JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — Police fired tear gas and water cannons Tuesday to disperse thousands of rock-throwing students protesting a new law that they said has crippled Indonesia’s anti-corruption agency.
The university students are enraged that Indonesia’s Parliament passed the law last week that reduces the authority of the Corruption Eradication Commission, a key body in fighting endemic graft in the country.
They demonstrated in front of the Parliament building in the capital, Jakarta, where police used tear gas and water cannons to try to disperse the crowds, and in large cities all over the country.
The protests have grown over the past two days and turned violent in some cities. Protesters burned tires during the day and set several fires after night fell, including at a toll gate and a police post near the Parliament.
The protests, which underline Indonesia’s challenge in changing its graft-ridden image, have threatened the credibility of President Joko Widodo, who recently won a second term after campaigning for clean governance.
He faced down riots in May by supporters of the losing candidate, former Gen. Prabowo Subianto, but those events were seen as partisan politics, with limited support.
The new protests are not associated with a particular party or group, and instead are led by students, who historically have been a driving force of political change. Their demonstrations in 1998 triggered events that led the country’s longtime strongman leader, Suharto, to step down.
Those demonstrating this week are demanding that Widodo issue a government regulation replacing the new law on the corruption commission, known by its Indonesian abbreviation, KPK.
Corruption is endemic in Indonesia and the anti-graft commission, one of the few effective institutions in the country of nearly 270 million people, is frequently under attack by lawmakers who want to reduce its powers.
The protesters also urged Parliament to delay votes on a new criminal code that would criminalize or increase penalties on a variety of sexual activities, as well as other bills on mining, land and labor. Opponents say the proposed criminal code threatens democracy and discriminates against minorities.
Widodo met Tuesday with lawmakers, whose terms finish at the end of this month, to urge them to delay votes on the bills after considering public concerns. Lawmakers then delayed their votes on the proposed laws in their last plenary session.
Critics say the criminal code bill contains articles that violate the rights of women, religious minorities, lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgender people, as well as freedoms of speech and association.
The planned revisions prompted Australia to update its travel advice, warning tourists of risks they could face from extramarital or gay sex if the bill is passed.
“The bill was delayed,” House Speaker Bambang Soesatyo said in a news conference. “It will be redeliberated by the lawmakers in the next term.”
However, government officials and lawmakers did not say how they will deal with the students’ demand that the new law on the anti-graft commission be revoked.
In a demonstration in Makassar, the main city on Sulawesi island, thousands of protesters blocked streets, set fires and pelted police with rocks. Riot police responded by firing water cannons and tear gas. The state news agency Antara said one of its photographers was hurt in the melee, which it reported sent dozens of people to the hospital.
Clashes between protesters and police also occurred in other cities, including Bandung, Yogyakarta, Malang, Palembang and Medan.
Security was especially tight in Jakarta, where 20,000 soldiers and police were deployed to secure key locations, including the presidential palace.
“We reject the bill on KPK being forced into law,” a speaker told a cheering crowd in front of the Parliament building. “Corrupters tried to manipulate us this way, it’s the poor that are going to suffer most.”
Hundreds of officials from various branches of government have been arrested since the independent anti-graft commission was established in 2002 as part of people’s demands during a reform movement following the ouster of Suharto.
Activists say the revision weakens the powers of one of the most credible public institutions in a country where the police and Parliament are perceived as being widely corrupt.
The revisions also reduce its independence, with investigators becoming civil servants who need to be seconded from state bodies, including the police.
The anti-corruption watchdog Indonesia Corruption Watch accused lawmakers of moving to protect themselves after the commission named 23 sitting members of Parliament as corruption suspects.
It said in a statement Tuesday that the new law lengthens bureaucratic procedures needed for anti-graft investigators to wiretap potential suspects, which they fear will significantly hamper KPK’s work.
“It will amputate the fight against corruption,” ICW said. “This nation is in mourning.”
Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest economy, ranked 89th out of 175 countries in the 2018 Corruption Perceptions Index reported by Transparency International.