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Stein Kristiansen // Violent Youth Groups in Indonesia: The Cases of Yogyakarta and Nusa Tenggara Barat

Since the economic crisis started in 1997, an increasing number of people in Indonesia are thrown into the harsh reality of joblessness. The younger generation is most severely affected by the lack of employment or pertinent possibilities of income generation, and identity creation. More than 40 million people are without a reliable income from employment in Indonesia today, most of them young and male, having nothing to sell but their own muscles. Rates of criminality have increased, not least as a consequence of weakened state and police power since the fall of Soeharto’s authoritarian regime in 1998.

Vertical violence and human rights violations in Indonesia continue, especially in the troubled provinces of Aceh and Papua. More alarming, however, is the increase in horizontal violence, theft, and destruction of common property, and ordinary people are being threatened, tortured, and even executed by their peers. It is probable that several hundred people nation-wide are killed every year in incidents of street vigilantism, where angry mobs take the law into their own hands. (1) Much of the horizontal violence observed over the last few years is related to problems of economic crisis and unemployment, combined with the weakening of central state institutions, including the police.

Concurrent with these economic trends in Indonesia are long traditions of youth gangs and organized criminality in Indonesia. Racketeering and forced protection seem to be a growing business. Groups and gangs of unemployed youth have become bolder, making security a highly valued commodity. The demand for security services has increased dramatically and entrepreneurs are seen flocking into the violence business. Entry barriers into this line of business are low, and personal satisfaction seems to be high for the idle young who are undaunted, as it not only provides them with a source of income, but also strengthens their self-identity and confidence. Members of the national and local political elites may also gain from youth mobilization and unrest, and this might have contributed to the escalation of the violence seen.

Given such a background and trend, this paper takes a closer look at violent youth groups in two of Indonesia’s provinces, Yogyakarta and Nusa Tenggara Barat (NTB). Within these areas, the phenomenon of youth gangs and the violence business is especially evident in the city of Yogyakarta and on the island of Lombok. Both provinces have been hard hit by the reduced inflow of foreign tourists since 1998. In Yogyakarta, a number of groups affiliated to political parties fight each other and against the police. In Lombok, security groups called Pam Swakarsa also fight each other and against criminality. Dominating groups in both provinces are related to Muslim leaders and organizations, and they use religious teachings to legitimize their actions.

The research underlying this paper is based on my observation of developments in the two provinces through regular visits over the last ten years and through a network of friends and colleagues in the regions. However, the main data collection was made in August 2001, followed by visits to the two provinces again in October 2001 and January 2002. While researching on small-scale entrepreneurship and the conditions for business innovations, my attention was drawn to the role of criminality as a hindrance for small-scale business development. Studying the “violence business” is scary, disappointing, and methodologically difficult to approach. The aim of this paper is thus modest: it throws light on the operations of violent youth groups and the reasons behind their increase in numbers and significance.

The research process was organized into four stages: First, as mentioned, a close following of development trends in the two provinces, rendered possible through an institutional collaboration with Gadjah Mada University, Yogyakarta, and Universitas Mataram, NTB. Second, getting an overview of social conflicts and violence in the selected areas with information mostly from local newspapers and human rights organizations (REDHAM in the NTB, (2) Lembaga Bantuan Hukum Yogyakarta (LBH) and AYOHAM in Yogyakarta (3)). Information from the media and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) has been cross-checked with key informants at the two collaborating universities. Third, identifying organizations involved in the social tensions and violent conflicts. Again, the prime source of information has been local human rights organizations. The fourth stage involves an intensive process of interviewing leaders and members of the selected violent youth organizations, with assistance from the mentioned university institutions.

The paper consists of six sections. After this introduction is an overview of the history of violent youth groups in Indonesia. Thereafter comes a presentation of unemployment statistics combined with a theoretical discussion of identity creation, elite interests, and weakened institutions. Sections 4 and 5 focus specifically on violence and youth groups in the two aforementioned provinces. The conclusions and policy recommendations bring the paper to a close.

Traditions of the Violence Business

Gangster groups and youth violence are not new phenomena in Indonesia. The following is its historical background. It was not until 1900 that reasonably standardized police forces appeared within the Dutch colony. Till then, most of the non-European quarters of the colony’s cities and towns were “policed” by volunteer neighbourhood watches, known as ronda, who routinely treated suspected thieves, burglars, and other undesirables with vigilante violence (Anderson 2001, p. 10). Local security guard systems are still in operation, based on the very old social institutions for policing neighbourhoods by the communities themselves rather than by the state, and around 60 per cent of public places are still formally “unpoliced”. (4) According to Siegel (1986), the neighbourhood’s sense of “community” is actually expressed through a shared concern with security more than through ties of kinship or shared economic interests. There are also long traditions of street justice (main hakim sendiri) or lynch law at the level of gangs or communities, as documented by Barker (2001). In the absence of a recognized legal system, the distinction between youth militias and roving gangs has been unclear, as shown by Stoler (1988) in her study of lasykar militias in North Sumatra during the freedom struggle of 1945-49, and by Cribb (1991) in similar studies in the Jakarta area. Today, there are many examples of rivalry between the police and groups of criminals or territorial security groups.


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