The Indonesian Police’s Obsession with Tear Gas

Illustration of baby monster

The Indonesian Police deploys their troops as security forces in most civil society gatherings: from demonstrations to football matches. To control the crowd, they often use an excessive amount of tear gas which leads to dangerous situations resulting in high numbers of victims and deaths.

Trigger warning: Police brutality

It’s still vivid in Rinta’s mind how abruptly the Kanjuruhan Stadium transformed from a peaceful venue of a football match between Arema and Persebaya into a massive tear gas firing range that killed at least 135 people. Rinta was one of the 42 thousand people that attended the match in early October.

For Rinta, 27, who works full time for a private company in Surabaya, watching Arema on the weekend was a way to release her stress. Rinta has been a regular attendee of her favorite team’s matches since she was still a student. At times, she would be accompanied by her friends or family members. 

“I watched the match with one of my friends. It was just she and I, the two of us. We intended to enjoy the weekend,” Rinta recalled. 

Rinta and her friend sat at the top row of the VIP seats, a fairly safe spot from the tear gas attack later that day. The spot also provided a clear view for them to witness how the riot broke out: a supporter running into the field; the cops chasing him and then going violent against the crowd; the cops firing tear gas toward the field and the audience on the tribune; people running around in panic trying to escape the suffocating fog of tear gas; people falling down amidst a stampede in their attempt to flee the scene; the rising tear gas smoke filling in every corner of the stadium. 

“I was confused, because I thought the condition [of the match] was amicable, but then all of a sudden [everything changed],” she said. 

Rinta did not dare move away. She sat quietly, witnessing the tragedy unfold from her seat until the riot subsided. That was around half past midnight.

There were no tear gas canisters fired directly at Rinta, but she was nonetheless exposed to the residual lachrymatory agent around her.

The incident left her traumatised. She has grown too anxious to come to any football matches. She could hardly believe how some of the people she witnessed falling down during the stampede were now dead.

Some of the tear gas she inhaled also left her lungs riddled with spots. When she came home, she suffered from high temperature and trouble breathing. Rinta was hospitalised for five days afterwards.

Kanjuruhan Illustration
Artwork by Raphaela Vannya.

Although the use of tear gas inside the stadium is prohibited by the international football regulator FIFA, its usage remains rampant at Indonesia’s stadiums. Incidents include the one in Kanjuruhan (2018), Bantul (2018), Jakarta (2019, and Yogyakarta (2016). The death of football spectators due to tear gas attacks by the police is nothing new in Indonesia. 

The Kanjuruhan Tragedy is thus the consequence of the ongoing power abuse by the police that has been normalised for years, according to Asfinawati, lecturer of Jentera Law School.

“The Kanjuruhan Tragedy happened because there has been the normalisation of power abuse [via the use of tear gas]. If the police had not been supplied with such a massive amount of tear gas, we would not have had such a tragedy,” she said.

“They were supplied with an amount massive enough to fill a place that big for that many people. I think it is because they are used to [abusing tear gas].”

When asked about this, Indonesian Police Head of Public Relations, Dedi Prasetyo, said that the Indonesian National Police has made a new regulation about the safety and security of football matches that are in accordance with FIFA regulations.

“[The bill] has already been submitted to the Ministry of Law and Human Rights. We just need the Minister to sign it,” Dedi said.

Fear of Crowds

Even today, there are no official records about the use of tear gas by the police. However, national media outlet Jurno took note that there have been at least 67 incidents during the administration of President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) where the officers utilised tear gas for crowd control. The chemical weapon is most often used against crowds in protests (28 incidents), brawls (14 incidents), and football matches (11 incidents). Tear gas is also often used for offensive eviction efforts, as was the cases in Banggai, Bandung, and Jakarta.

The news cycles of the Kanjuruhan Tragedy reminds Santi (47) and Endah (39) of the use of tear gas in the Pancoran land conflict in Jakarta on March 17th and 18th last year. The incident resulted in injuries of 23 people, some suffering from suffocation.

Although it has been a year, the fear still haunts them. 

“When I saw the news on Kanjuruhan, I totally understood why people died there. Even when [the tear gas attack] happened to us in the open air, we were still suffocated,” said the woman called Mamih Santi.

Endah also still remembered how her neighbors and child ran in panic after being exposed to tear gas at the centre of their housing complex, which was almost seized amidst the pandemic.

“My child was exposed to the tear gas and was vomiting afterwards. When I looked for oxygen around the community playgroup building area, I realized that the air there has also been contaminated with tear gas,” Endah said.

“Now we are worried if this incident will happen again. We fear the Public Order Enforcers (Satpol PP), the authorities. We fear they might assault us with fire or other attacks during our sleep.”

That day, tear gas pushed back the residents fighting for their place to live. A number of children living in the area were exposed to the lachrymatory agent. After the incident, some of the residents decided to move out.

The use of tear gas amid a housing area targeting children, as what happened to Endah’s child, is nothing new. A five-month-old baby was rushed to a hospital after a tear gas attack in Ternate. The Kanjuruhan Tragedy also killed a three-year-old toddler. Still, to this day, there has been no official record about the number of child victims due to tear gas abuse. 

