This year has seen an escalation of tensions in Poso, Central Sulawesi, and the government…
Among the many incidents of violence in the conflict in Poso, Central Sulawesi, the attack by Christian militants at Kilometre 9 in Lage subdistrict in May 2000 is the one that former jihadist Sumiyono, or Yono, remembers the most.
That’s because 45 of his relatives were killed, including his older brother and grandfather. Yono survived after being chased for a week through the jungle and hiding for a full day in a river.
A desire for revenge then pushed him to join a Muslim militia group in Tanah Runtuh, the Muslim militia headquarters in Poso at that time. There he joined a Qur’an study group, took up war training exercises, and eventually became a jihadist, despite his former favoured pastimes of drinking and cockfighting.
Almost two decades later, Yono has reinvented himself again. With the presidential and legislative elections fast approaching on 17 April, he is busy campaigning for the success of his party. In Poso, he is the deputy head of Berkarya, the party led by Tommy Soeharto, son of former authoritarian President Soeharto, who ruled Indonesia for 32 years.
When asked why he joined a party formed by a member of the Soeharto family rather than one represented by a reformist figure, he retorts: “Who are the reformists today? Surya Paloh? Amien Rais? Or Ibu Mega [Megawati Soekarnoputri] and SBY [Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono]?” For Yono, Tommy Soeharto is no different to the other party leaders of the reform era.
Yono says he feels appreciated for his position in Berkarya. “I want to have a say,” he says. “If later we find that one of the legislative members is not carrying out their work properly, I will be the one to throw them from the second floor [of the legislative building in Poso].”
One of the campaign posters we saw depicted Yono with the head of Berkarya in Poso – and an image of Soeharto in the middle, just below the party logo. The poster reads: “I Miss Soeharto: Berkarya is My Pick.”
Yono’s political activism represents an important change in the attitude of former Muslim militants in Poso towards elections and democracy. This year is the first time they have openly supported elections and immersed themselves in mainstream politics.
Previously, they rejected democracy as “forbidden” (haram) because it reflected submission to a political system created by humans and not by God – a kind of worship of false idols (thaghut), in their terminology. Because of this, former Muslim militants considered the Indonesian government to be comprised of “infidels” (kafir). But this time around, promises of improvement through the electoral process have tempted their faith.
Although they have different reasons for getting involved, and varying levels of engagement, political activism by former militants like Yono is a sign of progress towards the reintegration of militants in Poso society after the conflict. One key element for successful reintegration is the return of former combatants to the status of regular civilians who support the functioning system of government.
An election offers them the option of fighting for their interests through the voting booth, rather than with bullets – through peace rather than violence, which has been their mode of operation until now.
Force of attraction
In Poso, people like Yono are usually called ikhwan. Borrowed from the Arabic word for “brother”, the term is normally used to denote young Muslim activists who, at the time of the communal conflict, joined the Muslim militia. Some of them, like Yono, went on to wage war as jihadists.
With the situation in Poso improving after the Malino peace agreement in December 2001, and especially after action by the National Police in January 2007, fewer jihadists continued to engage in violence. Those who did were considered terrorists by the government, and arrested, charged and imprisoned. Others who were not captured were put on the wanted persons register.
Yono is an ikhwan and a former jihadist, but he has not been convicted of terrorism. He has never been involved in, charged with, or jailed for terrorist activities, and his name has never been on the wanted persons register. After he renounced jihad, he became an administrator for Berkarya, and is now busy campaigning on behalf of its candidates.
But there are former terrorist convicts running in elections in Poso. One of them is Ma’mur Lapido, who is busy campaigning as a legislative candidate for the Golkar Party. Ma’mur spent time in jail (2003-2004) for his involvement in the robbery of a truck carrying supplies for a cigarette distributor, in an operation jihadists call fa’i – taking wealth from “infidels” for the needs of jihad. He was involved in this operation with Santoso, founder of the East Indonesia Mujahideen (Mujahidin Indonesia Timur, MIT), who was killed by police in 2016.
Ma’mur says he favours Golkar, because it is part of the ruling coalition in Poso. “My intention in doing this is so that I don’t side with people who oppose the government. If I side with the government, automatically the wishes of the people will easily be channelled [through me],” Ma’mur says.
