By Mike Phipps
“Hundreds of protesters have been detained after heated demonstrations swept across Indonesia in response to a law that weakens environmental protections and workers’ rights,” reportsThe Guardian.
“Clashes between police and protesters began on Tuesday night and continued throughout Wednesday, with teargas and water cannon used to break up demonstrations. Six protesters were reportedly in a critical condition in hospital.”
The gatherings were ruled illegal under coronavirus rules. But it is widely believed that the government rushed through the new measures without consultation, deliberately to take advantage of restrictions resulting from the pandemic.
Protesters as young as 16 were allegedly beaten by the police and forced to drink from the same water bottle, despite the risk of Covid-19 transmission.
The protesters are fighting a law passed earlier this month which makes sweeping changes to workers’ entitlements and environmental regulation. It removes the right to paid leave for childbirth, cuts severance pay and dilutes environmental regulations. Overall, seventy different existing laws are swept away. Amnesty International calls the new law “catastrophic” for workers.
The government of President Joko Widodo claims the measures will increase the competitiveness of Indonesia’s economy, which has been hit hard by the pandemic, and help attract foreign investment. But an online petition calling for the law to be repealed has gathered more than 1.3 million signatures.
Academics have also criticised the speed at which the measures were introduced. Indonesia’s largest Islamic organisation, Nahdlatul Ulama also added its voice, saying the law would benefit only capitalists, investors and conglomerates and would “trample” on ordinary people.
Unions estimate two million workers turned out for the protests, which took place in a dozen cities across the country. Students were expected to join the three-day strike today and unions are promising to continue the protests until the government cancels the law.
A year ago, Indonesia’s largest protests in decades rocked the country as demonstrators took to the streets to oppose government attempts to dilute the powers of the anti-corruption commission as well as curb freedom of expression, limit personal freedoms – including a ban on sex and cohabitation outside marriage – and harm the environment.
Thousands of students mobilised in scenes reminiscent of the 1998 demonstrations which brought down former dictator Suharto and paved the way for democratisation. Two students were killed.
President Widodo was first elected in 2014 to govern the world’s fourth largest country. In office he has displayed an authoritarian streak, picking a defence minister who once defended military killings of civilians. Widodo ordered the blowing up and sinking of hundreds of illegal foreign fishing vessels and instructed the police to “gun down” drug dealers. Multiple executions of drug traffickers – by firing squad – have attracted strong criticism from Amnesty International and led to several countries withdrawing their ambassadors in protest.
People have been arrested for posts on social media that are deemed insulting to the President. One writer got a three year prison sentence for authoring a book critical of Widodo. When the president was re-elected in May 2019, Amnesty International documented “grave human rights violations allegedly committed by police” during protests following the announcement of the election results.