Indonesia: a balance sheet of mass demonstrations against the Omnibus Law

Mass protests and strikes exploded across Indonesia on 6-8 October following the passing of the controversial Omnibus Law: a major series of counter-reforms also known as the “Big Bang” Law. Tens of thousands of workers went on strike, and in dozens of cities, school students took to the streets and engaged in running battles with the police.

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True to its “Big Bang” moniker, the Omnibus Law is the most comprehensive reform ever put forward by the Indonesian government. In a single stroke, it amends 79 laws and thousands of regulations on labour, environmental protection, land usage, agriculture, forestry, investment, etc. Aimed at stimulating the sluggish Indonesian economy, the Omnibus Law has one practical purpose: to open the way for more capital investment. Thus, it rolls back environmental protections, makes it easier for plantation and mining enterprises to clear forests, dismantles labour protections, abolishes sectoral minimum wage, reduces worker severance pay, facilitates more land grabs against peasants and indigenous people, etc. It is a wholesale series of attacks on an unprecedented scale against the toiling masses. Rightfully so, the response from the latter has been unprecedented as well.

The law was originally slated for discussion in parliament on 8 October. But through hurried and unannounced meetings, the government fast-tracked the passing of the law on 5 October. By stealing a start, the government was hoping to avoid a storm of mass protests. But this attempt was not successful in tricking the masses, and instead poured fuel onto their already simmering anger.

Workers immediately responded with mass mobilisations in industrial areas. Trade unions launched a general strike for three days, from 6-8 October. Tens of thousands of workers in cities across the country took to the streets. In several industrial areas in Karawang, Sukabumi, Bekasi and Tangerang, the strike transformed into open anger towards the factory owners, who are seen by the workers as the forces standing behind this law. Some factories were ransacked and factory gates toppled.

But one thing that shook the regime the most was the radical involvement of the youth, university students and school students. In particular, the school students, almost without organisation or leadership, descended onto the streets in their thousands, in almost all the main cities, and stood on the front line of demonstrations facing police repression.

The demonstration spread like wildfire across Indonesia, hitting 18 provinces and more than 70 cities and towns. Violent clashes happened everywhere. Scenes of tear gas shots and burned police stations filled the TV for three days. Thousands of young kids were beaten up and thrown into police vans. The scale, energy, and intensity of these demonstrations surpassed the #reformasidikorupsi (#reformasicorrupted) movement in 2019.

Youth at the forefront

For the past year, apart from the COVID-19 pandemic, the Omnibus Bill has been at the centre of the nation’s attention. For the government and the bourgeoisie that it represents, the Omnibus Bill is regarded as the surest way to keep the flow of investment and capital moving – and with it profits – amidst a world economy riddled with uncertainty. The economic crisis that has plagued the world since 2008, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic, has become the background against which the Omnibus Law was passed. As pointed out by the World Bank in their report, Indonesian Economic Prospects: “There needs to be conditions that facilitate entrance of new companies, this involves dealing with the problem of long-term investment. The government can overcome this problem through the Omnibus Bill.”

But, for the toiling masses, workers, peasants, and indigenous people, the Omnibus Law means worsening standards of living, because the accumulation of capitalist profit at one end inevitably results in the accumulation of misery on the other: that is, on the part of those who toil. It cannot be otherwise. If the capitalists are not paying for the crisis, then the working people are the ones who must shoulder the cost of the crisis.

The anti-Omnibus demonstration also became a channel for people’s general discontent over increasingly volatile economic and social conditions. Youth, as the most sensitive social barometers, readily reflected the general mood of the society, and this is why they poured into the streets. The government and the media were dumbfounded: why would barely pubescent youth take to the streets to oppose the Omnibus Law that does not affect them? But these youth are the sons and daughters of workers, of peasants, of the toiling masses, who each day have to listen to the heavy sighs of their parents. These youth will become workers too one day.

As usual, the ruling class understands nothing. “The government knows who the demonstrators were, we know who were behind them, who sponsored them. The government has already known the intellectual actors behind these demonstrations,” said the Chairman of Golkar Party, Airlangga. The ruling class is used to seeing and treating the masses like cattle, thus cannot imagine their ability to stand up independently, against injustices imposed on them. As a matter of fact, the dominant feature of last week's demonstrations was the absence of “intellectual actors”, that is to say, the absence of leadership. This is unwittingly confirmed by Airlangga himself, who admitted to being shocked by this nationwide movement because he thought leaders of four fairly large trade union federations supported the Omnibus Law.

From interviews with these youth, it is clear that what they oppose is not the Omnibus Law in and of itself. Most of them are not familiar with its contents. What they are fighting against is the whole spirit contained in the Omnibus Law: the arbitrary rule of the government and its insensitivity to the plight of the masses.

The spontaneity of these young students brought an explosive energy into the movement, destroying any routine and inertia in the movement. It cannot be denied that, for the past year, the movement against the Omnibus Bill had been stagnating, with routine demonstrations that did not pose any threat to the ruling class. This is why the government was so confident that it could pass the bill, when not even a single member of parliament had a copy of its final draft.

The spontaneous energy of the youth had the effect of a fresh breeze on a stale movement. The strongest side of spontaneity is its ability to overcome bureaucratic inertia. The spontaneity of the masses also acts as an element of surprise to the government and caught them off guard in the beginning. But this strongest side can quickly turn into its weakest side. Once the regime regained its footing and mobilised its organised apparatus of repression, these youth, despite their bravery, were dealt a heavy blow that forced them to retreat. Repression soon followed, with mass arrests by the police, hand in hand with local thugs and lumpen elements. Without organisation, leadership, and a clear programme of action, this spontaneous energy quickly dissipated into thin air and lacked the stamina and the continuity to maintain the struggle with an increasing intensity.

