Youth in revolt: What Indonesia's student protesters want

5 October 2019 / Karim Raslan

“A government should be the voice of God to the people, not Satan." Twenty-two year old Hamzah Mustaffa an English literature student from the Jakarta suburb of South Tangerang has strong if poetic views.

A voracious reader especially of books on Islam, Turkish history and Sufism, Hamzah is the youngest of eleven siblings. He still remembers how his father, (who took part in Indonesia’s independence struggle), on his deathbed enjoined his children to “Bela Negara” (i.e. “defend the country”).

They have more or less held to this - in that virtually all of them have worked for the government either as civil servants or teachers. Some have even served in the military.

Between 23 and 30th September, Hamzah was one of the many thousands of students who protested outside Indonesia’s House of Representatives (DPR), reviving memories of the Reformasi period, which led to the fall of President Suharto just over twenty years ago.

This wasn’t exactly Hamzah’s maiden march: while he refused to say who he voted for in the 2019 General Elections, he did admit to taking part in the 22 May demonstrations sparked by the confirmation of the re-election of President Joko Widodo (“Jokowi”).

The latest marches were caused by widespread outrage over a slew of legislation that the outgoing 2014—2019 DPR (a new one has since been sworn-in, on 1 October) either passed or were considering before their term came to an end, in what critics called an unseemly haste.

The most controversial of these proposals were amendments to the Law governing Indonesia’s respected Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), which were passed on 17 September. Amongst the changes were the introduction of supervisory body as well as limitations on the power to wiretap suspects.

There was also concern over proposed amendments to Indonesia’s Criminal Code, the KHUP. Civil society groups expressed fears that these would criminalize extramarital sex, make it an offence to insult the President and limit women’s rights—including to have abortions.

The last DPR had also considered changes to laws governing labour relations, land and mineral use - all of which engendered controversy.

Public anger was trenchant. Fairly or unfairly, much of the ire has been directed at the President, who is due to be sworn-in for his second term on 20 October.

For Hamzah, the ‘weakening’ of the KPK has been the biggest blow. Of course, for many observers - Banten, his province - has had a terrible record for corruption and mismanagement culminating in the removal and imprisonment of the Governor, Ratu Atut Chosiyah back in 2015.

Hamzah sees the corruption as being endemic and deeply-rooted.

And so, on 23 September, Hamzah and some 600 of his colleagues from Pamulang University charted a fleet of rickety Kopaja minibuses for the hour-long ride to Jakarta. Reaching the TVRI state television station in Senayan, they linked up with their counterparts from other institutions, including the Universities of Indonesia and Trisakti.

They then headed - on foot - to the DPR (a short 1,3kms to the north) and on that day the protests were also joined by various trade unions.


A government should be the voice of God to the people, not Satan. - Hamzah Mustaffa

The students made seven wide-ranging demands, including the abrogation of the unpopular amendments as well as an end to the alleged repression in Papua and the forest fires in Kalimantan and Sumatra.

For much of the day, the situation was peaceful enough with the demonstrators stopping for prayers and regular parleys with the police. According to Hamzah, at around 4:30PM tear gas was fired just as some students were heading home. By then the mood had changed and scuffles broke out after the end of the Maghrib prayers (around 6:00PM) at which point the police reacted by swinging their batons and making arrests.

Hamzah says he was hit several times but managed to return to the TVRI by 1:00AM where he hopped on a Kopaja that took back to his campus. The experience did not deter the youthful protestor. He was back the next day. Indeed, the Pamulang contingent by then had swollen to over 2000.

On the second night, police once again fired teargas to disperse the crowds. Hamzah believes that several of his friends were arrested during the 23—26 September period. He’s concerned about allegations that those being held by authorities have been abused. Efforts to secure their release have been to no avail.

And yet, the students kept coming. And coming.

Hamzah feels that the worst of the protests were on 30 September, when police turned used water cannons, rubber pellets and batons. That evening he remembers being pushed back some 3.2 kilometres from the DPR, to a spot near the popular Senayan City Mall.

“It was as if we were playing cat-and-mouse with the authorities. They were behind us, around us and coming at us from all sides. We stayed on the main road under the lights and kept watch just in case one of us got snatched.”

Anyhow, his luck held out and on 1st October, Team Ceritalah met and interviewed him.

Some have accused the students of naivete and ignorance. But he counters forcefully: “They (the students) might not understand the essence of the protests and may have been there only for the hell of it. But they were still there; this shows how the whole thing matters to them.” Their efforts have paid-off, in a way.

At President Jokowi’s request, amendments to the KUHP and other controversial Laws have been postponed for the new DPR to review. He has also promised to consider releasing a decree to nullify the objectionable amendments to the KPK Law.

This clearly isn’t good enough for Hamzah. As he told Team Ceritalah: “We won’t stop. We will be back.”