Jakarta was expected to dismiss this black campaigning as mere election rhetoric and not perceive it as a real threat. Accordingly, in this picture you see Fauzi Bowo on one of the last nights of campaigning before the final and determining election: He speaks in front of several hundred rich Chinese Indonesians assembled in a luxury Chinese club in the Chinese-dominated area of Glodok.

He stands at a distance of about 50 m even to the first row, alone, on a huge and empty stage. As forlorn as he seems up there, as forlorn was his attempt to gloss over the public discrimination in the face of the Chinese community: Five days later at least 93 % of Jakarta’s Chinese Indonesians voted against Fauzi Bowo a second time.


Of course the citizens of Jakarta did not solely get soaked up in campaign activities for one candidate or another. Many NGO’s from Indonesia Corruption Watch (ICW), over the Independent Committee for Election Monitoring (KIPP Komite Independen Pemantau Pemilu) to the Association for Elections and Democracy (Perludem Perkumpulan Untuk Pemilu dan Demokrasi) were active in observing the ongoing process. They monitored the work of the local election commission (KPUD) and the state-directed committee for election supervision (PANWAS) and reported critically to the media, when necessary. They organized numerous political debates for the public, held trainings for the municipalities’ administrative staff involved in the election process, and put large efforts into voter education.

One prime example of their efforts is a public awareness campaign organised and supported by a number of local, national and international NGOs in cooperation with several groups of Jakarta’s street artists. In a number of strategic places in the city graffities addressing election related problems were put up under the title Street Art Peduli Pilkada Jakarta (Street Art Care About Jakarta’s Local Election). The three examples in the photographs from Central Jakarta read:

Vote carefully, so you don’t regret it later.

Don’t you bribe the citizens with that money to vote for you.

The third example is difficult to interpret correctly as it contains several double meanings. It was not included in a digital street art catalogue along with the other pictures. Quite likely this is because both depicted figures wear traditional Betawi clothing and the traditional Muslim headcover peci, the figure to the left has some resemblance with Fauzi Bowo. Both symbolism and text contain references to Satan. The sentence in the bottom reads “Together, let’s destroy Jakarta!!!”. The combination of these details seems rather radical and not quite in line with the ambition of the project to use art as an educational tool against the negative excesses of the campaigns.

Serrum – an art forum dedicated to use art as educational tool and main organiser of this street art campaign – kindly sent us their digital catalogue containing the remaining street art pieces. Previously this catalogue had also been exhibited online on Serrum’s website Now you can view the pdf document here:

Catalogue Street Art Peduli Pilkada Jakarta


In the following campaign videos you can get a final impression of how contrasting the approaches towards these two campaigns really were.

The first video by the Indonesian band Cameo Project is an adaption of the hit song “What makes you beautiful” by British boy band One Direction. The song was already highly popular in Jakarta at the time of the campaign. Cameo Project then rewrote the lyrics to tell about the problems of Jakarta and their hope in the candidates Jokowi and Basuki to overcome these. The music video depicts the narrative of the song. The story goes that the band had done this voluntarily and on their own initiative. Only after the song had become famous the campaign team started to officially use it for their purposes. This version of the YouTube video features English subtitles, which underlines that it was even successful enough to obtain some international interest. You can also read both the Indonesian lyrics and their English translation here:

It is the same song that was used for the flashmob performed by about 3.500 supporters of Jokowi and Basuki on the last day of campaigning, described earlier on in this article.

Following the initial success of this song, the campaign team also produced a short TV spot, in which Jokowi and Basuki perform together with Cameo Project, who are singing one of the campaign slogans Jakarta Baru, Harapan Baru, Wajah Baru (New Jakarta, New Hope, New Faces).

Again, the most widely spread campaign videos of Fauzi Bowo and Nachowi Ramli revealed a quite different picture. In the one-minute TV spot Jakarta Masa Depan (The Future Jakarta) you can witness a very professional and expensive animation of what a future Jakarta under Fauzi Bowo would look like. On the last day of campaigning (at the same time with Jokowi’s Flashmob and in parallel with handing out anti-Chinese campaign flyers), the team of Fauzi gave out DVDs with a more than 20!-minutes long version of this supermodern, extravagant, utopian and highly expensive vision of Jakarta.

The videos entitled Foke-Nara INSYA ALLAH Nomor 1 untuk 1 Putaran and Fauzi Bowo Nachrowi Bersatu Jakarta Indon.Subs also serve as typical examples of Fauzi Bowo’s campaign spots. All exactly one minute long, they were designed as costly TV spots, not as low-cost social media virus. And they bear the handwriting of one of Indonesia’s most successful advertisement gurus / new political marketing experts – Ipang Wahid. As mentioned earlier on, in the first of those two videos you mostly see scenes skillfully cut together from the largest campaign event of the first election round in order to create the impression of large crowds of supporters. However, both videos are generally rather similar in terms of music and imagery: they both contain passages where the Fauzi is speaking in a soft and friendly voice; they both contain references towards Allah in the song lyrics; they both contain images of a united Jakarta population living happily together and celebrating their candidates Fauzi and Nara. These videos were specifically designed to counter the negative image of Fauzi Bowo as an arrogant, distant and stiff person, short tempered, impatient, unfriendly and rarely smiling.

