In the last week of September this year, the complacency of the Indonesian establishment was shaken by a wave of mass protests breaking out across the country, in Java, Sumatra, Sulawesi, Bali, Papua and elsewhere. Under the banner of Reformasi Dikorupsi, or Corrupted Reform (referring to the Reformasi Movement that overthrew Suharto in 1998), university students, many in their college jackets, were joined by activists of all kinds, workers, trade-unionists, peasants, farmers, fishermen and high-school students—especially from vocational high schools (smk), generally from a lower-working-class background, stereotyped as rough troublemakers involved in gang fighting and given a hard time by the police. The protests began as peaceful rallies outside national and regional parliament buildings, with speeches and demands that mps come out to meet them. But once they were attacked by police using tear gas, water cannon and bludgeons, they often—though not invariably—turned violent in response, the smk students bringing collective strength and tactical experience in countering police assaults.

By early October the movement had ebbed. At the cost—bracketing the toll in Papua—of five dead and 265 injured, it may not have been, as is commonly stated in the media, the biggest protest in Indonesia since the overthrow of Suharto in 1998; the demonstrations of 2016 against the Christian mayor of Jakarta, and the rallies against the result of the presidential election of May 2019, where reportedly eight were killed and 700 injured, may have been numerically larger. But these were highly partisan, orchestrated mobilizations by forces of the religious and political right within the country’s collusive political establishment, rapidly absorbed and posing no significant threat to it. The explosions of popular anger across Indonesia in September 2019 cut across these lines. They were not the product of manoeuvres by any party or sectarian interest in the oligarchic constellation that has ruled the country since the fall of Suharto, and their demands were unambiguously progressive.

The trigger for the movement was the package of blatantly regressive legislation rammed at high speed through the national parliament just before its term ended on 30 September, a no-holds-barred strategy typically adopted by an expiring legislature, ensuring limited time for deliberation or review of laws, and landing the next government with the consequences. The two most controversial measures in the package were a revision of the Criminal Code and an emasculation of the Corruption Eradication Commission (kpk). Legislation covering land, labour, mining, incarceration, cyber security and defence contained further affronts. Highlighting revisions to the Criminal Code and Corruption Commission in particular, a loose alliance of activists articulated a broader set of demands and, understanding the strategic role that students could play in mobilizing protest, projected these through them. The demands became:

As a comprehensively reactionary act of legislation, the revised Criminal Code has few equals in the world, outside perhaps Saudi Arabia. It punishes extra-marital sex with one year in prison, and cohabitation without marriage by six months in prison; denies women the right to abortion; bans any display of contraception by unauthorized persons, including parents; expands existing prohibitions of blasphemy, subject to five years in prison; criminalizes insults—loosely defined—to the government (including the president, vice-president, mps and regional authorities) and state symbols (flags, anthems, etc.); punishes any teaching of Marxism-Leninism with four years in prison, and any organization of Marxism-Leninism with ten years in prison. Even under Suharto there was no ban on extra-marital sex or cohabitation; ten people were prosecuted for blasphemy in 33 years, compared with over ten times that number in the two decades since; and the outlawing of Marxism-Leninism was not inscribed in the Criminal Code.

To indignation at the obscurantist moral and political repression codified by the new provisions of the law, widespread among students and the young generally, was joined anger felt by all ages at the deliberate bid to cripple the Corruption Eradication Commission. Originally set up under Megawati as a way of thwarting investigation into the ill-gotten fortunes of her own family, the kpk in time escaped party control and—equipped with powers enabling it to prosecute even establishment figures as high as an ornament of the central bank and a police general, though presidential and kin malfeasance was naturally always off-limits—came to threaten elite interests. Attempts to clip its wings started under Megawati’s successor Yudhoyono as early as 2010, and have continued ever since. All of the political parties in the current swathe pushing for its neutralization have at least one cadre either on trial or convicted in a corruption case handled by the kpk. The Commission, however, continues to enjoy broad public esteem, especially after a hydrochloric acid attack on its senior investigator, Novel Baswedan, in 2017, whose perpetrator a joint fact-finding team set up by Jokowi’s National Police Chief Tito Karnavian pointedly failed to name. In mid-October leaked video footage showed pages of a red notebook belonging to a businessman charged with bribing law-makers being destroyed—pages suspected of containing Tito’s name when, as the head of the National Agency for Combating Terrorism and other posts, he was in control of funds amounting to $600 million. The prospect of a cover-up of theft of public monies, on a huge scale, aroused intense outrage.footnote1

A further important strand in the protests was solidarity with the Papuan reaction to racist treatment in Indonesia. On the anniversary of the deal in New York at which the us pressured the Netherlands into handing over its colony in West New Guinea to Jakarta, for the same reasons it ensured Jakarta could seize East Timor with impunity thirteen years later—to fortify anti-communist nationalism in Indonesia—Papuans demonstrated peacefully in cities across Java. The following day, 16 August 2019, Papuan students in Surabaya were attacked by right-wing vigilantes alleging they had damaged an Indonesian flag on Independence Day, yelling ‘monkeys’, ‘dogs’ and ‘pigs’ at them, and their dorm was tear-gassed and stormed by police in riot gear; 43 were arrested. In response, thousands took to the streets in Papua, torching vehicles and buildings, including the local parliament. The government shut down the internet, closed schools, deployed thousands of security personnel and uncounted numbers of militia, while many fled the island. As of 1 November 2019, some 37 people have been killed, with possibly more unreported deaths.

The wider background to the explosion this September lies in the drift of the Indonesian political system since the departure of Suharto, marked by the lack of any decisive ideological or institutional rupture with the New Order, and a closing of elite ranks in an oligarchic structure that retains its repressive machinery—army and police—but operates in a media-managed electoral system in which rival moneyed interests fight over the spoils of office rather than policy differences. In 2014 the election to the presidency of Jokowi Widodo, by origin an outsider to the oligarchy, promising not only economic development and environmental protection but clean government and a human rights agenda, raised hopes of change. These were soon dashed. By 2016 it was already clear Jokowi had no interest in addressing the slaughter on which Suharto had built his power, and was aiming to consolidate his rule by accommodating the country’s entrenched political and business elites.footnote2 On securing re-election in 2019 his inauguration speech removed all mention of human rights, highlighting infrastructure development, investor incentives, bureaucratic improvement and welfare reforms. Under his trademark slogan of kerja, kerja, kerja (‘work, work, work’)—cultivating the image of an austere ruler quick to roll up his sleeves and get concrete things done, rather than being distracted by political fights—in practice he avoided the quick-sands of bureaucratic reform, while shifting the heavy lifting on infrastructure, healthcare and educational services to state-owned enterprises (soes) and corporate agencies. This narrowed focus on economic development has come at the expense of the environment (ambitious power-plant projects rely heavily on the coal industry) and of civil rights, with protest at forced land clearances for various infrastructural schemes repeatedly hitting the headlines (a major potential strike is looming over the New Yogyakarta International Airport). The results have been lack-lustre: growth anaemic, with most of its benefits going to the middle and upper classes; welfare programmes run by state-owned enterprises unevenly distributed and losing money; unemployment statistically falling but under-employment rising; corruption endemic.