Indonesian anti-riot police secure an area from protesters during a demonstration against Indonesia's President Joko Widodo's victory in the recent election in Jakarta on May 22, 2019. Photo: AFP/Bay Ismoyo

Despite the apparent shooting deaths of seven demonstrators under still unexplained circumstances, Indonesia’s much-maligned national police is receiving well-deserved praise for its disciplined handling of last week’s election-related riots in Jakarta.

While that will do little to change the overall image of the 440,000-strong force as corrupt and inept, in specific areas such as crowd control and counterterrorism it has made significant strides as guardians of the country’s internal security.

Improved crowd-control techniques, including the use of policewomen in frontline positions, have been taught at Indonesia’s police academy since the early 2000s when the United States began focusing part of its aid program on that area of law enforcement.

The police, which unlike the military report directly to President Joko Widodo, have also benefited from new riot-control equipment, their own home-made pepper spray and an increased budget, which last year amounted to US$6.6 billion, compared with the military’s $8.1 billion.

For some, the spectacle of two New Order-era generals, losing presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto and Widodo’s chief political minister Wiranto, facing off against each other looked like a depressing rerun of the chaotic events that preceded president Suharto’s fall from power.

A protester shows sharp bullets found in police cars after clashes over presidential election results turned into riots in Jakarta on May 22. Photo: AFP / Nurphoto/ Aditya Irawan

Certainly, the mysterious deaths of six rioters the night before the May 22 protest was a disturbing reminder of the sniper shooting of students at Trisakti University, which triggered the anti-Suharto riots that devastated Jakarta in May 1998.

Ominously, police reportedly recovered two M4 rifles fitted with silencers from the scene, weapons only carried by Indonesian special forces units, adding to concerns about a possible conspiracy.

But there were distinct differences from 20 years ago, even if Indonesia continues to be haunted by the authoritarian shadow of Suharto and dogged by many of the same figures from that era who have populated the political stage since his demise.

Wiranto’s role this time was nominal, with government sources confirming that most of the security planning was left to police chief Tito Karnavian, a Western-educated officer well versed in modern policing methods and in counterterrorism operations.

It was Information Minister Rudiantara, however, who made the decision to shut down WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook at a crucial juncture on May 22, apparently worried about the volume of fake news and messages exploding across social media.

Inadvertently, the censorship order may also have succeeded in preventing unidentified provocateurs in the crowd from communicating with one another or outside masterminds in efforts to escalate the violence.

Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto speaks to supporters after the presidential election in Jakarta on April 19. Photo: AFP Forum via NurPhoto/Andrew Gal

After months of threatening a “people’s power” uprising if the presidential election results didn’t go his way, Prabowo sought to play peacemaker when the inevitable riots broke out and fears grew the situation could get out of hand.

If anything, the long-contrived crisis allowed security forces plenty of time to prepare, starting with the establishment of roadblocks to turn around busloads of pro-Prabowo supporters on the toll roads leading into the capital.

Paramilitary police and troops flew in from Sumatra and other parts of the country, including a full marine battalion airlifted aboard a fleet of seven C-130 transport aircraft from their base in the East Java port city of Surabaya.

Some took up positions out of sight in the basements of buildings along Jalan Thamrin, a main thoroughfare and the site of the General Election Supervisory Agency (Bawaslu), the main focus of the demonstrators, whose numbers didn’t come remotely close to the promised hundreds of thousands.

Police have still to come up with an explanation of the circumstances surrounding the deaths of the six demonstrators after the fire-bombing of a police dormitory sparked street battles in the market district of Tanah Abang.

Police announced days beforehand that their men would not be carrying live rounds, but the rubber bullets they did have can still be lethal at short range. Only two of the victims have been identified and it is not clear what the autopsies have revealed.

Police say that among the 257 people detained were two alleged militants linked to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), bringing to 31 the number of terrorist suspects arrested in Jakarta and other parts of Java in the days beforehand.

Police in front of the Indonesia Election Supervisory Agency, the target of pro-Prabowo riots on May 22, 2019 in Jakarta. Photo: AFP / NurPhoto / Donal Husni

According to investigators, precursor explosive materials discovered during the raids were to be used in a bombing campaign against targets in other parts of the city, using the demonstrations as a convenient cover.

The day after the riots, Widodo dispatched Vice-President Jusuf Kalla to meet with Prabowo, who has now changed his mind and taken his election-fraud complaint to the Constitutional Court – as he did after his failed election bid five years ago.

The president’s 11-percentage-point margin of victory this time, much wider than in 2014, gives the retired general’s legal challenge little chance of succeeding, particularly if he is unable to provide a lot more compelling evidence that he has mustered so far.

Officials say the meeting was aimed at clearing the air, but Prabowo is looking increasingly like a sore loser, with his political allies in the National Mandate (PAN) and Justice and Prosperity (PKS) parties seemingly uninterested in taking things further.

Even the conservative 212 Movement and its hardline Islamic allies have been strangely quiet since the country’s two mass Muslim organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, in effect banned their members from participating in the May 22 demonstrations.

But its campaign of creeping Islamization, aimed at turning secular Indonesia into an Islamic state, will almost certainly continue as security officials sweep up the ashes of the Jakarta riots and Widodo gears up for his second elected term.

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