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

The Model Militia

Published: Jul 29, 2007

Degung Santikarma

Two months ago, I received an e-mail from a Western friend living in Bali. He thought that I, as a Balinese and an anthropologist, might be able explain a disturbing incident in his neighborhood.

Dear Degung,

A few days ago I was a witness to an episode which I have enormous difficulties understanding and I wish you to help me in finding an anthropological frame to rationalise it. I was at home at 9 p.m. and watching TV with my kids when the kul-kul alarm bells started sounding all around my house and people started screaming: 'Maling!' Thieves had broken into a neighbour's house. The burglars ran away without taking anything from the house. In a very short time many youngsters from my village and the villages nearby began the hunt, screaming in the meantime: 'Matiang!' 'Bunuh!' etc. We were terrified. After a short time the thieves were found: three young boys, 12 to 13 years old, from Lombok. One of them managed to escape. The other two were killed on the spot. Since then I have had terrible feelings of guilt and find myself totally unable to accept what had happened. I would very much appreciate your reading of this barbaric episode as a Balinese and an anthropologist. How and why can things like this happen and how can the people involved survive with the feeling of guilt and how do the villages and banjars come to terms with it? I will value and appreciate very much your opinion.

Thanks, your very shocked friend.

On reading this letter, I was saddened, disgusted and angered - emotions that only grew stronger after my friend called to say that his own 12-year-old son, who had witnessed the killing of these boys his own age, had been so traumatised that he was nearly catatonic. I could not, any more than my friend, rationalise or explain this killing of children. It was hard to consider why I should want to, as my friend asked, 'rationalize' this event, to the extent that giving it an explanatory framework could make men who were, after all, killers of children seem 'rational'. I did not know how to respond. This was not the usual kind of question I receive from foreigners puzzled by, say, a Balinese tooth-filing ceremony or a trance dance in which people stab themselves.

As I thought about the incident, I realised was that I was not shocked by it in the same way my friend was. Anyone who has spent much time in Bali recently knows that such events are occurring with increasing frequency. I began to wonder what kind of social and cultural conditions are making violence in Bali not only possible but increasingly likely to the extent that few Balinese find it shocking or problematic.

Invisibility of Violence in Bali

This issue of violence in Bali is difficult to raise for several reasons. The first is that while Bali is no stranger to violence, discussions of it rarely take place in public. During the thirty-two years of Suharto dictatorship, the state was a clear force restraining such discourse. It was considered dangerous to discuss the violence in 1965-66, when up to 100,000 Balinese or 5-8% of the island's population were killed. There was an official narrative of the events but no public space available for alternative interpretations. Raising the perspective of the victims or questioning the narrative that portrayed the deaths as morally justified, was to risk becoming labeled 'communist' oneself. Even with the fall of Suharto, the trauma of the victims of the 1965-66 violence and their families continues to shade Balinese life and ways of speaking, making people reluctant to bring up incidents of continuing violence in their communities.

Tourism has also acted as a restraint on discussions of violence. The prerequisite for tourism is a sense of safety, order and stability. Tourists are reluctant to travel to places that they believe to be violent. For many Balinese, 'safety' has real economic consequences, as has become obvious in the wake of the October 2002 bombing. It is no wonder that the murders that occurred in front of my friend's house - like dozens of other such incidents that occur every year - did not make it into the pages of the Bali Post. And it was no wonder that I, living six villages away, did not hear about the event, and probably never would have heard about the event, had it not been for an e-mail from a Western friend.

The third reason why public discussions of violence are rare is that the Balinese cannot imagine themselves as 'violent'. The Indonesian words like kekerasan or kerusuhan seem alien to their self-image. Such words seem applicable only to areas like Ambon or Aceh. When incidents of violence are publicised, especially conflicts between members of different villages, the media does not usually use the term 'violence'. Instead, it uses the euphemism 'kasus adat',or customary law dispute, as if the incidents represented traditional tribal rivalries rather than modern conflicts. Violence in Balinese society is usually tucked away as an unexamined aspect of discourses of 'tradition' and 'culture'.

Inventing Tradition

To explain what I mean by this last statement, I need to turn to the issue of who actually carried out the killing of the children in front of my friend's house. That night, a man spotted three boys on his property and began calling out 'Thief! Thief!' Immediately, a neighbour ran and began pounding on the kul-kul, the wooden drum hanging in the neighborhood meeting hall. He beat out a rhythm signaling that the neighborhood, the banjar, was in a state of emergency. The banjar's drum was then answered by drums in the other banjars of the village.

