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Here's Why Indonesian Students Are Protesting

Many are up in arms about a law that weakens anti-corruption initiatives, but that’s just the beginning.
indonesia protest
Student protesters shout slogans during a rally in Surabaya, East Java province, on Sept. 25, 2019, against the government's proposed change in its criminal code laws and plans to weaken the anti-corruption commission. Photo by Juni Kriswanto via AFP. 

Thousands of students in Indonesia have taken to the streets across the country in protest, against pending changes to the law that many deem to be undemocratic, sexist, and anti-LGBTQ.

They started early this week, when rallies were held in major Indonesian cities, including the capital Jakarta – where over 10,000 people protested outside the Parliament building. The protests quickly escalated with some vandalising government buildings and street signs, leading the police to fire tear gas and water cannons at the crowd. More than 500 have been arrested, over 200 were injured, and 50 are still missing as of publication time.


The outcry stems from an approved legislation that took control away from the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), Indonesia’s anti-corruption agency. Students have been asking Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo to revoke the new law, but he refused. Corruption is rampant in Indonesia, and the KPK have been widely seen as one of the country's major successes in its anti-graft drive.

The youth movement has gathered momentum, snowballing to include other important issues plaguing Indonesia at the moment. Students are now pushing for an end to military action in West Papua and the burning of Indonesia’s rainforests, rejecting the legislation that gives corporations greater power over natural resources. They are also demanding the revocation of a new criminal code that bans sex outside marriage and cohabitation.

The latest wave of protests is especially significant, as it is the largest collective movement of students in Indonesia since the 1998 rallies that toppled the country's second president, Suharto.

Here’s a closer look at what the students are fighting against.

The corruption legislation

The aforementioned KPK was an autonomous entity created to hold public officials accountable, but the new corruption legislation, which was made official last week, will have it operating as part of the government. This weakens its powers and is seen by many as a form of protection for corrupt politicians.

The new law would prevent powers that the commission ordinarily had like investigating public officials suspected of violations or crimes and wiretapping potential suspects.


There has been no word from the Indonesian government on whether they will revoke the new law or how they plan to appease protesters.

A new criminal code bill

The bill amends various parts of Indonesia’s criminal code, including laws against insulting the president and state institutions, but the most controversial change is one that bans extramarital sex, cohabitation, and most types of abortions. The Human Rights Watch described the bill as “disastrous not only for women and religious and gender minorities but all Indonesians.”

Living together as an unmarried couple could lead to a six-month prison sentence, which would effectively criminalise gay and lesbian relationships as same-sex marriage is still illegal.

The bill was going to be passed on Sept. 25, but pressure from protesters caused the government to postpone this.

Ongoing forest fires

The Indonesian forest fires have reached hazardous, unparalleled new levels. Mostly done to make way for palm oil plantations, the destruction generated by the fires has led young people to call on President Widodo to put an end to the unsustainable practice.

Students are also calling for greater efforts towards human rights issues, such as protecting citizens from the fires.

As of Sept. 25, 2,000 fires continue to burn in the country, causing a deadly haze that has reached Malaysia, Singapore, and other parts of Southeast Asia.

The militarisation of West Papua

West Papua, an annexed region of Indonesia, has been fighting for independence for decades. But in recent weeks, deadly violence and suppression of freedoms at the hands of the police and military have caused further unrest. Internet access has been blocked on occasion and journalists are prevented from entering the area, effectively banning them from reporting what is going on. Even more pressing is that authorities have imprisoned freedom fighters across the region.

At least 32 people died on Sept. 23, during anti-government protests in West Papua after an angry mob torched buildings, stores, and homes. Now, student protesters are calling on the government to demilitarise the region and free all political prisoners.

The protests and the proposed laws are illustrative of a greater issue: the mounting tension and “growing distrust” between the public and the country’s politicians. The government’s response to the protests, which has largely been to undermine the youth involved, has only intensified their anger.

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