The 1st of October disaster at the football stadium on Java, in which 135 people lost their lives, is the second-worst footballing tragedy in history. Might it spark Indonesian police reform?
The disaster was filmed and photographed from various perspectives, including by security cameras and mobile phones. After losing 3-2 to Persebaya Surabaya, supporters of the home side Arema FC took to the pitch and police attempted to regain order, with riot police deploying tear gas – banned under FIFA rules. This triggered a fatal stampede as people tried to escape. Many fans were crushed or asphyxiated in the process, including 40 children.
A Washington Post investigation indicates a heavy-handed police response and inadequate stadium measures. At least 40 rounds of munitions were fired at the crowd over a 10-minute period, including tear gas, flash bangs and flares. Fans ran to the exits, but some were closed. Many were trampled to death or crushed against walls and metal gates. Just days after the incident, Indonesia’s police chief, Listyo Sigit Prabowo, announced six main suspects: the director of PT Liga Indonesia Baru, the Arema FC head of security, the Arema match organizing committee, and three police officers.
The brutal images of riot police firing munitions into the tightly packed stands have placed Indonesia’s policing culture in the spotlight. The stadium disaster comes at a time when Indonesia is scheduled to host the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 2023. Indonesia is also one of three countries (plus Qatar and South Korea) bidding to stage next year’s AFC Asian Cup, a tournament involving 24 nations. Indonesian media were flush with relieved reports after President Widodo tweeted that FIFA had confirmed Indonesia would still host next year’s World Cup. Perhaps the fact that Indonesia is eager to host international sporting events will enable a long-overdue and comprehensive police reform in the wake of Kanjuruhan?
Indonesia certainly pins great hopes on its footballing future. Launching the official emblem of the FIFA U-20 World Cup on the country’s day of independence, the president of its footballing association, Mochamad Iriawan, said that “Indonesian football is ready to rise and look stunning on the world stage”. This statement vividly illustrates that the hosting of sports events is tied to Indonesia’s nation-building project and a quest for international recognition. But, less than two weeks later, the Kanjuruhan disaster called this vision of the World Cup as a public relations bonanza into question.
The disaster clearly exposed the problematic policing culture in Southeast Asia’s most populous country. Comprehensive reforms have proved elusive and police brutality is a familiar reality to many Indonesians. Indeed, Kanjuruhan is far from the only recent example of heavy-handed policing, with 2019 identified as a turning point in the use of tear gas by police. In 2020, for example, a series of demonstrations protesting the so-called Omnibus Law saw accusations of excessive use of force by police. Then, the Indonesian Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence received around 1500 complaints of police brutality, while the Alliance of Independent Journalists reported that seven journalists were attacked by police. After the more recent Kanjuruhan stadium disaster, banners and graffiti calling for a thorough investigation (usut tuntas) were put up across Malang and other cities. Similar calls have accompanied previous incidents involving accusations of excessive police force or misconduct, but only rarely have there been indictments or trials over the alleged use of excessive force by police.
Part of the challenge is that the Indonesian national police force (or Polri) is a powerful national institution: a largely self-governing body with little civilian oversight that benefits from a growing budget. In 2022, the total national police budget more than doubled since 2013. The ballooning police budget includes millions spent on tear gas, batons, and other riot gear. At the same time, the police have faced a string of scandals, including one of the worst cases of police corruption in recent Indonesian history. In this case, Nopryansyah Yosua Hutabarat, a 27-year-old bodyguard and driver of the Head of Internal Affairs for the Indonesian national police, Ferdy Sambo, was found dead at his boss’ home. Initially depicted as an accidental shooting, the death sparked widespread rumours of a police cover-up, and Sambo’s wife and three of their staff were eventually arrested for murder. Against this backdrop, the Indonesian police force has been described by experts as “broken” and “deeply politicized”, here.
So far, the way the police have dealt with the footballing tragedy follows a familiar pattern. There is a tendency to blame “anarchic” football supporters for the deadly outcome. East Java’s Police Chief defended the use of tear gas as a necessary response to a riot in which the lives of security personnel were at risk. Indeed, two police officers tragically lost their lives. However, an investigation by Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights concluded that the tear gas caused panic that triggered the deadly stampede. Although the East Java Police Chief has been dismissed, senior officials have admitted only limited responsibility for the disaster. At a press conference at the Indonesian police headquarters on October 10th, a spokesperson claimed that tear gas was not deadly and that it merely caused temporary irritation to eyes, skin, and lungs, citing scientific studies to back up these claims. This response is, unfortunately, symptomatic of how the police have attempted to minimize responsibility for the disaster.
Kanjuruhan has, however, opened a debate on police violence and accountability in Indonesia. It has also brought the management of the Indonesian Football Association (PSSI) under scrutiny, particularly about safety. Given that the association’s president is a former high-ranking police officer, many observers have asked why Mochamad Iriawan failed to convey the FIFA ban on tear gas to police and personnel in charge of stadium security. At the same time, given the forces opposing police reform in Indonesia, it remains to be seen whether the renewed pressure for action in the wake of Kanjuruhan will be enough to spur lasting change.