The chaotic world of Indonesia’s violent ultras

The chaotic world of Indonesia’s violent ultras

To paraphrase Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes, there is no creation without tradition. Anything new is simply an adjustment of that which already exists. This leaves certain things in certain places in a bind. How can you create something if you have very little history? 

Football in Indonesia fits into this category. Its lack of historical prowess, at least on a global scale, means that anything it creates moving forward is something entirely new and often hybrid. Fan culture best embodies this sense of a cultural no-mans land in Southeast Asia. The Wild West mentality of fans draw on European and British tradition to create something unique, and when influenced by the social landscape of Indonesia, also deadly.

Documentary filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer, whose Act of Killing film explores the Indonesia genocide of 1965-66, says: “Indonesia can hold regular elections, but if the laws do not apply to the most powerful elements in society, then there is no rule of law and no genuine democracy.” Corruption is top-down and bleeds into every crevice of Indonesian life. To understand the severity, we must first tackle the scale.

Indonesia is probably the most diverse country in the world. With just over 260m people, it’s the fourth most populous on earth. The country consists of around 17,000 islands with inhabitants speaking over 700 different languages and dialects. Indonesia is also the most populous Islamic nation, but religion is similarly diverse with Christianity, Hinduism and various syncretic belief systems spread throughout the islands.

Most teams, like the population, are concentrated in Java. The island itself is the epitome of Indonesia. Dramatic volcanic landscapes pocked with turquoise blue lakes coexist with tropical rainforests that are home to a multiverse of flora and fauna. 

As part of the country’s adoption of football, with clubs formations spread throughout the 20th century, professionalisation occurred with the advent of the Liga Indonesia in 1994, where several leagues were pooled, before further organisational movements towards a more European model in 2008 birthed the Indonesian Super League. It’=s current incarnation, as of 2017, is the Liga 1. 

Incidentally, with the growth of the internet and proliferation of football videos online, fans began to exhibit signs of the culture and behaviours present in European football at the tail of the 2000s as the league became more similar to its European counterparts. In football, the young people of various cities have found a means of expression, while others have found an outlet for their disaffection. 

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Certain historical episodes taint everything that occurs afterwards. Indonesia’s genocide of 1965-66, targeting perceived threats to the ruling regime, still casts a lengthy shadow over the nation. With a death toll of up to a million people, the severity has very few parallels in history. 

Perpetrated as part of the changing leadership of Indonesia, from Marxist-Socialist President Sukarno to Suharto’s more authoritarian New Order, the genocide was a purge to quell dissident voices and usher in a new era. Suharto’s regime lasted over 30 years, until its fall in 1998. It was at this point that football fanaticism began to flourish. Indonesia is now considered the most dangerous place in Asia to be a football fan, but why?

Fanatacism and hooliganism’s foundations in Indonesia can be attributed to the city of Solo in Java, as Andy Fuller points out in Ultras in Indonesia: conflict, diversification, activism. In particular, he emphasises the supporter group Pasoepatiwho are not loyal to one particular team but rather the city of Solo and its attached politics.

Football in Solo had strong ties to the Suharto regime in the 1990s, to the extent that Suharto’s son owned a club there. When the club, Arseto Solo, disbanded after Suharto’s regime fell in 1998, the fans settled upon Persis Solo as their new team, one that became a symbol of right-wing politics in Indonesian football. 

Following a club was like being a member of a gang for many. A section of the Pasoepati renamed and rebranded themselves as Ultras 1923, in honour of Persis the club, rather than Solo the city. Football and politics had become integrated and many other groups would follow suit along a similar trajectory.

It was only last year, with hooliganism an ongoing problem, that the violence in Indonesian football became globally acknowledged. Haringga Sirla was recorded on a solitary shaky mobile phone, bloodied and unconscious, as fans took turns kicking, swinging and throwing at him. He died on the spot. Haringga was a fan of Persija Jakarta and he was far from home in Bandung to see his side face a rival side in Persib.

Haringga was the 95th football-related death since 2005 and was a symbolic zenith. It was a moment when everyone agreed that things should change, yet acknowledged that they likely never would. Two years prior, it was 17-year-old Persib fan Muhammad Rovi Arrahman who was beaten to death at the hands of Persija’s Jakmania ultra group.

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Arrahman was associated with Persib’s Vikings, another ultra group modelled on the European style. This group, well organised and hierarchical like many others, boasts around 100,000 members. These feuds run much deeper than football now. This back and forth is a tribal game. ‘Fanatic’ is a 16th-century word derived from the Latin fanaticus. It means to be possessed by a god or demon. Fanaticism is Indonesia is the latter convincing itself it’s the former.

Violence is a symptom, not a cause. Equality, unrest and deep-rooted tribal lines are at the root of violent actions. Alienation, isolation and distrust are all contributing factors to such behaviours. In Manggarai, Jakarta, the Jakmania group lay claim to this desolate territory, one resembling a sheet-metal mosaic from above.

The Persija crest adorns walls in world-weary graffiti. This overpopulated district has Jakarta’s highest unemployment. It is the manifestation of disenfranchised and an ideal recruitment base for the swelling club-coloured militias that patrol the terraces.

Swelling numbers involved in these ultras groups, with many breaching 100,000 members, has caused a new demographic of fans to emerge – ones that aren’t interested in the football. For these groups, it isn’t even a mask. Very little interest is shown in the games. Andy Fuller sums up the Indonesian attitude to football fans: “Soccer supporters are generally considered violent, troublemakers and disturbers of civil, public order.” He points out that tawuran (large-scale street-battles) often break out, becoming so normalised that they’ve almost ceased to be of any interest to the media. 

