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Indonesian lawmakers push to pass deregulation bills as COVID-19 grips country

University students heading towards the Indonesian parliament's building in Jakarta to protest against several controversial bills, including the recently passed KPK law. Image by Hans Nicholas Jong/Mongabay.

  • Lawmakers in Indonesia plan to pass a deregulation bill by May and a mining bill by August, prompting criticism of their timing as the country deals with the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Activists say it appears parliament wants to use the cover of the outbreak, including physical distancing measures, to rush through the legislation with minimal public oversight or pushback.
  • The mining bill was among several pieces of legislation that failed to pass last year in the face of mass street protests, but there’s no possibility of similar demonstrations under current restrictions on social gatherings.
  • The bills prescribe a raft of measures undermining environmental protections and easing the climate for miners, land developers, and commercial fishers.

JAKARTA — Indonesia’s parliament looks set to push through contentious bills that threaten to roll back environmental protections in favor of facilitating business.

Activists have denounced the decision to resume deliberations of the so-called omnibus bill on job creation and an amended mining bill at a time when the government and the public are struggling to deal with the COVID-19 crisis. They call it a deliberate move by parliament to use the cover of physical distancing measures and other social restrictions to pass the bills with minimal oversight or pushback by the public.

“Amid a situation like this, how can the public participate?” said Reynaldo Sembiring, the executive director of Indonesian Center for Environmental Law (ICEL). “There are obstacles for the public to be able to be involved [in the legislative process]. Public participation will therefore be very poor and there might even be potential for the bills to be manipulated.”

A 2011 law calls for full public participation in legislative deliberations, including parliamentary hearings at which representatives of groups potentially affected by a given bill can testify on the record. The omnibus and mining bills were expected to receive a harsh reception during this stage of the deliberations, with groups ranging from environmentalists to labor unions to indigenous rights activists almost universally opposed to them.

Mass demonstrations involving labor unions and student groups flared up last year in protest at similarly controversial bills, including one that weakened the national anti-corruption agency (which passed), another revising the criminal code (which was abandoned), and the mining bill, which was deferred to this year. For the bills under consideration now, the COVID-19 outbreak has prompted social distancing measures that effectively quash the possibility of repeat protests.

Student protesters in the streets of Jakarta, in front of the parliament building, in September 2019.

Evading oversight

“Lawmakers know that we won’t gather on the streets and there won’t be public pressure with the same intensity as last September,” said Muhammad Iqbal Damanik, a researcher at the environmental NGO Auriga Nusantara. “That’s why they’re speeding up [the process] while everyone is preoccupied with COVID-19.”

Reynaldo agreed that the process seemed rushed, to the extent that there could be no meaningful deliberation of the long list of amendments being proposed.

“There are a lot of provisions in various sectors that need to be discussed thoroughly,” he said. “I fear parliament will simply give a stamp of approval for these bills that have already been prepared by the government.”

The omnibus bills contain more than 1,000 proposed amendments to at least 79 existing laws that, among other points, prescribe lighter penalties for environmental violations; scrap a requirement for environmental impact assessments; vastly deregulate the mining industry; and make it easier to rezone coastal areas for development.

Reynaldo said there would be “a lot of unlawful procedures and substances” in the legislative process — which critics could then cite in seeking to have the bills struck down after passage.

Aryanto Nugroho, the Indonesia advocacy manager for Publish What You Pay (PWYP), said the mining bill in particular appeared to be a done deal, despite not yet coming before the parliamentary commission on mining and energy for discussion.

“If we see the statements from both parliament and the ministry of mines that the outstanding issues over the bill have been resolved, then we suspect that the subsequent meetings are merely a formality,” he said.

University students heading towards the Indonesian parliament’s building in Jakarta to protest against the new KPK law. Image by Hans Nicholas Jong/Mongabay.

COVID-19 as justification

Lawmakers and government officials say they expect the omnibus bills to pass by May and the mining bill by August. The national planning ministry, known as Bappenas, says speeding up the legislative process for the omnibus bills is necessary to attract investment in the second half of 2020 for an economic boost amid the slowdown caused by the COVID-19 outbreak.

The trade ministry used similar justification in its recent decision to scrap a requirement for wood exporters to obtain licenses verifying their wood comes from legal and sustainably managed sources. The policy threatens the timber trade with the European Union, one of Indonesia’s key markets. The World Bank has also advised governments not to prioritize stimulating demand and increasing economic activity before the virus is under control.

Activists say parliament’s move to push through the omnibus and mining bills shows poor awareness of, and high insensitivity to the COVID-19 crisis in Indonesia. The country has recorded nearly 2,500 infections and 209 deaths as of April 6.

Wahyu Perdana from the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (WALHI) said lawmakers are giving a bad example to the public.

“They’re violating the government’s policy on physical distancing,” said Wahyu Perdana, from the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (WALHI). “And at a time when the public is gripped by COVID-19, they’re discussing legislation. That’s like stabbing the public in the back.”

Iqbal, from Auriga, contrasted parliament’s insistence to the willingness with which most Indonesians had agreed to giving up communal religious activities, including Friday prayers — mandatory for Muslim men.

“Even God is willing to not be worshiped collectively on Friday, yet parliament still wants to deliberate the bills. This is weird,” he said.

“Rather than them going to meetings, it’s better for lawmakers to stay at home, practice social distancing,” he added.

Greenpeace Indonesia forest campaigner Asep Komarudin said lawmakers should focus on dealing with the public health crisis.

“What the public needs right now is seriousness from the government and lawmakers on handling this pandemic,” he said. “Lawmakers should do their job of advising the government.”


Banner image: University students heading towards the Indonesian parliament’s building in Jakarta in Sept. 2019 to protest against several controversial bills, including the mining bill. Image by Hans Nicholas Jong/Mongabay.


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