Instead of combatting the spread of COVID-19, the government of Indonesia spent the greater part of 2020 working on a sweeping legislative revision of its wage and labor laws intended to disempower workers and attract foreign investment. The “Omnibus Bill” was wildly unpopular among the Indonesian people when it was revealed in late 2019, and has been met with widespread criticisms and mass protests. In response, Indonesia’s authoritarian government chose to hide the details and deliberations over the bill from the public. The law was officially passed on October 5, 2020. According to an article by Fahmi Panimbang published in International Politics and Society, the legislative changes will “cut wages, remove important sick leave provisions and other protections, and undermine job security.”
Indonesia is struggling to emerge from a past marked by a militarized police state that violated human rights and massacred its opponents on the left. The ruling elite in Indonesia can be traced back to the dictatorship of ‘president’ Suharto’s New Order, which lasted for 31 years until his resignation in 1998. The legacy of Suharto’s regime has been the creation of a political edifice of oligarchs, consisting of older elites and military forces who dominate both the executive and legislative branches of government and have expanded the power of the National Armed Forces and the National Police, both groups which have devastated civilian life in Indonesia.
After decades of authoritarian rule, in 2014 hope was in the air when Joko Widodo (Jokowi) entered national politics. Jokowi received mass support from the Indonesian people given his campaign promised both stability and a reckoning with human rights abuses from decades of authoritarian rule. Some key promises were to address the victims of the Armed Force’s 1965-1966 communist purge, in which an estimated 500,000-2,000,000 people were imprisoned, raped, disappeared, and killed. This was in contrast to the former military general Prabowo Subianto who ran against Jokowi in 2014. Jokowi’s career as a human rights reformer was short lived, as he has continued to work alongside and bolster the corrupt oligarchs and individuals of the former administrations. He has not only failed to fulfil his promises, but he has consistently acquiesced to continue military state control over Indonesian civilians, prioritizing infrastructure projects for the purposes of ‘economic development’ instead of electoral promises.
According to Panimbang, Jokowi’s government has pushed for regulations such as “favorable tax conditions and other incentives for businesses.” Deregulation has undermined the power of labor laws and prevented unions from negotiating minimum wages in the country since 2015. Frans Ari Prasetyo from rs21, reports that the new governmental legislation was kept a secret from the public due to its catastrophic nature. The legislation includes reducing social security and retirement payments, removing the need to take into consideration inflation and cost of living when deciding minimum wage, and keeping workers on indefinite temporary contracts. The legislation also attacks paid menstruation leave, time off for marriage, family events and religious holidays, and reducing environmental protections.
Prasetyo reports that protests against the Omnibus Law have occurred in every Indonesian city including, Greater Jakarta, Yogyakarta, Pontianak, Malang, Jambi, Medan, Surakarta, Makassar, Palu, Palembang, and Denpasar. The protests have brought together tens of thousands of people including worker groups and students, colliding against the military and police. One clash between protestors and police that spanned several days in Bandung resulted in 6,000 arrests and left 507 individuals missing. Police use of force has included tear gas, physical assaults of protestors, and forcibly stripping individuals of their clothing. Desperate to quell the protests, the state has threatened that students engaging in protests would be blacklisted from their academics, and has sent police to infiltrate the protests. Additionally, the government has used cyber patrols in which police disseminate ‘fake news’ on social media about the strikes to confuse protestors.
Corporate media outlets such as the New York Times, ABC, CNN, NBC, and Bloomberg have covered some of the larger protests that erupted after the passing of the Omnibus Law in October 2020 and touched on the violent means police have used to put down protestors. However, the establishment media in the US has largely ignored popular organizing against the Omnibus law, in particular the role played by civil society organizations such as the National Human Rights Commission. Just two establishment press articles covering the Omnibus Law appeared before October 2020: one by Bloomberg, which focused on the contents of the bill and not the protests, and another by Foreign Policy, which discussed the governments threat to democracy. The corporate media has been completely silent about the Indonesian government’s dystopian control of communication such as its use of social media as a means to intimidate and manipulate public opinion.
Fahmi Panimbang, “Indonesia’s Return to an Authoritarian Developmental State,” International Politics and Society, October 10, 2020, https://www.ips-journal.eu/topics/democracy/indonesias-return-to-an-authoritarian-developmental-state-4734/; republished by MR Online, October 22, 2020, https://mronline.org/2020/10/22/indonesias-return-to-an-authoritarian-developmental-state/.
Frans Ari Prasetyo, “Neoliberal ‘Omnibus Law’ Sparks Rebellion in Indonesia,” rs21, October 17, 2020, https://www.rs21.org.uk/2020/10/17/neoliberal-power-grab-sparks-rebellion-in-indonesia/#; republished by MR Online, October 20, 2020, https://mronline.org/2020/10/20/neoliberal-omnibus-law-sparks-rebellion-in-indonesia/.
Student Researcher: Cem Ismail Addemir (North Central College)
Faculty Evaluator: Steve Macek (North Central College)