Anger on campus: Behind the student protests that have rocked Indonesia

JAKARTA: He was once a boy scout and member of a patriotic flag-raising team in high school.

But with student protests sweeping Jakarta and other cities in recent months in some of the worst civil unrest to hit Indonesia in decades, Manik Marganamahendra has emerged as an anti-establishment icon.



"Today we stand on Indonesian land, on land seized and corrupted by the oligarchy," he bellowed through a sound system on a recent afternoon, standing on the bed of a pickup truck.

Thousands of chanting students, clad in the yellow, red and green jackets of their universities, swirled in front of him, watched closely by a line of riot police standing behind large coils of barbed wire.

"If elite politicians are able to make a coalition, why can't the people?" he cried.

Draped from the truck was a banner bearing the slogan that has been the rallying cry for the student-led protests that erupted in September: "reform corrupted".



The trigger for the protests was a government move to strip the country's anti-corruption agency of some of its powers and pass a new criminal code that critics saw as a reversal of hard-won social and political reforms that followed the fall of the authoritarian Suharto government in the late 1990s.

But the protests have also attracted a broader swathe of activists pressing for a host of other causes that highlight a growing sentiment in Indonesia that a political and business elite is becoming increasingly beholden to special interests and less accountable to the people.

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Workers are pressing for better conditions. Environmentalists want palm oil and timber companies to be more accountable for the forest fires that regularly blanket the region in smoke. Feminists are calling for the passage of an anti-sexual violence Bill that has been blocked by politicians fearing a backlash from conservative Muslims.

Rattled by the increasingly violent protests, the authorities have delayed the passage of the criminal code, which would have banned pre-marital sex and penalised insults against the president.

However, President Joko Widodo has said that there are no plans to reverse changes to laws governing the Corruption Eradication Commission, which has prosecuted hundreds of politicians, officials and businessmen since its formation in 2002, saying the agency needed better governance.

The new law placed restrictions on the agency using independent wiretaps, among other measures.

Hundreds of people have been injured in clashes with the police. Five people have died during protests. Police have announced the arrest of an officer over the deaths of two students, including one who died of gunshot wounds. But it is still unclear how the others died.

Under pressure from families and human rights groups, Widodo has ordered an investigation into the deaths.

READ: Indonesia suspends six police officers over student shooting in Kendari

While the protests have lost some intensity in recent weeks, the students have vowed to keep up their campaign and are planning a demonstration on Sunday – national Heroes Day.

The movement will not run out of steam, Marganamahendra told Reuters. "We want the future to be better than today."

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, Oct 28, 2019. (Photo: REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan)


Students like Marganamahendra have been a critical force in the protests, helping to forge a loose network with the disparate groups involved.

"We want to show that a college student movement – any student movement – and a labour movement can unite," he told Reuters at a rally last month near the presidential palace, dressed in the yellow jacket of the University of Indonesia.

Quietly spoken and with a slight frame, the 22-year-old public health student is an unlikely figure to emerge as a leader of the protest movement. He comes from a modest background in the city of Bogor, south of Jakarta; his father is a motorcycle taxi driver, and his mother is unemployed.

Manik Marganamahendra, a student leader at the University of Indonesia, hands out signs as he prepares to takes part in a protest over human rights, corruption and social and environmental issues in Jakarta, Indonesia, Oct 28, 2019. (Photo: REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan)

But Marganamahendra has emerged as a powerful speaker and charismatic presence in front of the protest crowds, able to rally and organise the students.

He has also become something of a celebrity in Indonesia, with local media running stories on everything from his favourite pastime (debating, reportedly) to his love life. On campus, other students ask him to pose for selfies with them.

He has also found himself targeted by trolls on social media who have questioned his motives and say the protests have been hijacked by people hoping to overthrow Widodo's presidency.

"I feel a certain pressure psychologically," he said.


Marganamahendra's life today is a far cry from what it was in mid September when he and a handful of University of Indonesia students joined one of the first protests.

There, he met students from other universities and discussed coordinating activities. Soon, students from his university were meeting with a broad range of people with grievances against the government – farmers, union activists, feminists and others.

The media-savvy students and activists created punchy online hashtags to raise awareness of their campaign, and used crowd-funding sites like to raise cash for renting trucks and loudspeakers, and buying medical supplies and food. They communicated with each other using WhatsApp.

By the end of September, the rallies had grown into some of the largest seen in the country since the 1998 pRead More – Source