Apr 13, 2024 Last Updated 4:19 AM, Apr 12, 2024

The Banyuwangi murders

Published: Jul 30, 2007

Why did over a hundred black magic practitioners die in East Java late in 1998?

Jason Brown

On September 1, 1998, Pak Tafsir and his wife Bu Miswa had just finished their evening meal and were preparing for bed when they heard a shout from outside their small bamboo home. 'Grandfather, can I borrow a match?'

The elderly couple were confused. It was pitch-black outside; there was no electricity for their simple home isolated in the middle of a rice paddy. As Bu Miswa groped around in the darkness searching for a match, Pak Tafsir set out to investigate.

But he was scared. He sensed menace lurking in the darkness outside, so armed himself with a large club. When Pak Tafsir opened the front door he faced a mob of angry attackers - shadowy figures, some in ninja-style masks, who moved in quickly to grab the 70-year-old farmer.

Although he managed to ward off one of the attackers with a heavy blow from his club, Pak Tafsir was no match for the hysterical mob who tied a rope around the old man's neck then dragged him more than 50m to the roadside of this small East Javanese village. The attackers disappeared into the night. Bu Miswa had fled terrified into the jungle behind her home, and Pak Tafsir's lifeless form lay dumped by the roadside to be discovered by villagers early the next morning.

Pak Tafsir's gruesome murder was just one of an estimated 150 bizarre executions of suspected black magic practitioners, or dukun santet, in the Banyuwangi region of East Java during 1998. What began as a few sporadic murders from early February of that year soon erupted into a mysterious killing spree which was to drive fear and terror into the Banyuwangi community. At the same time the organised nature of the murders along with an apparent terror campaign against local Islamic clerics, or kyai, gave rise to a multitude of political conspiracy theories.

Who was masterminding the dukun santet slayings? Were elite politicians working behind the scenes, as some high-profile political leaders claimed, including Abdurrahman Wahid, then head of Indonesia's largest Islamic organisation Nahdlatul Ulama? Was it a military exercise designed to create chaos throughout East Java in the wake of Suharto's resignation? Were forces at play to disrupt a major congress of Megawati Sukarnoputri's Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) planned for Bali, just half an hour by ferry from Banyuwangi? Were the dukun santet simply scapegoats in a carefully manipulated campaign designed to disrupt and discredit the emerging post-New Order political forces in the staunchly Islamic province of East Java?

Now, more than one year since the terror of Banyuwangi reached its peak, most of these political conspiracy theories remain largely unanswered. The often horrific murders, once described by Indonesia's press as 'Banyuwangi's killing fields', have simply become a haunting memory of human rights abuse joining Indonesia's lengthy list of socio-political ills which include problems in Ambon, Aceh, Irian Jaya and the former East Timor.

Sifting through the facts, half-truths and lies that lurk behind the Banyuwangi affair is a difficult task. I spent three months in the small village of Gintangan, about 20km south of Banyuwangi city, gleaning information from village heads, black magicians, white magicians, muslim clerics, lecturers and local culture experts, prisoners and family members of murder victims. What emerged were not the political conspiracy theories bandied about daily in the headlines of Indonesian and international press, but rather two distinct events. What began as a cultural phenomenon quickly became a vehicle for political manipulation both actively at the local level and passively at the national level.


In order to understand how such violent murder could emerge from the social fabric of Banyuwangi we must first consider the depth of belief in the paranormal that pervades this ethnically diverse community.

Banyuwangi has long been known as one of the most powerful centres of black magic in Indonesia, along with Banten in West Java and the island of Lombok. According to anthropologist Kusnadi, from the University of Jember, Banyuwangi's fertile land has bred a farming culture with close links to the spiritual world. As a buffer zone between the islands of Java and Bali, Banyuwangi also has a long history of violent struggle which in the past often met with failure. This combination of fertility and failure led to an obsession with sorcery among the peoples of Banyuwangi.

According to one history, black magic practised today in Banyuwangi is a blend of animistic belief and Islamic mysticism which arose out of inter-religious conflict during the Mataram court from the 16th century onwards. Another account tracks the origins of Banyuwangi's black magic to Tulung Agung - a region in the west of East Java.

