This Street Satirist Refuses to Let Efforts to Outlaw Criticism of the Government Silence Him
The Indonesian government just passed a law that can criminalize its critics. For Andrew Lumban Gaol, a street artist and activist, it's a new challenge.
Illustration of rat poison in the style of the House of Representatives building from Andrew Lumban Gaol's archive. Used with permission of the artist.
Andrew Lumban Gaol knows how to make a splash. In 2012, this Yogyakarta-based street artist wheat-pasted a massive poster on a wall in downtown Jogja featuring a business suit wearing clown holding a sign that read: "Need a funny clown? Contact $enayan."
Senayan is shorthand for the House of Representatives (DPR) complex, a sprawling government center in South Jakarta. That made the clown a lawmaker. The country's elected officials were, obviously, less than impressed.
But for Andrew, the streets are a political battlefield. He's the man behind the Anti-Tank Project, an activist network that connects artists with the people fighting against government corruption, incompetence, and over-reach.
Andrew uses bold, eye-catching designs to bring his political messages to the people of Jogja—a lefty city in Central Java where he has resided for the past decade. It's the kind of work that's instantly recognizable when you're driving through the graffiti-covered streets of Jogja and infused with a wry sense of activism that leaves viewers both informed and slightly entertained.
Take his poster criticizing the Jogja administration's push to develop the city's tourism sector. Andrew took the iconic Tugu Jogja and surrounded it with a fence and a sign implying that one of the things that made the city "special" were its evictions.
He's made fun of the government's obsession over the "communist threat," calling it a way to redirect people's attention from the real issues, used Motörhead lyrics to call out issues with the military's involvement in politics, and repeatedly stood with farmers and villagers to raise awareness about ongoing efforts to seize their land. What unites each campaign is Andrew's use of bold, almost industrial looking design and a healthy dose of humor.
“People are very receptive to comedy,” Andrew told VICE. “We all know that the government is not working effectively. So I turn this collective disgust into parody.”
Andrew, 33, fell into activism as part of the punk scene in the small city of Pematang Siantar, North Sumatra. It was back in the mid-2000s when Andrew started to learn more about political movements and the concept of equal rights.
Back in his home city, Andrew had more than a few run-ins with the police. By 2004, he started using the moniker Anti-Tank Project as an outlet for his frustration with authority. But it wasn't until he moved to Jogja to attend art college in 2008 that Anti-Tank Project really took off.
In university, Andrew began to experiment with his art as he immersed himself deeper into the city's activist scene. As he became more politically aware, his art took on a braver, no-bullshit tone. He gravitated toward stories about communities of working class people, often farmers, trying to fight back against the powerful government.
In Rembang, Central Java, the women of several small farming communities were staving off the advances of a cement company that they said would destroy their villages. It was a land dispute that quickly made national headlines, thanks in no small part to the women's tactics of sealing their feet in concrete outside the Presidential Palace. And Andrew was all over it as well, creating art supporting the movement and raising awareness of what was going on.
Later, when a similar land grab hit his own city, Andrew was quick to criticize the Jogja administration—a government run by an unelected sultan—for trying to seize people's land just to build a new airport.
What Andrew is doing is really nothing new. Artists worldwide have used their art to protest the government and galvanize the people behind easy to understand slogans and ideas. But it's increasingly becoming more and more dangerous to create art like this in Indonesia.
Just last week, lawmakers in the House of Representatives passed a new law that would make it illegal for artist, activists, and concerned citizens to criticize them in a way that "degrades" their honor. This new law—dubbed the MD3 Law in the press—is basically the latest weapon in the government's ongoing campaign to stile freedom of speech and silence critics.
But if the idea here was to make anyone silent, then the DPR made a huge miscalculation. Critics immediately slammed lawmakers for trying to turn the DPR into some kind of "superbody entity"—basically a government body that was, in many regards, both above the law and the law. Under these new rules, anyone in the DPR can't be indicted of a crime without the approval of the president, and the DPR itself can call people before the House to testify, as if they were also the courts.
Fadli Zon, the deputy speaker of the House, denied allegations that the DPR was trying to immunize itself from criticism, claiming that, instead, lawmakers were just trying to protect their dignity.
Then, if that wasn't absurd enough, the Speaker of the House Bambang Soesatyo announced a contest to see who could think up the best way to insult someone in the DPR.
But what's an insult and what is just criticism? That's up to the lawmakers themselves to decide, according to Yohanes Sulaiman, a political analyst at Jendral Ahmad Yani University, who warned that laws like this have a chilling effect on freedom of speech and expression.
"The DPR are free to interpret whether a comment is a criticism or an insult," Yohanes told VICE. "But we will never know. There's no guarantee that words of criticism will be seen as such. So the public is going to be too scared to voice their opinions."
Remember that even without tools like this new MD3 Law, the government has still be able to crack down on critics over the last five years, Yohanes explained. In Indonesia, defamation is a criminal offenses, and the courts don't need to prove either malice or that the offending statement was even untrue to convict.
The controversial Electronic Information and Electronic Transaction Law, or ITE Law, also includes its own articles curtailing freedom of speech online. And in the existing Criminal Code there are six articles about defamation—and even more aimed solely and critics of the government in the new revision. Now there's fresh concerns that someone accused of "insulting" the DPR could face charges stemming from multiple laws all at once.
This entire notion, that elected officials need to be somehow immune from criticism, can't be justified under Indonesia's current political system, explained Muradi, a political expert at Padjajaran University. This new law gives off the impression that the DPR is trying to hide from its opposition.
“The right of immunity is just silly,” Muradi told VICE. “It takes it too far. Immunity can’t be used like the DPR members are somehow above the law."
For political artists like Andrew, the new MD3 Law is just the latest threat toward people who speak their minds and stand up against the government. He admits that he has had to think of new ways to express his ideas, but Andrew is optimistic that the law won't stop him from creating art.
"The danger was always there," Andrew told VICE. "But at this moment, the most important thing is to find other effective ways to express opinions."
It's been six year since Andrew hung that poster calling DPR lawmakers a bunch of clowns. Would he do it again?
"Looking at the hilarious performance of the DPR, my art might be even more relevant today," he told VICE. "just like a bunch of clowns, they have the ability to perform tricks and act stupid."