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Copy-cat war on drugs in Indonesia


President Joko Widodo has stopped executing foreigners for drug smuggling – after two rounds in 2015 and 2016 – but that doesn’t mean that his war on drugs is over. Instead, the battlefield is shifting from the execution chambers to the streets. Widodo has empowered the National Narcotics Bureau and the Police to use force against drug traders, with little oversight.

The President seems drugs obsessed – he once called drugs the ‘Number 1 problem’ facing Indonesia, despite evidence showing that the figures he cited, such as 4.5 million addicts, were grossly overestimated.

He has also ignored the growing global consensus that heavy-handed tactics have failed to stop both drug usage and smuggling globally, and that a more effective approach is to look at drugs as a public health issue. To make matters worse, Indonesia has cut funding for rehabilitation.

A popular policy?

Yet the policy has proved popular nationally. ‘The government can resume execution – at any time – as a populist tool to show the public that they are tough on crime,’ says Ricky Gunawan, a human-rights lawyer with the Jakarta-based LBH Masyarakat (Community Legal Aid Institute). ‘To date no politician has been brave enough to publicly say that the way we are dealing with drug problems in Indonesia isn’t just failing, but is also damaging to human rights.’

Since the war on drugs has moved to the streets, LBH Masyarakat has noted an uptick in extra-judicial killings.

‘These killings are now more visible on the news,’ says Gunawan. ‘Last year there were at least 14 deaths [in total], while in three months from January to March this year [there were] at least seven killings. This is obviously worrying.’

What is driving this? One factor may be that Widodo’s administration openly admires the well-covered, brutal war on drugs being fought by President Rodrigo Duterte in the neighbouring Philippines.

‘It may be that the killings with impunity in the Philippines are creating a more permissive atmosphere for such killings in the region,’ says Gloria Lai, Senior Policy Officer with the International Drug Policy Consortium. She believes Duterte’s crackdown may be contributing not just to recent killings in Indonesia, but also to similar cases in nearby Thailand and Cambodia.

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