In Joshua Oppenheimer’s incredible documentary The Act of Killing, Indonesia’s former vice president Yusuf Kalla, regarded by many here as a saner voice than most of the politicians, delivers a mind boggling speech to a gathering of the Pancasila Youth.
The Pancasila Youth is a paramilitary organisation that grew from a motley collection of semi-official gangsters that did the wet work for the Indonesian military against the “Communist” Chinese Indonesians in North Sumatra during Suharto’s New Order.
Kalla told an enthusiastic audience that Indonesia needs premans (gangsters) because without them the nation would be run by only bureaucrats, who couldn’t get many things done. But preman are men of action who could get things done in Indonesia, he said to laud applause from the crowd.
He also paid lip service to the “roots” of the term preman which he and the gangsters all claim comes from the words “free man”, an insinuation that they are their own people, independent from the dictates of others. Indeed, on one level they are right. The word comes from the Dutch vrijman (‘free man’) .
But that is where the romance of the pre man, or free man ends. The fact is that they “existed in the grey areas where they treaded within the inside and outside of law. Whilst they were admired due to their autonomy, they were also feared by the locals due to their connections to the authorities.” In other words running dogs of the Dutch against their own people and because they serve a purpose to the powers that be are tolerated and even encouraged by government officials.
If you delve into the Wikipedia definition further it gets interesting:
A preman is a member of an Indonesian organized gang, encompassing street level criminals up through crime bosses. Premans are often perceived negatively throughout Indonesian society due to associations with violence and criminality. This root word is derived from a term which describes the “confluence of state power and criminality”.However, organized crime in Indonesian has a more enduring an complicated history, as the confluence of crime syndicates with perceived legitimate political authority has a history extending as far back as the Medang Kingdom. While associated with brigandry and theft, Indonesian crime syndicates have periodically acted as enforcers to maintain authority and order. The roles of the jago or jawara were particularly important during the Indonesian Revolution, as they often adopted political roles that helped consolidating the power of local authorities. Despite their significance to Indonesian history, syndicates are universally marginalized due to associations with violence and social illegitimacy.
And when it gets to the etymology of the word it get’s even more interesting:
The word jago literally means a rooster and refers to a type of strongman that exists as a part of the everyday life in urban and rural areas of Indonesia. The jago is a social and political actor in both recent and more distant history of Indonesia. In Indonesian popular culture, the jago is often romanticized as a champion of the people whose acts of violence are motivated by a deep sense of justice, honour and order.
The preman is the modern form of the jago. This word originated from the Dutch term vrijman (‘free man’) which later morphed into preman, referring to a new breed of urban jago who “is not in the service of the Dutch East India Company, but has permission to be in the Indies, and carries out trade for the sake of the VOC,”:9:58–59 The vrijman, orpreman existed in the grey areas where they treaded within the inside and outside of law. Whilst they were admired due to their autonomy, they were also feared by the locals due to their connections to the authorities.
What all this means is that Indonesian leaders have been using these quasi-official gangsters to do their bidding for hundreds of years. It is baked into the DNA of the ruling class in Indonesia.
Hence we have Kalla and now Home Minister Gumawan Fauzi legitimizing and even praising the FPI, who are no more than common thugs in Islamic clothing.
Indonesia has progressed far since the fall of Suharto in 1998, but when it comes to the preman its leaders have not moved an inch from the Medang Kingdom. It is feudal, it is wrong and it is disgusting.
But Kalla remains a popular figure among many in Indonesia who view him, in the face of SBY’s namby pamby image, as a decisive doer. And Gumawan, who’s act of praising the FPI as an asset to the nation is as reprehensible to praising Hitler’s Brownshirts in Germany today, is still keeping his job without even a slap on the wrist.
When will the populace rise up and say: Enigh is enough?