Armed special forces stand guard in a residential area during the 2023 Indonesia MotoGP in Mandalika, Lombok Island. Photo: Just Finance International (Mas Agung Wilis Yudha Baskoro, 2023)

Leading up to the Mandalika International Street Circuit race, Indonesian state security forces imposed extreme intimidation and restrictions on local villagers, including unjustified arrests, restricted movement, and the recruitment of informants to spy on one another. These actions highlight a significant escalation in the government’s coercive tactics, contradicting prior promises of moderation.

Amaq Bengkok, an elderly farmer in Ebunut village, has witnessed the forceful evictions of nearly all his neighbors and relatives in recent years. “They promised to pay compensation for everything on the land, but in reality there has been no compensation whatsoever,” he said.

In early October, he pitched two banners on his land, within sight of the tall fences surrounding the MotoGP racetrack. “Our land has not been paid for,” one of them said. “Respect our rights.” These small acts of peaceful protest have long drawn retaliatory measures from the state authorities, ranging from harsh warnings to security officers cutting down the villagers’ coconut trees and other crops. Amaq Bengkok was prepared to face the consequences. “I will take down the banners when they give me a fair agreement letter that I can sign,” he told Just Finance International during a recent field visit. 

Sasak farmer Amaq Bengkok. He speaks to a journalist about how his family and community have been surrounded and intimidated by the Indonesian state security amidst land disputes ahead of the MotoGP race. Credit: Talenta FM Indonesia (October 2023)

But he did not expect to wake up to more than 100 uniformed and armed police and security officers arriving on his land.

Snipers and informants

The Mandalika Urban Tourism and Development Project, at which the Mandalika racetrack sits at the center, was primarily financed by $248.4 million in loans from the Beijing-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Despite lofty promises of fair compensation, resettlement, and livelihood retraining in the bank’s initial proposals, the reality of implementation – led by the Indonesian Tourism Development Corporation (ITDC) – has been anything but. Hundreds of households have been forcefully evicted from their lands, many without receiving just compensation.

Indonesian police personnel gather for instructions in a residential area during the 2023 Indonesia MotoGP in Mandalika, Lombok Island. Photo: Just Finance International (Mas Agung Wilis Yudha Baskoro, 2023)

Mandalika, on Lombok island, finished hosting its third annual MotoGP race earlier this month. Establishing the racetrack circuit was personally championed by President Joko Widodo, who had initially planned to attend the race again this month. Grand Prix motorcycle events regularly draw hundreds of thousands of fans and spectators from around the world As a hand-selected project of “National Strategic Priority,” the Mandalika tourism site receives a special status permitting involvement by state security forces including the military. Behind the newly renovated villas and expanded roads surrounding the Mandalika circuit, this has fueled a multi-year clash with indigenous communities that now appears to be entering a new stage.

Ahead of the race, ITDC and government authorities raced to expand their supervision and surveillance of the local communities. Despite fierce complaints in past years over draconian movement restrictions, the ITDC only issued 40 wristbands this year permitting passage through checkpoints, effectively cutting off the majority of residents from commuting to their work sites or even returning to their homes.

Several Mandalika project-affected community members told JFI about a concerted campaign to recruit 100 informants from the area’s villages and sub-villages, in order to ensure strict oversight over everyone’s movements and activities. Community members described visits from police and ITDC security every other day in the weeks before the MotoGP race event. One villager said that a fence on his land was ripped out by these patrols; another recalled his coconut trees being cut down. Despite these tensions, extensive efforts were made to broadcast an image of happy and willing acquiescence. In one incident, police swarmed a local resident’s property to stage a photoshoot with village women for use in promoting the racetrack.

Heavily armed Indonesian police patrol a residential area as a boy herds his cows during the 2023 Indonesia MotoGP in Mandalika, Lombok Island. Photo: Just Finance International (Mas Agung Wilis Yudha Baskoro, 2023)

Bracing every interaction was the threat of possible violence. A copy of ITDC’s security management plan, reviewed by JFI, explicitly ruled out deployment of the military, yet residents described military personnel intruding upon the property of Ebunuet villagers on more than one occasion. According to multiple local testimonies, uniformed snipers conducted evening patrols on the hillsides behind their homes.

“Why live if we continue to be oppressed?”

In the heightened stakes surrounding the big race, the authorities have reacted to even small acts of defiance with outsized punishment. On October 12, the day before the event kicked off, two Sasak farmers in Mandalika raised banners on their land calling for fair compensation. The display was met by a large patrol group comprising the police, military, special forces, and plain clothed intelligence officers, who warned them to remove the signs. The two men, who are brothers, refused. The following morning, they were arrested by police in the garden outside their home. The charge against them was possession of weapons threatening public security, even as the small machetes they possessed are widely used for crop cultivation and preparing cattle feed—a commonly seen tool carried by every farmer, cattle raiser, and fisherfolk in Mandalika. One of the brothers remains in custody at the time of this publication—13 days and counting.

For Amaq Bengkok, installing his two protest banners had been the only remaining recourse after years of marginalization and mistreatment. 12 officers from the police and ITDC were quickly dispatched to confront him. Amaq Bengkok refused to back down. When members of the local media arrived, he could not hold back an emotional release. 

Sasak farmer Amaq Bengkok’s banner seeking the restoration of his land rights. Credit: Talenta FM Indonesia (October 2023)

“When are you going to bring the bulldozers here to our land?” he cried into the microphone, addressing the authorities in front of him. “I am ready to be imprisoned! I am ready to be killed! What day will you come here so I can call my children, grandchildren, wife and all my descendants. Bury us in one hole together!”

When the officers said that they were simply following orders, Amaq Bengkok’s rebuke continued: “You always say that you came because you were ordered. So bring me those who ordered you to come here! I want to know who they are. Bring them here, those who rule over you. What day will you come? Let us wait. What do you want? Just kill us. Why else would we live if we continue to be oppressed like this?”

The following morning, the security response  multiplied to the size of a small battalion. More than 100 officers flooded Amaq Bengkok’s land with their presence, surrounding his home from every side. They stayed for an hour, switching between stern condemnations of his signs to bribes of food and other gifts for him to take it down. Amaq Bengkok refused. He held firm, even as additional patrol groups visited his land every day for the following week. His banners were forcibly removed in the pre-dawn hours on October 13, the morning of the MotoGP launch. No member of the ITDC has yet visited with an offer to negotiate.