May 28, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Political gangsters


The state court is an odd forum for gangsters to resolve their disputes. Particularly when they are suing officials of a government-recognised political party for breach of contract. All the more so when the contract involved staging an attack against hundreds of enthusiasts of a rival party faction which, officially, never took place - at least it was not called an attack.

Yet this is what happened when confessed 'former' preman (Indonesian for gangster or thug) Seno Bella Eymus filed suit in late May 1997, in the Central Jakarta State Court, on behalf of 49 of his compatriots. His suit was against Soerjadi, chair of the officially recognised faction of the Indonesian Democratic Party PDI, and against four other 'Puppet PDI' officials.

Bella charged that he and his boys were promised Rp 200 million (AU$ 100,000), given a cash advance of some Rp 5.5 million, and lent a Toyota Kijang light truck. In return, they were to throw out the supporters of PDI chair Megawati Sukarnoputri from her Jalan Diponegoro headquarters on July 27, 1996.

Pocket the money

Never mind that the assault sparked massive rioting in Jakarta that day, or that Soerjadi had been inaugurated as party chair the previous month in a rump congress orchestrated by the government - these things were of no concern to Bella. The issue was merely that he hadn't been paid. Since he couldn't spread the wealth, his compatriots were beginning to suspect he had pocketed the money himself. For Bella, it came down to a question of honour.

That the state court accepted the suit may indicate that the government has decided Soerjadi is expendable. After putting him up to dealing with their Megawati problem, he has served his purpose. Better he take the fall for employing rogues than certain cabinet ministers, or officers such as Armed Forces Commander Feisal Tanjung, rumoured to have launched the operation.

As if to compound the shame of seeing his faction suffer a near total loss in the elections, Soerjadi is now in the unenviable position of being sued by both the attackers and the attacked. In addition to Bella'spreman, 124 victims in a separate civil case are seeking compensation for 'material and moral' damages suffered as a result of being attacked by Soerjadi's crew and then detained by the police.

Both camps are being represented by the same legal team, Megawati's Indonesian Democracy Defence Team (TPDI). Despite the name, it is pursuing an offensive strategy of litigation.


Alternatively, the court's decision to accept the suit may simply indicate that they consider it a run-of-the-mill contract law case. It comes as no surprise that politicians and officials should employ the masses. During the 1990s, several prominent 'nationalist' demonstrations and violent 'mass actions' were revealed to be the work of hired preman.

Outside the courthouse during a session of dissident parliamentarian Sri Bintang Pamungkas' trial, youths yelled 'We love our nation and our country' and 'Hang Bintang!'. Later they were handed Rp 10,000 notes by a uniformed officer at the McDonalds in nearby Gajah Mada Plaza.

Preman have been suspected of playing 'integrationist' East Timorese in sometimes violent counter-demonstrations against East Timorese asylum-seekers and Bishop Belo supporters, of burning down the Medan Legal Aid offices, and of ransacking the offices of Dili's only local newspaper, to name only a few.

Both the raid on the PDI headquarters and the crude manner in which Megawati was displaced are seen by regime critics as exemplars of 'political premanism'.

In May of 1996, even before the Megawati affair came to a head, Suara Independen, the outlawed vehicle of the Independent Journalists' Alliance (AJI), ran a cover story on the politics of premanism. They had in mind not merely the use of thugs for political suppression, but a style of rule that has strayed from any notion of accountability in government that at first justified the New Order, and has reached the pinnacle of cynicism.

A certain ambiguity between authority and criminality is not unique to Suharto's Indonesia. The Dutch used Eurasian thugs to suppress the nationalist movement. In response, the PKI in the 1920s organised its ownanti-ribut bond, a defence league comprised of local toughs.

Both the 1945 revolutionaries who drove out the Dutch and the 1966 youth activists who helped to oust Sukarno were well-connected with the underworld. However, as such links become highly institutionalised, a new strategy has emerged of calling attention to this relationship through a discourse on preman.


