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Protests against new labor law turn violent across Indonesia

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — Protests in many Indonesian cities turned violent Thursday as thousands of enraged students and workers criticized a new law they say will cripple labor rights and harm the environment.

Clashes between rock-throwing demonstrators and riot police broke out near Jakarta’s presidential palace as police tried to disperse the protesters, including workers and high school and university students.

President Joko Widodo is visiting Central Kalimantan province and was not in the palace.

Police fired tear gas at the protesters from several high schools and universities as they tried to approach the palace compound, turning roads into a smoke-filled battleground. The protesters fought back, hurling rocks and bottles.

An angry mob burned a traffic police post at an intersection near the palace, while other protesters set fires to tires and fiberglass road barriers. As night fell, some protesters set fire to a subway shelter in downtown Jakarta, causing the area to turn an eerie orange color.

Similar clashes occurred in large cities all over the country, including Yogyakarta, Medan, Makassar, Manado and Bandung, the capital of West Java province, where police arrested 209 people during two days of violent protests.

Organizers have called for a three-day national strike starting Tuesday demanding that the government revoke the legislation.

The Job Creation Law approved by Parliament on Monday is expected to substantially change Indonesia’s labor system and natural resources management. It amended 79 previous laws and was intended to improve bureaucratic efficiency as part of efforts by Widodo’s administration to attract more investment to the country.

The demonstrators say the law will hurt workers by reducing severance pay, removing restrictions on manual labor by foreign workers, increasing the use of outsourcing, and converting monthly salaries to hourly wages.

“We vow to continue returning to the streets until the new law is revoked,” said Andi Khiyarullah, a protest organizer from the Indonesia Alliance’s student executive body.

Police in Jakarta also blocked streets leading to Parliament, preventing labor groups from holding a mass rally there, and detained at least 200 high school students who attempted to reach the compound, Jakarta police spokesman Yusri Yunus said.

“They have been provoked by invitations on social media to create a riot in Jakarta,” Yunus said.

Fears grew of a surge in coronavirus cases from the protests, which are being held as infection rates are rising in many areas. Indonesia’s confirmed deaths rose Thursday to 11,580, the highest number in Southeast Asia.

National COVID-19 task force spokesperson Wiku Adisasmito expressed concern about “potential spreaders” in the crowds of protesters across the country, especially in Jakarta, the center of Indonesia’s outbreak.

“We remind you that we are still in a pandemic condition, there is a public health emergency,” he said as images showed demonstrators in close proximity, many without masks and ignoring social distancing.

The government reported Thursday that the total number of confirmed cases nationwide has risen to 320,564, including 11,580 deaths. Cases in Jakarta alone stood at 83,372 with 1,834 deaths.

Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest

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Civil society groups feel heat as elected governments turn on NGOs

International civil society groups say they are facing intensifying pressure even in democracies as elected governments wield political, legal and financial weapons to halt their work.

Amnesty International’s suspension last week of its Indian operations is the latest casualty in what critics view as a widening crackdown from Budapest to Brasília by elected but autocratic leaders seeking to entrench their power.

The trend has fed broader fears of a tilt towards authoritarianism worldwide. Activists fear that the loss of campaigning on injustices by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) will add to factors such as online disinformation and the Covid-19 pandemic that already alienate people and make it easier for politicians to tighten their grip.

“An atomised society is a society that’s easier to control — that’s the rationale behind cracking down on NGOs,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of US-based Human Rights Watch. “That was a first principle of dictatorship — but we are now seeing this in ostensible democracies.”

Clampdowns on domestic civil society groups viewed as threatening official interests are familiar in countries that either hold no elections or whose polls are seen by international observers as flawed, such as China and Russia.

However, in recent years a number of democracies have begun to use similar tactics to curb the work of local and global NGOs.

Critics say the trend is part of a strategy of “hybrid government” by authoritarians, who amass power not by directly rigging votes but through domination of the public sphere achieved by stifling dissenting voices and promoting supportive ones.

“It’s definitely happening more with democratically elected governments,” said Elena Lazarou, an associate fellow at the Chatham House think-tank. “And they are not only cracking down but also trying to boost their own alternative sets of civil society actors.”

Amnesty stopped its work in India after the country’s economic crime investigation agency froze the aid group’s bank accounts on the grounds that it allegedly broke laws prohibiting overseas funding. Amnesty has denied wrongdoing and says it has been harassed by Indian authorities for the past two years. It recently published two reports that attacked the human rights record of Narendra Modi’s government.

Elsewhere, a July report by the Philippines’ Commission on Human Rights warned that President Rodrigo Duterte had created a “dangerous fiction” that it was legitimate to monitor and harass NGOs. He said in 2017 that police should shoot human rights activists who were “obstructing justice” in his bloody drugs war.

In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro last year initially blamed non-profit groups, without evidence, for wildfires that surged through the Amazon. Last month he branded NGOs a “cancer”.

In the EU — which sees itself as a bastion of democracy — Hungarian leader Viktor Orban’s government has criminalised civil society groups that provide help to migrants it deems illegal. It also imposed law changes and exerted political pressure that forced the Open Society Foundations, created by billionaire

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