Feb 27, 2024 Last Updated 12:52 AM, Feb 22, 2024

Trial by fire

Taking the law into your own hands is now commonplace in urban areas in Indonesia

Danang Kukuh Wardoyo

In some situations, a ‘crowd’ is associated with uncontrollable, aggressive or destructive behaviour. Crowds of English soccer fans may suddenly act like hooligans and vandals and protestors in worker demonstrations in various countries are often labelled disruptive. But these sorts of crowds gather in special situations, or at particular events. They don’t gather very often and they don’t usually kill people.

In Indonesia, it doesn’t take a special event for a terrifying crowd to gather. All it takes is a scream of ‘Thief!’ in a public place. Once a crowd appears, its behaviour is often so unpredictable that anyone may fall victim.

‘Two policemen from Majalengka Police were beaten to death by a crowd in Sindangpanji village, Cikijing District, Majalengka, West Java after it was suspected that they intended to rip off an ojek (motor cycle taxi) driver. One of the two policemen was burnt alive.’

Incidents like this one, reported in Kompas in August 2002, are frequently referred to as ‘main hakim sendiri’ (taking the law into your own hands). The ‘trial’ of the alleged criminal becomes a game for the crowd, which acts as a kind of ‘pengadilan jalanan’ (street court). Tragically, these ‘games’ often end in the death of the alleged criminal, regardless of guilt.

Since the fall of Suharto in May 1998, main hakim sendiri has become commonplace in Indonesia. Between 1999 and May 2002, the Greater Jakarta Metropolitan Police recorded 318 cases of suspected criminals being beaten by crowds in the greater Jakarta area (Jakarta, Bogor, Tangerang and Bekasi) and a few areas in West Java alone. A survey of the Jakarta crime-oriented newspaper Pos Kota between 1997 and May 2002 revealed 566 reported cases. These extremely high numbers are a cause for real concern.

Although there is a long history of main hakim sendiri in Indonesia, dating from the Indonesian revolution (1945-1949), an alarming new trend has been the practice of burning suspected criminals. Before 1999 crowds dispensing street justice usually beat their victims to death and there were very few cases of the suspected offenders being burned. Between January 1999 and May 2000, however, Kompas reported that of 48 crowd-related fatalities recorded by the Greater Jakarta Metropolitan Police, 18 were as a result of suspected criminals being burned to death.

Indicative of this new trend is the admission made by several ojek drivers in West Java that the formula ‘five parts to two’, meaning five parts of kerosene mixed with two parts of petrol, is now well known. This formula, which is poured onto the ‘thief’ and lit, is used by many street courts in the region.

What is behind this new trend of meting out street justice to alleged criminals? A commonly heard explanation is that this phenomenon reflects Indonesia’s weak law enforcement. A legal system that is inconsistent, open to bribes and lacking in authority often means that even if criminals are caught and convicted they receive only light sentences. Criminals may even get off scot-free if they provide a generous enough bribe or are backed by powerful figures. The frustration which local communities feel with this kind of system and their own sense of powerlessness to change it may make them vulnerable to this kind of aggressive crowd behaviour. While this so-called ‘frustration-aggression’ theory makes sense, it doesn’t explain why crowds have recently chosen to burn criminals.

I have witnessed these street courts in action on several occasions. On one occasion, I observed a crowd dispensing street justice to a pickpocket in Pejompongan, Central Jakarta. As I stood there, a number of those in the crowd called for the pickpocket to be burned: ‘If this was Bekasi that pickpocket would be burned for sure!’, ‘Just burn him, so he’ll learn his lesson!’, ‘In Tangerang there’d be no messing around, he’d be burned for sure!’.

The crowd’s yells attempted to generalise a pattern of action: that all thieves caught by crowds are burned. We can interpret this as an association between stimulus and response, which is reinforced through repetition. Thieves caught by crowds in urban kampung (villages) are often burned. This strengthens the association between ‘thief’ (read: criminal) and ‘burn’. When another thief is caught, this association is what people most easily recall from their memories.

Burning accused criminals

My research was based on two in-depth case studies of people involved in burning accused criminals. I met with and interviewed a number of the people involved in the burnings, including those responsible for it.

