By: Our Correspondent

Widespread protest is expected to continue in Indonesia over a growing slate of chaotic developments following demonstrations on September 23 and 24 in which police were forced to fire tear gas and use water cannons in an effort to disperse protesters. While the implications for President Joko Widodo are uncertain, it certainly does knock some of the shine off him.

Tens of thousands of students rallied in nine cities Monday and Tuesday, throwing rocks at the parliament building in Jakarta and accusing the government of trying to return the country to the “new order” era of the late strongman Suharto. The focus was objection to a law passed last week that was designed to hamstring the country’s antigraft watchdog. 

Others demonstrated against a bizarre Islam-inspired criminal code revision outlawing extramarital and gay sex among other provisions raising fears that even tourist couples in Bali could be targeted by religious police along with millions in other parts of the country. 

Massive fires to clear land for oil palm plantations that have choked the air across the country are also an issue. Still, other protesters took to the streets in the embattled province of Papua demanding independence from Jakarta. As many as 20 people were said to have been killed and 70 injured as demonstrators battled police.

Jokowi Sticks with KPK emasculation

Widodo insisted on Sept.23 that he would refuse to invalidate the law emasculating the country’s deeply respected graft-buster, the Corruption Eradication Commission, which was rushed through the House of Representatives in a plenary session on Sept.12 in the face of public outrage. It has blackened the president’s reputation as a reformer and raised troubling questions over his motives. 

The KPK, as the agency is known, is the country’s most respected public institution, going after political party leaders, ministers, members of parliament, regional heads, businessmen and entertainment figures and amassing a perfect record of convictions in the 17 years since its inception. Numerous previous attempts to enfeeble the commission have failed as protesters have repeatedly raised public outrage. Three of the agency’s five commissioners have resigned in protest of the law.

Under the new strictures, the KPK is forced to drop investigations if the body can’t file cases within two years, raising fears it will be limited to small, quickly-processed cases. Besides a long-running case against Garuda Airlines officials, other big cases that might be stopped include one against the Bank Indonesia Liquidity Assistance (BLBI), one over massive corruption by lawmakers taking bribes over a new smart ID card, and Bank Century, the subject of one of the country’s biggest scandals and the focus of a long series of Asia Sentinel stories.

KPK employees, many of whom have quit the organization in protest, lose their independent status and will be forced to become state civil servants. It will be made a part of the executive branch with the potential for political figures to interfere with its independence. A five-person supervisory board is now tasked with overseeing the duties and authority, granting licenses for wiretapping and searches, and establishing a code of ethics for KPK leaders and employees. 

“This clearly will limit and weaken the KPK. Enforcement operations will be delayed for a long time because the KPK must ask for written permission from the supervisory board,” Corruption Watch activist Lalola Easter told Asia Sentinel. The board will now be chosen by the House of Representatives through a selection committee formed by the President. 

Other institutions such as the police and prosecutors are considered massively corrupt and unwilling to go after graft. The KPK has been equipped with several potent weapons including the right to tap without permission from other government agencies. There is no system to abort cases, no supervisory agency limits the KPK’s scope of work. 

Sex bill delayed

Jokowi, as the president is universally known, has already ordered a delay in a planned House of Representatives vote on the bill outlawing extramarital and gay sex as well as beefing up blasphemy provisions, apparently produced to mollify growing fundamentalist religious fervor in what has long been the globe’s most laid-back — and biggest – Muslim population. The bill would affect millions of people and put it in line with the conservative province of Aceh, where adulterous couples are routinely flogged.

The delay hasn’t mollified students and other protesters who rallied in Jakarta with some climbing the gates of the parliament to hang banners. They also demonstrated in cities including Yogyakarta and Makassar in protest.

 “The bill was delayed so that we could get input, better substance that is in accordance to what the people want,” Widodo told reporters, adding that the alterations to the criminal code could be included in the next term of parliament, which starts next month. Activists have described the proposed changes, which would make insulting the president a criminal offence that could carry a jail sentence, as a disaster for human rights.

Papuan violence

The Papuan independence demands have been growing for months and were exacerbated in early September when racist slurs were hurled against Papuan students in Surabaya, leading to violent protests in Indonesia’s easternmost province. Foreigners have now been restricted from entering the province, where anger has festered for years over the Indonesian government’s exploitation of Papua’s copious natural resources and its lack of attention to improving infrastructure in the poverty-stricken region. The Grasberg mine, the world’s biggest source of gold and a major copper producer for the US-based Freeport McMoRan firm, has been exploited for decades, with little of the benefits going to Papuans, who are Melanesians, ethnically distinct from the rest of Indonesia.

Resentment exploded into a series of protests in several cities and districts in Papua and West Papua, including in Deiyai on August 28 which ended in chaos. The Catholic Church of the Diocese of Timika reported that eight civilians and an army member had been killed although the government’s official toll was four civilians and one soldier. The police have named at least 57 suspects related to the unrest. 

The killings this week are the most serious episode in a long time. They charged the parliament building, with some protesters burning tires and damaging a nearby police post. The continuing antagonism is raising questions whether the central government will eventually be forced to grant independence to the province. However, its natural resources would probably mean a no-holds-barred campaign to suppress such thoughts, with widespread violence. 

The central government was forced to give up East Timor, now known as Timor Leste, after a bitter 23-year campaign for independence that resulted in as many as 200,000 conflict-related deaths before Jakarta finally gave up in 1998 and granted self-determination.

Immediately after the demonstrations began to spread, the government deployed thousands of additional troops to deal with the escalating situation. After four Australians were deported for participating in demonstrations, Jakarta also restricted foreigners from entering the province, which is famed for attractive marine tourism.