Whatever its origins, today black magic, together with white magic such as fortune telling, love magic, healing massage and countless other forms, continues to play a dominant role within Banyuwangi cosmology. Nearly everyone I spoke to, from lecturers and journalists to farmers and housewives, believe in it wholeheartedly. All disasters - be they personal or communal - are attributed to black magic. Unusual or sudden death, crop failure, death of livestock, and marriage problems are all caused by a local dukun santet.

Black magic in Banyuwangi takes on two major forms. The first is sihir - black magic used to kill another person. This generally comes in the form of busung, where the victim's stomach will grow grotesquely in size. It is believed various items such as knives, nails, broken glass, even small frying pans or animals can be found inside the stomach. Busung victims rarely escape death.

The second is rapuh - sorcery designed to make the victim suffer throughout their lifetime. Symptoms include sudden blindness or deafness, paralysis or uncontrollable shaking and trembling.

Dukun santet are feared, and feelings of revenge permeate the social psyche. However, prior to 1998 revenge killings of dukun santet were rare. Banyuwangi villagers have long kept black magic in check at the local village level. A code of ethics among Banyuwangi dukun santet forbids them from using their magic against people in the same village. If this occurs the accused dukun must undertake an oath of innocence in the local mosque. Before 1998, a dukun found guilty by fellow villagers was usually exiled from the village and perhaps his home and possessions torched.

Good and bad

But in 1998, with the nation reeling under tremendous social change following the downfall of Suharto, the people of Banyuwangi abandoned cultural restraints and took the law violently into their own hands.

Between February and July 1998, cases of dukun santet murders in Banyuwangi were still relatively few - about five. However in August this figure leapt to 47 cases and in September 80 cases. In fact, during September and October 1998 the situation was akin to a bloodbath. According to figures compiled by a Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) investigation team, 143 suspected dukun santet were murdered in Banyuwangi along with another 105 murders in neighbouring regions of East Java such as Jember, Sumenep and Pasuruan after the phenomenon spread throughout the province.

I believe all of the murders were essentially a social phenomena grounded in the reformation process, along with various other social factors, which allowed deep-set feelings of revenge to emerge and be enacted upon indiscriminately.

Throughout Indonesia the reformation process quickly produced a dichotomy between 'good' and 'bad' in the political sphere. 'Good' was viewed as the new emerging reformation political forces. 'Bad' were those politicians with links to Suharto's New Order. The purging of the political 'bad' was particularly strong in East Java.

This 'good-bad' dichotomy also entered the collective consciousness at the village level. Dukun santet - those members of the community seen as responsible for all unexplainable hardship - became the 'bad' which needed to be purged from the social landscape.

A number of social factors allowed this simple 'good-bad' dichotomy to enter the social sphere. The monetary crisis threw many below the poverty line and created despair. The tremendous events of May 1998 in Jakarta, in which a social uprising, complete with looting and rioting, went largely unprosecuted, created a misconception among the villagers of Banyuwangi regarding the power of the state, particularly the military and police. As the killings reached their peak in September and October 1998 the villagers, bonded in solidarity, felt themselves to be above the law.

In the aftermath of May 1998, police were reticent to act with overt force and were anyway often outnumbered by hysterical mobs baying for dukun blood. On a number of occasions villagers protested outside police stations for the release of friends arrested in connection with the dukun santet slayings.

These factors allowed the killing spree to continue virtually unhindered until late October and early November, when the military finally sent in crack forces to quell the violent murders.

Not all of the dukun santet murders were spontaneous mass mob lynchings. Evidence I gathered from the field indicates that some assassins were paid - usually by villagers wishing to enact revenge upon a certain dukun santet but who were not brave enough to do it themselves. I also found evidence of local provocateurs who gave small amounts of money to teenagers and local hoodlums in order to buy alcohol. Once drunk, these people were more easily persuaded to join in a lynching mob.


The issue which captured the imagination of the Indonesian and foreign press and led to widening political conspiracy theories was the emergence of 'ninjas', who were often described as highly trained assassins with links to the military.

