Not just about sex: Indonesias protests explained

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Experts fear the protests are bound to continue

For days, Indonesia has been rocked by student protests against a new corruption law and plans for a draconian criminal code.

The most headline-grabbing issue is a proposed ban on extramarital sex, but the protests go far beyond that.

They focus on corruption, plans to outlaw insulting the president and a toughening of blasphemy laws.

While the vote on some of the new bills has been postponed, observers fear the protests will continue.

What are the protests about?

The demonstrations were triggered by a new law which critics say weakens Indonesia’s anti-corruption agency.

While that law has already been passed and protesters are now demanding for it to be repealed, they have a long list of other demands and grievances.

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Protesters march against changes to the corruption law

“It’s not a one issue thing protest,” explains Andreas Harsono of Human Rights Watch in Indonesia. “And it’s also not a unified or organised movement.”

The anger is, for instance, directed at plans for a new criminal code, at troops in the unrest-hit Papua region and at the failure to stem forest fires in Sumatra and Borneo that are causing toxic haze across South East Asia.

“People are trying to protect their civil liberties and individual liberties,” Djayadi Hanan, lecturer in political science at Paramadina University in Jakarta, told the BBC.

“And they are upset that the president is disappointing them by not moving strongly against corruption.”

What’s in the new criminal code?

For years already, Indonesia has been planning to reform its criminal code dating back to Dutch colonial rule.

Now that the new draft is on the table, many feel it would roll back years of progress and reform in the country.

It would for instance outlaw sex outside of marriage and criminalise abortion in the absence of a medical emergency or rape.

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The last days have seen multiple clashes with police

It would also outlaw insulting the president and expand blasphemy laws, already a very sensitive issue in the country.

In 2017, the governor of Jakarta was jailed for blasphemy in a case that many felt highlighted a shift towards a more conservative and religious society.

But the protests have also developed into a general expression of anger with the government.

“In Kalimantan, the demonstrations include the farmers union and indigenous people struggling with the toxic forest and peat fires,” Mr Harsono told the BBC.

“In Java, the focus is on corruption while in Papua it’s about racism and human rights abuses.”

Indonesia’s restive region of West Papua has been hit by a wave of violence over the past days after hundreds of protesters, mostly high school students, set fire to several buildings on Monday.

Disappointed by Jokowi

Indonesia’s president Joko Widodo rose to political power as a man of the people.

Coming from a humble background he was seen as not a typical politician – in a country where entrenched elites have long called the shots.

And it’s those high expectations which now might be the reason why so many are disappointed with him.

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Joko Widodo – a man of the people no more?

The public sees corruption as a massive problem and many had expected the president to uphold or even strengthen the role of the anti-corruption agency.

“There are two explanations here,” Mr Hanan concludes.

“Either the president is still a good guy but there is just a lot of pressure on him. Or he is now showing his true colours and is just an ordinary politician after all.”

“I think it might be a mix of both.”

How big are the protests?

The demonstrations have been among the biggest anti-government rallies since 1998 when protests brought down the Suharto dictatorship.

Tens of thousands have taken to the streets across the country with Jakarta being only one focal point.

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Media captionPolice fired tear gas and water cannon on Tuesday at demonstrators outside the Indonesian parliament

Many of the marches ended in clashes with the police using tear gas and water cannons against protesters throwing stones and petrol bombs.

Officials said on Thursday that hundreds of students were arrested after the previous night had again seen street battles in downtown Jakarta.

Several hundred are thought to have been injured over the past days in Jakarta alone.

What happens next?

Most observers expect the unrest to continue.

The protesters are demanding the new law on corruption to be repealed but the government so far has refused to do so.

The vote on the reform of the penal code along with laws on mining, land and labour has for now been postponed, but many fear the new bills might just be passed next month.

All eyes are on President Jokowi, who earlier this year was elected for a second term and will be sworn in on 20 October.

“The ball is now in court of the president,” says Mr Hanan. “There is a lot of anger among the public with many people feeling betrayed.”

“They see him as turning his back on the people – after they’d been very loyal to him.”

Reporting by the BBC’s Andreas Illmer.

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