But we cannot blame these young students for their spontaneous action, nor for their lack of organisation, leadership, and a clear fighting programme. The responsibility for this, and thus the failure to prevent the passing of this law, lays at the feet of the reformist leadership of the workers’ movement. Leaders of the four largest trade union federations have in practice approved the Omnibus Law. This includes Said Iqbal from KSPI, which called for a three-day general strike. KSPI, KSBSI, KSPSI, Sarbumusi and many other trade unions have wasted their time and energy in the past year in lobbying the government, instead of preparing their members to fight. What is the result of the latest lobbying maneuver of KSPI and KSPSI, who were invited by the government to enter the Formulating Team in August? They were tricked by the government, who hit the gavel without even consulting them.

If the KSPI leadership then called for a general strike, it was only to save face. A national strike called without any preparation was bound to fail. It is like trying to spark a damp powder keg. Said Iqbal boasted that 2 million workers went on strike for three days. But on the ground, this strike was far from effective in shutting down production. In many factories, union members were instructed to arrive to work earlier so they could gather in front of the factories and have their pictures taken, and then returned to work. Moreover, workers “went on strike” by switching shifts, or they worked over time at night to catch up on lost time; or the strike was “represented” by one or two members of union staff, while rank-and-file members were instructed to keep working. In the few factories that truly went on strike, most were the result of direct initiative from the rank-and-file workers. With such a national strike, it is no wonder that the government and the capitalists could safely ignore it.

Betrayal

Time and time again, these labour leaders have threatened to organise national rallies or general strike of millions of workers. But such a threat has so far been empty and did not live up to its expectations in the moment of truth. Not even once has the ruling class felt threatened. As Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investment Luhut Panjaitan once said in response to this general strike threat: “It is all just talk!” It was the youth that on 6-8 October stepped forward and forced the whole nation to pay serious attention to the issue of Omnibus Law.

Said Iqbal, in his statement that ended the so-called three-day national strike, said that “this struggle will continue, through judicial struggle and movement struggle according to the constitution.” The KSPI leadership made it clear that they wanted to challenge the Omnibus Law in the Constitutional Court (MK), via judicial review. On the Facebook group of the KSPI, rank-and-file workers immediately responded to this approach in a very critical manner:

“Through MK we will not win, it has been proven. A lot of dogs got thrown a bone there. We need a revolution.”

“MK? Useless, we need to overthrow the president, occupy the parliament building and the presidential palace.”

“We will not win through the constitution, we have to learn from the KPK Law (last year, the government passed a law that weakens the KPK, Indonesian anti-graft institution).”

“We need to copy Hong Kong and America, and demonstrate for more than a month.”

“The train has left the station, don’t bring this through the judicial channel, we will not win because the law sides with those with money”, etc., etc.

The rank-and-file workers clearly have a sharper class instinct than their leaders. Through their own experience, they have realised that the existing law is nothing but a piece of paper whose worth is determined by the balance of class forces.

Omnibus Law 2 Image Germartin1The betrayals of the workers' leadership mean they bear responsibility for the government successfully passing the Omnibus Law / Image: Germartin1

Even more shameful was Said Iqbal's emphasis at the end of the statement that workers “should not engage in anarchist actions and remain on the constitutional road.” This is like spitting on the bravery and sacrifice of the youth who have stepped forward and stood with the workers in fighting the Omnibus Law. What needs to be addressed is not “anarchist acts”, which is simply parroting the government and their hired army of social media influencers. What needs to be condemned immediately is the police brutality against these youth, and the unlawful mass arrests that befell thousands of demonstrators.

What we need is a workers’ organisation that is ready to fight. For this, the democratic channels in workers’ organisations have to be thrown wide open. Mass meetings in every factory have to be organised to involve workers in the discussion and decision-making on how to defeat the Omnibus Law. Strike committees in every factory have to be formed to begin the preparatory works toward a general strike, by drawing rank-and-file workers into these committees. Instruction to strike from the top could never reach the bottom when those at the top are always filled with doubts and reluctance to wage a determined struggle. The fight against the Omnibus Law is not only an external fight against the government, but also first and foremost an internal struggle against the bureaucratic leadership that has transformed itself into the biggest obstacle to the workers’ victory.

The school students need to build an organisation of their own, so that their energy can be directed into a continuing movement and does not dissipate in vain. They need to form student unions that are united provincially and nationally, and connected to workers’ unions. If their massive energy is combined with the ability to organise and put on the basis of revolutionary theory, we can only imagine what can be achieved by these young students.

The militant demonstrations last week will become increasingly common in the future. The government might feel relieved that they have succeeded in extinguishing last week’s conflagration, and prevented it from spreading further. But the fundamental problems faced by the toiling masses, which were the reason for last week’s wave of demonstrations, have yet to be solved. The government has spent billions of rupiah on a public relation campaign to convince the workers that the Omnibus Law will benefit them, but the iron law of political economy will always assert its truth: that the interests of capital and labour are diametrically opposed and cannot be reconciled.

For capital to grow, the sweat, blood and tears of the toiling masses have to be spilled to nourish it. It is one thing for the government to pass the Omnibus Law, but it is quite another thing to implement it and expect it to stimulate the national economy, especially amidst a world economic crisis with no end in sight. There is a simmering anger beneath the surface that begs to be released, and thus larger clashes are being prepared in the future, perhaps in a much nearer future than many suspect.

Translated from Neraca Singkat Setelah Demo 8 Oktober, which was published on the website of Revolutionary Socialist Association on 10 October 2020.