Written by: Marija Markovic
October 1, 2022: What was supposed to be a regular rival soccer match between Indonesia’s Arema FC and Persebaya Surabaya resulted in a stampede, causing at least 131 deaths and more than 400 injuries. As fans stormed the field post-match, police retaliated and used tear gas and shields in an attempt to control the chaos. Videos were posted on a number of platforms online, capturing the violent and angry interactions between the force and civilians. Bodies were scattered from the stadium all the way through the exits, many dying or suffering from the physical effects of tear gas exposure and fighting. The International Federation of Football Association (FIFA) has guidelines implemented for when crowds go out of control, one of them being a ban of “crowd control gas.” It is clear that the Indonesian force broke that rule. What is now one of the Indonesian league’s deadliest incidents, an investigation has been launched into the police force, which is already distrusted by much of the population.
Looking at this unfortunate incident, there are two things that are able to be broken down: Indonesia’s dangerous soccer culture and historically controversial policing.
The Indonesian soccer league is known to encompass one of the most dangerous and passionate fan bases in the world. The fans have been globally diagnosed with “football hooliganism,” an official term many use to elucidate the destructive behaviors in which fans partake at soccer events. These “hooligans” also exist in other cultures where soccer is extremely popular, such as England, Argentina, and Spain. However, the main critique of the Indonesian league is the high number of deaths associated with the game. Since 2012, 74 fans in Indonesia have died as a result of soccer-associated events.
Australia’s Foreign Correspondent conducted a program on the Indonesian soccer culture in 2019, where moments of the soccer environment in the country were recorded and captured for public speculation. There were many different observations from the program:
1) Many clubs in the country have a “commander” who leads the fans in an army-like manner to the games. These fans claim to be die-hards, who view other clubs’ fans as enemies. This soccer fanaticism, which presents itself in a slightly militarized manner, has often resulted in mobs.
2) Many fans also bring flares to the games, waving them around and eventually throwing them on the field to convey reactions, whether it be to celebrate a goal or to disagree with a call by the referee. They chant fervently, in a manner that expresses their genuine devotion to the club. The fans are clearly engaged with the game on another level. Occasionally, police officers utilize glass shields to cope with the fans’ conditions. It is also not uncommon for the games to be played with no live audience, due to worries of intense fan behavior.
Spectators have described the soccer experience in Indonesia as a graveyard, as a chronic disease, and not as entertainment or passion, something a sport should typically bring to its fans. However, not every game in the Indonesian league has brought violence or death. The passion within their fan bases can be admirable, but the intensity still remains much the same.
When examining Indonesia’s police force, which is much more disputed, much of their history can be traced back to the government, both old and new. The current Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo is known for having a secure relationship with his police force. He heavily invests in police funding and tends to turn to the force for assistance in volatile situations, leading to accusations of human rights violations and violence. Likewise, the force is funded and directed by the central government.
Indonesia has had a fierce police presence for decades, but many of their recent police-related incidents stem back to Suharto. From 1968 to 1998, Suharto, a former army officer that many referred to as Indonesia’s “military dictator,” led a highly aggressive authoritarian style regime after overthrowing previous president Sukarto. One hallmark of Suharto’s presidency was the presence of a strong and active military complex. A former army officer himself, his desire for increased militarization was not surprising. When Suharto resigned from the presidency, the force gained independence from the government in 2002 and previous military power transitioned to the police in response to widespread protest.
Throughout both Suharto’s and Widodo’s presidencies, there have been many instances of violence from the Indonesian police and militia. In these instances lie many similarities. On July 27, 1996, military troops armed with tear gas, batons, and shields attacked a group of protesters who were angry over a re-election process that was occurring at the time, resulting in five deaths, 149 injured, and 74 people missing. In 2019, hundreds of civilians were injured and six were killed after heated protests erupted over the re-election of Widodo. Police were not permitted to use ammunition or any type of force towards the civilians during this time; however, they used tear gas in an attempt to split apart the protestors and the fighting. This resulted in a nationwide social media restriction, further fueling the protests. In 2020, Indonesian citizens protested over strict coronavirus measures, resulting in police officers again unleashing tear gas to break up the demonstrations. Earlier this year in April, police again used tear gas against peaceful student protesters in front of the parliament who were advocating for lower cooking oil prices and who were also expressing irritation at Widodo’s presidency being unreasonably extended. It is therefore notable that both the Indonesian military and police turn to and have turned to batons, tear gas, and shields when needing to deal with civil unrest. And who provides them with these weapons? The government.
Despite civilians getting into heated situations with one another, it should never come to death or the use of weapons from the force. In 2019, Human Rights Watch compiled a list of human rights violations by the Indonesian government, which includes nine sections that each detail various infractions within that category, such as freedom of religion, rights of indigenous peoples, and more. There have been a countless number of incidents that have occurred since, so an updated list would only further highlight that the Indonesian government does not have the cleanest record with human rights.
When incorporating these two factors in the stampede situation, one may come to wonder what the underlying problem actually is. Does it lie systemically in Indonesia’s government? Is it a human rights problem? Or is it just a case of an intense fandom gone wrong? Though it is likely a combination of all of these reasons, one thing is clear: the Indonesian government and its police force have a long fomented relationship whose strength has become brutish and unreasonable all too many times.