The chain of events in the first case study began when a young man in Indramayu borrowed a motorbike from his close friend. He then sold the bike and disappeared. Angered by this behaviour, the youth’s older brothers tracked the thief down. When they found him, they beat him and tied him up. Then, on their own initiative, the thief’s four older brothers handed him over to the owner of the motorbike, telling the owner, ‘This is our younger brother, but we’re giving him to you. It’s up to you whether you want to turn him red, green or black.’ They then departed leaving their brother behind. Not long after this, neighbours and ojek drivers began milling around in front of the house of the bike’s owner. Some of these people began calling for the thief to be burned.

Because the thief was a good friend, before going through the ritual of burning him, the owner of the bike asked, ‘Before I burn you, is there anything you want to ask for?’.

‘I want you to hold me,’ answered the thief.

‘No way! Ask for something else.’

‘Can I have a smoke?’ asked the thief. So, as the thief’s hands were bound, his friend helped him to light a cigarette and put it between his lips. While the crowd shepherded him towards the public cemetery, the thief smoked his last cigarette. When they came to a path among rice fields near the cemetery, the bike’s owner doused his friend’s body with petrol. ‘Matches, who has matches?’, he called out to the crowd. Someone in the crowd threw him a box of matches. ‘Then I lit a match, and burned him!’ he recalled. The flames instantly spread over the thief’s body. But the thief leapt into a muddy puddle at the edge of the rice field and the flames died out. The bike’s owner then dragged the scorched body of his friend back to the edge of the field. He was still moving, and breathing with difficulty.

‘That just tipped me further over the edge. He’d already been burned and he was still alive, so I poured more petrol on him and set him alight again!’ he added in a furious tone while demonstrating how he burned the helpless body. The thief was eventually burned to death.

The events of the second case study took place in Pancoran, Central Jakarta. A youth known to be a frequent petty thief was caught red-handed stealing shirts from his neighbour’s house. A crowd gathered and soon they were beating him and calling for him to be burned. The crowd took the youth to an open area of land and tied him to a clothesline. Several people then doused his body with kerosene and lit it. A few people in the crowd tried to stop the others from burning the youth but by the time they had managed to put out the flames, most of his skin was burnt. When the flames were out, the thief was ordered to walk home. Hours later, at around 11am, the police collected the thief from his house and took him to a police hospital to be treated and questioned. By five o’clock that afternoon, he was dead.

On the surface these two cases seem absurd. Burning your own friend? Burning your own neighbour? Everyone involved knew each other. How could it happen?

When I asked the owner of the motorbike in Indramayu why he had burned his friend, he confessed that by doing this the responsibility would be shared among all the members of the crowd. After all, they had all wanted the criminal to be burned. At least that’s what he had heard people calling out from the crowd.

‘If I’d stabbed him, or cut his throat, legally it would have been me alone who killed him. But if he was burned, well, the crowd also wanted him to be burned. They said they wanted to make an example of him,’ he recalled.

One of the people accused of burning the shirt thief in Pancoran gave a similar response. ‘I don’t know why I did it, because the crowd told me to, I doused the victim. Yeah, I doused him with what was at hand,’ he admitted.

These two answers reveal an attempt to divert responsibility to the crowd. An individual may act wildly in a crowd because of their anonymity in a large group of people. But these two answers reveal something else as well.

Theories of individual behaviour within a crowd suggest that there are various groups, each with their own interests, who become involved. Any one individual will tend to look for clues to indicate how their group will behave, and try to conform. The urge to conform does not arise from anonymity. In principle, it is stronger when an individual member of the crowd’s identity is known, such as in the two cases above.

Another way of understanding crowd behaviour is to think of a crowd as an opportunity to build self-esteem by seeking outside recognition. Media reporting on the burning of thieves typically includes a degree of sensationalism. For disempowered groups this media attention offers them instant acknowledgment.

Yet there is also the reality that until 1998 Indonesians were living under a repressive and corrupt regime which never delivered justice to poor people. The dark side of the era of reformasi is that the release of unexpressed frustrations has resulted in some groups taking the law into their own hands, with often tragic results. As long as the law remains weak and corrupt in Indonesia, main hakim sendiri will be a tolerated means of dispensing ‘justice’, even to close friends and neighbours.

Danang Kukuh Wardoyo (danang@radio68h.com) wrote his bachelor’s thesis at Atmajaya University, Jakarta, on the burning of thieves.
Cartoon reproduced with permission of the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung, Jakarta, www.fnfasia.org.

Inside Indonesia 79: Jul - Sep 2004

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