Violence, perhaps more than football, offers a sense of escapism for these people. Circumstances make some Indonesian football fans need a shot of something – and football alone isn’t strong enough. It’s for this reason that, mainly young men, embrace the hooligan ethos. Sociologist Ramón Spaaij says, “It is the combination of belonging, recognition and reputation that enables the young males to achieve a sense of personal worth and identity.”

In fractured communities, life on the terraces and in the ultras groups provides a sense of solidarity. A home from home. A place to belong that hasn’t been felt before.

On his time in Indonesia, Fuller writes: “Watching a game of football in Indonesia can be incredibly intoxicating and joyful. I have been guilty, too, of becoming a part of the removed-academia who write of the fans’ incredible chanting and passion for their club.”

If someone as integrated into the culture as Fuller is, but who isn’t necessarily a fan, can forget themselves in amongst the chanting, bouncing, swaying and singing of the country’s colourful crowds, then we must accept how easy it is for locals. 

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Struggling enough to get out of the slum conditions that see many houses built on stilts just to create a distance between the murky rivers of sewage that move tepidly below, tickets priced at 50,000 rupiahs are often out of the question. A meal can be bought for around one-quarter of that price.

Frantz Fanon was a prominent anti-colonialist whose thoughts focussed on emancipation from oppressive circumstances. Fanon had an idea of catharsis reached through violence. Not advocating violence, he refused to neglect its power, stating: “Every society, in every collectivity, exists – must exist – a channel, an outlet through which the forces accumulated in the forms of aggression can be released.” Indonesia witnesses this as football fanaticism.

According to Fanon, this “cathartic violence” enables the oppressed to regain a sense of self-worth and control over their lives. The alienated underclass have latched onto football fandom as a means of regaining their humanity in the face of a disinterred government.

Beyond the violent is the colourful. Whilst blood is one currency, it isn’t the only one. These groups do a lot of their talking on the terraces. Football fandom in Indonesia has a deeply performative aspect. Based on a hybrid of the European ultra and the British casual, football fans imitated their dress and behaviour, yet embellished it with a particularly vibrant Asian aesthetic. 

Only certain subcultures remain isolated in their own social and political climates. The Nigerian sapeur or Italian paninaro are examples of exclusive subcultures. Skinheads, mods and rockers all travel. Football hooliganism travels and always manages to pick up strong regional and national traits.

After the regime fell in 1998, televised broadcasting and internet access gave fans an insight into football, particularly Italy’s Serie A. Juventus and Milan were particularly popular – and still are – and informed Persis Solo’s Pasoepati, who pioneered Indonesian-accented pyrotechnic and tifo displays. Awed by this stylish and ebullient bunch, other teams were quick to follow.

On the this phenomenon, Spaaij writes: “Modern technologies play a vital role in the facilitation of transnational hooligan networks and the diffusion of cultural styles and action repertoires.” Their groups are often named after their position in the stadium; curvasud for example, which is taken from Italian groups. 

In appearance, if not in the typical shorts, trainers and club colours that many European ultras groups adopt, fans follow a very stereotypically British sense of dress. Instagram pages with up to a quarter of a million followers document the Indonesian casual style. Pages like @indocasuals show both male and female fans clothed in Stone Island, CP Company, Adidas Originals and Weekend Offender. 

Although this side of Indonesian fandom is alive and well, the headlines are increasingly filled up with stories of violence and corruption. These aspects have quickly overshadowed the positive aspects of Indonesian football and risk masking it entirely.

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This dark side manifests in both what fans fight for – their club, pride, territory and reputation – and against. Whilst the living conditions, sense of alienation and lack of prospects contribute greatly to their war, it’s far from the full picture. Corruption infects everything in Indonesian life and football is far from exempt.

The Football Association of Indonesia is better known as the PSSI. They’re a figure of great contempt, derided by fans who see their corruption clear as day. Prone to bribes and cronyism, with intentions more indebted to politics than football, the PSSI is Indonesian football’s big, bad wolf. Several high-profile cases of corruption have revealed the depth it runs to. It says much that FIFA once had to close it down.

Re-opening barely two years later, the PSSI is a microcosm of the giant nation’s government. This fact makes the violence even more worrying. The PSSI, like the government, know the problems; they just don’t care enough to do anything.

Heavier policing and increased security at matches are two widely-touted responses to the violence, but are limited by the state’s reluctance to dedicate the necessary resources where needed. Death, however, is a cost they seem happy enough to live with. 

On 20 January 2019, Indonesia’s top football official Edy Rahmayadi resigned over a match-fixing scandal, only to be replaced by deputy Djoko Driyono, who to many is another extension of the old guard. Rahmayadi’s departure occurred after a recent confession from Madura FC boss Januar Herwanto who blew the whistle on the extent of match-fixing that blights the game. His admissions have implicated several senior members of the PSSI, leading to police probes and an anti-corruption taskforce being formed. 

Public opinion believes in the integrity of the investigation, but people are wary of false hope from past examples. If a new PSSI body takes over, then eliminating violence at football will no doubt be the priority. Football fandom in Indonesia is unique, although not exclusive, as an element of society that is representative of a pervasive feeling that bubbles just below the well-mannered surface.

Fanaticism doesn’t just exist because football does. If it hadn’t, these vast numbers of people would have found something else. What we see in football is the result of a country built on corruption and inequality. Their songs and chants on the terraces are pleading screams roared into the ether. Their banners waved aloft are giant SOS symbols. Even if corruption is somehow eradicated from Indonesian football, the violence and despair will be much harder to.

By Edd Norval @EddNorval

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