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A tale of two cities

Published: Jul 02, 2000

Post-Suharto, central power is weak and 'the local' becomes more important. A look at two very different cities.

Loren Ryter

Medan gets a new mayor

'The Minister of Interior Affairs shouldn't force the people of Medan to play hardball?. If they wanna make this country into [a nation of] cowboys, we're ready.' Medan assembly member Martius Latuperisa issued this threat late in March in the midst of a heated controversy over the planned swearing-in of Medan's new mayor, Abdillah Ak, MBA. Abdillah is a local businessman who on March 20 had been elected by a vote of 35-10 in the local assembly. If necessary, Martius warned, the assembly would inaugurate Mr Abdillah themselves, without Interior Affairs Ministry authorisation. 'We know best who's most fit to be the mayor of Medan. Moreover, the people of Medan are not subordinates of the central government,' asserted Martius, who is the Medan chief of the Armed Forces Sons' and Daughters' Communication Forum (FKPPI). Martius once represented Golkar in the assembly. He is now the faction head of the Golkar splinter party Justice and Unity Party (PKP).

After decades of regional subordination to Jakarta, it is tempting to laud the rise of the local. But this still looks like a New Order kind of conflict. The inter-bureaucratic, inter-personal, and inter-organisational competition for influence reaches from the local to the national. It is not strictly a matter of local autonomy.Yes, the advent of new political parties has heightened competition. A freer media and rising stakes make conflict more visible. But local power continues to be contested much as it has been ever since independence: through mass mobilisation, bribery, and 'lobbying Jakarta.'

Medan was once the colonial seat of the Deli plantation region in Sumatra. Today it is Indonesia's third largest city with a population of over two million. Medan's ethnically diverse composition reflects the legacy of a colonial economy which relied on Chinese, South Asian, and later Javanese contract coolies to work the tobacco and rubber estates, as well as on ethnic Chinese traders to provide basic commercial services. By 1981, ethnic Javanese comprised 29% of the population, and ethnic Chinese made up 13%, four times more than in Indonesia overall.

Military mobilisation during the 1945-49 revolution and during the late 1950s PRRI rebellion against Jakarta brought many Bataks and Mandailing to Medan, where they had previously been a minority. Once demobilised, these youths maintained contacts with military commanders even as they assumed territorial control in the informal economy. By the 1960s, these 'preman' (free men) as they were known, made a living as middle-men in markets, ticket scalpers at the movie theatres, and in private security in ethnic Chinese residential districts.

In response to leftist labour radicalism in plantations and industry, military authorities encouraged the formation of anti-communist labour unions such as Soksi and youth groups such as Pemuda Pancasila (Pancasila Youth, PP). By the time of the October 1965 'coup', these groups were well placed to lead the purges against suspected members of the PKI, and were indeed positively encouraged to do so. Chief among the victims were predominantly ethnic Javanese railway and plantation workers, and urban ethnic Chinese accused of involvement with Communist China.

The leaders of the groups which carried out these purges, as well as civilian and military officials who had violently demonstrated their anti-communist vigour, increasingly gained control of the early New Order economy and polity. Medan had long promised quick fortunes. During the colonial era it was the export hub for 'the land of the dollar' in its hinterland. Plentitudes of disposable cash made Medan particularly suited for gambling and prostitution. Tjong A Fie, the Dutch-appointed Captain-Chinese and the leading non-European power broker in late colonial society, operated government-licensed gambling, opium leases, and nearly thirty brothels. But with their political influence completely smashed by the late 1960s, ethnic Chinese fell to the mercy of power-holders for the continued operation of these ventures as well as legal commerce. The premanwere more than willing to provide the 'protection' they required, under threat of closure, seizure, or worse.

Bad boy democracy

Under these conditions, a kind of bad boy democracy flourished in Medan. Jakarta was never able to perfectly structure Medan's polity from the top down. Central and local authorities were forced to negotiate with the quasi-mafia forces at the grassroots whose growth they themselves had fostered. In fact, this year's controversy over the new mayor echoed a similar contest at the dawn of the New Order. Then, Pemuda Pancasila had openly and successfully championed Sjoerkani for mayor against a candidate backed by the regional military command. Installed in 1966, Sjoerkani served until 1974.

During Sjoerkani's tenure, Pemuda Pancasila's influence grew further. Its members squeezed legal and illegal commerce in the town so tightly that the ethnic Chinese community still calls them 'five claws' (go-jiao) rather than 'five principles' (Pancasila). Not merely a gang of thugs, Pemuda Pancasila also became a springboard into the bureaucracy and even the military. Pemuda Pancasila leaders still boast that even former Abri chief Feisal Tanjung was once a member and a market preman.

