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Nationwide Protests in Indonesia as Controversial Omnibus Bill Moves Forward

by Aaron Henderson

Contributing writer

Global Outlook

The spread of COVID-19 has left in its wake a number of unexpected consequences, one of which is highlighting Governmental conflicts of interest and malpractice throughout many nations of the world. Indonesia is no exception. On top of suffering just above 320,000 confirmed cases and over 12,000 deaths, the Southeast Asian country has also been plagued by a series of riots protesting governmental policy that have only been amplified by the onset of Coronavirus in the country, leaving national symptoms of high death rates, mass unemployment and economic downturn.

This Thursday, riot police officers in the capital city of Jakarta employed the use of water cannons and tear gas in order to disperse protests against new laws slashing protections for the environment and workers rights as an attempt to boost foreign investment in the country. Despite Indonesia being the largest economy in Southeast Asia, due to their slow bureaucratic processes, the Emerald of the Equator have had trouble bringing in foreign investment, especially when competing with a communist Vietnam which through centralized government has the capacity to offer investors land and resources with ease, avoiding lengthy bureaucratic processes. In defiance of coronavirus restrictions, thousands partook in national strikes against the amendments, marching through the streets accompanied by motorbike convoys and megaphones shouting anti-omnibus slogans. Throughout the country protests have been predominantly peaceful, taking the form of walkouts that stretched from the Papua Province to the Aceh Province in the East, involving an estimated number of one million people.

Amongst the most controversial amendments were those that many protesters argue will allow big companies to cut worker wages, employ contractors instead of permanent employees and limit or even eliminate off days. A popular sentiment amongst the protestors is that these measures are being put in place in order to repay financiers who helped the current leader of the country, President Joko Widodo, win the election at the expense of ordinary citizens who cast their vote in his favor. In addition to the amendments to worker rights are those that will gravely affect the environment, exempting companies from undertaking environmental reviews when commencing projects, paving the way for the further burning of rain forests in pursuit of economic profit and of course, increasing the carbon footprint of Indonesia further boosting the impacts of climate change.

Indeed, the outbreak of Coronavirus has only thrown more fuel to the fire of the protests, creating a whopping estimated unemployment rate of 9% leaving 24 million people without jobs. This is not the first nationwide protest to take place in Indonesia. Only last year, mass protests were held against a different omnibus bill criminalizing sex between unmarried couples which was in effect another way of making gay relations against the law. The past protests managed to apply enough pressure on President Joko and were successful in making him withdraw this bill. Despite the success of last year’s outcries however, the current unrest taking hold of Indonesia is not expected to yield many results considering it was the President himself who proposed the bill, arguing that many potential investors had withdrawn interest as a result of what the head of his government’s Investment Coordinating Board called “overlapping regulations expensive land and expensive workers”.

President Joko, a man of humble beginnings himself and someone that won both of his election campaigns as a man of the people, is swiftly losing this status and under increasing pressure to withdraw the bill. In the case that a withdrawal does not happen, and he decides to give his favor to his financiers, the workers union will take their arguments to court in an attempt to block the implementation of the controversial law. Until a final decision is made, the already challenging economic instability affecting the workforce as a cause of the coronavirus outbreak is only set to be aggravated by the Omnibus bill and civil unrest in Indonesia.

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