The massacre immediately sparked dismayed reactions from all corners of society. President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo requested temporary suspension of all Liga1 matches, and announced an investigation.
East Java Police Chief Nico Afinta said afterwards that the situation quickly got out of hand, officers were attacked and vehicles destroyed. According to him, the use of tear gas had been ‘entirely according to procedure’, but this created a jostling for the exit, where most people died. Many were trampled. Television images show people being carried away unconscious.
The police action is seen by many as the main cause of the disaster. According to the rules of the world football organization Fifa, the police are not allowed to use tear gas or weapons in a stadium, precisely to prevent panic and unnecessary victims.
Home club Arema lost the ‘sensitive’ regional derby against arch-rival Persebaya 2-3. After the game, supporters from both sides poured onto the field, after which skirmishes broke out. The Persebaya players had already hastily left the field by then, but Arema players had stayed behind and would have attacked.
Television images showed how supporters were then given thick clouds of tear gas. They probably tried to flee outside by the thousands. The vast majority of the victims are supporters of the team from Malang. Two policemen are also said to be among the dead. Hospitals in the area could barely handle the flood of injured people. Television station TVOne showed images of injured people waiting outside for treatment.
President Joko Widodo said on Sunday he hoped this would be “the last football tragedy” in Indonesia. The chance of that seems small. Football violence is the rule rather than the exception in Indonesia. For decades, supporter groups have been fighting each other before, during and after matches, in battles in which the police often deploy heavy equipment. Especially the top clubs from the Liga 1, the Indonesian premier division, suffer from this. Top club Persija from the capital Jakarta has played without an audience for a long time, as a punishment for supporter violence in which one person was killed.
Not infrequently, supporters of a visiting club are therefore asked to stay away, but just as often they ignore such a request. The fans of Persebaya had also been asked not to come to Malang on Saturday, but several thousand supporters from Surabaya were still present at the match. Arema’s stadium was bursting at the seams, and it is suspected that far more tickets have been sold than there are seats.
As so often in Indonesia, the police were ready to intervene in and around the stadium, armed with water cannons and tear gas. Usually it remains with violence and vandalism with incidental victims. A tragedy with so many victims as Saturday has never happened.
Internationally, Indonesian football doesn’t have a very good reputation either. The national football association PSSI was suspended from Fifa for a year in 2015-16 because of government interference in the management of the association. Corruption also played a role in the suspension.