However, Pemuda Pancasila's chokehold became irksome to business owners and to military officers who themselves wanted a cut of the action. In the early 1980s a splinter group of PP began to fight for control of territory, and especially for gambling revenues. Ikatan Pemuda Karya (Work Service Youth Association, IPK) was funded in part by Chinese entrepreneurs, and was backed by some military officers including, so it is rumoured, then-Abri commander Benny Murdani. The idea was to create a balance of power.

IPK's leader was a shrewd Christian Toba Batak fluent in Hokkien named Olo Panggabean. Unlike PP, IPK began to directly manage gambling operations rather than merely squeeze them for protection money. Olo got his start while still a PP member at the 1973 Medan Fair, where he was in charge of security. Shortly thereafter he opened kim, a variety of bingo played for cash prizes, which he still runs openly at the Medan Fair ground.

Though they mortally fought each other on the streets, IPK strove to support Golkar even more fervently than did PP. Golkar election campaigns provided the ideal venue to stage a show of force. Each group mobilised thousands of its members clad in their respectively coloured camouflage uniforms. By the late 1980s and into the 1990s, other national Golkar-supporting youth groups became minor players in Medan's territorial scene, notably FKPPI, the army brats' youth group, which for most of its late New Order existence was led nationally by Suharto scion Bambang Trihatmojo.

Clashes between the groups' rank and file were often actually lucrative for their municipal leaders, who themselves sat comfortably in their assembly seats. (Each group had at least one representative in the local assembly, always with Golkar.) For several years during the early 1990s, a protracted three-way battle known as the 'the poison arrow affair' ensued between PP, IPK, and FKPPI in the Polonia district of Medan, an area adjacent to the airport slated for luxury housing development. Developers colluded with the youth group chiefs to provoke a protracted conflict which would scare off residents and drive down land prices.

For the Medan bosses, reformasi ushered in new opportunities as well as some new obstacles. They did not see multi-party elections as a formidable threat. IPK continued to support Golkar. FKPPI split between Golkar and its splinter party PKP. Senior leaders of PP hedged their bets, fanning out into Golkar, PKP, PAN, and also PDI-P. One local PP boss running on a Golkar ticket lost the election in his district of Padang Bulan but still gained a seat after negotiation within Golkar. Most bosses who held seats retained them, though sometimes under new party banners.

But what did the rise of the new parties imply for territorial control? To IPK in particular, members of the security wing of Megawati's PDI-P were dangerous pretenders, all the more so since many rank and file PP members had joined their forces. Golkar assembly member and Medan IPK chief Moses Tambunan told an IPK rally shortly after the elections to prepare for a fight: 'Clearly PDI-P is out to undermine us. They gotta eat too. If they beg for rice, give them some. But if they want the rice bowl, forget about it!'

Other institutional changes brought about by reformasi were more important. The separation of the police from the rest of the armed forces gave PP new leverage against IPK. PP began to demand that the police crack down on illegal gambling. As if obediently, in December the police mobile brigade avenged IPK's stabbing of one of its members by shooting up Olo's headquarters, known locally as 'the White House.' IPK in turn relied on the regional military command, whose logistics operations it has openly helped finance, to admonish the police.


Medan's established forces found a common candidate for mayor in Abdillah Ak. As a local entrepreneur he could be expected to generate numerous projects to be contracted out. During the mass mobilisations surrounding the mayoral candidacy, both FKPPI and the Youth Front of the political party PAN were among Abdillah's militant supporters. One of PP's senior leaders sits on the North Sumatran board of PAN.

Abdillah was fully willing to cooperate with all groups holding effective power in Medan. PDI-P's original candidate, Professor Firman Tambun, took a less pragmatic stance and suffered for it. After clashes between PP and IPK in November and December 1999, Tambun stated that the police must enforce the law and arrest criminals, not just summon the youth group leaders for reconciliation. He was subsequently shut out of the candidate list entirely.

PDI-P held more seats in the local assembly than any other party - 16 out of 45 - yet they failed to secure their mayoral candidate. The circumstances that led to this failure were only brought to light through non-procedural means. After the assembly voted to elect Abdillah mayor, a group of PDI-P cadres calling itself the Struggle Bull Youth Movement abducted 12 of the PDI-P's 16 assembly members and took them to the party's provincial headquarters. There they were pelted and threatened with knives. Four of them then signed a prepared confession that each of them had accepted 25 million rupiah from Abdillah's 'Success Team' in exchange for their votes.

On April 18, the governor of North Sumatra finally swore in the new mayor in a local assembly building guarded by army troops, members of the security wing of the PDI-P siding with their party's assembly members, and members of FKPPI. The inauguration caught Medan by surprise. It came the day after the Attorney General's Medan office indicted Mr Abdillah on charges of corruption and vote buying. Nevertheless, the inauguration was technically legal. The Minister of Interior Affairs authorised it in a decree issued mere hours after the Attorney General's office announced the indictment.

Loren Ryter ( is completing a doctoral dissertation on youth and preman in Jakarta and Medan at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Inside Indonesia 63: Jul - Sep 2000

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