The popular understanding of preman as hoodlum or gangster is fairly recent. In the early years of the Republic of Indonesia and well into the Suharto period, preman simply meant soldiers and officers who were off-duty or in civilian dress. To be in preman dress was (and is) to be wearing one's civvies.

By the 1980s, however, preman had acquired criminal associations. Preman became understood as the entire network of local racketeers who controlled markets, bus terminals, dangdut discos, prostitution, and parking, among other enterprises. Preman in other words acquired a new meaning of 'two-bit Mafiosi'.

In the 1990s preman have become a 'problem'. The precise nature of the problem, however, is under dispute.

The solution to criminality in the early 1980s was assassination. During the so-called Petrus (mysterious shootings) killings, the corpses of thousands of suspected criminals - then called gali-gali - turned up in public places. Most were shot with silencers, owned only by the security forces. Suharto boasted in his autobiography that it was a necessary response to a persistent problem.

Many of the targets, however, had been working with and for the security forces, in part during the lead-up to the 1982 elections. Some who managed to flee abroad expressed surprise that being hounded was the reward for their service.

Gali-gali disappeared, and preman took off. Learning from a rude awakening, preman have sought to minimise their vulnerability through better organisation. Preman have set themselves up as reformist organisations which claim to provide gainful employment to repentant recidivists.

Pemuda Pancasila

Pemuda Pancasila is a youth organisation which claims 6 million members. It is a prominent member of the national youth forum KNPI and received Suharto's blessing at its June 1996 congress. The group is widely seen as a collection of preman, and the usual suspect when pro-democracy activists are intimidated. But it insists its role is to uplift former and potential preman.

Soerjadi's accuser, Bella, heads a 3,000 member group called Yayasan At-Taubah which professes similar objectives.

As preman grew in influence, however, they began to challenge the authorities. In March 1995, two police officers and a marine private were killed in two separate incidents. This generated a sensation over premanism. As security forces retaliated with Operation Cleansing and rounded up some 7,000 street preman, newspapers highlighted the dangers of premanism with alarming headlines.

However, the press did so in ways that played off the ambiguity of the term itself. The weekly Tiras, in an article entitled 'Preman and preman,' carefully satirised the military-style 'training' the armed forces were giving captured preman in the name of national discipline. Having been given green uniforms, crew cuts, and lined up in neat rows, the preman 'not only didn't look spooky - at first glance they even resembled honest-to-god soldiers', it said.

With similar subtle delight, journalists are fond of using the term preman to refer to soldiers in their civvies, even though the cognate sipil is available and preferred by authorities.

Money motive

It is not without irony that Soerjadi, a man willing to advance his political career at the cost of public contempt, has dismissed Bella's case against him as 'slander anchored by politics', no more than expected from a preman whose only motive is money.

Especially after the violent take-over of the PDI headquarters, Soerjadi has been fighting a losing battle to assert the legitimacy of his position. He insists his partisans never executed an invasion, only sent a large delegation to negotiate with the Megawati camp.

Soerjadi acknowledges he met with Bella, and even that the latter offered to provide security for his daughter's wedding and to mobilise 40,000 people on behalf of his PDI. However,Soerjadi says he refused, because Bella confessed he was not a member of the PDI.

One of the accused, PDI Jakarta section head Lukman Mokoginta, admits to having lent Bella the vehicle for an anti-Megawati demonstration, but says it was later called off. (Also see below).

The publicity surrounding the case tests the potency of the open secret of intimacy between preman and power politics. How public can such situations become while still being officially denied?

Bella and company will almost certainly lose their case. Soerjadi has been unwilling to produce a list of his 'volunteers', and Bella's TPDI admits it has no documentation of payment or promise thereof. In any case, despite the public airing given to Bella's charges, Soerjadi's position as chair of the officially recognised PDI is unlikely to be jeopardised.

Bella just wants his money. If it weren't for the intervention of his lawyer R O Tambunan, he would have stormed Soerjadi's house by now. 'If we've used the law properly, but are still up against the wall,' Bella remarked in an interview with Mutiara, 'then we'll fight itpreman-style.'

Postscript: Bella lost on 12 November 1997.

Inside Indonesia 53: Jan-Mar 1998

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