I don't believe such ninjas existed in Banyuwangi. Instead we have mainly villagers or local provocateurs who wanted to disguise their identity from fellow villagers by tying a t-shirt around their face.

>However, a 'ninja issue' certainly did exist. It was accompanied by what seems to have been a terror campaign against local muslim clerics, Islamic ulama and Nahdlatul Ulama activists. This is where we see the crossover from social phenomena to politically motivated campaign. The 'ninja issue', as I call it, emerged at the height of the dukun santet killings. Aided by a sensationalising mass media, the 'ninja issue' spread like wildfire throughout East Java and beyond. Now not only dukun santet were considered targets, but the entire Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) community.

Throughout East Java, Islamic communities established private security forces to protect their local muslim clerics. In Banyuwangi for example, as night fell the city was as though under siege, with bands of armed residents manning private security posts. All strangers were considered potential ninja assassins and rumours of ninja sightings intensified in a community gripped by panic and hysteria.

The 'ninja issue' reached its gruesome peak near the East Javanese city of Malang when on October 24, 1998, five suspected ninjas were murdered by villagers. One victim was burnt to death while another was beheaded and his head paraded around the small city of Godanglegi.

These murders had no direct relationship to the dukun santet slayings, which were of a cultural nature. But the 'ninja issue' does indicate a politically motivated anti-Nahdlatul Ulama campaign. The very fact that NU clerics were being terrorised throughout East Java led to claims of a national anti-NU conspiracy. The dukun santet murders were merely a lever designed to create chaotic conditions in East Java, unsettling the staunch NU region and disrupting the formation of Abdurrahman Wahid's National Awakening Party (PKB).

Fortunately the national conspiracy theories have remained just that - theories. But there is more evidence of an anti-muslim cleric campaign at the local level. The fall of Suharto and the arrival of the reformation process heralded a new phase in the political empowerment of local religious leaders. Muslim clerics, or kyai, have long played an important social role as informal village leaders. In Banyuwangi villagers will often approach their kyai for assistance on all kinds of matters be they spiritual or personal, while the village head ( kepala desa) is usually only approached when official business is required, i.e. a government stamp.

With the arrival of political reformation, these respected informal village leaders had the opportunity to move from the social to the political sphere. These muslim clerics posed a major threat to local politicians, including village heads, district heads and even the Banyuwangi Bupati, or regent, who was forced to resign in the wake of the dukun santet slayings and NU terror campaign.

Local political figures, fearful of the threat posed by muslim clerics and the new strong political arm of NU, may have used the dukun santet slayings for their own political interests by latching onto the 'ninja issue' in order to launch a terror campaign against the NU community.

In Banyuwangi of the 143 suspected dukun santet who were murdered only one was a Koranic teacher. This man had recently moved from the north of the region following accusations he practised black magic. While it is true that a NU investigation team found that 83 of the 143 killed were actually NU members, this is not particularly unusual given that Banyuwangi has always been a staunch NU stronghold.

I believe there are two main reasons why the terror campaign, or 'ninja issue', spread out of Banyuwangi to the rest of East Java. Firstly, local politicians in the various regions of East Java were similarly threatened by the political empowerment of muslim clerics, while in some regions there existed tensions between the Islamic community and the local political and security apparatus. Secondly, NU spokesmen often overreacted to the situation by calling on the community to protect their local muslim cleric, creating a scene of hysteria throughout the entire province.

Whether local or national conspiracy, the anti-NU terror campaign ultimately failed. In East Java the National Awakening Party won convincingly in last year's election, while the party's leader, Abdurrahman Wahid, is now Indonesia's third president.

Meanwhile in the villages of Banyuwangi belief in black magic remains as strong as ever. Villagers continue to fall ill and die as a result of black magic practices. Feelings of revenge continue to mount and the possibility of another uprising against the 'bad' of society always lurks dangerously on the horizon.

Jason Brown (pakjason44@hotmail.com) was a field project student in Malang, East Java, with Acicis (the Australian Consortium of In Country Indonesian Studies) in late 1999.


Inside Indonesia 62: Apr - Jun 2000

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