Medan, Indonesia – In recent weeks, a story resembling one of Indonesia’s many popular soap operas has gone viral on the country’s social media.
In the tale, he divorces a woman and her devoted husband, agreeing to pay off her debts while giving her custody of their three children. But after a rich neighbor seduced the woman, her ex-husband was so angry that he returned one of the children. Meanwhile, the other two demanded that their father discipline their mother.
But the misogynistic story, with its depiction of domestic violence, is not a TV series.
It’s actually pro-Russian messages, with Russia portrayed as the wronged man and Ukraine as the ex-wife. The rich neighbor is the United States, the Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk, the three children.
The story is believed to have first appeared on Chinese messaging app Weibo in the days following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but its enthusiastic reception in Indonesia through Whatsapp groups and on other social media platforms, including Twitter and Facebook, indicates growing support for Russia’s position on Indonesians by surprise. some.
“Pro-Russian social media has been quick to frame the war in Russia’s favor,” Elif Satria, a researcher in the Department of Politics and Social Change at Indonesia’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Al Jazeera.
“Using memes and images that appeal to Indonesians, they portray Russia as an obedient husband who wants to take Ukraine back, and a ungrateful ex-wife who sided with European thugs and held their children, who are of Russian origin, hostage.”
As a result of images like these, in the three weeks since the war began, something of a split has emerged between Indonesia’s official position, social media and online comments more sympathetic, if not directly supportive, to Russia.
Indonesia voted in favor of a United Nations General Assembly resolution condemning Russian aggression as well as a decision by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to establish an independent commission to investigate alleged human rights violations. President Joko Widodo also called for a ceasefire in an interview with Nikkei Asia on March 9.
According to Johannes Suleiman, a lecturer in international relations at Jinderal Ahmad Yani University in Bandung, part of the issue lies in the hatred of some Indonesians for the United States, although they may have come out previously in protest of Russia’s wars in Chechnya and its attacks on Syria.
Much of the mistrust stems from the period after 9/11 and Indonesia’s response to the so-called “war on terror” in the Muslim-majority country.
“[Pro-Russia Indonesians] She does not like and trust the United States. People have seen the United States attack Afghanistan and Iraq in the past for reasons deemed trumped up like the 9/11 plot and the lack of weapons of mass destruction. [used as the pretext for war in Iraq]. “
This has affected them in questioning the credibility of the news sources, i.e. the American media. Many say they cannot just accept news from the United States without reading the other side — but the root of this is their distrust of the United States in general,”
Surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center in Washington, DC, have shown greater suspicion of the United States in Indonesia than in many other countries in the Asia-Pacific region.
A February 2020 Pew study showed that only 42 percent of Indonesians have a favorable view of the United States, the lowest of the six countries surveyed.
Attractive macho man
Indonesians also tend to view the situation in Ukraine through the lens of other conflicts.
More than 90 percent of Indonesia’s population of 270 million is Muslim, and support for Palestinian rights has been high. There are no official relations between the state and Israel.
“There is a problem of double standards and the error that Israel terrorizes Palestine, so why isn’t there a problem with that, but Ukraine is a problem?” Solomon said.
However, Satria cautions that online support for Russia in Indonesia remains unknown and that there has not yet been “any study or effort to understand and understand how widespread these sentiments are among the Indonesian public.”
Russia is notorious for its online disinformation campaign activities, and studies have found that the Saint Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency manipulated the results of the 2016 elections in the United States.
The country has also sought to improve its reputation in the archipelago in recent years, according to Radio Dharmaputra, a lecturer in the Department of International Relations at the University of Irlanga, with Moscow making “a concerted effort to portray Russia as a friend and ally of Islam.”
Dharmaputra writes in a Melbourne University blog, that Russia has established a science and culture center in Jakarta, created an Indonesian-language version of the Russia Beyond Headlines website and provided scholarships for Indonesian students as well as funded Russian-language studies at Indonesian universities.
“The lack of credible news outlets with the resources to send investigative journalists to the war zone and the apparent lack of Russian and Eastern European specialists in Indonesian academia has resulted in (a) a vacuum of reliable information, informed analysis, and clarity of view regarding the Russian war on Ukraine in Indonesia.”
“It was filled with latent anti-American and anti-Western views, the idealization of powerful leaders like Putin, religious arguments that Russia is an ally of Islam, and pro-Russian propaganda and public diplomacy. Indonesia’s poor digital literacy led to pro-Russian views taking hold with relative ease. “.
Indonesia is no stranger to strongmen like the Russian president – a man known for his penchant for manly portraits.
The late President Suharto, a former general, ruled Indonesia with an iron fist for more than 30 years until the late 1990s, and many Indonesian politicians past and present were connected to the military or belonged to the families of the political elite.
“The huge popularity of a figure like Putin speaks, I think, of the illiberal political culture, militarism and authoritarian history in Indonesia,” Ian Wilson, a lecturer in politics and security studies at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia, told Al Jazeera.
Autocratic men of power have always been viewed favorably, as decisive and steadfast, with aggression and disdain for rights interpreted favorably as a sign of resolve. It is worth remembering that there are still great feelings towards former dictator Suharto.
Perhaps it is also no coincidence that popular political figures with a military past and strongman image, such as Prabowo Subianto, [former presidential candidate and now defence minister]sometimes favorably compared to Putin.”
Suleiman agreed that for many Indonesians watching from afar, a figure like Putin is more relatable than Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, the former comedian who won Ukraine’s version of Dancing with the Stars in 2006.
While Zelenskyy has stayed in Ukraine and inspired many with his video updates for the Ukrainian people and making speeches in front of Western parliaments, this doesn’t necessarily translate well to the Indonesian audience.
“In Indonesian political culture, ‘strongmen’ are authoritarian, demagogues, and rejecters of democratic processes,” Wilson said. “Many see this in Putin, but not in a character like Zelensky who is often described in commentary as a ‘puppet’ of outside powers, though a real leader emerges in a time of crisis.”
Suleiman agreed, saying: “Putin is a wonderful and strong person, and many netizens like this type of character.”
Age is also a factor because Indonesians tend to gravitate towards older leaders.
“Back in 2004, many Indonesians said they voted for them [former president] Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on the grounds that he was handsome, impulsive, and had better visuals than his opponents.”