Since the fall of the Indonesian dictator Suharto in 1998, civil society has flourished under the country's burgeoning democracy. Observers even began calling Indonesia the most democratic nation in Southeast Asia.
Yet at the same time, movements have been fragmented and divided into thematic silos that make it hard to get across a coherent message. Women's rights activists tend to work solely on women's issues, for example, and environmentalists on agrarian reform and climate change, with little crossover and cooperation. But September saw a change, with tens of thousands of students, activists, and other citizens across the archipelago coming together to protest draconian new civil laws that also weaken anti-corruption efforts. Now, a broad coalition has emerged – at exactly the time that Indonesian democracy has come most under threat in 20 years.
The biggest protests have been in the capital, Jakarta, and the cultural centre of Yogyakarta, but significant demonstrations have taken place in almost all major cities. Two students died during clashes with security forces in Kendari, Southeast Sulawesi, and another three died in Jakarta following injuries sustained after tear gas and water cannons were used liberally despite the rallies' largely peaceful nature.
While university students led the initial demonstration on Sept. 23, the following day saw a diverse array of people gather in the streets, with activists, workers, farmers, fishermen and women, and high school students united in concern over the direction in which their country was heading. This was unusual in Indonesia, where protests often see the same dedicated individuals turning out again and again.
So why now? How did these protests get so big so fast, and is the coalition-building movement they have fostered sustainable?
Indonesia in mid-2019 is facing a perfect storm of problems. Crucially, the last national election was just a few months ago. President Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, has not even been inaugurated for his second term yet – it begins on Oct. 20. Consequently, tensions between Jokowi supporters and those of his opponent Prabowo Subianto remain high, with "buzzers" – social media users who are allegedly paid to promote their candidate and cause doubt about the other – from both sides extremely active, especially on Twitter.
The first major issue the country faced after the April presidential and parliamentary elections was the massive forest and peatland fires that ravaged Sumatra and Kalimantan (the Indonesian part of Borneo) and blanketed a significant part of Southeast Asia under a deadly cloud of smoke. The country's National Disaster Management Authority believes 90 percent of these fires were deliberately lit, mainly for clearing land to establish new oil palm plantations. This led to widespread disbelief and anger among citizens that authorities weren't doing more to stop the fires and prosecute those responsible. With increased concern about climate change, personal health, and environmental degradation, young people in particular began demanding action on social media with the hashtag #IndonesiaDibakarBukanTerbakar ("Indonesia is not burning, it is being burnt").
Next came protests in Papua following a police crackdown on Papuan university students in Surabaya, East Java, after students alleged that police called them "monkeys" – a racial slur. Papua, the easternmost part of Indonesia, became part of the nation in 1969 following a flawed referendum many allege was rigged. An independence insurgency has simmered ever since, with the Free Papua Movement at its forefront. Indonesia's military has a powerful presence across Papua, and allegations of human rights abuses on the part of security forces and private mining interests are frequent but often difficult to document or prove. The government refuses to allow foreign journalists and diplomats into the region.
The racist incident unleashed a cascade of pent-up tensions, prompting widespread protests in Papua and an overdue reckoning with endemic racism across the archipelago. Demonstrations broke out in dozens of towns across the island's two provinces. The government deployed tens of thousands of troops to restore order. Hundreds of people have been injured and more than 30 killed in the unrest, with the internet shut down across the region and thousands of non-Papuans evacuated from highland areas. But this time, young people across Indonesia began speaking up, demanding respect for human rights. This is a notable shift worth further examination – previously, even many progressive Indonesians were not aware of the situation in Papua or avoided taking a stance for fear of being labelled as supporting separatism in a country with a fiercely nationalist streak.
Amid all this, the Indonesian parliament ratified a bill that dramatically restricts the capability of the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK). One of the country's few widely trusted and respected organisations, the KPK was originally set up in 2002 during the post-Suharto reform era to investigate and prosecute rampant corruption. It has been incredibly successful at prosecuting corruption cases: It has an almost 100 percent success rate in convictions and even sent a former Speaker of Parliament, Setya Novanto, to prison for 15 years for his role in stealing $170 million in public funds. But now, under the new law, the KPK will become a government agency rather than an independent body. The law was passed in a record five days despite calls for public debate.
New criminal code and changes to laws
The final straw was the proposed ratification of a new criminal code and changes to laws on labour, agrarian reform, mining, and the correctional system. For many Indonesians who took to the streets, this was the greatest concern. If ratified, it would forbid criticism of the president, introduce the death penalty for treason, restrict abortion and sharing information on family planning, outlaw all sexual relations outside marriage, further weaken anti-corruption efforts, and make it illegal for unmarried couples to live together – the culmination of a movement toward social conservatism and Islamism that has gained traction in recent years, threatening the country's legally enshrined pluralism.
While Indonesia is the world's largest Muslim-majority country by population, it has a secular constitution and tradition of government. Pancasila, the state's founding ideology, does not privilege Islam above other religions. Indonesia's first president, Sukarno, was a staunchly secular nationalist, as was his successor, the military general Suharto. Both believed that religion played an important role in society but that it should not be the defining one. Since the fall of Suharto and transition to democracy in 1998, and the subsequent expansion of freedom of expression and association, religious groups – especially Muslim ones – have gained large and increasingly influential followings. So much so, religious beliefs became the key issue in the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial elections. A hard-line protest movement eventually succeeded in having the city's governor, one of Jokowi's closes political allies, imprisoned for blasphemy.
Activists have been trying to warn the public about the restrictive contents of the draft criminal code since early 2018, but few opportunities were made available for public involvement, with most parliamentary meetings taking place behind closed doors.
So when members of parliament tried to sneak through a range of controversial laws in the final days of the sitting year without community consultation, citizens were enraged. Especially galling was that the draft laws actually supported by activists, namely those on eliminating sexual violence and protecting domestic workers, were ignored, with parliamentarians saying they could be discussed again next year. By themselves, each of these issues was significant. Together, and with the new parliament about to be inaugurated, people viewed them as a consolidated assault on the country's democratic future. Anger exploded onto the streets. In an attempt to placate the protesters, Jokowi announced that he had requested the parliament to delay the ratification of the criminal code until 2020 to allow more time for public discussion.
It was too little, too late.