On the front lines with Indonesia’s young protesters
- Demonstrations were prompted by proposed amendments to the law governing Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission and to the country’s criminal code
- Thousands of students protested outside Indonesia’s House of Representatives, reviving memories of the Reformasi period which led to the fall of President Suharto
“A government should be the voice of God to the people, not Satan,” says Hamzah Mustaffa, a 22-year-old English literature student from the Jakarta suburb of South Tangerang.
Hamzah is the youngest of 11 siblings and a voracious reader of books on Islam, Turkish history and Sufism. He still remembers how his father, who took part in Indonesia’s independence struggle, on his deathbed enjoined his children to “Bela Negara” (“defend the country”). They have more or less held to this: virtually all of them have worked for the government either as civil servants or teachers and some have served in the military.
The latest marches were prompted by widespread outrage over legislation the outgoing lower house – the People’s Representative Council (DPR) – either passed or was considering before its term ended, in what critics deemed unseemly haste. A new DPR was sworn in on October 1.
The most controversial of these proposals were amendments to the law governing Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), passed on September 17. The changes included the introduction of a supervisory body and limits on the power to wiretap suspects.
Also under consideration were changes to laws governing labour relations, land and mineral use – all of which added to the backlash.
Public anger was trenchant. Fairly or unfairly, much of the ire has been directed at the president, who is due to be sworn in for his second term on October 20.
For Hamzah, the “weakening” of the KPK was the biggest blow. Banten, his province, has a terrible record of corruption and mismanagement, culminating in 2015 in the removal and imprisonment of the governor, Ratu Atut Chosiyah.
Hamzah sees the corruption as endemic and deeply rooted. And so, on September 23, he and about 600 of his colleagues from Pamulang University chartered a fleet of rickety Kopaja minibuses for the hour-long ride to Jakarta. After reaching the TVRI state television station in Senayan, they linked up with their counterparts from other institutions, including the Universities of Indonesia and Trisakti.
They then headed on foot to the DPR and were joined by various trade unions.
The students issued seven demands, including the abrogation of the unpopular amendments as well as an end to the alleged repression in Papua and the forest fires in Kalimantan and Sumatra.
For much of the day, the situation was peaceful enough and the demonstrators stopped for prayers and regular parleys with the police. According to Hamzah, at about 4.30pm tear gas was fired just as some students were heading home. By then the mood had changed and scuffles broke out after the end of the Maghrib prayers, prompting police to use their batons and make arrests.
Hamzah says he was hit several times but the experience did not deter him. He was back the next day. Indeed, the Pamulang contingent had by then grown to 2,000.
On the second night, police again fired tear gas to disperse the crowds. Hamzah believes several of his friends were arrested during the September 23-26 period. He is concerned about allegations those being held by authorities have been abused. Efforts to secure their release have been to no avail. And yet, the students kept coming.
“It was as if we were playing cat-and-mouse with the authorities,” he says. “They were behind us, around us and coming at us from all sides. We stayed on the main road under the lights and kept watch just in case one of us got snatched.”
Some have accused the students of naivety and ignorance but Hamzah rejects such criticism.
“They [the students] might not understand the essence of the protests and may have been there only for the hell of it,” he says. “But they were still there; this shows how the whole thing matters to them.”
Their efforts have paid off to a degree. At Widodo’s request, amendments to the KUHP and other controversial laws have been postponed for the new DPR to review. He has also promised to consider nullifying the objectionable amendments to the KPK law.
This isn’t good enough for Hamzah, who insists: “We won’t stop. We will be back.”