JAKARTA (Reuters) – 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.
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 penalized 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.
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.”