Faisal and Jhoni came to Athonk's tattoo studio with a small picture and a lot of hope. It was their own design. They had both tried kicking their putauw (street grade heroin) habits through a variety of rehabilitation programs. All failed. Now, they were trying something particularly strange for young urban trendies - a spiritual approach. They had designed a picture to be tattooed into their skin while they prayed. The tattoo needle would be the last needle ever to penetrate their skin.
That was in 2000. By 2002, both of these talented, well-known musicians from Jakarta were dead from drug related problems. According to local statistics, so too were 17.8 per cent of drug users throughout Indonesia.
Indonesia is plagued by an epidemic of drug abuse. The media is full of terrifying accounts of destruction and violence, young lives cut short, the breakdown of traditional values, children robbing parents, and 11 year olds lured into addiction and prostitution. 'A single use can result in addiction', 'Women prostitute themselves to support their habits', and '25 per cent of drug users will die' are some of the scare tactics seen in the media and on street banners. Such fictions create and maintain irrational fears. While there is no doubt that drugs have tragically ruined many lives, Indonesia needs to take a more rational look at history, culture, and the failure of current policies to formulate an approach based on knowledge - not hysteria.
With no studies on actual numbers of users in Indonesia, approximations are based on the numbers of individuals seeking treatment. In 1995 someone in the government claimed that 0.065 per cent of the population were using drugs although it is unknown what the number was based on. With a total population of 200 million at that time, that made 130,000 drug users. Many realised that this was just the tip of the iceberg and multiplied this number by 10. This is how the 'official' number of 1.3 million addicts was calculated. Most of these are between 13 and 25 years old.
The drug of choice in Indonesia is putauw - street-grade heroin. Accessibility is never a problem with drugs being sold from many roadside food stalls, malls, campuses, and from street vendors. Elementary school children have reported they can buy putauw from the guy who sells bottled water in front of their school. The drugs are taped to the bottom of the bottle. Local press reports show how widely known the 'hot spots' are for buying drugs in Jakarta, with many naming areas, streets, markets, even specific hotels for purchasing each kind of drug.
Drug trends and jungkies style
With no access to power or opportunity, disaffected urban youth appropriate objects and attitudes which, for them, become tokens of power. They feel powerful when they immerse themselves in their version of westernised popular culture. Commodities such as clothes, hair styles and hair colours (anything but the natural black), and styles of speech, mark off the youth subculture from mainstream culture. At the heart of this subculture is a 'cuek' attitude, an utter lack of concern. Drugs are cuek personified; cool, modern, rebellious, provocative, and an important part of this youth culture. 'Cuek is the best' is a very popular slogan appearing on stickers and t-shirts.
Junkie fashion in the west as depicted in advertisements and style magazines is based on an unnaturally thin 'waif' style. In Indonesia, junkie (spelled jungkie) style is associated with freedom, openness, honesty, and cuek. It is tied to the hippie clothes and influences of the American sixties and seventies and glorified by celebrities, musicians, and artists who dress and act in a 'relaxed' manner. Jakarta department stores and glossy spreads in teen magazines label grunge, punk, or hip-hop clothes as New Jungkies Style. To 'live jungkies' means to live freely, unimpeded by societal pressures. In an Indonesia plagued by corruption and cronyism, alienated youth praise jungkies style and its cuek demeanour.
Many young Indonesians fall prey to the power of the group over the individual, as well as the positive image given to drug use in youthful contexts. Meanwhile, mainstream anti-drug messages pour from the more 'traditional' and 'respectable' sectors of society. Yet many youth feel that the voice of authority is the voice of greed and hypocrisy. It screams 'don't' to its youth, at the same time as those in authority accept bribes. Little wonder then that so many youth have surrendered to the warm embrace of putauw or the frenetic excitement of SS (shabu-shabu, crystal methamphetamine). Drugs for many are a better alternative, since mainstream conformity is frustrating, full of lies, and offers little room for creativity.
A history of intoxication
Yet as shocked as most Indonesians seem to be at the extent of current drug activity, it is important to point out that drugs and alcohol, especially opium, have a very long history among all classes of Indonesians. As far back as 1617, Dutch explorers noted some 1,000 opium dens in Jakarta and 100,000 registered users, most of whom were Javanese. The Dutch East India Company made opium supply agreements with local sultans. Raffles too makes note in 1817 of the broad use of opium, marijuana, betelnut and home-brews. In the early 20th century, the more potent Javanese coca overtook Peruvian coca in exports. The Acehnese have used marijuana for as long as anyone can remember to spice up their cooking. 'Special' mushroom omelettes are available at many rural warungs. Even children know that kecubung, a large seed from a common tree, can be mixed with coffee or smoked for its hallucinatory effects.
Alcohol or drug consumption among street youths is for the primary purpose of getting stoned as quickly as possible with little or no notion of 'social' use. Older working class people, however, have used drink and drugs as a social act for centuries. People gather at angkringan or warung cowboy (portable night stalls) and drink lapen (a very potent alcoholic brew) with friends and talk through the night. Lapen is common in Central Java but each province in Indonesia has its own palm sugar-based alcoholic drinks. On any given night, it is common to see men sitting on mats on the street or at the top of an alley passing a small glass around the circle as each in turn downs whatever mixture has been proffered. The glass can contain sweet wine, beer, spirits or jamu oplosan (a variety of lapen mixed with pills, medicinal herbs, insecticide, or any combination of the above). Sometimes these mixtures can be fatal. Such common drinking rituals defeat boredom and seem to provide opportunities not normally available.
