M. Yamin

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow since 2002
This description of M. Yamin's work was prepared when M. Yamin was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2002 .


M. Yamin is reconfiguring a traditional, village-level decision-making institution, the banjar, to realize the opportunities of Indonesia's emerging democracy.

The New Idea

In a timely response to a historic opportunity, Yamin is recreating the banjar, a customary council of village representatives, to foster the growth of democracy. After decades of top-down rule in Indonesia, which bred citizen mistrust of new institutions, Yamin sees that the banjar can be an important model for grassroots participation in public decision-making. He has turned the banjar in his own village into a membership organization that is open to all classes of society and devoted to public education and service.

The banjar has several functions. It is a forum in which members discuss local and broader issues, such as education, laws and local regulations, and social justice. It is also an action-oriented body that, using member dues and other income, implements social programs ranging from a revolving loan fund that puts loan sharks out of business to programs that put teachers in classrooms and encourages parents to contribute to their children's education. But the banjar's most important role is as a training ground for the new generation of local leaders who will be instrumental in shaping Indonesia's emerging democracy. The present gap in leadership–one legacy of an authoritarian history can be filled either by well-trained leaders with good intentions or by party operatives and opportunists; banjar is one institutional mechanism that can help people prefer the former. When villagers are asked to elect their representatives, those representatives who have served villagers well on the banjar can stand as candidates. But regardless of who ends up on the councils, Yamin sees the new banjar as an important vehicle for monitoring councils and ensuring their transparency. Yamin's idea is a model for encouraging citizens' engagement in emerging democracies elsewhere.

The Problem

Indonesia is at a historic crossroads. Behind it are three decades of authoritarian rule that suppressed popular participation in government; ahead is a long, uncertain but promising route to a more democratic society. On either side are detours and switchbacks that threaten to lead back towards centralized, militarized rule. Yet on the road ahead, one encouraging milestone of democracy has already been staked out: official recognition that citizens should have input to local political bodies empowered to make decisions and take action without direction from the state. This apparent commitment to "local autonomy" is new. Under the old system, the government bureaucracy was organized to reach only to the subdistrict, leaving out villages and hamlets. Decisions were made at the higher levels and delivered through the subdistrict. Communication was one-way, downward, from the center to the province to the district and then the subdistrict. There were no elected local officials. The new village council, with popularly elected officials and its own budget, is a much-anticipated remedy just now taking shape throughout the country. It is intended to link citizens to government in a more tangible way than the country has known in 30 years. Although this process has begun, still lacking are community institutions that have the trust of the people and the capacity to represent their aspirations.

Before the New Order regime seized and replaced local political bodies with "mass" organizations of its own devising, communities established institutions to look after their own political, economic, and cultural interests. One such institution prevalent throughout eastern Indonesia in one form or another was the banjar, which was essentially a council of elders who were accountable to their neighbors. The banjar had several functions, including distributing social welfare, settling disputes, and acting as a forum for dialogue about local issues.

But the banjar was not a perfect forum. It reflected the feudal nature of society, its class divisions, and imbalance in the rights of men and women. Like many traditional institutions, the banjar could not simply be revived, dusted off, and put to work for people living today. It needed to be reimagined and reformed.

The Strategy

For the banjar to advance Indonesia's experiments with local autonomy, Yamin has a two-part strategy. The first is to cultivate, rather intensively, examples of banjar that achieve several specific objectives. They must sustain themselves financially; they must represent all strata of society; and they must take on important public issues. The second is to use the reformed banjar and other dormant cultural institutions for the promotion of democracy.

After intensive field research, Yamin established a pilot reformed banjar in his home village. He began to discuss with villagers a variety of issues ranging from children's education and cultural revitalization to their economic needs and potential. From the beginning, Yamin encouraged women to take part, and he found that they were active participants because the topics were close to their daily experiences. He has invited interested parties both from the government and the civil sector to visit the banjar, and he encourages such visitors to provide input, criticism, and other resources. Yamin found support for his idea from an organization that contributed an incentive grant to help with the building of the banjar's open-sided meeting hall. While constructing the physical structure, the group began to formalize its organization.

