An expert's point of view on a current event.

Indonesia’s Activists Are Ready to Fight Together

Coalitions are forming in the face of threats to democracy and pluralism.

By , an Australian writer.
Protesters demonstrate against proposed changes to Indonesia's criminal code.
Protesters demonstrate against proposed changes to Indonesia's criminal code.
Protesters demonstrate against proposed changes to Indonesia's criminal code in Jakarta on Sept. 20. Oscar Siagian/Getty Images

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.

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 center 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 organizations, 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.

The final straw was the proposed ratification of a new criminal code and changes to laws on labor, 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.

“People had been pushing for transparency and for the delay of the KPK Law, but when it was passed in such a short time, that was when people got angry,” said Maidina Rahmawati of the Institute for Criminal Justice Reform. “Add to that Papua, forest fires not being dealt with by the government, and the proposed ratification of all these draft laws we’d never even heard of, of course people were upset.”

Many of the protesters had never been to a public demonstration before. Messages circulating on social media and WhatsApp groups asked what people should wear and bring, where they could meet someone from an associated organization, and what they should do if they got arrested. These young people have often been described as apathetic millennials and members of Generation Z, but their will to speak up and emergent intersectional politics have won their cause widespread support and brought disparate groups together. Male-dominated university student associations began talking about sexual violence against women; office workers took up the plight of Indigenous peoples; LGBTQ communities voiced their concerns about corruption. Young women in particular were out in force, saying the increasingly invasive policies regulating their private lives were simply too encroaching to ignore.

The protesters are not anti-Jokowi but rather see themselves as defenders of democracy. In fact, most of the protesters supported Jokowi in the April presidential election, either because they genuinely believed in his vision or because they couldn’t stomach the idea of a presumably right-wing, pro-Islamist Prabowo presidency. Those who didn’t vote for Jokowi instead chose to golput (“abstain”) rather than elect a candidate they did not fully support. When allegations emerged that the protesters were demanding Jokowi step down, analysis of Twitter trends quickly showed this to be incorrect and indicated that calls for resignation actually came from anti-Jokowi buzzers. (Buzzers on both sides have been problematic, however. The national magazine Tempo even called for the president to get his buzzers in order, saying they are “putting our country’s democracy in danger” by spreading fake news and hoaxes.)

The heavy-handed security response to the protests has only inflamed tensions further. Protesters who took part in the largest rallies, in late September, claimed that police began firing tear gas into the crowd at 4:30 p.m., a full 90 minutes before public demonstrations are required to disband. Some participants were arrested for questioning, along with a young activist who had led fundraising efforts and an outspoken former journalist who uploaded videos of alleged police brutality to Twitter.

Protesters and observers alike were surprised that the demonstrations were treated as a security issue. Indonesia is no stranger to protests, and while they almost always unfold under the watchful eyes of a police presence, the usage of rubber bullets, tear gas, water cannons, and armed personnel carriers is rare. Pro-democracy activists allege that Islamist demonstrations have received preferential treatment, despite the fact that both sides are critical of the president. They point to the “212” protests of December 2016 as an example, when hundreds of thousands of people gathered in the center of Jakarta aiming to bring down the city’s then-governor, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama. No police crackdown occurred at that rally or at following reunion rallies, including one held just last month.

With Indonesian democracy fraying at the edges, Jokowi is caught in a fragile balance. Does his choice of Islamic cleric Maruf Amin as vice president reflect his support for an increased role of the religious right in politics, whether reluctantly or otherwise? Or will he—and crucially, his party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, of which he is not the leader—realize that Islamist factions have gained too much traction? After all, Jokowi did promise wide-reaching reforms ahead of April’s election.

The violent crackdown and subsequent arrests of leading figures seem to have quelled the protests for now. What is clear, however, is that those involved won’t be easily satisfied with small peace offerings such as delaying ratification of the criminal code. They are demanding concrete change, and it is up to Jokowi, his yet-to-be-revealed cabinet, and the brand-new parliament to deliver it to ensure democracy remains intact in Indonesia.

Kate Walton is an Australian writer. She now lives on Ngunnawal and Ngambri lands in Australia after spending several years in Indonesia. She writes a biweekly newsletter on women’s rights, called Solidaritas. Twitter: @waltonkate

More from Foreign Policy

Keri Russell as Kate Wyler walks by a State Department Seal from a scene in The Diplomat, a new Netflix show about the foreign service.
Keri Russell as Kate Wyler walks by a State Department Seal from a scene in The Diplomat, a new Netflix show about the foreign service.

At Long Last, the Foreign Service Gets the Netflix Treatment

Keri Russell gets Drexel furniture but no Senate confirmation hearing.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron speak in the garden of the governor of Guangdong's residence in Guangzhou, China, on April 7.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron speak in the garden of the governor of Guangdong's residence in Guangzhou, China, on April 7.

How Macron Is Blocking EU Strategy on Russia and China

As a strategic consensus emerges in Europe, France is in the way.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin greets U.S. President George W. Bush prior to a meeting of APEC leaders in 2001.
Chinese President Jiang Zemin greets U.S. President George W. Bush prior to a meeting of APEC leaders in 2001.

What the Bush-Obama China Memos Reveal

Newly declassified documents contain important lessons for U.S. China policy.

A girl stands atop a destroyed Russian tank.
A girl stands atop a destroyed Russian tank.

Russia’s Boom Business Goes Bust

Moscow’s arms exports have fallen to levels not seen since the Soviet Union’s collapse.