Shadow Puppets and Special Forces: Indonesia’s Fragile Democracy


Fifteen years ago last month, Indonesia’s President Suharto was overthrown following a series of student-led protests. In the violent chaos that ended the former dictator’s long and brutal reign, there was a wave of seemingly well-organized beatings, rapes, and murders of ethnic Chinese in major cities such as Jakarta and Surakarta, also known as Solo. Indonesia’s new democracy was christened in blood.

Today, that sinophobic violence is a distant memory (due in no small part to a failure to investigate the attacks and prosecute the perpetrators), but it is clear to all that numerous threats to domestic security lurk just below the surface. Recent events in Yogyakarta, affectionately known as Jogja, illustrate the forces that threaten stability as the world’s third-largest democracy approaches an election year. These include confusion about the Indonesian Army (known as the “TNI,” for Tentara Nasional Indonesia, one of the many, many acronyms that dominate political and conversational speech in Indonesia) and its mission; the weakness of civilian state authorities; ethnic, religious and racial tensions; rising criminality; conspiracy fears; and the power of social media to amplify gossip and rumor.

Numerous observers have suggested the wayang kulit, or shadow puppet plays telling stories from the great Hindu epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, as the best metaphor for understanding Indonesian politics. In these plays, the dalang, or puppet master, sits behind a screen. Hidden from view, he manipulates scores of beautifully colored and intricately cut leather puppets. The audience sits on the other side, seeing only the shadows that the dalang skillfully casts on the barrier, and not the puppets themselves. The art is a spiritual metaphor for humanity’s inability to truly understand the world of the divine, a tenet central to Hinduism and Buddhism, which along with local animism were the dominant faiths of Indonesia before the coming of Islam between the 15th and 20th centuries.

For our purposes, the wayang kulit is useful for approaching Indonesian politics, as there always seems to be a deeper game and a hidden puppet master, with conspiracies real or imagined that are the true reality that are incomprehensible to mere mortals.

The latest national puppet drama began with several moments of shocking violence in the normally tranquil and tolerant Yogyakarta, a city known and loved throughout Indonesia for its polite and soft-spoken locals, its dozens of universities, and a sultan, Hamengkubuwono X, who enjoys considerable autonomy and is a great patron of the arts, including the wayang kulit.

Wayang kulit performances always have a battle scene. First-time viewers are often surprised at how exiting a talented dalang can make a shadow war. In our story, the violence began with a bar fight. About 2:30 am on March 19 a group of men beat, kicked, and stabbed to death one Heru Santoso at Hugo’s Café, actually a nightclub on the grounds of the pricey Sheraton hotel, with an unsavory reputation for drugs, prostitution, and binge drinking. Although Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population and beer, let alone hard alcohol, is difficult to find in Jogja’s minimarts and supermarkets, Hugo’s Café and a handful of other mega-discos offer the wealthy elite – many of whom are children of Jakarta’s nouveau riche sent to Jogja for a rather expensive but not very rigorous private education – $150 bottles of Jack Daniels for decadent conspicuous consumption.

February 16, 2014 at 10:37

As a foreign student who has been studying in Indonesia over the past 6 years, I assume this writing is tendentious and provocative in nature. While it tries to show the writer’s knowledge on Indonesian politics, it is however regrettable that the writer does not explore local popular / people opinion deeply in Yogyakarta. This case is truly about soldiers’ revenge on those ‘thug’ who have killed their friends. It is just coincident that the perpetrators of the killing are some men from NTT, who were closely related to any criminals. Yes it is true, people supports the revenge because of long involvement of the thug in destabilising local’s security. By saying so, it is baseless to bring this issue to a concspiracy theory unless the writer’s motive does only want to promote hatred and enmities between Indonesians (especially from East and West part of the country). What a shame :(

Ryan H
June 26, 2013 at 04:14

Excellent article, Mr. Vann.  Thank you for sharing your perspective.  

June 20, 2013 at 06:49

It always amazes me at the diversity of governing bodies in the world! Another fascinating idea is the variation of educating the masses and how skewed the messages could be when the funding bodies of the arts are the tyrants in wait…. Great article with a lot to expand on and much needed food for thought!

June 18, 2013 at 09:13

How is support (via social media) for the killers measured? It is my understanding that social media can be hard to measure except for absolute numbers of some activity (tweets, posts, etc.). And even then, these stats can be artifically enhanced with relatively low tech methods.  Just curious.

June 17, 2013 at 06:42

@ David Ian Kaye

In Soekarno era , it was called KKAD then RPKAD (till 1966)

Then in Soeharto era , it was called Puspassus AD then in early 70's through mid 80's : Kopasshanda (Komando Pasukan Sandi Yudha)

June 16, 2013 at 15:34

Very interesting article. My nowledge of Indonesia is limoted and I have never been there but I am aware of the horrendous treatment of the East Timorese population  by the Indonesian government through news reports from New Zealand. Peacekeeping operations became standard fare for the NZ and Australian militaries for enough years to knoe that something was not right. What now seems almost typical of that time is that the US government had it's hand in providing logistical support and war material for Indo Military operations on purley civilian populations. Suharto was a tyrant like so many around the world that marched to the beat of the US drum and we should all try and learn from our history and prepare ourselves for more of the same. It's till happening and is showing no signs of slowing down.

June 16, 2013 at 07:58

Nope, the Navy's special forces unit would be the Denjaka and Kopaska. The Marines are part of the Navy, and they too have their own elite unit, Taifib. 

June 16, 2013 at 01:29

Interesting. I feel the authors of both this article and the Jak Post article (linked above) are overstating the level of popular support for the killers. Most Indonesians I know are shocked and appalled by the executions. That said, IMO a large part of their outrage has to do with the fact these events occurred in Jogja.

Also, NTT = Nusa Tenggara Timur (not 'Nusantara Timor').

June 15, 2013 at 23:14

That is some misguided information. My friend went to papua in 2012 to climb cartenz pyramid (puncak jaya, highest peak in Indonesia).
There is no such systematic killing, surely that would harm Indonesia’s own position regarding the issue.
If such thing were true, we would have full scale rebellion from long time ago.

June 15, 2013 at 21:15

Well written and informative article!

June 15, 2013 at 10:30

This article is a fascinating and insightful look inside Indonesian socio-politics. Unfortunately you neglected to mention Papua, Indonesia's easternmost island, where Kopasus has systematically executed Papuan leaders and massacred entire villages.

Ayu Rahmawati
June 15, 2013 at 10:16

No, David. KKO is the Navy's special forces unit, while the Kopassus is the Army's.

June 15, 2013 at 03:53

That's not the shabu shabu I remember!

David Ian Kaye
June 15, 2013 at 03:28

We lived in Jakarta 1970/5. Is Kopassus the same military unit as the KKO, the Indonesian Commandoes Unit of the Army?

June 14, 2013 at 16:26

NTT is not called Nusantara Timor but Nusa Tenggara Timur. (East Nusa Tenggara).

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