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

Self-reliant Militias

John M. MacDougall

It was mid-October, 1998, in Malang, East Java. I was sitting in a friend's house watching television coverage of Indonesian students demonstrating in the streets of Jakarta. They were protesting against the entire government: President Habibie, the military, and the parliament. After forcing Suharto from power in May 1998, they were angry that the new government seemed to be nothing but a continuation of the old. Confronting the students were thousands of civilians organised into what was called a pamswakarsa, or self-reliant security corps. General Wiranto, then head of the Indonesian military, had suggested that such a corps be formed to counter a 'revolutionary' movement planning to topple President Habibie. As press coverage later revealed, the pamswakarsa in Jakarta in October 1998 was, contrary to its name, not self-reliant - they had been paid by the government. They were largely unemployed men bussed in from small towns and villages in West Java with the lure of a good day's wage.

Back to Malang. Just outside my friend's house, his neighbors had recently formed vigilante groups to protect their families from 'ninja' attacks. There had been a spate of mysterious killings of 'black magicians' (dukun santet) in East Java. These vigilante groups were not called pamswakarsa but they were, in a sense, vigilant self-reliant security groups. Like many young men throughout Indonesia in the uncertain days of 1998, when Suharto's old political system was breaking down, they organised patrols to guard their neighborhoods from the intrusion of 'dark elements' and 'criminals', who were all assumed to be from outside the community.

These two cases of civilian security forces, one in Jakarta, the other in Malang, represent two different phenomena. While the former was a rent-a-mob organised by a bureaucracy for political purposes, the latter was organised by volunteers within a neighborhood for purposes of local patrolling. Interpretations of the rise of vigilante groups in Indonesia often alternate between the poles illustrated by these two groups. They have been construed as either sinister products of a military conspiracy to fracture civil society or popular efforts to uphold the community in the absence of a state.

These two poles of interpretation, however, do not exhaust all the possibilities. As I will try to show through a case study of Lombok, a pamswakarsa can emerge from the society itself but do so in a way that recreates the state's militarism on a more communal level. If the society was policed during the Suharto era by a centralised military, it is being policed today in a no less brutal fashion by homegrown civilian security groups. The sad fact is that in this post-Suharto period the largest 'civilian' organisation on the island is a pamswakarsa.

Vigilantes in Lombok

On the island of Lombok, where I spent the better part of two years from 1998 to 2000, pamswakarsa groups first emerged to counter crime. Under the banner of the nationally validated moniker, pamswakarsa, Lombok's men, young and old, joined groups with such names as Amphibi, Ababil, Elang Merah, and Bujak. These groups vowed to protect their communities from thieves. Within a year after the fall of Suharto in 1998, Lombok was teeming with civilian security groups.

The first of these groups was Bujak (Pemburu Jejak, Tracker). With a base in the district of Central Lombok, it began in 1997 when the economic crisis had just hit. There was a panic about crime. Bujak developed a bounty hunter service where they would guarantee the return of stolen goods provided they were given a payment in return. Behind the veil of Bujak's community service, it became known that many of Bujak's members were ex-criminals themselves and were suspected to be working with thieves to extort money.

One of Lombok's religious clerics, disturbed at the overlap between Bujak and the criminals, organised his own group from the Islamic center of Jeroaru, in East Lombok. Named Amphibi (for unclear reasons), this pamswakarsa became extraordinarily popular. By August 1999, their numbers in East Lombok alone exceeded 100,000. The groundswell of support came from villagers who wished to resist the powerful network of thieves preying upon their property, especially their livestock.

The members themselves funded the organisation. The cleric, Tuan Guru Sibaway, and his brother, a mystic named Guru Ukit, offered membership, complete with a supernaturally charged invulnerability jacket, for the relatively large sum of Rp 103,000 [US$12]. Ex-criminals, youths, and occasionally prominent political officials signed up. Amphibi's coffers swelled with their ranks, allowing them to purchase walkie-talkies and trucks.

