May 27, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

Putting the (Para)Military Back Into Politics

Phil King

Megawati's Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) claims to have over thirty thousand of them. By the time of his death, West Papuan 'separatist' leader Theys Eluay had over 5,000 of them. During the 1999 election campaign one of the smaller parties in Yogyakarta only had a couple of dozen, but would borrow a few from the PDIP on occasion.

They are satgas members, the ubiquitous muscle machinery of the political parties that has bloomed in the post-Suharto era. What are the satgas? Why have they emerged with such vigour? And what is the consequence of their presence in Indonesian politics?

Satgas (satuan tugas) translates as 'taskforce'. While now a synonym for party security forces, the term satgas is more widely used. A taskforce may be established to lead an initiative in public health or food distribution. Recently a satgas was formed to help in the repatriation of Indonesian workers ejected in Malaysia's most recent crackdown on guest workers. But it is the type of satgas associated with militarism, violence, and characters like Eurico Guterres that has come to assert itself in the public sphere over the last five years. Led and legitimised by the big political parties and fed by various criminal syndicates and 'youth groups', satgas have expanded across the archipelago. Here, I will only focus on the para-military wings of the larger political parties.

Private armies

Satgas parpol, or political party militias, have existed since the early 1980s. Although there is a significant overlap between them and earlier mass organisations, satgas emerged as a specific response to the violence of the 1982 general election and the New Order's ensuing war on gangterism. Previously curtailed in size by local military commanders and Golkar-sponsored 'youth groups', these militias mushroomed after the fall of Suharto and the re-establishment of competitive party politics. Absent in the first national election in 1955, the satgas became a ubiquitous, fatigue-clad fusion of recycled pemuda (youth) rhetoric and New Order thuggery in the 1999 election.

The massive expansion of party militias thrived on the recruitment of the more mercenary members of the disenfranchised urban milieu, ever deepening in the wake of the economic crisis. Essentially, reformasi was a liberalisation of both party politics and underworld criminal activities. The satgas have been the most astute beneficiaries of both processes.

For the major parties, the satgas are little more than private armies. The internal structure of satgas units replicates military orders of hierarchy from the regional commander down to the platoon. Other parallels are found in the existence of logistics and intelligence wings, fatigues and jackboots, and training drills. Both Golkar and PKB have a floating pool of 'strategic reserves' in addition to 'territorial' troops. When a satgas member is accused of any violation of civil liberties, the response from commanders is always that 'he was acting as an individual at the time'. The imitation of the military is so flawless that when one regional commander interviewed during the 1999 election described the style of his troops as 'semi-military', I could only assume that this meant that they didn't carry automatic weapons. Indeed, becoming a satgas member is a little like joining the army without having to go through all the calisthenics and barkings of sergeants.

The satgas themselves are diverse in character. When it comes to joining up, membership criterion is relatively open (unless you are female). Commanders are often former military men or veterans from New Order mass organisations. In Java, a fair proportion of satgas adhere to beliefs and practices which might be termed invulnerability cults. Generally affable, satgas members certainly reject the trivialisation of their character as a new breed of urban cowboys.

In many ways, heavy responsibilities are placed on the shoulders of satgas. Foremost amongst them is the organisation of party campaign parades. Routes must be planned to avoid opposition neighbourhoods and bottlenecks. Troops are stationed along the trail, radio communications are utilised, blow-fly sunglasses are obligatory. Crowds are constantly scanned for signs of disturbance from agent provocateurs. Elite squads act as bodyguards for the party hierarchy while more humble footsoldiers help in the supply of cotton wool for participants and spectators. (Parades are noisy.) With their feet up and sipping cold tea in the shade, the police and marines assigned to my street for the 1999 election thought the satgas were to be congratulated for taking all the work out of their work.

For all their utility as traffic wardens and deputised keepers of the peace, there are also the satgas that kidnap opposition pamphleteers, beat up journalists, and chase rivals down the main street waving machetes. During the 1999 election campaign, the satgas of PPP-Yogyakarta (United Development Party) demonstrated that thuggery is not without a sense of irony when they attacked and burnt an anti-violence protest site on Jalan Malioboro. Golkar's satgas stoned the party's Menteng headquarters in Jakarta and trashed the car of party chief Akbar Tanjung over a pay dispute.


Rivalries between the satgas of PDIP, PPP and PKB (National Awakening Party) were particularly violent throughout central Java. The PKB acronym was rephrased as the National Destruction Party due to the violent reputation of its militias. Satgas were lamented as the worst hangover of the Soeharto era to persist into the reformasi period. In a survey by the daily newspaper Jawa Pos in 2000, 87% of respondents said that the satgas of the reformasi era were far worse than those of the New Order. Unfortunately, things did not come to a halt with the election.

Satgas have proven to have a life far beyond the campaign period. President Abdurrahman Wahid's veiled threats that Ansor and Banser (effectively components of the his party's security apparatus) would brook no interference with his presidency regularly put Jakartans on edge. Parliamentary sittings since 1999 have been accompanied by the regular occupation of Jakarta by para-military groups from the provinces. Satgas are now part of a party arms race.

While the argument exists that satgas organisations offer direction and discipline to disenfranchised youths, plenty of hot-heads appear to thrive in them. Competition to control economic rents and run rackets in particular localities is the usual trigger for violence, something that can occur between rival satgas units within a single party.

A further problem emerges at the point of contact between these security organisations and the civilian party structure. In some parties such as PAN, the satgas structure is subordinated to the authority of the district executive. Co-ordination is achieved via the civilian executive and satgas protocol exists in the form of a nation-wide manifesto. The opposite situation is found in PDIP, where satgas units exist independently of party structure. They are self-financed and are often split in their support of rival factions within the party.

Megawati's footsoldiers

In the wake of the 1999 election, various instances have emerged where the selection of candidates for regional legislatures was marred by inter-satgas conflict. The devolution of political authority to the city and district levels under local autonomy laws has exacerbated the situation. As the value of district legislature seats has sky-rocketed, the stakes have risen between rival candidates who enter into informal coalitions with satgas commanders to boost their chances of success. One of the more infamous cases was the March 2001 beating and fatal stabbing of a district PDIP satgas commander in Gunung Kidul, Yogayakarta which took place in full view of a delegation of provincial PDIP parliamentarians. The incident was linked to factional rivalries within the party branch that threatened the satgas unit's access to a key funding source.

It is the para-military wing of the PDIP that raises the most concern for the future. In May 2002 they turned a Medan courtroom upside down when the judge postponed a verdict against a defendent accused of murdering a comrade. They have been implicated in various instances of violence and intimidation against journalists and NGOs. Most recently, they harassed and forcefully disbanded a People's Democracy Front (FDR) parade in Solo, Central Java, on the grounds that the placard 'Megawati Soehartoputri' was insulting. Legally they have no such power, though the partisanship of the state security forces is generally reflected by their inaction. The irony of the incident was that the parade was in remembrance of the brutal July 1996 attack on PDI headquarters by Suharto thugs.

Having inherited the mantle of their former tormentors, the satgas PDIP looks set to repeat history. The satgas of the political parties are the new forces of violent conservatism in Indonesian politics. Demobilisation appears impossible. The 2004 election is guaranteed to see a further spiralling of violence between rival para-military organisations.

Phil King ( is a PhD candidate at University of Wollongong and is working on a project on the Thai-Malay border. He is currently lecturing in Southeast Asian Politics at University of Sydney.

Inside Indonesia 73: Jan - Mar 2003

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