On average, Indonesians begin 'experimenting' at around the age of 12. Young men take pills since these are the easiest to obtain. Groups of friends chip in to buy whatever is around to get them mabuk, or intoxicated. A strip of 20 pil koplo (stupid pills) costs a few cents - less than the price of a movie ticket. Obat gendheng (crazy drug) is mixing alcohol with lots of pills. As many have informed me, if you take 20 to 30 of anything you'll most definitely get stoned. Mixing pills with alcohol causes aggression and many street fights begin for no reason beyond machismo, or because the user can feel no pain. Many school kids use pills prior to the street brawls that are a common 'diversion' in Jakarta. Gang activity too is frequently tied to mixing drugs and fighting, as their names reveal: Lapendoz are pill-addicted young people who like to fight; Lapenz Boyz mix the potent Lapen with pills; and Migraine boys are well noted for being hooked on the pain relief drug Ponstan. Eye-witnesses claim drug-taking took place among militias prior to the murderous, destructive rampages in Jakarta in 1998 and East Timor in 1999.
In 1997 the Indonesian drug laws were revised to include a death penalty. The law has never yet been used on well connected, big time dealers. Rather, unwitting pawns duped into trafficking, those without 'backing' from above or money with which to buy their freedom, can receive a death sentence.
Understanding drug problems in Indonesia is complicated by the well-known 'secret' that drug dealing is tied to politics and the security forces. Many police and soldiers test positive for drugs in their urine (usually Ecstasy, amphetamines or low grade heroin). High ranking officers have been caught red-handed smoking SS or putauw with noted dealers. I have frequently been offered high quality drugs by court officials and police who admit with no embarrassment that they use and sell confiscated drugs. This 'official' involvement reaches right into the Suharto family palace. The former president's grandson, Ari, and his wife, Maya, have been accused of trafficking and of using ecstasy and SS. Assorted generals and other leaders are widely recognised as providing 'backing' for drug traffickers and distributors. It is no surprise that major dealers rarely get more than one year in prison - if any time at all.
With official channels weak and ineffective, the Indonesian masses take the street battle against drugs into their own hands. After all, it's their own children and safety at stake. Beginning in 1999, the public learned that drug addiction did not just happen to rich kids. Once reports hit the press that elementary school children were being lured to take 'courage-building pills' and that sentences for convicted dealers were so light, a major backlash began. In 2000, the Minister for Youth and Sport said that drug users may be dealt with through street justice, thus giving official sanction to actions outside of the law. By 2001, at crossroads and entrances to all communities, residents hung banners with slogans such as 'Destroy drug users and dealers', 'Drugs: Indonesia's number one enemy', 'Drug-Free Community', and 'Death to all Drug Users and Dealers'. In 2002, a crowd of 2,000 Jakartans took an oath 'to wage war against the distribution and abuse of drugs'.
Official policy encourages citizens to take the law into their own hands and form anti-drug campaigns and patrols within their community boundaries. When such patrols catch drug users or dealers, they turn them over to the police, but not before a beating. Also with the blessings of the governor, community leaders have hung photographs on public billboards of residents who have died in drug-related circumstances, as 'a lesson for other residents'.
Proactive movements have widespread public support, but all take a militant stance in managing what the authorities obviously cannot. GERAM (the People's Anti-Addiction Movement) is comprised of 400 marshal arts fighters 'ready to fight to the death in the jihad against drugs'. GANAS (the Anti-Narcotics Movement) monitors court hearings and decorates the proceedings with anti-drug banners. Both of these grass roots organisations take threatening acronyms for their names: GERAM means furious or raging and GANAS means cruel, wild, savage or vicious.
Much larger than GERAM or GANAS is GRANAT (the National Anti-Narcotics Movement) which in Indonesian means grenade. GRANAT was founded by Henry Yosodiningrat, a former lawyer, who spent three years attempting to help his son overcome his addiction to putauw. When his attempts failed, Henry lashed out against dealers and suppliers as a one-man army. He wrecked the homes of dealers, entering like an assassin, grabbing them, beating them black and blue, confiscating their stock and surrendering them to police. He even ran 'competitions' in the press awarding Rp 500,000 (A$ 100) to anyone who gave information on drug dealers. Some 50 people won the prize. With thousands of volunteers, GRANAT searches out drug activity and sets up posts where residents can report suspicious activity.
The most militant of all such vigilante groups are the Islamic groups. Fundamentalist Islamic forces claim the drug epidemic is caused by 'an attack on freedom by the ideologies of the capitalist-secularist western nations'. In their view drug dealers are greedy capitalists lusting after ever-increasing profits. But drug dealing also strategically weakens a generation of young Muslims. 'With damaged lifestyles, bodies, minds, intellects, and with their social skills weakened, capitalist nations can easily enslave Muslim societies in the future'. Any self-respecting Muslim, they claim, can not sit in silence and witness the destruction of the younger generation.
None of the dilemmas inherent in drug prevention - abstinence versus responsible use, drug education versus skills training, treatment versus incarceration, education versus legalisation, tradition versus globalisation, and especially the various methods of harm reduction - have been given serious thought in Indonesia. Instead, the lack of political will and the general state of social breakdown lead to such a proliferation of excesses: emotional responses and violence on the one hand and helplessness, silence, and prayer on the other. Public dialogues emphasise the problems, never the solutions. Powerlessness prevails and no sane response to the issue is under consideration.
Laine Berman (firstname.lastname@example.org) lectures in the United States.