The demonstrations were organised separately by local student coalitions. However, they all shared similar demands. They demanded the withdrawal of amendments to the Law on the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), perceived to be weakening the KPK. Among the amendments is one that requires the KPK investigators to seek approval from a Supervisory Board before being able to tap telephones. This has become symbolic of the weakening of the KPK.
In addition to the KPK-related demands, the demonstrators also protested against: several laws intruding into people’s private lives, including issues of sexuality; the recent arrest and charging of political activists; new laws on both land issues and labour that were considered to exploit workers and farmers; the lack of action to bring forest fires under control; and repression in Papua. There were also demands for the postponed Bill against Domestic Violence to be passed.
The extraordinary powers that the KPK has – to tap phones and make its own arrests – were given to the KPK when it was established in 2002, just four years after the fall of Suharto. While there were many other reforms associated with the post-Suharto era, the eradication of corruption was seen by the public as the central priority of Reformasi. The weakening of the KPK can therefore be perceived as symbolic of a betrayal of Reformasi by both the parliament and the President. This perception then drew attention, especially among youth, to several other issues also seen as central to reformasi, thereby fuelling the sentiments behind the demonstrations, which are likely to continue at one level or another.
President Widodo’s response on the evening of 23 September, after a special meeting of Ministers and state officials, was to announce that while the amendments to the Law on the KPK would not be withdrawn, he had asked the parties in parliament (a majority of which are his supporters) to delay voting on other contentious laws until there was more input from society. If this happens, the laws will be submitted to the newly elected parliament when it convenes later this year. Tactically, the students are being tested on whether they can sustain their protests over the next few months. Meanwhile, the Minister for Politics and Security, former-general Wiranto, has called on students to use more ethical means of seeking change than mass demonstrations.
Dr Max Lane is Visiting Senior Fellow with the Indonesia Studies Programme at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute and Visiting Lecturer at the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences, Gajah Mada University.
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