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Indonesia's Anti-Drug Chief Calls for Duterte-Style Crackdown

The BNN chief is singing praises of the Philippines' brutal war on drugs. But could it actually happen here?
January 5, 2017, 2:29pm
Photo courtesy BNN

The Filipino "Punisher" has some fans in high places in Indonesia. The country's anti-narcotics chief Budi Waseso has repeatedly praised Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte for launching a violent war on drugs that has left more than 5,000 dead in a wave of extrajudicial killings. Waseso has called the life of a drug dealer "meaningless" and promised to "be on the frontline to eradicate all the traffickers," in a series of highly publicized press conferences.

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"Don't hesitate to shoot drug dealers, sellers, or users dead on the spot," Waseso said. "Anyone involved in drug use has to be dealt with assertively. If anyone in the BNN [national narcotics agency] is caught using drugs, we'll treat them the same."

But is this grandstanding from the tough-taking Waseso—a man who once suggested housing drug traffickers on an island prison surrounded by crocodiles? Or is the National Narcotics Agency's (BNN) recent plan to purchase new weapons indicative of something real?

President Joko Widodo declared a drug emergency in Indonesia shortly after taking office, claiming that 50 people died every single day from drug abuse. The president, who is popularly known as Jokowi, has restarted the nation's execution of drug traffickers amid international condemnation. The president's policies have triggered sweeps of nightclubs and neighborhoods known for heavy drug use with the goal of sending users to rehabilitation centers.

But Waseso's comments imply that, at least some people in law enforcement, prefer a harsher approach. He has criticized the nation's rehab facilities as for-profit businesses run with little regard for medical care. "We have 100 rehab centers, 100 types of rehabilitation," he said in the state-run press. "Addicts are boiled, submerged or told to run. What model of rehabilitation is this?"

The BNN's spokesman played down the chief's statements, telling VICE Indonesia that Indonesian law doesn't allow for the Duterte-style killings of drug dealers and users. "During an investigation, our actions will still be in accordance with the law," BNN Spokesman Slamet Pribadi said. "So we can't just shoot someone."

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Still, Waseso's tough talk is enough to leave human rights groups concerned. Phelim Kine, the Deputy Director of the Asia Division at Human Rights Watch, urged Jokowi to publicly reject Duterte's brutal drug war, warning that the Philippines president's killing spree had opened the door to countless murders conducted by unknown gunmen with little hope of justice for the families of those killed.

"Waseso should publicly decry the Philippines' 'war on drugs' for what it truly is: a brutal, unlawful assault on the rule of law and universal human rights protections that has targeted some of the country's poorest, most marginalized citizens," Kine wrote in a statement.

Others warn that Indonesia has gone down this path once before, with dangerous results. During the reign of former president Gen. Suharto, the country was gripped by a wave of so-called "mysterious shootings" where suspected criminals were found dead in the streets. Years later, Suharto admitted in his memoirs that Indonesian security forces were behind the killings. The true toll of the deaths has never been calculated.

"We have to learn from all these mysterious shootings that happened in the past," said Nur Kholis, the head of the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM). "Preventive efforts have to be implemented before law enforcement. We should focus on cutting drug supplies and cleaning prisons of drugs."

In Thailand, an equally brutal crackdown on drug use left more than 2,000 dead in a matter of months. Today, the killings have had little impact on the nation's drug problem. And a study into the deaths found that nearly half of those killed had no connection to the drug trade. But for Waseso, the alleged impact of a similar approach remained clear.

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"If such a policy were implemented in Indonesia, we believe that the number of drug traffickers and users in our beloved country would drop drastically," Waseso said.

But Indonesia is not the Philippines. Crime is a major concern in the Philippines. The country's murder rate per capita is ten times that of Indonesia and crime has been on the rise in recent years. Duterte ran a law and order campaign that spoke to Filipino voters. His former city of Davao was named one of the safest cities in the world. But it was also the home of brutal death squads that gunned down suspected criminals whose names were on a kill list.

Duterte promised to bring these death squads to the rest of the Philippines' cities if elected. Now, some six months into his presidency, he enjoys high approval ratings for doing just that.

Jokowi ran a very different campaign on the promise of reform and a break from the country's military-led past. The president's drug emergency has always included a treatment component, but a lack of direction has left some agencies squabbling over who, exactly, is in charge of this war on drugs, according to rights groups.

"There's no strong integration between agencies," said Totok Yulianto, an advocate with the Indonesian Drug Users Network (PKNI). "BNN seems to wish for a sole authority in war against drugs. The government is being indecisive and seemed unable to decide whether to criminalize drugs or take a more health-related approach."