Yono and Ma’mur’s political activism is supported by many important figures in Poso, including prominent cleric Muhammad Adnan Arsal. The man commonly known as Ustad Adnan is considered the “Godfather” not only of the ikhwan and jihadists, but of Poso’s Muslim community in general. Adnan was well regarded in the conflict period, having stayed on in Poso when many other community leaders fled.
His authority is also recognised by jihadists in Java, including those from the Jemaah Islamiyah network, who came to help the Poso Muslim militants against their Christian rivals. He later became one of the key figures in the Malino agreement.
In the 2019 elections, Adnan has even given his blessing for one of his sons, Muhammad Fauzan “Ojan” Adnan, to campaign as a legislative candidate for Gerindra. Asked whether an ikhwan could participate in practical politics, he responds: “As long as you don’t sell out your faith, then go ahead [choose any party]. If you sell out your faith, then I say there is no use in you living.”
Although he seems willing to let his followers vote as they see fit, many of our other sources reported that Adnan has urged them to back the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), the National Mandate Party (PAN), or Gerindra. These parties have declared support for presidential challenger Prabowo Subianto and his running mate Sandiaga Uno.
Adnan’s political preferences are also reflected in the involvement of Fauzan as a legislative candidate. Although not a member or administrator of Gerindra, Fauzan is running for the party following the recommendation of religious leaders involved in the “212 Alumni Brotherhood”, the conservative Muslim movement that led protests against former Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama.
Fauzan acknowledges he is stepping forward as a legislative candidate because he wants to advance the aspirations of the ikhwan. He also wants to erase the stigmatisation of Muslims both in and outside Poso, especially the ikhwan, as terrorists. Aside from this, he wants to promote shari’a, which he says is made possible by democracy.
The different political vehicles chosen by Yono, Ma’mur and Fauzan are typical of the fluidity of political alliances formed by ikhwan in Poso. It is also consistent with the low levels of political party affiliation and “party hopping” seen at the regional and national levels. It is well known, for example, that a voter’s religious preferences cannot be assumed from whether they choose an Islamic political party or a secular one. As Michael Buehler and others have shown, many politicians from secular parties also promote shari’a-inspired regulations to win elections.
By supporting a range of parties, the ikhwan also wish to advance their aspirations through a range of different channels, so that their chance of success will be greater – by not putting all their eggs in one basket, so to speak.
“The more ikhwan or ikhwan sympathisers sitting in government, the easier it will be to fight for their interests,” Yono says.
Our respondents say they learned a lot from the “212 Action to Defend Islam”, which they believe was successful in determining the outcome of the Jakarta gubernatorial election.
“Until now, ikhwan have refrained from voting. But if we are united and active in democracy, then we can definitely win, and more easily fight for Islam,” says another ikhwan close to Yono.
Budiman Maliki, head of the Poso District Electoral Commission (KPUD), says he is optimistic that participation in elections will increase in Poso this year. He says that the proportion of voters abstaining (golput) will largely depend on whether the ikhwan decide to participate or not. Even Budiman, a former researcher and senior NGO activist in Poso, only took up his post with the blessing of religious leader Adnan.
Due to a lack of data, it is impossible to verify Budiman’s claims. Levels of golput in the presidential and legislative elections in Poso have not followed an even pattern: while the proportion of empty ballots in the presidential election dipped slightly from 21 per cent in 2009 to 20 per cent in 2014, in the regional head elections it increased from 17 per cent in 2010 to 18 per cent in 2015. If many of these previous non-voters were indeed ikhwan and their sympathisers, they could well sway results to ensure the success of certain candidates.
For now, Budiman is excited to promote the success of the election with the support of figures like Hasanuddin, Adnan’s son-in-law, who is a Semarang-born Jemaah Islamiyah member and another key figure in the Poso conflict.
Explaining his support for the election, Hasanuddin likened the struggle to past conflict: “If at that time the enemy was clear, who is the enemy now? Will we [wage jihad] to oppose Densus 88 [Special Detachment 88, the National Police’s counter-terrorism unit]? How strong are we? The situation has changed.”
We don’t know who the ikhwan will choose and if their chosen candidates will win. But what is certain is that winner in this case will be democracy, which seems to have succeeded in tempting their faith, for now at least.
This article is based on a larger research report on violent extremism and peace efforts in Poso and Bima, supported by the Australia-Indonesia Partnership for Justice (AIPJ).