Keeping the Flame

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  • University students and members of Indonesian labour organisations take part in a protest over human rights, corruption and social and environmental issues in Jakarta, Indonesia, October 28, 2019. Picture taken October 28, 2019. President Joko Widodo also ordered parliament to delay voting on the criminal code because 14 articles of the new criminal code needed further review after input from various groups and ordered his minister

    University students and members of Indonesian labour organisations take part in a protest over human rights, corruption and social and environmental issues in Jakarta, Indonesia, October 28, 2019. Picture taken October 28, 2019. President Joko Widodo also ordered parliament to delay voting on the criminal code because 14 articles of the new criminal code needed further review after input from various groups and ordered his minister "to perfect" the bill before it is deliberated on by parliament. REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan

    TEMPO.CO, Jakarta - MUCH like a candle flame, it could flare up and grow large – symbolizing the wish for improvement on the current state of things. But a candleflame is easily doused if it does not have the support of other candles to help extend its warmth and light.

    Lately, disgruntlement about wavering Indonesian democracy is growing strident. With his focus on economic development, President Joko Widodo is lax on issues concerning democracy and civil rights. At the very beginning of his second term in power, Joko Widodo embraced many political parties by giving them places in the cabinet. As a result, the process of checks and balances in the House of Representatives (DPR) has petered out.

    Moreover, conservation of the environment and customary people’s rights are being ignored. However loud the campaigns have been, the rights of minority groups are not being heard. Political parties and community-based organizations are also being put under tighter rein. A case in point is the alarming government intervention in the deliberations to decide Golkar Party’s chairman – an operation that roped in the police general formerly the president’s adjutant. Criticism of government policy, now increasingly rare in the media, increasingly feels like it is to no avail.

    Things were exacerbated by the intense electoral divide which appears not to have diminished. Despite the fact Prabowo Subianto, Jokowi’s rival in the general election, is now firmly ensconced in the cabinet, Jokowi’s supporters continue to creatively seek out a common enemy. Criticizing the Presidency continues to be twisted as being supportive towards Jokowi’s political rivals.

    The movement to safeguard Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) in September 2019 was that hopeful candleflame. Wrapped in the hashtag #reformasidikorupsi, the action reminded us that the essence of students as a political entity never waned. The September student movement turned out to be the biggest demonstration after the mass rallies that toppled strongman Soeharto all of 21 years ago.

    In the past two decades, rallies by students have been haphazard and unconsolidated. Many had become pessimistic and deemed the studentship as having lost its elan vital, wrapped up in their search for personal identity and failing to understand the historical context. In1998, most of the students of 2019, in general, were not even born yet.

    And now, their movement is giving us hope. Their protests were a fresh voice, their anger genuine. They had no financial backers: only some crowdfunding collected rupiah by rupiah. Indeed, the movement only lasted a few days. The explanations were varied. Among them over-reaction by state apparatus who resorted to violence, limited experience in this kind of mass rally, and no solid ideological base of the demonstrating students.

    But despite all this, the government complied with some of their demands. Among them, the government postponed deliberations on the revision to the Criminal Code which had the potential to gag civil rights. What was disregarded was the demand to halt revision on the Law governing the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) which enfeebled the anti-corruption body.

    The challenges faced by students in 2019 are markedly different from those of their seniors. Unlike the movement to fell Soeharto, today’s students faced a populist regime that had been elected democratically. They realized they had to tread gingerly on the waters’ froth. One small wrong step, and they’d be accused of being puppets to Jokowi’s rivals. The backers of the corruptors since early on had thrown open the narrative: people who support KPK investigators were stigmatized as trying to establish an Islamic State. Clearly, the government’s anti- radicalism campaign had been deftly exploited as a device to silence any critics.

    Student movements will always be needed and will stay relevant. The emasculation of the KPK is not yet over. After revision of the KPK Law succeeded in enervating the joints of the organization, the President is now getting ready to issue auxiliary regulations that will perfect the assassination of the anti-corruption body.

    There are at least two items to be watched out for. The first is the article that states the head of the KPK is under and directly responsible to the president – a subordination that hits directly at the independence of the Commission. The second is the authority of the inspectorate general to the behest of the commissioners to conduct monitoring towards KPK staff. This regulation is suspected of having the potential to tear apart the KPK up by solidifying the practice of like and dislike.

    In other words, the battle is far from over. Civil society consolidation is imperative. A common agenda needs to be carefully drawn up. The government should not close its eyes and ears to these voices while thumping itself on the chest as developmentalists and so may ignore public rights.

    Leaders need to be given ultimatums. Protecting shady businesspeople, suspect bureaucrats, renegade investors, and political oligarchs in the name of development will only instigate anger. The masses will then continue seeking the opportunity to go down to the streets.

    Read the Complete Story in this Week's Edition of Tempo English Magazine