He wakes up early in the afternoon, after a night working security at a seedy disco attached to the rear wing of one of the city’s major hotels. Behind the security desk, he keeps a stash of ecstasy in a locker, available to guests who come recommended by someone he trusts. He can arrange a girl or a room, and greets each of a string of patrols from the police, the army and the mobile brigades with friendly chatter and an envelope of cash.
It will take him at least three cups of sludgy coffee and a half a pack of unfiltered Dji Sam Soe kretek cigarettes before he’s ready to make his own rounds of the stalls of a nearby market, where he collects his own protection dues. He’ll probably spend the rest of the day at a favourite warung engaging in banter and crass jokes, while drinking more muddy coffee and burning through several more packs of Dji Sam Soe (on the house — the proprietor has little choice but to oblige). Then he returns to the disco for another night.
This is the image of the Indonesian preman, or gangster. While it may still accurately characterise thousands of young men throughout Indonesia, it neither fully captures exactly what a preman is, nor tells us much about how preman have changed since the end of Suharto’s rule.
Gangster or off-duty cop?
By the end of the New Order regime, the term preman (from the Dutch vrijman or free man) had acquired a double meaning. On one hand it referred to the rough and buff men of violence who inhabited the discos and other seamy venues. On the other hand there is an older meaning of preman as a soldier or policeman in civilian clothes. Journalists and social critics played on this ambiguity with delight, until the thin line between criminals and soldiers (or politicians) seemed to vanish. The Suharto regime lost the last of its legitimacy at the very time this distinction disappeared.
If politicians and soldiers were revealed as essentially preman, so preman were revealed as politicians and soldiers. They joined state-sanctioned or military-affiliated youth groups because they had political ambitions. Once members they were interested in climbing through the ranks. Some would even use the organisation as a stepping stone to Golkar party politics or bureaucratic positions.
They were also in a sense foot soldiers, who often performed the military’s dirty work. Anti-regime activists, after all, were often more fearful of preman from youth groups such as Pemuda Pancasila (Pancasila Youth, PP) than they were of army soldiers. In the 1990s, there was no shortage of cases of preman beating up activists, shouting down their rallies and busting up their offices.
The image of the solitary preman, whose power to intimidate relies on his imposing physique and his readiness for violence, is misleading. The preman’s true power rests in his immunity from legal sanctions thanks to his support from political networks (his ‘backing’), not his bravado. As the phenomenon of ‘backing’ began to be openly discussed, more and more Indonesians recognised just how corrupt the regime was.
All the talk about preman politics supported the idea of a regime, a unified state whose power originated with Suharto and extended like blood vessels through neat chains of command, and finally downward and outward through its preman capillaries. This idea was supported by the fect that by the end of the 1990s, most preman were attached to youth groups, such as Pemuda Pancasila or Pemuda Panca Marga (Army Veterans’ Youth). These groups all proclaimed loyalty to the president and Golkar, while taking direction from senior army officers.
But this public display of loyal support masked rivalries, resulting in turf battles between competing groups in major cities. Ample evidence links the riots of May 1998 and the apparently Christian-Muslim violence in Ambon, to ‘preman politics’. The same goes for several other recent cases of riots and communal conflicts.
These incidents of social conflict provoked by preman could be taken as indication of a master plan: Suharto or the army intended to create chaos to force Indonesians to demand a restoration of security and order. Others reject such a sweeping master plan and point to turf wars between local military and civil authorities over resources. My own view is that it has been a bit of both. No one is capable of orchestrating such a grandiose scheme, but if local conflicts generate nostalgia for the old days and a need for security, few senior officers would complain. The protection racket is too lucrative to abandon, for both officers and gangsters.
After Suharto, with the appearance of a unified regime fractured, preman still remained attached to formal organisations headed by powerful politicians or officers. Many gambled on which of these would come out on top. Pemuda Pancasila had always denied that it was an organisation of preman, while openly welcoming preman who wanted to change their ways. The trend of being flexible enough to follow the newly powerful was encouraged when Pemuda Pancasila stopped formally supporting Golkar. This freed its members to back whichever parties they wished.
Change with the times
Many preman sensed that Megawati’s PDIP (Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle) would gain power, and joined the ranks of PDIP’s task force (satgas) and youth wing. Others were recruited into Islamic groups such as the Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI), notorious for ransacking discos under the banner of religious morality but also, some suspect, making a bid for turf and the right to collect protection rents. In such cases, preman used the organisation as a cover for positions on the street, just as they had done in the past, but now carrying new banners.
Preman filled out the ranks of party supporters during these uncertain times, helping to account for the huge party rallies during the 1999 elections. By the 2004 elections, competitive party politics had grown more institutionalised, and the need for mass mobilisation had diminished. Turf battles once waged through a ‘show of force’ would, for now, be staged at the polls.
Leading up to the 2004 elections, former leaders of organisations like Pemuda Pancasila were in leadership posts in all the parties contesting the elections. Most remained in Golkar, but many were involved in PDIP, PAN (National Mandate Party) and other parties. PP second-in-command Yorrys Raweyai lost his seat in parliament in 1998, but is now back in parliament as a Golkar representative. Although PP is not the force it once was, it might find new relevance as retired General (in preman clothes) Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono consolidates his presidency, and his party attracts people who are unhappy with Golkar and PDIP.
A Medan preman
Some of these changes can be seen in the story of an actual preman from Medan. He held a post as a Medan sub-district (kecamatan) chief of PP for much of the 1990s. In the mid 1990s he led his group in a deadly fight with a rival youth group over factory and security jobs. He refused to participate after he realised that he and his boys were being sacrificed by PP to the interests of a land developer who wanted to ‘encourage’ residents to sell their homes cheaply. As a result, he was relieved of his ‘field command’ by being bumped up to a ceremonial desk job.
At that time, he expanded his back-alley café, literally under a PP flag. At the café, illegal slot machines, marijuana and shabu-shabu (crystal methyl amphetamine) were as easily available as billiard tables and warm beer. Patrols would visit nightly and he would supply them with free drinks and occasional monetary ‘assistance’. But ultimately the pay-offs were not enough to prevent the seizure of his jackpot machines. He suspected the authorities were put up to it by rivals within his own organisation.
The raid, and the mysterious poisoning of his valuable carp, were enough to force him to resign from PP in 1999. Without backing from an organisation, his clout diminished and his café failed. As Suharto ‘abdicated the throne to become a priest’ (lengser keprabon madeg pandito), so did he, on a smaller scale but with a great deal more sincerity. On retirement, he became actively involved in the Batak Protestant church. This was no doubt partly out of conviction, but the church community also provided him with a new support base. Members of this community eventually became regular clients in his new business, where he sells merchandise on credit. Now that his prospects are looking up, he has submitted a request to PP Medan to revoke his resignation, so all may return to the ‘status quo ante’. Thus after some years of uncertainty, preman are back in business, although now facing a more competitive market.
Loren Ryter (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches comparative politics at Cornell University. For another of his articles on preman, see ‘A tale of two cities: Medan gets a new mayor’, Inside Indonesia No. 63.