By sounding the kul-kul, this case of transgression against one man's private property immediately became a communal matter requiring the attention of the entire village. It also positioned the incident as a matter of culture, tradition and adat, insofar as the kulkul is a primary symbol of these concepts. Nobody considered calling the police, not simply because the police are often seen as corrupt or incompetent, but because if this was a matter of culture, tradition and adat, it could not simultaneously be seen as a matter for the state. Since the New Order's fall in 1998, the state has been viewed as the force against which culture, tradition and adat need to be empowered.

Dozens of men answered the call of the kul-kul. Included among them were the village's pecalangan or security force. They came dressed in their trademark uniforms of sarongs, black and white checkered poleng cloth waistcloths, carrying keris daggers. Together these men hunted down the boys and murdered two of them. While the pecalangan were not the only ones to participate in the killings, their presence added a certain legitimacy to the actions. The pecalangan were also able to smooth things out with the authorities so that none of the villagers responsible for the murders were arrested.

Pecalangan groups such as this one have become common in Bali since the New Order ended in 1998. Today virtually every Balinese village has its own pecalangan. Indeed, one of the ironic results of Balinese resentment toward the repressive power exerted by Suharto's New Order state has been Balinese claiming the right to exert that same control over their own communities. In other words, reformasi has not brought a demilitarisation of Balinese life. What has occurred instead has been a remilitarisation. There has been, in the name of culture and tradition, an even deeper penetration of militarisation into the everyday fabric of community.

Few people that I spoke with in my own village to the east of Denpasar could explain where the term pecalangan came from or could relate with confidence the history of these groups. Some said that the pecalangan's predecessor was the 'taskforce' of security guards for the 1998 conference of Megawati's party (the PDIP) in Bali. Others said that the pecalangan got their start in the late 1970s when the Bali Arts Festival, the island's major annual cultural event, began using security guards dressed in traditional ceremonial outfits to direct traffic and guard the parking lots. Still others believed that the pecalangan were a modern incarnation of the old palace guards. And those who can still remember the violence of 1965 ventured that the pecalangan were a revival of the gangs responsible for carrying out executions of alleged communists.

Despite this lack of consensus about the origins of the pecalangan, most people agreed with the notion, regularly expressed in the mass media, that the pecalangan are 'traditional'. Even those who acknowledged that there had never been anything called a pecalangan in their village before seemed convinced that such groups were part of a Balinese heritage that was being recovered. By drawing upon a notion of 'Balinese tradition', the pecalangan seem to have succeeded in erasing their own modern origins.

Guarding Culture

The regional government of Bali passed a law in 2002 that formally legitimised the pecalangan: -1) Safety and order in the area of the desa pakraman (village) is carried out by pecalang. 2) Pecalang carry out duties of safeguarding the area of the desa pakraman relating to adat and religion. 3) Pecalang are selected and relieved of their duties by the desa pakraman based upon a village forum. Desa pakraman is a term that has recently become popular among bureaucrats as a replacement for the term desa adat (customary village). This is part of a project to 'Balinise' the language - the word adat comes from Arabic.

Pecalangan groups are, in keeping with this regulation, given ritual duties. These may include acting as traffic guards at ceremonies, making sure that sloppily-dressed or badly-behaved tourists are not allowed to enter temple ceremonies, and guarding the cockfights held as part of ceremonies. They also act as enforcers of silence on the day of Nyepi. They patrol the streets to make sure that everyone, Hindu or not, keeps their lights turned off and does not venture out into the streets. For many pecalang, Nyepi becomes an occasion to assert a sense of ethnic identity and even superiority. As one of them said to me, 'On Nyepi we don't just stop people from outside our village or outside Bali. Even the military has to stop if they're on the road and we see them.' Smiling broadly, he said, 'It's too bad Nyepi is just one day.'

Depending upon the particular village, however, pecalangan often carry out other duties that have little to do with ritual. In Denpasar, Kuta or Legian, where there are large numbers of non-Balinese inhabitants, the pecalangan have worked together with the police to carry out identity-card raids, traveling from house to house at night to ask the inhabitants to demonstrate that they have registered their current addresses with the government. Typically pecalangan members who assist with such raids are paid a fee for their night's services (according to those I questioned, approximately Rp25,000). In Kesiman, many pecalangan members act as guards for the places of prostitution to be found in the Padanggalak Beach area.

