Indonesia: Militia Wildcards


Dr George Quinn

Officially tolerated militias and para-militaries are steadily increasing in number, organisational sophistication and armed strength in Indonesia. In the spectrum of the country’s armed groups, para-militaries lie between, on the one hand, the state apparatus of the armed forces (TNI) and police (Polri), and on the other hand the forces undertaking armed insurgency against the state, such as the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and the Free Papua Organisation (OPM).

The recent proliferation of para-militaries can probably be attributed to two main factors. First, there has been a breakdown in the authority and deterrent effectiveness of Indonesia’s state ‘militias’, the TNI and the police. Second, the diversification of Indonesia’s political life and the clumsy moves towards devolution of power from Jakarta to the provinces and sub-provinces has produced unprecedented local and national rivalries, that in some regions, are increasingly being expressed in politically ‘acceptable’ armed conflict.

Essentially there are three categories of officially tolerated para-militaries, although many of them fall, in one respect or another, into all three categories. The three groups are those with links to mass organisations (especially political parties), those linked with, and feeding off, the TNI or the police, and those driven by religious or ethnic chauvinism.

Probably the most notorious of the para-militaries with links to mass organisations is the Pemuda Pancasila (Pancasila Youth). With many members drawn from the urban poor and young petty criminals, the Pemuda Pancasila was an arm of the old Golkar, the political coalition that was President Soeharto’s main civilian power base. It was the Pemuda Pancasila, for example, that attacked and destroyed the headquarters of Megawati Sukarnoputri’s Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) in 1996 with loss of life and numerous ‘disappearances’ among Megawati’s staff.

The fall of Soeharto and the decline of Golkar have dealt a blow to the prestige and militancy of the Pemuda Pancasila, but the mushrooming of new political parties has produced a new and more numerous generation of satellite para-militaries. The PDI-P itself, for example, has a ‘security force’, the Satgas PDI-P, also called the Red Bulls (Banteng Merah). The Red Bulls not only provide security for the Democratic Party of Struggle, but also hire out their services for everything from guarding banks to keeping gate-crashers out of weddings.

Probably the best known of the current generation of party-political para-militaries is the Banser militia. This is an armed off-shoot of Pemuda Ansor, the youth wing of the mass Islamic organisation Nahdlatul Ulama. Although Nahdlatul Ulama is not strictly a political party, it has close affiliations with the National Awakening Party (Partai Kebangkitan Bangsa). Banser is not a brand-new organisation, but it received a dramatic lift in its profile, membership and operations after the election of its long-time leader, President Wahid, in 1999. It jumped to prominence in June 2000 when its members surrounded the offices of a Surabaya newspaper, bailed up journalists and forced them to publish an apology for an article critical of a Nahdlatul Ulama office holder. Early in 2001, Banser repeatedly sent shivers up the spines of parliamentarians and the Jakarta police by issuing blood-curdling ultimatums in support of the embattled President Wahid.

The second category of para-militaries includes the militias that devastated East Timor in September 1999. Nurtured under the patronage of the Indonesian army and police, some of these may have been heirs to age-old Timorese martial traditions, but most were creations of the Indonesian military charged with the task of keeping East Timor part of Indonesia by coercion and terror. The best known was the Aitarak (Thorn) militia based in and around Dili. Aitarak was responsible for a number of atrocities in the lead-up to the UN referendum of August 30, 1999, and led the destruction of Dili after the referendum. It then moved its operations to the refugee camps of West Timor where its remnants remain active today.

Indonesian attempts to prosecute these militias have been farcical. Eurico Guterres, the leader of Aitarak, was arrested at least twice in 2000 on various charges, in April 2001 Guterres was convicted of inciting violence in West Timor and sentenced to six months imprisonment. He served a total of just 23 days house detention in comfortable government-provided accommodation before being released to the applause of his militia supporters.

East Timor-style militias are now believed to be in training in Indonesian’s restive eastern-most province of Irian Jaya. There have been reports, for example, that an army-backed militia called The Red and White Security Force (Satgas Merah Putih) is operating in the Fak Fak region, and that other forces resembling those of East Timor are appearing in other parts of the province.

But the military and police have for long been patrons of grassroots para-militaries not just in hot spots but right across the country. These include, for example, the Civil Guard (Kamra or Hansip), a local public security force, and the Menwa (a para-military organisation for university students). These units also include security guards for buildings and spaces (called satpam) and neighbourhood night patrols (ronda). Within the last two weeks the Indonesian Government has announced plans to revive yet another police-sponsored para-military organisation, the Pamswakarsa, to help civilians secure their own neighbourhoods, thereby allowing the police themselves to concentrate on wider security issues.

Militias with religious affiliations have engaged in communal strife in Central and West Kalimantan, Central Sulawesi and, most viciously, in the vast archipelago provinces of Maluku and North Maluku in the far east of Indonesia. The tragic bloodshed in the Maluku archipelago probably had its origins in rivalry among private security para-militaries in Jakarta in 1998. When it spread to Maluku it was further fomented by elements in the Indonesian military (TNI) and it quickly acquired a religious character. Islamic militiamen from Java, the Holy War Warriors (Laskar Jihad) with Wahabist inclinations, were sent in large numbers to the Maluku region to resist what was represented as Christian harassment of Muslims.

The Laskar Jihad are well organised and appear to operate freely in recruiting members and soliciting financial support in Java. Their high profile has helped spawn a host of similar groups. In the Central Javanese city of Solo extremist Muslim groups have several times attempted to make an inventory of foreign guests staying in local hotels (an exercise called ’sweeping’) with a view to possibly forcing their expulsion. Observers estimate that at least a dozen such groups, many of which could be characterised as para-militaries, now operate in Solo.

Well-organised and very vicious Christian militias, with characteristics reminiscent of the infamous Christian tadtad militias of the southern Philippines, have also appeared in several parts of Indonesia, most especially in the Maluku region. In West and Central Kalimantan, Dayak militias with Christian connections have, since last year, slaughtered hundreds of Muslim Madurese migrants and have ethnically cleansed several areas of citizens perceived by them as ’outsiders’. Most recently violence has broken out between Christian and Muslim communities in Poso, Central Sulawesi. Here local armed Muslims have been reinforced by an injection of Laskar Jihad personnel, many from Maluku, while Christians have formed a coalition of militias called the Red Troops (Pasukan Merah).

The current international situation bodes ill for efforts to reduce local armed conflict across Indonesia. The US prosecuted ‘War on Terror’ will inevitably push moderate Indonesian Muslims towards a more hostile view of the West and of Christians. If this produces a further proliferation of Muslim militia aggression there will be a Christian backlash. The Muslim fasting month of Ramadhan in November-December will be a crucial test of Muslim moderation, not just in Indonesia but across the world. Continued allied attacks on Afghanistan during the Fast will be seen, even by moderate Indonesian Muslims, as a violation of the sanctity of this month. This may result in outbreaks of local militia activity, and almost certainly will lead to a significant increase in the size and number of armed militias.

WATCHPOINT: Militia and paramilitaries, if unchecked, appear likely to fill the gap left by the armed forces and police, with alarming consequences.


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