The deadly soccer match in Indonesia’s Malang City behooves the authorities to revise their crowd control procedures. The issue of toxic sub-cultures among fans should also be addressed.
The Indonesian police are in the hot seat following a deadly soccer match in Malang City, East Java on 1 October 2022 which led to the death of 131 Arema Malang supporters and injuries to 300 people. The tragedy at the Kanjuruhan Stadium is the second worst in the history of soccer. In May 1964, more than 300 people were killed following a stampede during a soccer match in Lima, the capital of Peru.
Supporters and sports enthusiasts blame the police for the use of excessive force. The police used tear gas to disperse the violent crowd in the stadium — a move which is banned by the International Federal of Association Football (FIFA). The use of tear gas triggered panic which resulted in a deadly stampede as many supporters, including 33 children, were rushed through several exit doors, suffocated by the tear gas and trampled on. Indonesia’s police headquarters have dealt with the case seriously. Three middle-ranking police officers directly responsible for the match’s security are now facing criminal charges.
The tragedy is a serious wake-up call for Indonesian police to review their crowd control procedures. They should evaluate the use of tear gas inside stadiums. The three worst tragedies in the history of world soccer — Kanjuruhan in 2022, Peru in 1964, and a 2001 incident in a Ghanaian stadium — show that the use of tear gas inside stadiums triggered panic, which later led to deadly stampedes. To avoid repeating such incidents, the use of tear gas inside stadiums must be stopped.
This matter needs urgent attention because the practice is not rare in Indonesia. Tear gas has been used at least twice in recent memory: during a top-level derby match in 2010 in Yogyakarta when PSIM Yogyakarta faced off PSS Sleman, and during a 2012 soccer match in Surabaya between Persebaya Surabaya and Persija Jakarta.
This fanaticism stems from the history of Indonesian soccer league, where players mostly represented the provinces or cities from which they hailed. Over time, club supporters built their own social identities that distinguished themselves from other groups.
In addition, the Indonesian police (Polri) need to eradicate the repressive culture in its ranks. During the fatal match, police officers were reported to have responded with excessive force. They fired tear gas into the spectator stands, kicked some of the fans and hit them with batons. A study shows that many Polri officers resort to social repression, including physical violence, to execute the orders of superiors. All these actions sought to re-establish social order. A local non-governmental organisation found that between July 2019 and June 2020, Polri officers were involved in 921 instances of violence. This resulted in the deaths of 304 people and injuries to 1,627 others. The use of excessive force in the Kanjuruhan tragedy is the result of such a culture.
An overhaul in Polri’s human resource management system is needed. Among other things, this should start from recruitment. Police in general have four major functions: crime investigation, traffic management, intelligence management, and community guidance (which includes crowd control). Polri is no different, but according to a study in 2015, 70 per cent of 300 cadets in the police academy chose to serve in crime investigation units after graduation. The cadets saw crime investigation as the most prestigious function in the police force, and community guidance as the least attractive. As a result, many of the better cadets went to work in crime investigation, leading to shortage of cadets working in community guidance.
Despite its flaws, it should be said that Polri has generally done a commendable job at ensuring safety at soccer stadiums. The Indonesian police are now better trained and have better capacity in crowd management after they separated from the Indonesian military in 1999. Also, police behaviour during crowd control has become better regulated. In 2009, the then Polri chief, General Bambang Hendarso Danuri, issued a police regulation on the use of police force. In 2010, he released police procedures that detailed the handling of “anarchic situations” where crowds fail to obey police orders. According to these procedures, police are permitted to deal with unruly crowds using their bare hands, tear gas or non-lethal devices. They can only use firearms if the crowds pose a danger to the lives of police and other people. Pending investigations by the government’s fact-finding team, police officers appear to have violated the procedures. In the Kanjuruhan match, they kicked and hit some fans with batons, although the fans did not pose threats to the lives of police officers or other people.
There is another important issue to address: club fanaticism that leads to aggressive behaviours. This fanaticism stems from the history of the Indonesian soccer league, where players mostly represented the provinces or cities from which they hailed. Over time, club supporters built their own social identities that distinguished themselves from other groups. These particular social identities developed into club fanaticism, which in turn heightened tribal (or ethnic) and geographical rivalries.
This fanaticism often leads to aggressive behaviours, such as shown by the supporters of Arema Malang after their club was beaten by rival club Persebaya Surabaya 2-3 in the Kanjuruhan match. Arema supporters could not accept the defeat, which was the club’s first home match loss to Persebaya Surabaya in 23 years. They invaded the pitch after the game ended. This violated the Indonesian soccer association’s code of discipline. The pitch invasion was followed with violence perpetrated by some Arema supporters. One of them had assaulted a person on the pitch who was wearing a vest normally worn by Arema reserve players. Together with the hurling of a flare by another Arema supporter, such actions triggered an excessive response from security personnel, including the police, which led to the fatalities.
Such ingrained fanaticism often leads to fatal violence against the supporters of rival clubs. Between 2010 and 2017, at least five violent incidents occurred between Persebaya supporters and the supporters of other soccer clubs (including those from Persija and Arema) that resulted in several fatalities.
It is true that the police will need to be introspective and improve their methods in crowd management. But this is only one element of the bigger problem. To address the dangers posed by fan fanaticism, all stakeholders in the game — the Ministry of Youth and Sports, the Indonesia Football Association, club management, club supporters, and Polri — need to develop more structural programmes to reshape attitudes. This includes civic education workshops for soccer supporters across Indonesia. If this is not done, one cannot discount the possibility of another soccer tragedy.
A'an Suryana was Visiting Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and is lecturer at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Universitas Islam Internasional Indonesia.