While Bujak's primary focus was upon the retrieval of stolen goods, Amphibi focused on capturing the criminal. The alleged thieves caught by Amphibi were given the opportunity to tobat (repent) and join the organization to hunt their former partners in crime. 'Those who returned to the ways of criminality were given a three strike rule. After the third violation they would be classified as escapees and an escapee is as good as dead', commented one Amphibi member of Eastern Lombok.

The tension between Bujak and Amphibi turned into a bloody, full-scale battle in August 1999. Amphibi managed to defeat its rival from Central Lombok at a battle in the village of Penne, a village straddling the border between the two districts.

The expansion of Amphibi

With Bujak out of the way, Amphibi's scope expanded into Central and West Lombok, drawing an additional 100,000 members to its ranks. Amphibi moved into the northern regions of West Lombok after the anti-Christian riots of 17 January 2000. Its security posts could be found throughout both northern Lombok and Mataram, two areas with historical tensions with East Lombok. Lombok's northern communities had not only sided with Balinese colonial forces in the nineteenth century, they continued to practice 'animistic' traditions of the Sasak ethnic group. Such traditions had been eliminated in Muslim communities throughout East and Central Lombok.

Amphibi is a distinctly Muslim organisation but does not have missionary ambitions outside of Lombok. It does not imagine itself to be part of a nationwide or global Muslim movement. Similar to the reformist Islamic effort to remove Sasak society of the residual Hindu practices of their Balinese colonial past, Amphibi endeavors to purge Sasak communities of criminal networks.

If Amphibi had been widely seen as a protective ally in its home base of East Lombok, it was viewed as a fearful intruder in northern Lombok. In an interview with an Islamic leader in northern Lombok, it was evident that Amphibi's expansion was not commonly supported there: 'These Amphibi are scaring us. Our [Islamic] teachers are from the East [Lombok], true, but these Amphibi take the heads of their victims. 'They take our heads.'

The rise of Amphibi also threatened the Hindu Balinese communities in Mataram. On 21 December 1999, Amphibi beheaded a Balinese noble suspected of being a middleman for crime networks. Since no Amphibi members were arrested for the decapitation, the Balinese felt it necessary to establish their own pamswakarsa, named Dharma Wicesa. Balinese aristocrats and priests were commissioned to lead Dharma Wicesa and provide local Balinese men with the same mystical invulnerability as their Amphibi rivals.

The religious polarisation between Muslim Amphibi and Hindu Dharma Wicesa can be trumped by local loyalties. When Amphibi attacked the West Lombok village of Perampauan in October 2000, the villagers, Muslims included, refused to allow Amphibi to apprehend Balinese suspects living in the village. According to a legal aid lawyer present at the scene, the Amphibi members threatened, 'We will attack your village because you dare to protect infidels instead of siding with your fellow Muslims.'

The Muslim villagers stood by their Balinese neighbours and defeated Amphibi's thousand-man attack. The Balinese pamswakarsa rushed to the village to defend their fellow Balinese only to be forced away as well. Amphibi lost that day in Perampauan but continued to attack smaller villages in West Lombok before local officials pressured the leadership to stop the anti-Balinese campaign.

Militarisation from above and below

How should we interpret the rise of Amphibi in Lombok? In some respects, it resembles the East Javanese men in Malang defending their communities. As such a large mass-based organisation, it has to be responding to a widespread felt need. In other respects, it resembles the government-backed militia in Jakarta. The members of Amphibi do not just defend their own neighborhoods; they head out into battle and expand into other districts. In Lombok, local police, military, and government officials have joined, legitimated, and encouraged the organisation for lack of any other means of controlling or guiding it.

Indonesia's young men have begun to play a crucial role in politics as Suharto's authoritarianism has been transformed into multi-party parliamentary politics. Yet these young men are, for the first time in their lives, politically useful without a clear definition of what 'political' is. In the words of an East Lombok lawyer, 'Most of Amphibi's members consist of men who didn't exist in the eyes of the state during the New Order. Now, with their new orange jackets, the police, their communities, and religious leaders treat them with respect and caution. During Suharto's era, if the military slapped them they would break into tears. Now, it is their turn to do the slapping.'

John M. MacDougall ( is a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at Princeton University.

Inside Indonesia 73: Jan - Mar 2003

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