Indonesia Anti-Protest Bill Stalled

A controversial bill designed to give officials unprecedented control over protest by civil society organizations appears to have stalled in Indonesia's parliament, to the relief of the country's flourishing activist and advocacy organizations who worked feverishly to stop it.

The bill got its start with the support of organizations and individuals pushing the government to regulate such violent groups as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) who intimidate Christian and other groups including moderate Muslims and the splinter group religious group Ahmadyah, trash night clubs and harass women who are not dressed under strict Islamic codes.

However, in the hands of lawmakers who have ignored the warnings of United Nations experts on the possible damage to free speech, it metamorphosed into a measure that is more restrictive to the hundreds of civil society organizations that have blossomed over the past decade.

Despite the recent rise in reported conflicts carried out by mobs of local vigilantes, military, and extremist Islamic groups, Indonesia's civil society NGOs, stultified under decades of rule by the late strongman Suharto, are now vocal, active, and mobilised for positive social and political change.

Indeed, Jakarta City Circle is awash on any given day with demonstrators and protesters advocating a host of causes, from feminist warriors to aggrieved farmers, whose relentless presence represents a movement toward recognition of democratic consolidation; people power and democratic rationality.

Indonesia has a civil group for just about everything; The Pedestrian Coalition- advocates for safer streets, The New Alliance for Men—who are unafraid of wearing miniskirts in public to oppose violence against women – Indonesia for the Environment, Indonesia Prosperity Foundation, Foundation for Women in Small Business, and many more.

This week, for instance, members of the Yogya Pedicab Driver Community took to Yogya streets to campaign against thuggery. In Jakarta last Wednesday the streets were blocked by labor union workers protesting low wages and a lack of healthcare.

Legitimate civil society organizations don't engage in violence; none of these groups will seal a church, attack a family, or raid a prison to get what they want, but they will march around the city circle with banners, lobby government, talk to journalists, and write press releases for their web pages – all of which has been an increasing irritation for government figures.

Parliament was supposed to deliberate and pass proposed amendments that would give government officials discretionary powers to suspend and dissolve civil society organizations, restrict the participation of both local and international such groups to Pancasila ideology, force international organizations to secure permits, and limit the activities of civil organizations to those that are the ‘duty of law enforcers and government'.

The plenary meeting did not go ahead, political analysts said, because it was too risky for lawmakers to alienate their voters before the 2014 legislative elections, particularly when civil society groups can take strong political positions and have the power to mobilise members to pointed effect.

But isn't this why the Bill was drafted in the first place? To tighten the reins on dissent?

It is a credit to Indonesian civil society that it managed to stall the measure so far, and only due to the ability of contrary groups to foster enough bridging capital to overcome differences and reject what they see as excessive controls on civil and political freedoms.

Even though they come from different angles, Muslim groups and rights groups recognised what sort of repercussions the Bill would have on their organisations activities, and for civil society as a whole.

The World Alliance for Citizen Participation (CIVICUS) published an open letter to The People's Representative Council of the Republic of Indonesia, criticising the proposed amendments that will further limit CSOs by already restrictive legislation.

CIVICUS, in alliance with the International NGO forum on Indonesian Development, and the Indonesian Forum for Environment, said the already vague and overbroad provisions should not seek to further broaden state interference in CSOs, which are crucial for a robust democratic society, and that ORMAS should comply with international standards and constitutional protections on the freedom of association.

They said the Bill severely undermines freedom of association enshrined in the Constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Indonesia is signatory.

CIVICUS suggested the council formulate alternative legislation to create an enabling environment for civil society free from unwarranted restrictions.

While many Indonesians feel powerless to act against injustice, compelled to violence or apathy, the efflorescence of grassroots civil society organisations speaks of a significant transformation of the way people in the country demand change and undertake rights claims.

The rise of civil society groups echoes the cultural tendencies of Indonesians to band together over common problems, but this innate community spirit has now evolved into a politicised form of social capital that is contributing to the practical realisation of democratic norms.

That is, democratic norms are realised in processes that allow legitimate actors to advocate for and demand social change instead of resorting to violent and unjust means.

Yet as the attempt to write in even more restrictive legislation proves, a flourishing civil society challenges the authority of lawmakers, military and those in general who employ extractive conditions to exploit and perpetuate the status quo.

Yappika, an Indonesian civil society alliance for democracy founded in 1991 for strengthening civil society organisations, adopted a Civil Society Index measurement. In its 2006 report, Yappika said that despite significant environmental and structural obstacles, such as legal barriers, poor law enforcement, and lack of financial resources, Indonesian CSOs scored high for values and participation.

The shift toward civil society groups and the vocal, diverse, range of their advocacy activities, despite the difficult operating environment, is a definite positive for Indonesian democracy and development, and challenges insidious cultures of violence, abuse of power, and vigilantism, by encouraging participation and resistance against illegitimate means of dominance.

(Lauren Gumbs is a human rights student at Curtin university in Perth and holds a masters degree in Communications. She resides in East Java.)