Tsamara Amany is an hour late for our coffee meeting. Even by Indonesian standards, where a half hour’s grace is baked into appointments, she’s verging on tardy.
But then I remember Amany is 21, recall what I might have been doing at 11 a.m. on a Saturday (being unconscious), and cut her some slack, settling into my blueberry muffin at a Starbucks in a leafy redoubt of South Jakarta.
When Amany arrives, neatly decked out in a long-sleeved, blue-and-white-striped sweater that shows off a silver necklace that spells her name in Arabic, she offers a few perfunctory apologies, orders a latte, and dives into our conversation as if there isn’t a moment to lose.
She may be right. As Indonesia lurches into its latest round of hysteria, the diminutive undergraduate, who hopes to finish her degree in communications this year at Paramadina University, has emerged as a full throated, if unlikely defender of the country’s pluralistic traditions.
On Friday, a planned demonstration to mark the anniversary of the alleged attempted coup by communists in 1965 that helped bring former Indonesian president Muhammad Suharto to power, failed to attract the 50,000 people planners were expecting. Even so, police weren’t taking any chances, mobilizing thousands of personnel, backed up by armored personnel carriers, to protect government buildings, including the parliament.
Earlier this month, police were forced to disperse a crowd of Islamic conservatives and paramilitary thugs who had laid siege to the offices of a non-governmental organization (NGO) that offers free legal assistance for victims of human rights abuse, claiming it was harboring communists (it wasn’t).
“The real threat to us is radicalism. Not communists,” Amany says. “We have to focus on bigger issues like poverty and education.”
A newly minted member of the upstart Indonesia Solidarity Party, Amany’s deft use of Twitter in social media crazy Indonesia has helped her punch far above her weight in bouts with veteran politicians.
In June, Amany, who has 57,000 followers on Twitter, squared off with parliament’s deputy speaker, Fahri Hamzah, in a Twitter spat. Amany opposes Hamzah’s efforts to bring the country’s corruption watchdog, the Corruption Eradication Commission, KPK, to heel by putting it under parliamentary control. Since its inception in 2003, the KPK, which enjoys sweeping powers to prosecute and incarcerate suspects independently of the police, has jailed scores of his colleagues as well as governors, cabinet ministers and other senior government officials.
TV appearances followed for the young political hopeful, including a nationally televised debate with Hamzah in July. Portions of the debate have attracted nearly a million views on YouTube.
The David and Goliath stand off was striking both for its optics and substance. Dressed in a dark tracksuit, Hamzah came off desultory and patronizing. After his encounter with Amany, he followed up on Twitter with a poem warning: “Don’t be too happy with praise,” and ending eerily in English with “Welcome to the club. Welcome to reality.”
Amany was having none of it.
“He is a member of parliament. He should make the argument and not rely on his position,” she says of the exchange.
But Indonesia has a dark tradition of drawing the shades on its reformist stars. The former governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as Ahok, was drummed out of office and then jailed on trumped up blasphemy charges following a backlash by Islamic conservatives. Ahok, a Christian of Chinese descent made enemies in part with reforms that moved budgeting online to aid transparency and help staunch the flow of kickbacks. The KPK’s star investigator Novel Baswedan is in the care of doctors in Singapore struggling to retain some sight in one of his eyes after an acid attack.
Amany says she’s also received death threats, and that she struggles to keep her parents supportive of her political ambitions. This is all the more challenging now that the inevitable smear campaign has started. Shortly after her exchange with Hamzah, a tabloid uncovered her marriage and subsequent divorce.
“First they called me a prostitute. Second they say I’m not capable and too young,” Amany recounts.
An Indonesian of Yemeni descent, Amany’s ambivalence about covering her head can stoke controversy among the faithful. She is uncovered at our meeting but will don hijab when visiting a cleric, for example. Her support for Ahok, too, bewilders devout Muslims who resent being led by someone from outside Islam.
“People ask why I support Ahok even though I’m of Arab descent. I tell people they can choose. That is their right.”
Amany eventually hopes to run for governor. First she aims to contest the 2019 parliamentary elections as a candidate for the Indonesia Solidarity Party. Failing that she might carry on to graduate school.
For all her zeal and clarity on some issues, Amany’s views remain unformed on others. On the question of LGBT rights, for example, she stumbles, endearingly looking at the ground for the only time during our hour-long conversation.
“It’s a hard topic. I don’t have a clear opinion on this. At the same time I don’t want to agree with people that say we should kill them or hate them.
On the prohibition of alcohol: “I think this is a private area. People who think we should stop alcohol think the private has become public. My martial status is (now) a public area.”
But when asked whether this is all worth it she recovers her stride, issuing a stirring call to the barricades.
“We are the next generation. This is the time to stand up to corruptors. This is the time for solidarity,” she declares. “If we are pessimistic we give them [presumably meaning Hamzah and is ilk] the chance to keep leading the country. That will make them happy.”
A star is born.