Shadow Puppets and Special Forces: Indonesia’s Fragile Democracy

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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.

When the police arrived they rounded up the usual suspects. No one was very surprised to learn that the four men arrested were all from Nusantara Timor (individuals from the region are known as NTT), the smaller, poorer and arid islands of Southeastern Indonesia. Local Javanese often assume NTT to be associated with organized crime. Here the public face of the mafia is often the figure of the preman. Drawn from Dutch, the term can be translated as “thug” and is applied to men who provide muscle for larger criminal enterprises that run rackets ranging from drugs to parking monopolies on busy streets. Often, preman work as security at nightclubs and bars. Importantly, Javanese view the NTT, preman or not, as outsiders. With darker skin and curlier hair, speaking not Javanese but one of the other 700 hundred languages in Indonesia, and coming from Catholic or Protestant communities converted by Portuguese and Dutch missionaries generations if not centuries ago, young NTT men are marked by ethnic, linguistic, and religious differences. Indonesia’s largest ethnic group, the Javanese, often view these immigrants with suspicion.

The plot thickened as more details about the accused and victim emerged. Confirming Javanese prejudices, all four of the suspects hailed from NTT and one, Hendrik Benjamin, aka Angel Sahetapi Diki Ambon, had known ties to premanisme and previous arrests for rape and murder. Surprisingly, however, another of the suspects, Yohanes Juan Manbait, was a member of the Jogja police force. While reports and official statements are vague and contradictory, Juan had evidently been dismissed for dealing shabu-shabu, or crystal methamphetamine, used widely throughout Southeast Asia, but may have still held his rank.

The victim also had an important identity. Heru Santosa was a sergeant in the Kopassus, the red beret-wearing elite Indonesian Special Forces unit. The Kopassus enjoys close ties to key former generals and political figures such as President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and opposition candidate Prabowo Subianto. Historically, Kopassus played a key role in the anti-Communist massacres of the 1960s and the counter-insurgency operations in East Timor and Aceh.

These revelations raised many eyebrows, as tensions between the TNI and the Police Republik Indonesia (POLRI) were already at breaking point. A week earlier in Sumatra, an unknown number of soldiers had led an assault on a police outpost after an POLRI officer shot dead a member of the TNI, causing injuries and ending in the burning down of the police station. The POLRI officer has since been found guilty of murder and received a 12-year sentence (no word on the soldiers who staged the attack). Jogja authorities were fearful of a similar revenge action. Yet someone still ordered the prisoners taken from the central police jail to the outlying Cebongan Prison in the suburb of Sleman. That puppet-master remains anonymous.

Incidents of TNI-POLRI violence are indicative of a larger domestic security issue. Suharto’s New Order (1967-1998) regime placed both the military and police under a joint command, with the police as junior partner. The TNI assumed a powerful role in domestic politics following a failed coup d’état by a small group of dissident officers loosely associated with the Indonesia Communist Party (PKI), which killed six of the nation’s top generals, among others.

Demanding revenge for his superior’s deaths, Major General Suharto assumed command and encouraged a popular campaign of violence against the members of the PKI and its affiliated organizations. While there was violence from religious and student groups, the TNI, and especially Kopassus, played a leading role in the murder of between 500,000 and 1,000,000 alleged communists and their associates that ensued in late 1965 and 1966.

To justify his position and to institutionalize military rule, Suharto promoted the ideology of Dwifungsi (Dual Function), which called for the TNI to play an active role in politics, social issues, and economic affairs, in addition to protecting the nation. The result was a military that suppressed threats to domestic security as diverse as labor unrest, separatist revolts in Aceh and East Timor, Islamic radicals, and student activism, but also put officers in parliament. The Dwifungsi military institutionalized corruption, ran key segments of the economy, and used force to intimidate or eliminate its business rivals. Army bases proliferated and the TNI presence was felt throughout the 17,500 islands of the archipelago. With the return to democracy in 1998, the new government made it clear that the army should return to its barracks and focus on defending the nation’s borders.

