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

Brawling, Bombing, and 'Backing'

John Roosa

Imagine the following scenario: three truckloads of men armed with submachine guns and grenade launchers surround a police station late one night. They shoot their way inside and then torch it. In the chaos, sixty-one prisoners escape and over one ton of marijuana being held as evidence disappears. Some of the men then drive to the electricity relay station and force the workers at gunpoint to blackout the city. In total darkness, they head off to attack another police force in the same area. When they withdraw in the morning, after nine hours of unloading their firepower into two police facilities, they have killed seven policemen, three civilians, and suffered one casualty. This is what transpired in the town of Binjai, near Medan, on 29-30 September 2002.

Now imagine who the attackers were. Members of a powerful crime syndicate? Terrorists? Invading soldiers from a different country? Guess again. The attackers were Indonesian army soldiers stationed just down the road. They belonged to an airborne unit (Linud 100) of the army's Strategic Reserves (Kostrad).

Journalists quickly learned that the Kostrad soldiers had attacked the police station because the police were refusing to release a drug dealer who had been paying the soldiers protection money. In the parlance of today's Indonesia, the drug dealer had beking (backing). A group of soldiers had already descended upon the police station the day before the assault and aggressively demanded his release. Determined to show who controlled the drug trade in Binjai, the soldiers decided bring out their heavy weaponry and raze the police station.

The Binjai incident illustrates many of the systemic problems of today's Indonesian military. Under the 'dual-function' doctrine, the military has expansive, undefined, and unchecked powers within Indonesia. Add to this unaccountable power an insatiable drive to find off-budget sources of funding and one has a combustible combination. The late Maj. Gen. Agus Wirahadikusumah, one of the very few officers to whom the label 'reformist' could be accurately used, noted in late 1999 that soldiers had become 'backers of prostitution, gambling, and narcotics and this has become fairly widespread.'

The fact that many troops have experience in brutal counterinsurgency warfare in such areas as West Papua, East Timor, and Aceh certainly does not help them behave well once back in civil society. The Linud 100 unit that carried out the Binjai attack had served in neighboring Aceh. It was one of the units involved in the July 1999 Bantaqiah massacre in Aceh.

Police and soldiers

The hiving off of the police from the military in late 1998 has created a new difficulty for the military's lawlessness. The police have become more assertive - sometimes for the sake of their own illegal rackets, sometimes for the sake of law enforcement. After the Binjai incident, the army officers assigned to damage control wrote op-eds blaming the separation of the police from the military as the root cause of the problem. In a perverse way, they are correct. Before, the military could order the police to not interfere with its corrupt practices. Under the former chain of command, the police chief would have received an order to release the drug dealer. Now, the police, developing their own institutional autonomy, cannot be so easily ordered around. The solution to conflicts such as Binjai is obviously not to put the police back under the military s thumb.

In response to the Binjai incident, vice-president Hamzah Haz surprised many journalists with an uncharacteristically insightful comment: 'The main problem is not that the police and military have been separated. It is that there is beking of criminals and this has involved troop units. So the military leaders first have to attend to this.'

Over the past several years, there have been many similar, though less spectacular, incidents as Binjai. Let me pull out my clippings file.

On 26 December 1999, about 50 members of an army airborne battalion in East Kalimantan attacked and destroyed a police post in the village of Nipah-Nipah. They shot and killed a police corporal and seriously wounded two other policemen. The attack came hours after the policemen had stopped two soldiers riding a motorbike for a traffic violation.

On 28 April 2000, 30 soldiers of an army subdistrict command (Koramil) attacked a police station in Karawang, a town 45 km east of Jakarta. They beat five police officers and stole a gun. One of their men, a sergeant, had been arrested by the police the night before for being involved in an automobile theft.

On 19 June 2000, about 50 marines attacked a police station in the middle of Jakarta (the Mampang headquarters). They stabbed three policemen and wrecked the building. Several nights earlier policemen had brawled with a marine corporal who was a working as a security guard in a caf�.

On 15 September 2001, Kostrad troops attacked a police station in the center of the city of Madiun in East Java. This army riot was triggered by a brawl between soldiers and policemen at a gasoline station pump. A group of policemen objected when a carload of Kostrad soldiers jumped ahead in the queue. The soldiers returned to their barracks and mobilised a large crowd of their brothers-in-arms for the assault on the police station. Three civilian bystanders were killed in the shooting.

This list represents just a sample of the incidents reported in newspapers. In some cases, the soldiers attack policemen to avenge a perceived insult. In other cases, they attack when their economic activities are disturbed.


The military has a serious problem not only with the discipline of its personnel but with the management of its equipment. Most worrisome, especially in the wake of the October 2002 bombing in Bali, is the military's lack of control over its explosives.

On 4 May 2000, a bomb made of TNT manufactured by Indonesian weapons company Pindad was found in the Attorney General's office in Jakarta. The serial number was traced back to the East Java army command but at that point the trail ended. The army never revealed how the explosives went missing or who was responsible. The bomb was thought to have been planted by men working for Tommy Suharto who was being questioned by the Attorney General around that time.

The worst bombing in Indonesia prior to the one in Bali was that of the Jakarta Stock Exchange on 13 September 2000. Ten people were killed and the building was badly damaged. Among those charged with the bombing were two military personnel. It is likely the five kilograms of TNT used in the blast came from the military. The official line from the military was that the bombers had deserted their units and acted on behalf of the Free Aceh Movement. However, there are other possibilities. Suspiciously, the two soldiers were able to escape from prison.

Hand grenades have been denotated or left in public places numerous times in Jakarta. In July 2001, one person was killed and 24 injured in two separate explosions of hand grenades. Another 12 people were injured in February 2000 when a hand grenade was thrown into a brothel in a southern part of the city.

Ammunition and guns have disappeared from storehouses. A recent case was in October 2002 when 65,000 bullets were reported missing from a Special Forces warehouse in West Java. In April 2000, the police in West Java discovered that two army sergeants and a lieutenant colonel were involved in a weapons selling syndicate. In Aceh, the independence forces have been able to purchase weapons from the military.

Fighting for Income

When it comes to defending its sources of revenue, the military can be ruthless. It is highly probable that the killing of three schoolteachers working for the mining company Freeport in West Papua on 31 August 2002 was the army's handiwork. The human rights organisation Elsham was the first to allege that the army was responsible. Elsham's claim was corroborated by the province's former police chief, I Made Pastika, who privately told journalists that the police believe the army carried out the murders. The claim has been confirmed by officials in the U.S. embassy in Jakarta who have had access to intercepts of the army's radio communications. According to Hamish McDonald's report in the Sydney Morning Herald (2 November 2002), the army wanted to pressure Freeport into paying US$10 million as protection money.

The military's involvement in the underground economy and its own protection rackets have created serious problems of discipline. Although the rhetoric of the military is all about discipline, the daily practice of the troops is a cut-throat entrepreneurialism. The recent incidents in Binjai and Timika indicate that the military is largely superfluous and counterproductive as a domestic security force. Even in conflict regions where it faces an armed insurrection (as in Aceh and Papua), it devotes much of its time to fighting civilians and policemen to secure its own revenue. The solution is simple enough: end the military's dual-function, territorial structure, and business activity and make it entirely dependent on funds allocated by the state. Implementing this solution, however, appears nearly impossible. The military is committed to the status quo and the civilian politicians are not committed to military reform.

John Roosa (jproosa@indo.net.id), a historian of South and Southeast Asia, is guest editor of this issue.

Inside Indonesia 73: Jan - Mar 2003

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