The Debate | Opinion

The Malang Tragedy: What It Reveals About Indonesian Politics

The recent tragedy at Kanjuruhan Stadium reflects a much larger question of power and accountability.

The Malang Tragedy: What It Reveals About Indonesian Politics

A pair of sneakers sit trampled in the stands of Kanjuruhan Stadium following a deadly soccer match stampede in Malang, East Java, Indonesia, Sunday, Oct. 2, 2022.

Credit: AP Photo/Hendra Permana, File

It happened on a Saturday night. Crowds were gathering in a narrow alley in Itaewon, a popular neon-lit nightlife district in Seoul, when suddenly people started pushing against each other. Almost inexplicably, a celebration had turned into a nightmarish stampede. When it finally came to an end, Korea and the rest of the world were shocked to discover over 150 festivalgoers celebrating Halloween had lost their lives while scores of other young people were rushed to hospitals to seek treatment for serious and in many cases life-threatening injuries.

Exactly one month earlier a similar tragedy unfolded in my own country, Indonesia, where, on a Saturday evening in the East Javanese city of Malang, an excited crowd of soccer fans was gathered in Kanjuruhan Stadium. In a serious breach of FIFA regulations on crowd control, police fired tear gas to disperse a rowdy group of fans fighting on the pitch and inexplicably started firing toward tens of thousands of spectators in the stands. With the entire stadium in a state of panic, suddenly a stampede towards the exits occurred. Once again, security forces had failed to follow league regulations that all exit doors must be unlocked during matches. The stampede led to a crush in which over 130 people suffocated or were trampled to death, including 32 children. Scores more were seriously injured. In the end, it turned out to be the second-worst disaster in soccer history, since a crush in Peru in 1964 that killed more than 300.

The Indonesian public was understandably upset with the police and its unprofessional handling of angry fans. Not only were security officers at fault for failing to follow regulations, but they were also seen using excess force. According to eyewitnesses and footage of the scene, officers responded to the unruly crowd on the pitch by kicking and hitting fans with batons, pushing them back into the stands where many would die of asphyxiation after tear gas was fired. Witnesses were also understandably upset when they saw officers standing by and refusing to help victims.

How countries handle these kinds of tragedies tells us a lot about their political cultures. In illiberal and authoritarian-leaning states such as Indonesia, elites are rarely held fully accountable for their actions, even when they are clearly in the wrong.

In stark contrast in countries with a strong tradition of democracy, such as in South Korea, politicians, government officials, and the security apparatus are more often than not held accountable. Even presidents and powerful owners of Korean conglomerates, or chaebol, have served lengthy prison terms for corruption. Nobody is above the law.

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After the Halloween crush, something happened that one would never see in Indonesia: apologies and a call for action to prevent similar incidents from happening again. Korean National Police Chief Yoon Hee-keun promptly issued his apologies to the public and said he felt “limitless responsibility for public safety” over what happened. Other high-ranking officials followed suit: South Korea’s interior minister, emergency office chief, and the head of a ward office that includes the Itaewon neighborhood all offered their apologies. Finally, Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol admitted that his country needs more effective crowd control management and called for the use of drones and other technologies in the future.

In Indonesia, only East Java Police Chief Nico Afinta apologized. Other senior government officials offered their condolences, yet Indonesians are still waiting to see if the government will do more than just talk. The national human rights commission has held investigations and concluded that most of the deaths at the Kanjuruhan stadium resulted from asphyxiation after exposure to tear gas. So far, six people, including officers and organizers, have been detained and face criminal charges. Yet nobody is expecting high-ranking officials with command authority to be held fully accountable or for justice to be served. Indeed, the government has set up a fact-finding team to investigate the incident, though it is worth noting the team includes members of the police and military.

Neither is anyone holding high hopes that the president and his cabinet will do what is obviously necessary: to undertake a deep reform of the Indonesian National Police, an institution that is widely known for its deadly tactics and use of excess force, more often than not with impunity, and which has a long-standing reputation for being corrupt throughout its rank and file.

To his credit, National Police Chief Listyo Sigit Prabowo is known as a decent man and harbors ambitions for reform. Unfortunately, his job is made exceedingly difficult by a group of old-school generals involved in illicit businesses who have proven to be potent in resisting change.

In spite of numerous instances of the unwarranted use of deadly force in the past, the police have almost never been held accountable. At the same time, for decades there has been a clear absence of political will for meaningful reform. Rather, the national police have been rewarded with a huge and ever-increasing budget. This year’s budget of $7.2 billion is more than is being spent on essential public services such as those provided by the ministries of health and education.

The police are not only being rewarded financially for its unprofessional and often deadly tactics in the field, but they are also not receiving the training they need to improve themselves. Most of the national police budget is spent on procurement of equipment such as tear gas and machine guns rather than on training. And the training that officers receive, for example in China for fighting cybercrime, does nothing to teach officers in critical areas such as crowd control.

Unfortunately, the Malang tragedy, along with the underlying and persistent problems with its national police force, reflects a much larger issue facing contemporary Indonesia. A militaristic police force often goes hand-in-hand with illiberal regimes, and so it does in the case of Indonesia, which has undergone a steady slide towards semi-authoritarianism in recent years. If Indonesia’s future leaders want to be respected once again as a democracy within the international community, then they must show that nobody is above the law, including the police.