The core group of about 15 people quickly grew to 60 members, each representing a household. They established a membership format that requires each member to pay an initial fee of about $2.50 and monthly dues of $0.25. The members make a commitment both to attend the monthly meetings on the 15th of each month and to take an active part in the banjar discussions and activities. With money collected by the banjar, members establish a form of a credit union. Members can borrow small loans, to be repaid within four months with interest of five percent per month. This has succeeded in helping the members free themselves from the loan sharks who tend to provide villagers with loans at exorbitantly high (up to 100 percent) interest rates. The banjar is currently working on the establishment of two kiosks to serve the needs of the community, to help cut costs for basic necessities, and to add income to the banjar. One kiosk will sell cooking oil, rice, and basic staples, and the other will sell over-the-counter medicines, soap, and other things. These economic initiatives have been especially attractive to other groups investigating the model.

One of the important functions of the banjar is educational. Banjar members discuss educational practices and family dynamics. A serious issue that has been discussed is the use of corporal punishment for children, which is prevalent both in schools and in families. Through these discussions a positive change in the disciplinary actions in the community has taken place. Through a banjar initiative, elementary through high-school-aged young people from the community take part in the daily afterschool classes ,which include local (Sasak) language and culture and Koranic studies. The banjar now owns musical instruments and has a performing group. A large portion of the proceeds from performances is donated to the banjar for activities and loans. Through one of Yamin's contacts, the organization of Indonesian graduate students in Japan has given support for school scholarships for children of banjar members. And plans are underway to establish a lending library for the banjar members and their families.

Another key function of the banjar is to teach management skills and prepare members to be responsible leaders in the community. The officers of the banjar are elected to positions they hold for a two-year period. Yamin has been particularly careful with the position of treasurer. The treasurer has received training in keeping accounts and reports on the funds at each meeting. Yamin has also been training a core group of 12 banjar members who have the ability to help spread the idea by teaching other communities about the model they have developed.

Yamin himself, as a nationally known cultural observer, is part of a network of people concerned with issues of culture and community throughout Indonesia. With several colleagues he is establishing the Lombok Heritage Society, which will be part of the "Indonesian Heritage" network and which will focus on empowering local and national culture. This organization is a vehicle through which Yamin can actively spread the strategies for reconfiguring the banjar and similar local institutions. A director in the Coalition for a Healthy Indonesia program, Yamin has been successful in linking banjar activities with the goals of this organization, not only to strengthen the programs of the banjar but also to spread the strategies to a broader audience.

The Person

Yamin is a member of the Sasak ethnic group and a native of Lombok. He recalls a childhood where local people were held together by a sense of community and interdependence. During his life, he has seen a cash economy replace subsistence living and, on the political front, he saw "popular" organizations controlled by Jakarta replace village institutions. The result was a rapid erosion of the social ties that once held village society together. For example, when cash mattered less, contributions to charity had little to do with wealth; people provided what they could make, gather, or do to help with a wedding or funeral. Later, as cash became paramount, social distinctions became more evident and more important. Wealth, rather than the approval of one's neighbors, became the means for achieving and maintaining social status, and this new ethic was reinforced by the new politics of the state.

Yamin has faced considerable resistance from the elite or aristocratic class into which he was born, especially when, in naming his own four children, he refused to use titles that would have immediately indicated their membership in the highest class. In the same way, he himself does not use such a title. Yet, he has continued in his campaign to lessen the differences between various levels of society. He has also strongly opposed discrimination and other forms of injustice, such as the inferior position afforded to women in society. He often travels to meet with villagers and research cultural phenomena. These informal discussions sparked his concern about the loss of local values and wisdom that the people expressed.