Beware Indonesia’s Quiet Drug War

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Beware Indonesia’s Quiet Drug War

Despite complications and concerns, the Jokowi government’s campaign has continued.

In Indonesia, a quiet war on drugs has continued to be waged over the last year. In part inspired by the Philippines’ efforts to eradicate the narcotics trade, the extrajudicial killing death toll has jumped four-fold in 2017, but a recent history of state-sanctioned murders is complicating efforts.

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has long been a vocal supporter of tough measures to tackle drug use in Indonesia. Shortly after his inauguration in late 2014, he announced the return of executions of convicts sentenced to the death penalty, which had been subject to an unofficial moratorium since 2008 under previous President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

While executions have again been quietly delayed, Jokowi’s tough stance in the face of local and international pressure to commute sentences to life imprisonment demonstrated both his personal view as well as the huge amount of support among the electorate for ending the perceived drug crisis. Changes to the law have been tipped following outcry from activists and lawmakers, which would see the possibility for death sentences to be commuted to life imprisonment after serving ten years in an effort to save reformed prisoners. But any changes would take years to come into effect and face the possibility of being seen as soft on crime.

This view is echoed by many in the government and law enforcement, not least of all the chief of the National Narcotics Agency (BNN), Comr. Gen. Budi Waseso, whose novel ideas have made headlines. In November 2015, Waseso embarrassed the government after suggesting drug convicts be sent to one of Indonesia’s thousands of uninhabited islands, where crocodiles, tigers, and piranhas would presumably keep the prisoners under control. The Hollywood-esque plans were never under serious consideration, but the next year offered another source of inspiration.

The election of longtime Davao City mayor Rodrigo Duterte as president of the Philippines thrust his drug crusade into the spotlight and also sparked a wider conversation about the extent to which drug wars in the region were experiencing some cross-pollination. While reports of thousands dying in the Philippine streets at the hands of vigilantes and overreaching police shocked human rights activists across the world, for Indonesia’s law enforcement it appeared to offer new policy ideas, with officials at times making comparisons between the cases.

By July 2017, Jokowi appeared to have been fully swayed or at least inspired by Duterte’s cause, calling for the extrajudicial killing of suspected drug traffickers in the streets. “Be firm, especially to foreign drug dealers who enter the country and resist arrest. Shoot them because we indeed are in a narcotics emergency position now,” Jokowi said in July, according to a Reuters report, in remarks that could just as easily have come from Duterte.

In December, Waseso said the policy had resulted in the deaths of 79 suspects, including ten foreigners, in 2017. Human Rights Watch condemned the policy, which has seen the death toll jump from 14 the year before. These extrajudicial killings are expected to continue this year, with BNN announcing investigations into dozens of nightclubs and bars in Jakarta.

Despite Duterte’s war on drugs death toll surpassing that of the martial law era under dictator Ferdinand Marcos within the first year, the president still enjoys widespread support for the campaign. That is not guaranteed in Indonesia, where the deaths have been compared to the Petrus killings of the 1980s. From the early to mid-1980s under dictator Suharto, thousands of suspects were killed by vigilantes and law enforcement and then placed in busy areas to serve as a warning to the wider community. The extent of the deaths and involvement with law enforcement and government officials remains murky and the era continues to be one of the darkest points of Indonesia’s 20th century history.

The comparison is certainly apt in some sense, particularly with the Petrus saga treated as a punch line during bilateral meetings. Indonesian Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Wiranto told local media that on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in April, Duterte told Jokowi his war on drugs had been “inspired” by the Petrus killings.

“Apparently, Petrus, which in Indonesia is thought of as an unresolved case of past human rights abuse, has become an example in [the Philippines],” Wiranto added. His apparent bemusement is further evidence that while the government prioritizes the so-called drug crisis, it will not come at the cost of further eroding confidence in the government.