Not only targeting civilians and children, one incident in 2019 saw police officers firing tear gas at an ambulance during a demonstration. The Indonesian National Police claimed the news was an attempt to provoke anti-police sentiments on social media.

Besides attacking vulnerable groups, the Indonesian National Police have also labeled certain groups as “dangerous”, such as the anarcho activists. They specifically target movements indicated as initiated by anarcho groups for attacks by tear gas, as what had happened in Bandung

Tear gas illustration
Artwork by Raphaela Vannya.

A Silver Bullet Against Democracy

Tear gas is often used as the primary weapon to disperse protest crowds, as what happened in protests of Bawaslu (2019), Reformasi Dikorupsi (2019), and Omnibus Law (2020). Riots following these protests resulted in casualties. 

The Reformasi Dikorupsi protest happened in several cities in Indonesia and became one of the biggest protests in the post-1998 Reformation era. The protests were ignited by policies of Jokowi’s administration that were deemed unjust and anti-democratic.

Lini Zurlia (35) was the person in charge of managing and commanding the various groups of protestors—students, labourers, civilians, and indigenous peoples—for Reformasi Dikorupsi. On top of a commando car, she stood and made a speech in front of the House of Representatives in Jakarta on one afternoon in September 2019.

At around 4 pm, the Police started firing water cannons to disperse the masses. Some of started to run, but most stayed in their position. 

“Suddenly, at around 4.30, [the police] fired tear gas to the front of the House,” Lini recalled. 

Lini and the other organisers of the protest started advising the protesters to wear protective goggles and masks. However, before she could wear her mask, a tear gas grenade canister fell by her feet. It didn’t take long for her to suffocate.

“It burned my eyes, I could not breathe. My goggles were off, and I was panicking and suffocated. That was it. Everything was blurry [afterwards],” she said.

Later that evening, Lini woke up in a hospital with other protesters. Although she had not yet fully recovered, Lini chose to go home instead of being administered as an inpatient. This was because a number of police officers were coming over to the bedridden protestors to take their photos and IDs.

According to the Advocacy Team for Democracy (TAUD), there were at least 390 reports of police brutality in Jakarta and surrounding areas. Clashes with the police in various protests throughout 2019 have resulted in over 50 casualties.

“I was still reeling from the impact years after the incident. […] I feel that, psychologically, the fear mongering method was successful in keeping [the people] silent. Effectively, the biggest impact was self-censorship,” Lini explained.

While Lini was unconscious after the tear gas attack, photojournalist Bhagavad Sambadha (35) was on duty taking pictures for the media company he worked for. That day, Bhaga was kept safe from the impacts of the tear gas by protective goggles and a 3M gas mask. 

“I was able to breathe well and kept my vision [in the midst of the tear gas attack]. I learned from [the Bawaslu protest in] May. In May, I didn’t even wear a helmet. This time, I wore [a complete set of protective gears],” he said. 

Bhaga positioned himself at a strategic place, crouching and taking pictures behind a traffic light. Then, from his zoom lens, Bhaga saw a Police officer was aiming to fire a cluster tear gas grenade in the direction of his head.

“The cluster kind fragments when fired. It has light and sound [fragments]. It’s designed to make you panic. There would be a loud bang to make the target panic. And the light, in the evening it can really make you blind. But at the time the sun was still out, so I didn’t really feel much impact from it,” said Bhaga.

Bhaga kept taking pictures until one of the cluster tear gas grenades exploded right above his head.

“The fragment fell on me and set off right at my feet. At that point, I couldn’t hear anything, I couldn’t see anything, just a ringing sound. When I opened my eyes, my legs were covered in blood, my pants were torn,” he said.

The memory was imprinted on his body. He did not even realise until his office deployed him to cover a protest. Amidst the crowd, instead of taking pictures, he would find his arms shaking and his body in cold sweat. It was as if his body rejected the idea of being in a protest. 

“I have spent years of my life taking pictures. My body used to be okay. Now I can’t feel any peace of mind. I can’t take pictures when my body keeps asking me to leave. I thought, ‘Am I really losing my ability to take pictures of protests?’”

The use of tear gas often violates the internal policy of the Indonesian National Police. Prior to firing tear gas, police officers must first warn the crowd. Second, they must aim high, never directly at the crowd. From every source that New Naratif interviewed, nobody has ever heard any prior warnings. Moreover, the tear gas grenades were always aimed directly at the crowd.

Bhaga also questions the deployment of the anti-riot team or mobile brigade squad, troops equipped with arms and tear gas, to handle protests.

“They would wear black uniforms. They would wear helmets with tinted glass that obscure their faces. No names, no detachment details, nothing. They hide behind anonymity, effectively making them immune from accountability. And when they are in their robot gears, wearing black from head to toe, they would stop seeing us as fellow human beings,” Bhaga said. 

“Just imagine, you’re deployed to handle a student protest, but you’re wearing all black, your face is hidden, and you’re completely armed. […] You might as well be going to war,” he added.

The police team in their uniform
The police team in their uniform when they were deployed to control the protest crowd in Bawaslu, Jakarta, in May 2019. Source: Private documentation by Bhagavad Sambadha.

