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Clashes erupt as thousands protest Indonesia legal-reforms


AFP Jakarta
Riot police fired tear gas at stone-throwing protesters as fresh protests erupted across Indonesia Monday, sparked by a raft of divisive legal reforms including banning pre-marital sex and weakening the anti-graft agency.
At least two students have died and hundreds more were injured as unrest swept across the Southeast Asian archipelago, just weeks before President Joko Widodo kicks off a second term as head of the world's third-biggest democracy.
In the capital Jakarta, some 26,000 police and soldiers were deployed while large crowds -- including placard-carrying students and factory workers -- chanted for change near parliament, which was barricaded with barbed wire.
Military vehicles rumbled along the streets as some students -- with toothpaste smeared beneath their eyes to protect against tear gas -- hurled projectiles. Many rallies, however, were peaceful.
The demonstrations have been fuelled by a proposed bill that includes dozens of legal changes -- from criminalising pre-marital sex and restricting contraceptive sales, to making it illegal to insult the president and toughening the Muslim-majority country's blasphemy law.
The protests are among the biggest student rallies since mass street demonstrations in 1998 toppled the Suharto dictatorship.
More than a thousand demonstrators were on the streets in Bandung on Java island, where a female protester held a sign saying: "What is in our pants is none of the government's business".
"I decided to join the demonstrations after I heard about the death of university students and that some were attacked by tear gas," said Banyu Biru, a Bandung student still dressed in his high-school uniform.
"That's just absurd -- is this how the police protect the people?" Passage of the controversial reforms has now been delayed.
Widodo has also said he would consider revising a separate bill that critics fear would dilute the powers of Indonesia's corruption-fighting agency, known as the KPK.
"Why is this law being changed?" said Lukmanul Hakim Ahbr, a 24-year-old Indonesian who said he returned from his studies in neighbouring Malaysia to join the protests.
"We students... reject any revision that will weaken the KPK," he added.
Protesters have also demanded troops be pulled from Indonesia's restive Papua region, where fresh violence killed more than 30 people this month.
They are also demanding a probe into the deaths of two university students on Sulawesi island last week, including one who was shot during the anti-government protests. The police said they are investigating, but denied responsibility.
At the rally in Bandung, high school teacher Iwan Hermawan was keeping a close eye out for his students.
"If any students join this rally and engage in violence I'll immediately pull them out," he told AFP.
On Monday, scuffles broke out between authorities and some 2,000 university students on Lombok, an island next to Bali where hundreds also rallied.
Ahead of Tuesday's inauguration of hundreds of members of parliament, Indonesia's chief security minister Wiranto -- who goes by one name -- warned that any bloodshed would not be tolerated.
"I'm reminding protesters not to engage in violence or disrupt the inauguration of new lawmakers," the minister told a press briefing.
Officials have portrayed the protests as being hijacked by agitators aiming to disrupt government -- and suggested they were similar to May's deadly post-election riots that paralysed Jakarta.
Updating Indonesia's criminal code, which dates back to the Dutch colonial era, has been debated for decades but there was a renewed push this year backed by conservative Islamic groups.

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First Published: Sep 30 2019 | 5:20 PM IST

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