Southeast Asia | Duterte-style war on drugs gaining support in Indonesia

Duterte-style war on drugs gaining support in Indonesia

As drug use soars and the list of people on death row grows longer, public opinion hardens against drug dealers

November 7, 2016 10:49 AM (UTC+8)
Police torches lights up the body of a suspected drug dealer, killed by two men on motorcycles in Quezon City, Manila. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro
Police torches lights up the body of a suspected drug dealer, killed by two men on motorcycles in Quezon City, Manila. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro

As the number of drug users rises rapidly in Indonesia, public opinion is hardening with support growing for a shoot-to-kill policy similar to the one in the Philippines.

Indonesia – one of 25 countries in the world that still carries out capital punishment – has seen an increasing use of the death penalty since president Joko Widodo took power in 2014, most of them for drug-related offences.

The courts have sentenced 35 people to death since the start of the year and has an increasingly long list of people on death row, according to the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras). The number is expected to grow as the government cracks down harder on the drugs trade.

“I believe that Indonesia should be tougher on drug dealers,” said Vandana Nanwani, a 23-year-old woman living in Jakarta.

“From the outside, we see these executions as inhuman, but what we don’t see is the people in rehabilitation centers. They are so addicted to drugs that they are not able to do anything because they can’t live without it. Is that the future of Indonesia?”

Last year, Indonesia recorded an estimated 5.9 million drug users, an increase of 64% compared to five years earlier, the global NGO network Drug Policy Consortium said. Meanwhile, 33 die daily on average because of drugs, according to the National Narcotics Agency (BNN).

In Indonesia, as in the Philippines, crystalline methamphetamine is the primary drug of concern, according to a UN report about its spreading across Southeast Asia.

Other politicians just talk. He takes action. Killing bad people is good

Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte’s administration has executed around 4,000 people in a controversial war on drugs since taking office in June.

While the Philippine campaign has raised alarm from several Western countries, including the White House and United Nations, the president is highly popular among his own people.

“God bless him,” said Angela, a Filipino domestic helper living in Hong Kong. “Other politicians just talk. He takes action. Killing bad people is good.”

Now, Indonesia seems to be flirting with the idea of launching a similar killing spree.

The head of Indonesia’s anti-narcotics unit, Budi Waseso, recently told a press conference that he’d like to copy the Philippines’s policy in his own country. He added that Indonesia had already begun to organize heavy weapons, drug-sniffing dogs and police personnel to carry out a crackdown.

“The life of a dealer is meaningless,” Waseso said, because a dealer “carries out mass murder. How can we respect that?”

“If such a policy [as that of the Philippines] were implemented in Indonesia, we believe that the number of drug traffickers and users in our beloved country would drop drastically.”

His words echo those of Duterte who said he would be “happy to slaughter” millions of drug addicts, likening himself to Adolf Hitler and his extermination of the Jews.

Widodo and Duterte met in September and expressed optimism regarding cooperation in eliminating drug crime.

When Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte (L) met his Indonesian counterpart Joko Widodo on a visit to Jakarta in September, the pair expressed optimism over cooperation to eliminate drug crime. Photo: Reuters/Darren Whiteside
When Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte (L) met his Indonesian counterpart Joko Widodo on a visit to Jakarta in September, the pair expressed optimism over cooperation to eliminate drug crime. Photo: Reuters/Darren Whiteside

As support grows in Indonesia for a shoot-to-kill policy, an opinion piece in Asean Today said that more has to be done to battle the “endless invisible war.”

“If you are a drug dealer, you should be shot,” said Amy, an Indonesia woman living in Hong Kong. “But it has to go through the courts so no innocent people are killed.”

She added that many of her friends, however, support a Duterte-style crackdown where suspected drug traffickers are simply shot dead in the street.

Professor Tim Lindsey, director of the Centre for Indonesian Law, Islam and Society at Melbourne Law School, said the war on drugs has become an important part of president Widodo’s agenda since he first promised “no mercy” to drug offenders in his 2014 election campaign.

A series of executions of drugs offenders, mainly foreigners, has been accompanied by inflammatory rhetoric about drug traffickers being mass murderers.

“There seems to be strong popular support for this approach, although there are civil society groups and intellectual leaders campaigning against it,” he said.

“It remains to be seen how this debate will unfold. But while the war on drugs is popular, there is little evidence of support for extra-judicial killings of drugs suspects of the kind seen in Duterte’s Philippines.”

We can’t shoot criminals just like that, we have to follow the rules

Lindsey added that memories of the 31-year dictatorship of Suharto and the killing of his opponents mean there would be widespread resistance to that level of state lawlessness in Indonesia.

It’s not the first time a Southeast Asian country has launched a widespread war on drugs. In early 2003, Thailand’s then-prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, announced a crackdown, saying: “In this war, drug dealers must die.”

A spokesperson for the National Narcotics Agency tried to play down Waseso’s pro-Duterte declarations by stating that Indonesian law forbids a Philippines-style police offensive against drugs dealers because “we can’t shoot criminals just like that, we have to follow the rules.”

Nevertheless, Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), said he’s concerned over the comments by the anti-narcotics chief and the increased use of the death penalty against drug traffickers.

“We need to be vigilant to the potential threat that Duterte’s willingness to trash the concept of rule of law as part of a so-called ‘war on drugs’ might be wrongly perceived as a model by Indonesian police,” said Kine, who oversees HRW’s work in Indonesia and the Philippines.

“The fact that Jokowi has embraced the use of the death penalty as ‘shock therapy’ against drug trafficking, despite the fact that the alleged deterrence effect of the death penalty has been repeatedly debunked, underscores the danger of simple and brutal government ‘solutions’ to the very complex problems of drug use and criminality.”

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