JAKARTA, Indonesia - On October 1, when videos of hundreds of fans on a football pitch in Indonesia went viral, it initially looked like fans flooding the pitch in the aftermath of the game.
But Saturday wasn’t the usual scene of impassioned fans trying to meet their football idols. Instead, some 42,000 attendees witnessed – and documented – how the police stationed at the poorly-constructed stadium in Malang city fired tear gas at fans in the field and in the stands. They did so without a warning. Eyewitnesses told VICE World News earlier this week that the tear gas triggered mass panic, and that the police also kicked and beat up people.
The deadly stampede killed 135 people according to the government, but Amnesty International Indonesia puts that toll at 200.
On Thursday, the Indonesian police chief told the media that six people, including the police and match organisers, are facing criminal charges. They could be charged with criminal negligence causing death, which carries a maximum five-year imprisonment. Three cops are accused of giving orders to use tear gas inside the stadium. Tear gas usage is banned by FIFA at football stadiums across the world. Eleven police officers who used it could potentially face disciplinary punishment.
As the government’s fact-finding team looks into the tragedy, the country’s dark history of policing is in focus. Indonesians are blaming the police for the deaths online, calling for reform or to defund the police. This year, the national police spent $10 million on tear gas. In East Java, the province where the tragedy unfolded, police spent $3.2 million on batons.
One user tweeted, “Law enforcers who massacre their own people deserve to be closely monitored. #RevolusiTotalPolri,” while another cited data on police expenditure on tear gas and said, “There is no definitive information on what this tear gas is used for [but] what is clear is that this item is the mainstay of the police for mass control.” Another tweet said, “Has anyone ever trained the Indonesian police on how to control chaos without killing?”
Fajar Junaedi, an Indonesian football fandom researcher, told VICE World News that football fans often become victims of police brutality. “The first instinct of the Indonesian police towards football fans is to treat them with violence,” said Junaedi. “In fact, there have been previous football matches where the police fired tear gas to control football crowds. But nobody was held accountable.”
Jacqui Baker, an Australia-based political economist who studies policing in Indonesia, has been investigating extrajudicial violence for years, and found that obtaining justice in police brutality cases is almost impossible.
“This is not a one-off blunder. In the 20-year track record of Indonesian police, there have been numerous complaints, scandals and allegations of human rights abuses that reveal a culture of impunity,” Baker said.
Some cases may go to trial, but their outcome is either too long drawn, or rarely made public. There is no official data on police brutality in Indonesia, or its conviction rate.
“What we saw in Malang is a culmination of years of political neglect to prioritise democratic police reforms,” Baker added. “Whatever reforms have taken place in the past largely played into the police's interests, and under the argument that to be less corrupt and more professional, they need more funding.”
The Indonesian police is one of the country’s oldest agencies that was a part of the military for nearly four decades until 1999. It is the biggest police force – 440,000 personnel – in South East Asia. But allegations of corruption, incompetence, violence and human rights violations are rife. An anti-corruption report shows that the Indonesian National Police works with an average annual budget of $6.9 billion – the third largest in terms of national spending – with state-of-the-art systems and equipment.
Data collected by the NGO Trend Asia, which analyses government purchases, shows that hundreds of millions of dollars have been pumped into tactical riot equipment, while expenses have jumped manifold since 2014, the year current president Joko Widodo took over.
At the same time, human rights groups have been flagging a rise in cases of police brutality, which is contributing to a wider distrust in the police. “It's common in Indonesia to see police brutality but in [Malang], it was a whole other level,” lawyer for victims’ families Agustian Siagian had told VICE World News early this week. The victims’ families now plan to take the police and match officials to court. This week, tens of thousands of Indonesians signed a petition to ban the use of tear gas by the police against crowds.
In the country, heavy deployments of riot police during professional football matches are very common, as are professional players arriving in armoured tanks. National and international outlets have widely covered the “problem” of violent hooliganism in Indonesian football, as rival football fan clubs often fight among themselves, crowd the football field post matches, sometimes engaging in violence. Indonesia has one of the world’s most intense football fandoms, and at least 74 have died in football-related incidents since 1994.
But Junaedi says that while violent rivalries are only among select groups, labelling Indonesia as one of the most dangerous football fandoms is unfair. “Between the football federations that don’t comply with FIFA rules, the stadium operators whose venues are unsafe, and the violent police, football fans always end up as victims,” he said.
Baker, the political economist, added that with such a history, the Indonesian police should have designed its crowd control methods accordingly by now. But she is also skeptical about how the government will act on it.
“Demands for defunding police are legitimate because if the police have so much money, at least provide the people with everyday justice and security,” said Baker. “It has not translated into that so far. It all hinges on the will of the political elite to reform the police.”
There has been at least one small step towards progress. Football fan clubs announced a reconciliation among themselves to put up a united front to get justice earlier this week. Junaedi is hopeful of change. “Rivalries are ebbing. This is how we inch closer to justice.”
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