For Bhaga, the authorisation of the police force to carry large amounts of tear gas to handle protests must be revoked. Meanwhile, Head of Indonesia Association of Legal Aid and Human Rights (PBHI) Julius Ibrani said that the approach used by the police to handle civilian unions is “warlike” instead of protective.

“That is the template now. Everytime they see a crowd of people, the team deployed are those who can attack, wound, and maim,” Julius said.

Julius claims that such things keep happening because the government and the police perceive crowds voicing their aspiration to be a threat to the nation’s sovereignty.

“The state sees crowds as threats against the country, when they should know better that the right to assembly is a human right,” he said.

New Naratif tried to confirm the issue of tear gas use and abuse outside of the stadium, but up to the time this article is published, the writer has yet to receive any reply from Dedi Prasetyo as the spokesperson for the Indonesian National Police.

Increase of Brutality in Jokowi’s Era

The usage of tear gas has increased since the Jokowi era. His administration tends to approach civil society issues, including protests, with excessive usage of police power.

“The escalation [of tear gas usage] happened during Jokowi’s terms in office as President of Indonesia. The targets are mostly the labour groups, activists, and students,” Julius said.

This was also reflected in the significant rise in tear gas equipment purchases in Jokowi’s administration, which in 2017 reached IDR 327.7 billion, compared to 2014 (IDR 98,7 billion) or 2013 (IDR 6 billion). According to Deputy Head of National Committee of Human Rights, Amiruddin Al Rahab, the increasing use of tear gas was due to the heat in the political climate of the country.

“On the one hand, there is a significant escalation in political participation. On the other hand, the police face pressure to handle a situation where public order must be kept […] And so the police turn to tools when facing these situations, one of which is the tear gas,” Amiruddin said.

A significant increase of protests indeed happened by the end of the first term throughout the beginning of the second term of Jokowi’s administration. Some of the protests, such as Reformasi Dikorupsi (2019) and Omnibus Law (2020) criticized the policy officiated in Jokowi’s era.

It was during those times that the number of casualties of police brutality escalated. According to Indonesia Legal Aid Foundation (YLBHI), at least 52 people lost their lives in the protests of 2019. 33 of those deaths happened in Wamena, Papua. Meanwhile, according to the Advocacy Team for Democracy (TAUD), 187 people were reported to have experienced police brutality during the Omnibus Law protest in August 2020.

Police brutality has also triggered sharp criticism among civilians, including in social media. Chief among them is the use of hashtags on Twitter such as #1hari1oknum (“one bad cop per day”) (for issues of problematic police officers, including repeated violence) and #PercumaLaporPolisi (“police reports are futile”) (for issues of police credibility).

The normalisation of police brutality, including the abuse of tear gas, has also been criticised by independent media outlet Patron. The criticism is presented in the form of a video montage of police brutality titled, “Permitted Violence: A Montage of Police Behavior in 2019”. 

So why are these cases allowed to happen again and again?

Despite their promises and internal regulations, the Indonesian National Police is protected behind a set of policies that guarantee impunity to its officers. Legislation No. 2/2022, for example, places the Indonesian National Police right below the President’s in terms of authority. This means that the only party capable of intervention to solve problems within the Indonesian National Police is Jokowi and nobody else.

In the last couple of years, demands to intervene and evaluate the performance of the Indonesian National Police have been expressed by many people, including a number of human rights organisations. They also urge the government to reform the Indonesian National Police institution, stating that “Police brutality shows that the problem is not individual but systemic, thanks to the culture of violence within the police institution.”

To this day, Jokowi has yet to answer these demands.

Tear gas illustration 2
Artwork by Raphaela Vannya.

According to Asfinawati, the usage of tear gas for crowd control has violated a fundamental principle of democracy in Indonesia. If Indonesia is indeed a democracy, the state must guarantee the rights of every citizen to voice out their aspirations, including via protests. If there happens to be a provocateur inside the crowd, authorities should only handle the related individual instead of dispersing and assaulting the entire crowd.

“[The abuse of tear gas by the police] has violated democracy. It harms democracy because its goal is to limit freedom of expression. Meanwhile, the essence of democracy is for people to have a right to voice their opinions. When certain opinions are banned, it’s no longer a democracy. This is serious,” Asfin said.

“Although it may seem like a simple thing—tear gas—this is related to the abuse of other instruments of power, such as beatings, arrests, and forced shavings. There is something wrong within the police as an institution, especially with their tendency to exercise power, brutality, and many more. […] Therefore, as I mentioned, we cannot separate this tear gas problem from the bigger picture of power abuse.”

What can we do?

  • Support public organisations working to monitor and criticise police brutality in Indonesia, including YLBHI, KontraS, and Imparsial
  • Let us collectively monitor the police’s performance as a public institution. You can use the already popular hashtags in social media such as #PercumaLaporPolisi or #1hari1oknum when you witness a violation done by a member of the police.
  • Join New Naratif to criticise police brutality with us in the form of articles, podcasts, comics, and video.

*Rinta’s name is in alias as per request.

Further Discussion

Transcription available here.

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