The onslaught on Indonesia focuses on the police

The rush at Indonesia’s stadium, which has claimed 131 lives, has sparked fury at the country’s police, who critics have long accused of using excessive force.

Police, who dubbed Saturday night’s unrest a “riot,” said they tried to force supporters to return to the stands and fired tear gas after they encroached on the pitch.

But survivors – who had described police brandishing batons and firing tear gas at helpless spectators – accused them of overreacting, leading to a crush that became one of the deadliest disasters in football history.

Indonesian police, along with the military, have been involved for decades in quelling dissent, quelling unrest, crushing radical Islamist groups and entrenching the government’s bloody fight against separatists in Papua, Aceh and East Timor.

Since the fall of the Indonesian military dictatorship under Suharto in the late 1990s, the police have gained power as a state security institution.

Data verified by AFP shows a heavily armed force funded with hundreds of millions of dollars in tactical preparedness equipment since Joko Widodo rose to the presidency in 2014.

Spending on tactical crowd control equipment — batons, tear gas, gas masks, shields and vehicles — has skyrocketed in recent years, according to Andri Prasetiyo, a researcher at NGO Trend Asia who analyzes government purchases.

They’ve spent nearly a quarter billion dollars in less than a decade, he said, to outfit officers who experts say often use excessive force that almost always goes with impunity.

In 2014, the national police spent $6 million on tear gas. In 2022, that number rose to $10 million. Meanwhile, more than $68 million has been spent on tear gas procurement.

In East Java, where the scene of the tragedy is in the city of Malang, police spent $3.2 million on batons in January 2022 alone.

“They are using our tax money to kill us,” Prasetiyo said.

The nine elite officers who were suspended after the incident remain under investigation and are from a unit notorious for its aggressive crowd control tactics.

All are commanders of the Mobile Brigade Corps, or Brimob, a unit that acts as a paramilitary special forces unit for the Indonesian Police.

Since Widodo’s election, they’ve been used to crush government opponents, activists say. Since then, their coffers have been hit hard to militarize the troops.

“In the past, the special forces were the most brutal force in the military. I think they (Brimob) are now becoming better known as a special forces unit of the military,” said Usman Hamid, director of Amnesty International Indonesia.

“They are used as a stick.”

A spokesman for the national police was not immediately available for comment.

– Public awareness –

While Saturday’s stampede seemed to have little to do with politics, a society’s displeasure with its leaders can often be heard in the football stands, and some Arema FC fans berated the police as the chaos began.

The Indonesian Commission for Disappeared and Victims of Violence (Kontras) recorded 677 incidents of police violence between July 2021 and June this year, in which 59 people died and 928 were injured.

Such incidents increased in the years leading up to the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2018-2019, Kontras recorded 643 incidents of violence. In the following year, it recorded 921 cases.

At least 10 protesters were unlawfully killed, most by gunfire, in post-election unrest in 2019 in cases human rights groups say have not been brought to justice.

“Police feel they are above the law and can do whatever they see fit,” Ardi Manto Adiputra, deputy director of human rights group Imparsial, told AFP.

– ‘Not fair or just’ –

Many Indonesians fear that this cycle of violence will never end without punishment for the officers.

A major problem with bringing them to justice is the lack of oversight inside or outside the force and the close ties between the police and the government, Kontras coordinator Fatia Maulidiyanti told AFP.

Experts say Widodo helped place police allies in key positions after the force supported his recent election campaign, and the officers’ presence within Indonesia’s elite blurs the lines.

It means little action is taken against officials who commit suspected crimes, Maulidiyanti said.

“The sanctions against guilty officials are not fair or just. They are rarely brought before the criminal court,” she said.

Transparency International ranks the national police as one of Indonesia’s most corrupt institutions.

Mochamad Iriawan, the President of the Indonesia Football Federation – who has declined to criticize the police over the stampede – is Jakarta’s former police chief.

The country’s intelligence chief was deputy to the national police force.

And the head of the country’s anti-graft commission was the chief of the National Police Security Agency.

“If we don’t do anything, I think Indonesia will become a police state,” Amnesty International’s Hamid said.