Lily-Rose Davies and Mikael Alden Noegroho – The protests that rocked Indonesia this September have brought to light a history of conflict between university students and law enforcement.
Students have become a "moral force of change whenever any regime or policy is repressive" resulting in a "long-running tension" with police who are responsible for "maintaining order," according to the political observer, Dr. Irwan Julianto.
Mass protests from September 23 to early October, stimulated by controversial bills proposed by the People's Representative Council (DPR), led to the largest student protests since the political unrest during the 1998 economic crisis that led to the fall of President Suharto.
Reminiscent of the violence that ensued almost 20 years ago, the recent student protests were marred by often violent clashes between students and police who allegedly employed excessive force to disband crowds.
Journalist, activist and participant in the 1998 protests, Arie Mega, is among those who have expressed disappointment that 20 years after the anti-Suharto demonstrations the state apparatus has not developed more peaceful, democratic systems for handling mass demonstrations about political hot-button topics.
"What is similar between 1998 and now is the violence. In 1998 the violence came from the military, now it comes from the police," she said.
Despite public demands for the police to be more humane following the 1998 reformation, the recent protests demonstrate that things have not improved, Rivanlee Anandar from the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (KontraS) said.
Although police have already instigated policies regarding proper crowd control, the police force "has still been unable to implement these policies in the field," Anandar said.
Muhammad Isnur, Head of Case Management at Indonesia's Legal Aid Foundation Jakarta (YLBHI), agreed. "This year alone has to be one of the most staggering and terrifying in terms of law enforcement brutality cases," he said.
YLBHI reported numerous cases of brutality during the recent protests, including the death of 19-year-old Akbar Alamsyah on October 10, who died from severe head injuries sustained during the September 25 protest from causes that have yet to be confirmed. As Isnur explained, this was not the only case of brutality.
"There was one student from UI (Universitas Indonesia) who was assaulted by police until they shattered one of his eardrums. Another was a student from UAI (Universitas Al Azhar Indonesia) who was beaten into a coma, who has recovered as of now," he said.
A UI student, who requested to be identified only by his initials of A.L., stated that the use of tear gas during the protests was excessive. She was engulfed in clouds of smoke, she said with intense passion.
"They didn't stop firing not even during adzan (the Muslim call to prayer), and they were even firing at public places like Palmerah Station and even at the ambulance and medical personnel," she said.
Another UI student, M.E., corroborated the previous account of rigorous police enforcement.
"We were standing near the borders set around the People's Representative Council (DPR) building when out of nowhere that evening the police started to tell us to back away even further from the boundary. At first, they were yelling at us, but some of the students refused to and remained persistent. That was when the fighting started. It was an uncontrolled brawl where anyone standing there was a target so I ran," he recounted.
Isnur accused law enforcement of lacking transparency about why such strong measures were used in these cases.
"When we're finally able to check on the conditions of the detained students after the protests, most of them were found in a battered and bruised state," he said.
By contrast, Julianto argued that despite the use of excessive force, it was important to consider the impact of outside parties with vested interests in inflaming the conflict.
"We have to remember that this is not as simple as good guys or bad guys," he said. "The police are not the 'bad guys' here, but rather we need to see it through a wider context of other factors such as political parties that stand to gain from stirring these clashes between students and law enforcement," he said.
Both KontraS and YLBHI called for processes to ensure accountability within law enforcement for past instances of brutality as the first step to implement transitional justice and bring about change. However, both organizations claimed to have faced threats and intimidation during their efforts to hold law enforcement accountable.
Anandar recalled an instance where someone suggested to be police attempted to hack his Telegram account and states KontraS was threatened with disbandment in 2016, in what he described as "intimidation tactics to silence us (KontraS) from speaking out."
Isnur claimed he faced intimidation as a standard part of his role, including being terrorized via telephone calls and receiving threatening texts and tweets. There had also been attempts to hack YLBHI telephones.
"It is part and parcel in this field, where we are always endangered for trying to demand justice for those who were wronged," he said.
[Lily-Rose Davies traveled to Indonesia with the support of the Australian Government's New Colombo Plan Mobility Scheme.]
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