Pipin Jamson – After three days of smaller actions, on October 8 larger demonstrations exploded in scores of cities and towns in Indonesia, including the capital Jakarta and the other major cities of the country. The government itself says that more than 5,000 demonstrators were detained. Demonstrations ranged from a few hundred to maybe 15,000 people. In cities where there were progressive trade unions already established, thousands of workers were involved. Otherwise, university and high school students predominated. There were often clashes between the police and demonstrators, with the police also trying to stop protesters from leaving their starting points.
The demonstrations were provoked by the parliament passing a new law, the Omnibus Law for Creating Work, referred here as the Omnibus Law. The 1,000-page law covers many areas of policy. Still, it is probably its measures concerning labour rights and environmental regulations that have attracted most criticisms. The Law weakens the protections for workers on questions such as menstruation leave for women, rights to leave, redundancy payments, and hiring and firing. On environmental issues, it has been made easier for businesses to avoid environmental impact statements.
The government has defended the law as making changes that will increase incentives for investors to open businesses in Indonesia. As critics have noted, it certainly both reduces their financial responsibilities towards workers as well as, for example, the "burden" of assessing impacts on the Indonesian environment, a significant factor in an economy where mining and forestry loom so large. Among members of the parliamentary committee examining the Bill, were people tied to coal businesses.
Students, progressive trade unions, left-wing political groups and online booksellers played important roles in initiating the call for demonstrations that echoed across cyberspace via whats app and Instagram. Several of these, especially socialist groups, called for a national strike and a refusal to collaborate with any bourgeois forces.
Apart from ordering the police to stop demonstrators moving to any central meeting point, and actions to disperse gatherings, including use of tear gas, the arrest of over 5,000 people reflects a repressive stance. President Widodo has dismissed all criticisms of the Law as "hoaxes" and called for people to abandon the demonstrations and take the Law to the courts if they are opposed to it. Major trade unions, aligned with parties within the Widodo government, and who did not seriously mobilise for the demonstrations, have also confirmed they will take this path.
University students also played a significant role in mobilising the demonstrations. As a response, the Ministry of Education and Culture (Kemendikbud) issued an instruction letter to the university's rector to urge students not to participate in demonstrations. Despite the instruction, progressive university lecturers through the Academic Alliance Against Omnibus Law called on the campus to support protests and freedom of speech, which should be the right of students.
Key campaign committees have already announced follow up protests for around 21-23 October. There have already been protests demanding the release of detained demonstrators. Some demonstrators are already being charged, although it is not yet entirely clear what the charges might be. Police have cited the possession of books by Indonesian historical left figures as being incriminating evidence.