Indonesia’s untouchables stay that way

Mar 24, 2023
Indonesian Police personnel.

The outcome of a massive police-caused tragedy on Indonesia’s Java Island got less media coverage than a silly white woman’s argument with a brown cop in Bali.

The ‘lady’ didn’t like being stopped for riding a motorbike bare-headed, though no helmet law is needed for Indonesian traffic – just a want to live. A story not worth a spit in the Kuta sand though some reckon – with no proof – that foreigners get targeted for shake-downs.

There are alarming police yarns worth reporting from the nation next door, though they need more than a cut n’ paste grab from social media. Police corruption and violence are democracy-threatening issues though not in this case.

The policeman didn’t gun down the blockhead while muttering racist curses or kneel on her neck. That would have been news, for Indonesia is not the US.

Meanwhile, 300 km to the west was a story worth splashing: An astonishingly flawed court verdict revealing protectors as untouchables, ripping-raw the scabs of 135 families, turning their grief to fury.

That’s the number of victims crushed to death in a crowd stampede at Malang’s Kanjuruhan soccer stadium on 1 October last year. More than half were under 19 and included 42 women. More than 580 were injured.

It was the second deadliest disaster in the history of international association football yet seems to have been sunk by subs. In 1964 a similar event in Peru took 328 lives. In both cases, the root cause was disorderly police firing tear gas.

The Fédération Internationale de Football Association’s Stadium Safety and Security Regulations are clear: ‘No firearms or crowd control gas shall be carried or used.’ Indonesia’s been a FIFA member since 1952.

Three days after the deaths nine officers were dismissed or whisked off to desk jobs in Jakarta. President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo, who’s responsible for the force, ordered the East Java Police chief to be replaced by Inspector General Teddy Minahasa Putra. He lasted only four days before being arrested on charges of trafficking five kilos of crystal meth.

Jokowi visited the stadium smothered in angry graffiti referencing ‘pigs’, met soccer officials, ordered the stands built in 1997 destroyed and rebuilt, then told Reuters: ‘We agreed to thoroughly transform Indonesian soccer. Every aspect of preparation…needs to be based on FIFA standards.’

Although overcrowding of the 42,450-seat stadium was a factor, the key issue was police crowd-control tactics: Gas = panic = deaths. This awkward equation was booted aside by focusing on the facilities.

Compensation to the victims’ families has reportedly been paid – the equivalent of AUD 1,000 for a death, and 500 for an injury.

Inquiries were opened and trials started in the East Java capital Surabaya. These concluded while Australian attention was focused on a trite event in a Bali street.

Six policemen and security officials involved in the Kanjuruhan catastrophe were charged. One cop has been jailed for 18 months, one game official to the same time, and another to one year. The others were acquitted for ‘lack of evidence’. This is despite scores of videos shot from multiple angles showing gas grenades fired into the stands, and eye-witness accounts.

‘The police officers who were prosecuted were only the actors in the field’, said Andi Rezaldy of the Indonesian Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras), which has posted a string of alleged irregularities in the trial.

Amnesty International Indonesia’s Usman Hamid added: ‘The authorities are once again failing to provide justice to victims of excessive force in Indonesia, despite vows in the aftermath of the disaster to hold those responsible to account.

‘There’s a deeply entrenched and broad pattern of violence and abuse of power by Indonesian security forces.’

A separate but germane case involved Ferdy Sambo, former head of Indonesia’s Police Internal Affairs department. Last month he was sentenced to death for the 2022 murder of his aide-de-camp Nofriansyah Yosua Hutabarat, 27, in the two-star general’s house.

Judge Wahyu Imam Santoso said Sambo had ordered a bodyguard to shoot Hutabarat before donning gloves, firing more shots into the victim and then wiping all CCTV footage.

In court Sambo alleged his wife Putri Candrawathi (who got 20 years) had been sexually assaulted by the victim. The judge rejected this claim: ‘The defendant embarrassed Indonesia’s police force both at home and internationally, and involved other members of the police force in his crime.’ These totalled 97.

We still don’t know the motive though claims made during proceedings allege ‘Kaiser Sambo’ headed an online gambling consortium and someone was about to blow a whistle. Sambo is unlikely to be executed; his mates who tried to disrupt the trial will ensure that never happens.

Where’s the link between Kanjuruhan and the Sambo cases? ‘They speak to the sheer depth of police impunity,’ commented Melbourne University’s Dr Jacqui Baker in a scathing condemnation of the relationship between police and political elites.

Her accessible paper should be pre-departure reading for anyone planning an investment or long stay requiring police approval, and included in DFAT travel warnings. She writes:

‘Police impunity is the prize in a long-standing pact with political elites who have no interest in an accountable law enforcement system that upholds a democratic rule of law.

‘Why would they? A corrupt police force is the perfect accompaniment to the existing corrupt political party system, an easily harnessed instrument to silence critics, repress opposition, shut down rival party slush funds and bring potential challengers into the fold.’

Filling copy space with a yawn about a minor traffic breach in Bali when there are great wrongs in Indonesian law enforcement erodes a profession that used to be about holding wrongdoers to account.

‘The chances of eradicating corruption among police is slim without a push from civil society,’ wrote Indonesian law lecturer Fachrizal Afandi. That sounds like a job for journos who believe international exposure and shaming brings reform.

But hey, it’s easier filching social media trash than reporting our neighbour’s defects seriously.

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