Indonesia assembly bill raises fears of crackdown on freedoms

Hundreds of demonstrators block the road outside the parliament building, while parliament members hold a meeting to pass the mass organization bill, in Jakarta July 2, 2013. 

(The Malay Mail) – Indonesia’s parliament passed a bill yesterday curbing freedom to organise and assemble, prompting street protests and raising concerns among religious groups and labour unions that it will allow the government to silence opposition.

Fifteen years after the downfall of dictator Suharto, Indonesia has embraced sweeping democratic reforms that have helped fuel average annual economic growth of 5 percent.

These reforms are illustrated by daily demonstrations in the capital, Jakarta, protesting against everything from low wages and poor healthcare to corruption and lack of education.

Under the bill, non-profit groups must abide by a long list of rules, including getting a government permit to operate and publicizing who their donors are.

“We need this (bill) because in Indonesia there are so many mass organisations, one might say too many. And they need to be regulated,” lawmaker Abdul Malik Haramain told Reuters.

“This (bill) also applies to foreign NGOs (non-governmental organisations). Our principle is not to ban them of course, or even to restrict them, but only to make sure they are making a contribution.”

Critics say the bill, which must be approved by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, is too broad and will allow the government to restrict opposition.

Hundreds of demonstrators, mainly from labour unions, briefly blocked roads outside parliament in downtown Jakarta to protest against the bill.

“The government wants to restrict our freedom to unionise and assemble when these things are guaranteed by the constitution,” said union leader Mudhofir, who like many Indonesians goes by one name.

A group of UN experts wrote to Indonesian lawmakers in February, warning that the bill threatened to restrict freedom of speech and religion in the world’s most populous Muslim country.