What’s driving the latest protests in Indonesia?

Grievances include government move to curb powers of anti-corruption body, concerns about environment, personal freedom.

Students stage protest against controversial bills in Medan, Indonesia
Police officers arrest a student demonstrator during a protest in Medan, North Sumatra on Tuesday [Anadolu]

Demonstrators in Indonesia returned to the streets of Jakarta on Monday for the second week of protests to oppose changes to the criminal code and a new law that critics fear will undermine the battle against corruption.

Police fired tear gas as the demonstrations descended into chaos, but protesters are expected to return to the streets again on Tuesday.

At least 300 people were hurt during nationwide protests last week, and a 21-year-old student died on Thursday after he was shot in the chest during a rally in Sulawesi.

The rallies are not associated with a particular party or group and instead are led by students, who have often been a force for political change in Indonesia. It was their demonstrations in 1998 that helped lead to the downfall of former President Suharto who like many Indonesians only goes by one name.

Among the demonstrators’ main grievances are the government’s efforts to curb the powers of the anti-corruption commission, as well as a slew of other legislative proposals that they fear will curb freedom of expression, limit personal freedoms and harm the environment.

The protests, said to be the largest in decades, come just as President Joko Widodo, also known as Jokowi, prepares to begin his second term in office beginning on October 20.

Jokowi’s top security official, Wiranto, claimed the protests were hijacked by a group aiming to disrupt parliament and the upcoming presidential inauguration.

Separately, Jokowi is facing protests in the country’s West Papua region, which have also turned deadly, casting a shadow on his presidency just months after being re-elected in a decisive vote.

Observers said the ongoing protests could hurt the president’s agenda for the next five years if he does not act decisively and address the concerns of the protesters.

Protesters are seen outside the local parliament building during a protest in Kendari
One protester died on Thursday in Southeast Sulawesi province’s city of Kendari after he was shot in the chest [Jojon/Reuters via Antara]

Anti-corruption agency threatened

In response, Jokowi announced on Thursday that he was considering revoking a new law that was passed on September 17 governing the country’s anti-corruption agency.

In a televised address, he said he had received a lot of feedback on the new law including on whether to use his authority to replace it by issuing a regulation instead.

“Of course we will consider it, assess it immediately,” Jokowi told reporters, referring to the law, which passed under the outgoing legislative body.

But even his coalition partners in the legislative branch are opposing that move, and have warned the president not to give in to the demands of the protesters. 

The Corruption Eradication Commission, known by its Indonesian initials, KPK, has prosecuted hundreds of politicians, officials and businessmen since it was established in 2002, becoming one of the country’s most respected agencies.

Corruption is endemic in Indonesia and the anti-corruption commission, one of the country’s most effective institutions, has been attacked frequently by legislators who want to reduce its powers.

The new law is seen as an attempt to chip away at the prosecutorial powers and independence of the agency. 

Lalola Kaban of the Indonesia Corruption Watch told Al Jazeera, the new law not only “hampers the independence” of the investigators, but also raises “conflict-of-interest” questions.

Lalola warned the new law could render the independence of the special prosecutors “irrelevant”.

Personal freedoms attacked

Following the passage of the new legislation governing the anti-corruption agency, protesters sprang into action, surprising Jokowi.

The demonstrators were already angry about other government proposals, which they considered anti-democratic, or highly-intrusive to their private lives.

There are also other proposals pending that seek to revise the country’s criminal code, which include making it a crime to insult the president’s honour and a ban on extramarital sex.

Nailendra, a 23-year-old student and spokeswoman of the protest movement, Geyajan, in the city of Yogyakarta, told Al Jazeera that she was outraged that close to 100 parliament members, who were once activists, failed to make a stand on the proposed bills.

“I am personally disappointed with them. But I think that is human. When they have a title or position and access to privilege, sometimes their idealism can change,” Nailendra told Al Jazeera. 

Nailendra called the proposed criminal code an “attack” on the private lives of Indonesians.

Widodo has delayed parliament’s vote on the criminal code, which would replace a Dutch colonial-era set of laws, saying a new parliament should review the bill next month.

‘Listen to critics’

On Thursday, Widodo also said he would look at feedback on whether the law intruded too far into private lives and at other chapters, including the code on insulting the president.

The bill also goes far beyond the issue of extra-marital sex. It covers 628 articles, including a proposal to penalise teachers of Marxist-Leninist ideology, as well as women who have abortions in the absence of a medical emergency or rape.

Anindya Restuviani, a women’s rights advocate and co-director of Hollaback Jakarta, which helps fight sexual harassment, told Al Jazeera that instead of penalising women, the government should focus on passing the sexual violence bill to ensure women have greater protection against unwanted marriages and forced abortions.

Meanwhile, Melky Nahar, a senior official of the Mining Advocacy Network, said many young Indonesians were also against the passage of the mining bill.

“More than 90 percent of the mining bill contain very dangerous and problematic articles, one of them the potential criminalisation against anyone who opposes mining companies,” Melky told Al Jazeera.

Melky alleged that the bill would only benefit “the elites and mining companies”.

As Jokowi navigates the political landscape ahead, one analyst told the Jakarta Post that the president should listen to his critics and “not just his aides and supporters”.

“For that is what democracy is – an endless process of checks and balances. It is more than just a race to get the most votes every five years.”

With additional reporting by Febriana Firdaus in Indonesia

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies