Ethics and politics don’t mix in the world of Jakarta’s preman
A Jakarta police officer with a member of an ethnic gang.
The ‘preman’ – a colloquial term for a thug or gangster – has long been a ubiquitous figure in urban life in Indonesia. In recent years, however, preman have attained a new stature. Fractious local politics, inadequate law enforcement and the driving forces of poverty and unemployment have transformed post-Suharto Indonesia into a ‘preman’s paradise’. Preman now can be found not only in street corner gangs but also in mass organisations with thousands of members. Their leaders often have close connections with political elites.
However, despite their growing influence as social and political actors, preman have remained a largely anonymous social class. There is a handful of ‘celebrity’ gangsters, such as Hercules, the former ‘gangster king’ of the Jakarta market district of Tanah Abang, whose exploits are the regular subject of tabloid press exposés and TV talk shows such as Kick Andy. However, the lives of most people labelled as preman are usually reflected only through the distorted lens of popular crime reportage and police statistics.The image that emerges in the popular imagination is a dehumanising caricature of ‘brutal thugs’ and ‘society’s garbage’ who deserve no understanding and have no possibility of transformation. The following account attempts to portray some of the contradictions and complexities of the world of preman by focusing upon the story of a Jakarta gangster known as Bang Aa (a pseudonym).
Bang Aa was born in Jakarta in 1970. The son of a bajai taxi driver, he was forced by poverty to leave school at the age of 12. Heading into his teens he found himself without work and with few prospects. Bang Aa eked out a living providing ‘security’ for the numerous vendors and stalls surrounding the Pasar Minggu market in South Jakarta, especially its ‘warung remang-remang’, shady stalls where cheap alcohol and prostitutes are readily available. He became a heavy drinker and gained a reputation as a vicious fighter with a short temper, regularly dishing out beatings to troublesome patrons. Seeing his potential, Bang Marta, a senior preman in Pasar Minggu, took Bang Aa under his wing. Bang Marta emphasised to him the importance of building a reputation for being ‘not just hard, but also fair’, if he wanted to survive.
Fear may help you get food for today, but in the long term it will become your undoing
Bang Aa took his advice. After marrying, he resolved to curb his drinking and reduce his links to prostitution. He promised to ‘straighten himself out’: He recalls, ‘I realised that while I was feared, I was not respected. Fear may help you get food for today, but in the long term it will become your undoing. I had to figure out a way of gaining respect.’
He entered a local pesantren religious school in order to study the Quran and seek ‘inspiration’. There he met a member of the Betawi Brotherhood Forum (FBR), an ethnic paramilitary group which since its establishment in 2002 has exerted increasing influence over Jakarta’s gang landscape. Impressed by his fellow students’ description of the FBR’s claimed mission of combating crime and improving the social and economic welfare of Jakarta’s indigenous population, Bang Aa, an ethnic Betawi himself, decided to open his own branch of the organisation in Pasar Minggu.
Making the most out of nothing
As Bang Aa explained, ‘I was determined to take the few skills I possessed, namely an ability to persuade people either through my words or fists, and use this to create a sustainable livelihood for myself and others like me’. His decision to set up a new gang in Pasar Minggu was politically dangerous. The area was already home to a number of well-entrenched gangs and paramilitary organisations, and there were frequent outbreaks of violence over territorial boundaries and protection rackets.
The trick is to manipulate the process of consensus so that others accept your views whilst believing them to be their own. In that way you can achieve dominance without having to resort to physical conflict
In order to negotiate this tangle of inter-gang rivalries, Bang Aa helped establish the Pasar Minggu Youth Communication Forum, ostensibly meant to provide a medium through which gangs could peacefully negotiate territorial disputes. Gaining the trust of the gangs’ leaders and a reputation as something of a preman diplomat, Bang Aa used his position as a unifying figure to gain a following.
In 2004, when he felt confident his support base was sufficient he announced his intention to set up an FBR branch. The rival leaders were initially outraged. But they were neutered in their response by Bang Aa’s skilful exploitation of tensions within the forum, Bang Marta’s support among rank and file preman, as well as the conspicuous backing of the FBR leadership. Bang Aa described his political strategy as follows: ‘the trick was to manipulate the process of consensus so that others accepted your views whilst believing them to be their own. In that way you can achieve dominance without having to resort to physical conflict.’
A command post of the Betawi Brotherhood Forum, Pasar Minggu,
Within a few months, membership of Bang Aa’s FBR branch (named the ‘Crime Destroyer Team’) had grown to over 400, making it the largest gang in Pasar Minggu. Many new members were defectors from rival gangs, attracted by the high profile of the FBR and the reputations of Bang Aa and Bang Marta. ‘Donations’ from local businesses funded the construction of an impressive guard post at the entrance to the Pasar Minggu bus terminal, from where the group monitored comings and goings at the market and extracted fees from inter-province cargo trucks.
Making the most of his growing power and influence, Bang Aa instigated a new regime in Pasar Minggu. He continued with the preman staple of providing protection, by which stallholders are forced to pay daily ‘security fees’, with the threat of violent reprisal if they refuse. He also set up a roster system whereby Crime Destroyer members were paid a regular fee by vendors to sweep the markets of leftover food scraps. The scheme was a huge success. The Crime Destroyers further consolidated their legitimacy in the eyes of the local population by sponsoring mass circumcisions and making regular contributions to an orphanage. Rivals gangs were appeased by being allocated ‘hunting grounds’ on the margins of the market district, even though they were less lucrative than the market proper.
The attitude of the Crime Destroyers towards challenges to its authority within its territory was uncompromising. As Bang Aa explained, ‘We are from the street, so we know who the trouble-makers are. We say to pickpockets and petty thieves, if you want to make trouble here you will have to deal with us. If you want to work do honest work, even better… join us! Usually that’s enough as they are scared of us. But if they still go and make trouble… we wipe them out.’ A local bus company was so impressed by their effectiveness in ridding the terminal of thieves that it contracted the group to provide security on all its major routes.
The success of the Crime Destroyers provided enough capital to buy the support of the local police. The gang became ‘community sponsors’ of the under-resourced police station, supplying it with drinking water and stationery. In return, the police turned a blind eye to the Crime Destroyers occasional ‘excesses’, such as hospitalising a truck driver who refused to pay them dues and breaking the arms of a youth wrongfully accused of stealing a motorbike. In short, the police effectively outsourced many daily policing tasks to the gang. As Bang Aa stated, ‘If you don’t pay the cops they won’t do anything. As the saying goes, you lose a chicken and report it to the police, you end up losing a goat! Its cheaper for people to come to us to resolve a problem, and the police are content to let us handle most minor issues and petty crime as long as we pass them some money and keep them informed of what we’re doing.’
A crisis of conscience
The success of Bang Aa’s mini-empire however was soon disrupted, not by a rival gang, but by an ethical dilemma. In May 2007 a branch of the FBR in a different part of Jakarta attacked the Kemayoran Lama market that was controlled by a rival group, the Betawi Family Association (IKB), in an abortive take-over bid of the area’s lucrative parking business. The attack resulted in the deaths of two FBR members. This defeat at the hands of a smaller group was a significant loss of face for the FBR, which responded with a ‘call to arms’ to all its branches to launch a counter assault. To Bang Aa the attack was both a tactical and ethical mistake. The FBR had no presence in the area and consequently no local support, almost guaranteeing that any takeover bid would fail. It had also breached an unwritten rule amongst preman: rival gangs should not physically encroach on the turf of established gangs without due provocation or requests from the local population.
If you don’t pay the cops they won’t do anything. As the saying goes, you lose a chicken and report it to the police, you end up losing a goat
Bang Aa’s superiors were less concerned with these ethical constraints. One insisted, ‘This is a war, and in a war you have to maintain face at all costs. If we lose a few troops in the process then so be it!’ After much consideration, Bang Aa refused to sacrifice any of his Crime Destroyers as part of the counter-assault. This was taken as an act of gross insubordination by the FBR’s leadership and Bang Aa was forced to tender his resignation. He did so reluctantly but in his words, ‘with a clear conscience’: ‘I realised that ultimately our welfare was of no real concern for the leadership… to them we were just expendable pawns in their political games.’
Backed into a corner
Bang Aa soon understood that leaving the FBR had consequences. The man who replaced him as leader of the Crime Destroyers was keen to stamp his authority over what was one of the organisation’s most lucrative branches. Bang Aa was now verbally and physically harassed whenever he ventured into his former domain. The one-time ‘King of the Market’ became a shadow of his former self, spending much of his time smoking cigarettes and watching TV inside his cramped two-bedroom home with his wife and children. His sources of income began to dry up.
While on my way to visit Bang Aa soon after his resignation, I was accosted by his successor. Angry that a foreigner was visiting Bang Aa rather than him, he aggressively poked at my chest whilst outlining the new pecking order: ‘You have to understand Bang Aa is a nobody here now. You are welcome to keep coming to Pasar Minggu, but you have to do it through me.’ The response from some of his ‘lads’ was even more forthright: ‘Bang Aa is a traitor, and if he or his boys show their faces around here we will kick their arses! If you are sensible you won’t contact him again.’
Despite still having a band of several dozen loyal followers, Bang Aa found life in Pasar Minggu increasingly untenable. ‘I can’t be bothered going into the market these days’, he moaned, ‘there could easily be a misunderstanding.’ Within the world of preman, deposed or former leaders are expected to keep a low profile lest their presence in the streets be considered a challenge. Bang Aa was all too aware of the possible consequences of not doing so. Several months earlier a preman associate of his who returned to his neighbourhood after a stint in prison had been hacked to pieces by rivals who had taken his absence as an opportunity to take over his turf.
After two months of enduring what effectively amounted to house arrest, the reality that his days in Pasar Minggu were numbered finally sunk in. ‘There is no future here now for me and my family. The best I can do is try to save enough money so that we can move and make a new life somewhere else.’
Putting aside moral judgements about his preman’s reliance upon violence and intimidation, in many ways Bang Aa’s story reflects the dilemmas facing many of Indonesia’s poor and disenfranchised: how best to negotiate the complex and often unforgiving web of contradictions in which the poor live and how best to create, with the limited social and economic resources at their disposal, a sustainable and ‘legitimate’ livelihood. ii
Ian Wilson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a research fellow at the Asia Research Centre, Murdoch University. He has recently completed a book on gangster politics in Jakarta to be published by Routledge Press.