Indonesian Catholic students have joined other groups in protesting against the government's increasing subsidized fuel prices, accusing it of exacerbating the burden on the poor as the nation recovers from the Covid-19 pandemic.
The price increase of about 30 percent, the first subsidized hike in the cost of fuel in nearly a decade, comes as the country battles soaring inflation.
"The new policy has an impact on the lower classes of society who need subsidized fuel for consumption and production activities during these difficult times," Tri Natalia Urada, chairwoman of the Central Executive Board of the Indonesian Catholic Student Association, said.
"This price increase has a significant direct effect on poor families, because of course the prices of necessities will also rise, including food prices," she said in a statement.
Based on state agencies' data, in July the number of poor people – those with an income below 505,469 rupiah ($33) per month – tallied 26.16 million. The figure is a marginal drop from more than 27 million during the pandemic from 2020-21, but it is still high compared to 24 million before the pandemic.
When announcing the price increase on Sept. 3, President Joko Widodo said one of the reasons was that 70 percent of the subsidized fuel had been enjoyed by people who were well off. He also said there was a sharp increase in the subsidy and compensation budget for the 2022 fiscal year from the initial 152.5 trillion rupiah ($11.4 billion) to 502.4 trillion ($33.7 billion).
With this new policy, subsidized fuels such as pertalite rose from 7,650 rupiah to 10,000 rupiah per liter, diesel from 5,150 rupiah per liter to 6,800 rupiah per liter and pertamax from 12,500 rupiah to 14,500 rupiah per liter.
The government prepared a cash transfer scheme of 600,000 rupiah ($40) for each poor family.
However, Urada said that instead of increasing fuel prices amid the slow economic recovery, the government should regulate the management of subsidized fuel distribution so that it is right on target, adding that direct cash assistance would not solve the problem.
"It was only for the moment, therefore, we hope that the policy will be reviewed," she said.
Branches of the Indonesian Catholic Student Association in various cities held demonstrations on Sept. 6, along with other groups.
The Confederation of Indonesian Trade Unions, the largest labor group, said protests would continue to be held in every provincial city.
Meanwhile, the National Student Executive Board has announced nationwide protests, including in Jakarta, until Sept. 10.
"Seeing how government policies are getting further and further away from people's needs, we will once again fill the streets," the organization said in a statement.
In several cities, these protests led to clashes with security forces.
Blasius Ngantur, a farmer in East Manggarai district, East Nusa Tenggara province, told UCA News he was worried that this policy would trigger an increase in the prices of necessities, even though he is eligible for direct cash assistance.
"I feel that the compensation is small as the prices of basic necessities will rise after this," said Ngantur, who usually earns 50,000 rupiah a day as a farm laborer, in addition to working in his own field to support his family of five.
Meanwhile, Suriadi Sinamo, a motorcycle taxi driver in Deli Serdang district, North Sumatra province, said he questioned the government's move to shift the burden to the poor, even though the problem was mismanagement of subsidized fuel distribution.
"They are the ones who miscalculated, but we the small people are actually disadvantaged," said Suriadi, who earns 50,000-70,000 rupiah per day.
Benny Kabur Harman, a Catholic lawmaker from the Democratic Party, likened the price policy to the proverb of "a person who has fallen and then been hit by stairs."
"Twice the people have fallen, the first because of the pandemic and now because of increasing fuel prices in the midst of a crisis," he said.