21 November 2019

Violent anti-government protests in Indonesia highlight increasingly divided society

Mass protests have erupted in Jakarta and across Indonesia and have escalated into violence as the government plans to introduce new changes to the criminal code and anti-corruption laws that move the country closer towards Islamisation.

By Aaron Kunaraja

Indonesia has been rocked by protests as thousands of university students and social activists have taken to the streets of Jakarta and other major cities across the country since 23 September 2019, to oppose a slew of planned changes to the country's criminal code as well as the passing of a new law that would weaken the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), the country's anti-corruption agency. Some of the proposed changes to the criminal code include plans to criminalise extramarital sex, homosexual activity, offensive remarks against the president and to institute tougher blasphemy laws, as the current administration seeks to reform the colonial-era code and adopt more Shariah laws into the national legal system. At the same time, a controversial new law that was passed in parliament in mid-September that reduced the independent inquiry powers of the KPK by instituting a government-appointed board to oversee the agency has also riled anti-corruption activists. These recent developments also indicate the growing divide in Indonesian society as the government is increasingly being seen by liberal and secular Indonesians as moving in the direction of Islamisation.

Demonstrations over these issues have been among the biggest anti-government rallies in the country's recent history - since 1998, when massive protests brought down the Suharto dictatorship - and have escalated into violence. Tens of thousands of people have so far participated in the protests, especially in Jakarta, where street battles between stone- and petrol bomb-throwing protesters and riot police took place in the vicinity of the national parliament complex. During the protests in Jakarta on 23-25 September, over 300 people were injured in clashes with police and since 570 others were arrested. Demonstrations that initially began in the capital have spread across the country. At least two student protesters were killed as police tried to prevent demonstrators from setting fire to the provincial assembly building in Kendari, Southeast Sulawesi province on 26 September. In response to the violence, the government deployed over 5,000 security personnel to Jakarta and thousands more to cities across the country.

Following the unprecedented unrest, President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo, who won a second term in office in July 2019 elections, has requested parliament to postpone the vote on the proposed penal code changes. However, this t is unlikely to abate tensions as protesters have demanded that the new bills be completely removed and the anti-corruption law that curtails the KPK's powers be repealed. Going forward, Jokowi will increasingly be in the unenviable position of balancing the interests of highly influential conservative Islamic elements in society and government against more moderate and progressive forces who form a major bloc of his support.

As conservative Islam gradually becomes more influential in Indonesian society, Jokowi has tried to burnish his Islamic credentials in order to improve his appeal and has even selected prominent cleric Ma'ruf Amin as his vice president, replacing the outgoing Jusuf Kalla. The planned changes to the criminal code also highlights this. However, Jokowi risks alienating moderate Indonesians and indeed many of his core supporters in this process. These recent protests could be seen as a backlash by secular and liberal forces against creeping Islamisation and the coalescing of university students, anti-corruption campaigners, LGBTIQ activists, labour unions and various other groups into a broad protest movement indicates that this group remains a significant part of the population. While the initial violence and unrest has abated, given the country's polarised society and the government's unlikeliness to fully yield to all the protesters' demands, further demonstrations over these issues and possible future associated violence are likely to occur.

Aaron Kunaraja is a Malaysia-based political and security risk analyst covering Southeast Asia.