In South Bali, they may also provide 'protection' for bar and nightclub owners, receiving monetary subsidies in exchange for ensuring that local residents look kindly upon what goes on in those places. In Nusa Dua, pecalangan receive financing from hotels in exchange for similar protection against local protests concerning land or labour issues. In the Padanggalak Beach area, pecalangan act as guards for brothels. And wherever there is a cockfight, it is virtually certain that the pecalangan will participate, taking a cut of the profits as their fee.

Motivations for joining the pecalangan vary. In my village, each banjar is required to send at least two adult male members to join. Most of the men who sign up are those without steady employment. Anyone who works cannot stay up all night patrolling the streets. Becoming part of the pecalangan offers them a bit of money, a sense of pride, and an ability to exert power over those even more marginalised.

But what about other Balinese? Why do they feel that the pecalangan are necessary or, at the very least, unobjectionable and tolerable? Traditionally, Balinese ritual is thought to evoke the potential for danger from the unseen world. Those holding rituals would often call upon people with special supernatural abilities, those who could ward off attacks of black magic by those who might be jealous toward those sponsoring the ritual. But it is only recently that people have felt the need to have pecalangan participate in rituals as security guards.

Most people I asked about the pecalangan spoke not about their ritual duties but about how they kept things 'safer' in general. A typical comment was that of one man who said, 'We always used to have our motorbikes stolen, but now nobody dares.' Many people, especially in multicultural Denpasar and Kuta, said that because there were now many non-Balinese living in Bali, the pecalangan are necessary to deter theft and violence. Some people saw the police as being too corrupt to fulfill their proper role.

While the presence of pecalangan in Bali parallels in many ways the rise of militia groups in other areas of Indonesia, the Bali case presents some important differences. Rather than being demonised in the national and international press, as have so many other militant 'security' groups, especially those who draw upon religion to legitimise themselves, they have been lauded. They have become a kind of model militia. Most recently, pecalangan from villages across South Bali were assigned by the police department to assist with security for a United Nations conference. A police delegation from Japan visited Bali to learn about its 'traditional security system'.

Even when the pecalangan become involved in killing, 'culture' is drawn upon to explain their actions. Today 'Balinese culture' is often viewed as a kind of precious object that can be marked with a price tag and sold to tourists through 'cultural tourism'. With culture being reduced to an object, an anxiety has arisen among Balinese who fear that this valuable possession could be lost or stolen. Now that culture has become like an expensive antique preserved in a museum, the pecalangan have become the museum guards. Those who might try to damage or destroy or steal this culture are 'outsiders'.

This sense of being under siege translates into a resentment against ethnic others and a belief that all thieves must be non-Balinese. Killing a thief becomes sensible, even honorable, as a defence of culture. Thus nobody who participated in the killing that night in front of my friend's house thought to raise the question: were these boys really thieves even though they were empty-handed? It was enough, in the end, that they were outsiders, for there was far more than private property at stake. What was at stake that night was culture. The killers of those two boys in front of my friend's house that night have not been perceived in Bali as killers for they acted in defence of culture - the culture sounded by the kul-kul drum.

Degung Santikarma (cultural@dps.centrin.net.id) is the editor in chief of the monthly magazine Latitudes, published in Denpasar, Bali (http://www.latitudesmagazine.com).

Inside Indonesia 73: Jan - Mar 2003

Latest Articles

Essay: Local tradition in a global religious community in modern day Java

Feb 20, 2024 - LEO BARRY

Ghosts and spirits often come up in conversation but attitudes are changing

Review: Netflix’s ‘Cigarette Girl’ promotes Big Tobacco interests in Indonesia

Feb 08, 2024 - MARINA WELKER

Netflix’s series Gadis Kretek (Cigarette Girl) romanticises an industry that kills around 290,000 Indonesians each year

Book review: I am that unicorn

Feb 06, 2024 - HELEN PAUSACKER

Essay: A movement to remember

Feb 01, 2024 - GHINA TSABITAH

This essay is the first in a new series featuring the writing of and edited by young people.

Obituary: Soni Farid Maulana (1962-2022)

Jan 23, 2024 - IAN CAMPBELL

Lontar Modern Indonesia



A selection of stories from the Indonesian classics and modern writers, periodically published free for Inside Indonesia readers, courtesy of Lontar

Subscribe to Inside Indonesia

Receive Inside Indonesia's latest articles and quarterly editions in your inbox.