Ironically, their professional outlook might have partly worked against their very purpose, if you compare them with another campaign video by Jokowi-Basuki. In Bukan Putera Dewa (Not the Son of a God) both the lyrics and the imagery portray Jokowi with the humbleness and unpretentiousness, he is famous for. Most of the scenes are taken from “real” campaign events, meaning they were not shot specifically for this video. Generally, they appear to be more genuine and less constructed in direct comparison with Fauzi’s videos. The technically much less sophisticated filming and cutting techniques actually underscore the message meant to be send.

Looking back into Fauzi Bowo’s videos, they seem neither humble nor completely authentic, not least because of their polished, professional style.


By now you might have wondered what all of this costs. Just to provide you with a brief insight, in the last two pictures you can see the summary page of the two teams’ official campaign budget reports. These legally required budget reports only need to cover the two-weeks official campaign phase during the first election round. The law does not explicitly require a campaign budget report for the second election round.

Hence, these figures cover about two weeks of legal campaign expenses for each team. The figure for Jokowi-Basuki reaches 16,089,431,757 IDR (approx. 1.7 million US$ at the time of campaigning). The figure for Fauzi-Nara reaches 61,874,182,486 IDR (approx. 6.5 million US$ at the time of campaigning). They both do not include any expenses during the months leading up to this short official campaign phase directly ahead of the election on 11th July 2012 – let alone for the more than two months to follow before the second election on 20th September.

Moreover, these figures only cover expenses directly related to campaign activities (such as stage events, face-to-face campaigning, TV debates) or campaign material (advertisements in print media, TV and radio, posters, stickers, shirts etc.). They do not cover any service-related expenses, such as payments for any of the dozens of official campaign team members involved full-time for several months, or the expensive services provided by the numerous political consulting and survey companies in the field. Needless to say they do not cover any of the illegal or “grey area” campaign expenses, such as for vote-buying, “motivational encouragement” to make the members of the nominating parties go out and do their work as foot soldiers of the campaign, getting parties and other organisations or celebrities to support the candidate in the first place, financial or logistical support for any of the hundreds of volunteer networks mushrooming across the city, bribing influential newspaper editors to give a final touch to the articles, paying journalists to provide insider information, financing the black campaigning in the social media, and so on and so forth.


Now, what do these two election campaigns and their results tell us about the state and the future of Indonesian politics?

The fact that Fauzi-Nara still obtained 46.18% in the second election round – under different circumstances a quite respectable result – suggests that traditional strongman politics still work very well, particularly if there is simply no convincing and strong enough alternative candidate to challenge this kind of politics and campaigning.

However, Jokowi’s success with his campaign style (and his previous performance as Mayor of Solo) has already turned out to be much more than just a one hit wonder of one electoral competition. The “phenomenon Jokowi” – as it is called in Indonesia by now – has triggered the imitation of parts of his campaign style all across Indonesia. Candidates even go as far to try to portray themselves as the Jokowi of regency X or Y. The Indonesian term merakyat (to mingle with the common people) has almost become synonymous with him. For many months already, he is heading in nationwide surveys for next year’s upcoming presidential election. His own and even rival parties, who had been attacking him until recently, now slowly open up to the idea of nominating him as their presidential candidate. At the moment it merely seems a matter of strategic timing when his candidacy will be announced.

If he will really run, his chances of winning are very high, because with his approach Joko Widodo hits the nerve of a population that is tired of being treated as “floating mass” – the passive subjects of the state’s agency – something which has not fundamentally changed with Indonesian democratisation 15 years ago. If he succeeds to transform his campaign style into realpolitik, of course, is another matter and needs to be discussed elsewhere.


By Vera Altmeyer, Associated PhD Student, NIAS.

I would like to thank my colleagues at NIAS, who not only sparked the idea for this exhibition, but have also been enormously supportive throughout my research process and preparation of this exhibition. NIAS and NIAS Linc are also the sponsors of the physical exhibition accompanying this online version at the Faculty Library of Social Sciences, University of Copenhagen, Gothergade 140, 1123 Copenhagen K, room 01-1-11. It will run from 30. May to 31. August 2013.

Vera Altmeyer is PhD candidate at the University of Hamburg, Germany and associated PhD candidate at the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies (NIAS), Denmark.

For her PhD project she focuses on election campaigns as the core arena of political power contestation in a democracy. The research aims to investigate how recent changes of institutiones and actors involved in campaigning influence the power relations between key actors in the national and local political sphere of Indonesia. More broadly it should also be considered how this affects the wider political economy behind election campaigns and ultimately impacts on the democratisation process of the country.

For this particular case study Vera has done field research from May to October 2012. All the photographs shown in this article are taken by the author. Copyright belongs to Vera Altmeyer and if you want to use any of the pictures please contact her at


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