Demonstrations sweep Indonesia over controversial labour law

Clashes with police and many arrested amid rising opposition to law that is supposed to boost investment.

Protesters in Medan threw rocks at riot police as rallies against the omnibus bill turned ugly [Tonggo Simangunsong/Al Jazeera]

Medan, Indonesia – More than a thousand protesters took to the streets of Medan, in North Sumatra on Thursday as tensions rose across Indonesia following the passage of a controversial “omnibus law” earlier this week that demonstrators fear will destroy jobs rather than create them.

Demonstrators clashed with riot police in several locations across the city, as the authorities deployed tear gas and water cannon in an attempt to quell the unrest.  Clashes also flared on the streets of the capital, Jakarta, as thousands marched across the archipelago.

“It is a climax of protest due to anger and frustration because parliament and the government do not listen to the people, the workers, the students and the social movements in Indonesia,” Damai Pakpahan, the country representative of Protection International, an NGO that defends human rights activists, told Al Jazeera.

The omnibus law, which was signed into law on October 5, has been a target of labour unions since it was first proposed, ostensibly to simplify Indonesia’s complex legal system and ease foreign investment. Hailed as a boon for the economy by some, critics of the legislation say it is exploitative to workers and potentially destructive to the environment.

“The omnibus law lays a red carpet for corporations to extract the country’s natural resources with minimum, if not zero, hindrance,” said Usman Hamid, the head of Amnesty Indonesia.

The anger at the new bill, which many believe was rushed through parliament compared with bills such as the Anti-Sexual Violence Bill and the Law for the Protection of Domestic Workers which have languished for years and sometimes decades, has resulted in injuries to protesters and police.

Excessive force

However, some have criticised the use of force by the protesters as well as the local authorities, as images have circulated on social media of demonstrators hurling rocks and other projectiles at police, launching Molotov cocktails and setting fire to tyres, furniture and bus stops.

In Medan, protesters hurled rocks at the Legislative Assembly building, directly hitting some police officers in the process. “We ask [the public] to be orderly in conveying their aspirations. You will be monitored, whoever commits anarchist actions will be firmly dealt with. There is CCTV watching over you all,” said Riko Sunarko, Medan’s chief of police through a loudspeaker.

Experts say Indonesians have few options other than protest to show their grievances against the government  [Tonggo Simangunsong/Al Jazeera]

“The fact that the police used tear gas and violence such as hitting and kicking protesters is very worrying and disturbing,” Amnesty’s Hamid told Al Jazeera. “The police must stop the use of excessive force. In our records, at least 180 protesters in Bandung, West Java were injured and 24 students in Serang, Banten also suffered injuries including concussion. This cannot be justified.”

Indonesia has a long history of street protests, many of which often turn violent, in part because there are few other ways to voice criticism about government policies.

“With so few institutional avenues for channelling grievances in any substantive way, and with political parties not having strong grassroots constituencies, street demonstrations, mobilisations and riots have long been a key mode of political communication and protest for working-class Indonesians,” Ian Wilson, a Senior Lecturer in Politics and Security Studies at Murdoch University, told Al Jazeera.

Much of the anger felt by the protesters is linked to the precarious economic situation currently felt in Indonesia, as the omnibus law is meant to boost foreign investment. In Medan, the Accumulation of the Anger of the People’s Workers (AKBAR) trade union staged a peaceful demonstration in the city, with its representative Martin Luis telling the crowd that, “They [the government] deliberately conspire with foreigners to rob our wealth.”

The coronavirus pandemic is not helping the situation.

“The extent, scale and ferocity of the nation-wide demonstrations in response to the omnibus law is reflective of the anxiety and anger rippling through broad segments of Indonesian society. Many people throughout the country are already experiencing significant financial hardship and uncertainty as an outcome of the pandemic,” said Wilson.

“This has served to compound outrage at the real potential for laws to undermine the hard-won conditions and protections for workers.”

Calls for calm

Legisltors have been with calling for calm after days of civil unrest.

Police in riot gear used water cannon and tear gas while protesters threw rocks [Tonggo Simangunsong /Al Jazeera]

Ranto Sibarani, a human rights lawyer based in Medan, told Al Jazeera that there are appropriate legal channels through which to challenge the new omnibus law and that protesters should avoid putting themselves on the wrong side of the law.

“Protesting is a right because Indonesia is a democracy and therefore it is not a crime, but attacking the police and destroying property is clearly a crime,” he said.

He also added that children and teenagers should not get involved in the protests, particularly if they were participating in attacking the police. On the streets of Medan, many of the protesters appeared to be young teenagers, several of whom were rounded up by the authorities.

“We have the option of applying for a judicial review in the constitutional court,” said Sibarani. “There are legal precedents for this that make this the best chance of challenging the omnibus law if people find it oppressive.”

There is talk of more rallies on Friday, but after three days of protests and clashes, there are also signs of a shift within the Indonesian government.

Several regional governors including Ridwan Kamil (West Java), Sultan Hamengkubuwono X (Yogyakarta) and Sutarmidji (West Kalimantan) have voiced concerns about the bill. On his Facebook page, Sutarmidji urged Indonesian President Joko Widodo to retract the law to prevent further unrest.

“A good law should be in accordance with the sense of justice that grows and blooms in society,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera