Riots Have Rattled Indonesia


Photo source: Foreign Policy
By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront
Since 2019 to 2020, three notable protests took place in Indonesia. The first unrest, that took place in May 2019, was due to former general Prabowo Subianto’s refusal to accept defeat in the 2019 Indonesian presidential election to incumbent President Joko Widodo, also known as Jokowi.

Prabowo’s campaigners had called for protests in Jakarta, after preliminary results showed Jokowi's victory, who for his rivals remains somewhat of an outsider. They argued that convincing margins of Jokowi were fraudulently obtained.

The protestors had targeted election agencies buildings, and had thrown firecrackers and stones at the police. The authorities said that it was ‘an event by design.’

Amnesty International had released a report, and called the brutal treatment on protestors as ‘grave human rights violations'. It is because there were around two hundred arrests, eight killings, and around seven hundred had sustained injuries. Due to the intensity of its restiveness, the government had called the army to help the situation.

The regime had also shut down Internet so that provocative material was not circulated. Former general Wiranto, a minister for politics, law and security, had ominously formed a team to investigate the ‘unconstitutional behaviour’. Twenty or so people linked to Prabowo, including two former generals, had been arrested on charges including treason and weapons smuggling. At one stage, a warrant was issued to bring Prabowo himself in for questioning, although this was quickly rescinded.

The second unrest triggered in September 2019, against a new legislation that reduces the authority of the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), as well as several bills including a new criminal code that penalises extramarital sex and defamation against the president. The protestors also demanded an end to illegal forest fires, and withdrawal of troops from West Papua in August 2019, where dozens had been killed in riots and over seven hundred arrested over holding pro-independence rallies, a goal people there have supported since the Netherlands left the region to Indonesia in 1962.

It also seemed that many young Indonesians in the September 2019 protests were against the new mining laws, as more than ninety percent of the mining bill contained very dangerous and problematic articles, one of them the potential criminalisation against anyone who opposed mining companies, signifying the law's firm offering to the elites and the mining companies.

In an attempt to listen to his critics, Widodo said that 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 protesters during September 2019 protests consisted of mostly students from over three hundred universities. Students from many universities were meeting with a broad range of people with grievances against the government - farmers, union activists, feminists and others. Students who were interviewed ascertained that the demonstrators had drawn inspiration from the protests that had rocked Hong Kong in 2019.

The media-savvy students and activists had even created punchy online hashtags to raise awareness of their campaign, and used crowd-funding sites like to raise cash for renting trucks and loudspeakers, and buying medical supplies and food. They communicated with each other using WhatsApp.

These protests highlighted a growing sentiment in Indonesia regarding the political and business elite that is becoming increasingly beholden to special interests and less accountable to the people.

In its history, Indonesia had also witnessed ethnic and religious violence over the past two decades, since the fall of President Suharto, Prabowo’s father-in-law, in May 1998. This included state-backed violence in Aceh, East Timor, and Papua but also communal violence against ethnic Madurese, and violence between Christians and Muslims in the Moluccas and northern Moluccas islands in which thousands were killed.

Conversely, it seems apparent that the recent movements are based against the same forces of corruption and elitism.

Jokowi, who won the re-election with the support of conservative Islamic groups, has been struggling to reinvigorate an economy that is still growing at about five per cent a year. He also faces headwinds from falling exports, lower investment and subdued commodity prices.

In an interview with Financial Times, Peter Mumford, head of south-east and south Asia at Eurasia Group, revealed that Jokowi’s attempt to push through the unpopular new laws indicated he was not overly concerned about short-term public opinion. “That’s not going to be his priority in his second term. He wants to focus more on delivering on his political agenda,” he said.

This uncertainly and political despotism continued during the third wave of protests which came in October 2020, against the new so-called omnibus law, a massive law that amends seventy nine existing statutes, and has been touted by the government as a panacea for easing investment and facilitating job creation. However, its critics say that it strips rights from workers and makes it easier for companies to violate environmental standards. According to the Legal Aid Institute, police used violence against demonstrators in at least eighteen provinces. Police had reported that they had arrested more than thousand people in Jakarta, and surrounding regions alone. Alongside labour groups and various other activist coalitions, the leading force in the third protests were the students. The prominence of students in all three waves of protests are noteworthy. Hence, the return of student protest on such a scale marks the dramatic resumption of an important Indonesian political tradition.

However, the thing to note is that Indonesian students have tended to pursue diverse interests and affiliations, joining or supporting the various political parties, social movements and activist groups that populate Indonesia’s democratic political landscape. Therefore, the very idea of a cohesive and distinctive student movement seemed to be slowly fading. Besides Suharto’s ousting in 1998, student protests also played a key role in regime change in the 1965-66 downfall of President Sukarno’s Guided Democracy.

Indonesian politics has been dominated by a complex nature of things. The reforms in Indonesia seem to be in a jeopardy, because of the combination of political polarisation, and the influence of and response to political Islam. According to Aaron Connelly, a research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in Singapore, the Indonesian politics has moved into an illiberal direction. ‘There is cynical use of Islamist movements by opposition politicians to stir discontent with Jokowi,’ he said. ‘But at the same time, the actions that Jokowi himself and his appointees have taken has been to suppress dissent.’


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