/Thugs for hire: The machete-licking gangsters playing a key role in Indonesias election

Thugs for hire: The machete-licking gangsters playing a key role in Indonesias election

Posted

April 12, 2019 03:08:48

Indonesian “thugs for hire” are playing an increasing role in the nation’s presidential election, less than a week out from the world’s biggest single-day poll.

Key points:

  • Paramilitary groups are providing security and support to presidential candidates ahead of the election
  • Many of the ‘preman’ groups began as gangs and some still have links to organised crime
  • Some groups have been paid by political parties to intimidate grassroots campaigners into silence

Known as “preman” from the Dutch term for “free man,” they can be seen at every political rally dressed in military fatigues, army boots and berets.

“[They’re] basically thugs and they have built a reputation as very tough, rough. Sometimes their actions border on criminal,” said Endy Bayuni, Senior Editor of The Jakarta Post.

“They will almost do anything, for any cause, for the right kind of money.”

There is a lot of money to be made at election time, according to Andreas Harsono from Human Rights Watch, Indonesia.

“They provide security. They open doors when a politician would like to enter another [candidate’s] territory,” Mr Harsono said.

Preman groups also use “intimidation and threats” to capture votes by targeting rival grassroots campaigners who seek to unseat their political masters, according to Mr Harsono.

“Visiting their houses, visiting their parent’s houses, visiting their grandfathers. If those things don’t work, then they will use violence,” he said.

There are dozens of preman groups across the Indonesian archipelago, each conducting regular military-style parades and bootcamp training sessions.

They also put on displays of strength and bravery for the public, including slashing at their own necks and tongues with machetes and setting off string necklaces made of firecrackers.

“I think that’s deliberate. They want to be seen as tough and for people [to be] afraid of them,” Mr Bayuni said.

Political muscle or organised crime?

Their fearsome reputation is linked to their long association with organised criminal gangs.

“If you run a restaurant in Jakarta, sometimes you have to pay more than one [preman] organisation to make sure your establishment is protected,” Mr Bayuni said.

One of the biggest groups, known as Banser, is providing support to President Joko Widodo’s campaign this year.

The group is affiliated with Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the largest Islamic mass organisation in the world, which is also publicly backing President Widodo.

“Banser is certainly a paramilitary-style group, but many of its members would object to being called ‘preman’, which carries the connotation of thug or gangster,” said Dr Ian Wilson, a senior lecturer at Murdoch University.

Dr Wilson, who has done extensive research on Indonesia’s crime gangs, said Banser’s support for President Widodo has been welcomed by some Indonesian voters.

“During the 2016 Jakarta [governor] election, the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) called for its members to go and ‘monitor the process’, which was code for going to polling stations in large numbers to intimidate would-be voters,” he said.

“In 2019, many see Banser’s role as a positive one, because it’s being used to balance out some of that intimidation.”

Preman groups try to restore image after murderous past

Banser in particular has a dark history.

During the communist purge of 1965 to 1966, the group was enlisted by the military to assist in the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Indonesians.

“The campaign was led by the military to crush the communists, but many of the killings were conducted by these paramilitary groups, including Banser,” said Mr Bayuni.

Presidential challenger Prabowo Subianto has his own paramilitary group, known as Brigade 08.

It was first established by the ex-general’s political party Gerindra, to help with security on the ground during the 2014 presidential campaign.

“We are tasked with helping the candidates win [the election] and securing their campaign activities,” head of Brigade ’08 Jakarta Chapter, Fasran Viqki told ABC.

“We’re also doing social, people-to-people activities … helping people in need, for example those with health problems.”

Some militant groups have been starting getting involved in humanitarian assistance, like disaster relief.

But Endy Bayuni said the move is still financially motivated.

“We seem to be getting more and more of them, different organisations offering their services. For services rendered of course. They expect payment,” Mr Bayuni said.

Topics:

elections,

defence-and-national-security,

electoral-system,

electoral-fraud,

indonesia