Meanwhile, POLRI was placed under civilian control and given the mandate to ensure domestic security. This has not happened. When the police have tried to assert themselves, their larger and better-equipped rivals in the military have swatted them down.

These were the shadows dancing on the walls of Cebongan Prison this March, causing many to fear a TNI counter attack. It came on the night of the 23rd when at least 11 men, dressed in black commando attire and equipped with state-of-the-art weapons and communications systems, forced their way into Cebongan Prison.

Initially denied entry when they claimed to be police wanting to interrogate the suspects, they then threatened to blow up the building with grenades. The fearful guards let them in, only to be beaten and tied up. As one attacker counted down the time, the rest of the team searched for the suspects. After another attacker executed the four suspects, reports claim that the other prisoners were then forced to applaud and thank the killer. On the way out, the team covered their tracks by destroying the CCTV system and removing the video surveillance footage. The whole event took less than 15 minutes. It did not take a background in military affairs to realize this was a very professional hit.

Graphic images of the bloodbath shocked Jogja and Indonesia as a whole. Who was the dalang, the puppet master, who ordered, organized, and funded the murders? Rumors and conspiracy theories were rampant, many thriving on Facebook and Twitter. Was it a preman gang war? Was it a drug scandal? Was it a merely a revenge killing or were people who knew too much being silenced? Would this lead to further TNI-POLRI hostilities? Military authorities denied that soldiers were involved. Law and Human Rights ministers visited the site and opened their own investigations. Cynics shrugged their shoulders and said this kind of thing happens all the time, the only difference is that the public found out about it on social media. The sultan opined that the whole tragedy was due to ethnic conflict and called for more multi-cultural boarding houses to better integrate the city. Newspaper reported attacks on young NTT in Jogja.

Then, on March 29, army chief of staff General Pramono Edhie Wibowo held a press conference on the normally quiet Good Friday holiday (Indonesia observes major Islamic, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, and Chinese holidays). In a stunning turn of events, the public got a glimpse behind the screen as the general reversed earlier TNI denials and stated that the killers were indeed active members of Kopassus.

To the disbelief of many, the general then went on to praise the men. Wibowo, the son of Sarwo Edhie – the Kopassus commander deemed most responsible for carrying out the anti-PKI massacres of 1965-66 – praised the men for avenging the death of their former leader. He held that they embodied the best elements of martial morality such as loyalty, unit cohesion, and discipline. He also announced that they had turned themselves into their superior officers and would thus face a military tribunal.

Held by the Diponegoro Division Military Police, little information about the suspects has been made public and none have been charged with the killing, only the attack. With vague official statements the local heads of the TNI and POLRI were transferred to other cities. As human rights observers and concerned citizens howled with frustration and both the American and Australian governments expressed deep concern about the affair, many wondered if they soldiers would truly face justice. Others argued that the army was placing itself above the law.

Social media also came alive with support for the killers. Hailing them as heroes who were saving the city from an alien criminal threat, many comments contained implicit and explicit anti-NTT racism. The Cebongan Prison murders were not unfavorably compared to the Petrus killings of the early 1980s (from the Indonesian acronym for “mysterious shooters,” penembak misterius), which saw the summary execution of thousands of suspected preman, whose bodies were dumped in public to terrorize their colleagues.

In opposition, street art criticizing the killers began appearing on the streets of Jogja this month. Here the city’s famous and much celebrated graffiti artists equated the Kopassus vigilantes with their preman victims, warning the rest of us to be careful of both groups of men with guns.

This March madness brought together many of the challenges to Indonesia’s domestic security and stability. These tensions will only heighten as the nation enters an election year with a deeply divided electorate and few political figures enjoying broad appeal. As usual, shadow puppet politics defied easy understanding and set many rumor mills into action. While several of the puppets are in custody on an army base, the dalang remain mysteriously hidden behind the screen, only letting us see the shadows they wish us to see.

Perhaps the most chilling shadow for this young democracy is that cast by over three decades of military rule and extralegal violence under the “Smiling General,” Suharto.

Michael G. Vann is an associate professor at the History Department of Sacramento State University.

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