With Covid-19 cases soaring, Indonesia recruits thugs to enforce health protocols

Representatives from community organisations receive yellow vests at an event to acknowledge their recruitment as “enforcers” of health protocols. Photo by Livia Kistianti for Antara.

 

As Covid-19 cases continue to climb across Indonesia, Jakarta and some other local administrations have reimplemented “large scale social restrictions” (PSBB) in an attempt to control viral spread. Jakarta moves to “transitional” PSBB today, but with cases still high, there is a strong chance tighter restrictions will need to be imposed again in the future.

 

At the same time, the Indonesian military (TNI) and National Police (Polri) have said they will work together with ‘social organisations’ (organisasi masyarakat, ormas) and even thugs and gansters (preman) to ensure citizens obey health protocols in crowded places like traditional markets, offices and train stations.

 

In Tanah Abang, one of the biggest traditional markets in Jakarta, 18 ormas have already been recruited. They including many with strong ties to the military and police, such as the Communication Forum of the Sons and Daughters of Military and Police Retirees (FKPPI), Panca Marga Youth, and the Association of Sons and Daughters of Army Families, as well as notorious ‘nationalist’ organisations like Pancasila Youth (Pemuda Pancasila) and the ethnicity-based Betawi Rembug Forum (FBR).

 

Recruited members wear yellow vests with police and military patches, and the slogan ‘Enforcer of Adherence to COVID-19 Health Protocols’ on the back.

 

Shortly before announcing their plan to work with ormas and gangsters, Polri issued Police Regulation No. 4 2020 on ‘Self-Security’ (Pengamanan Swakarsa, Pam Swakarsa) to give it a legal basis. The regulation states that it aims to fulfil security needs in private, community and residential areas to strengthen citizen awareness of threats to order and security, and increase training of “involved organisations” to conduct “limited police functions”.

 

This clearly recalls the Pam Swakarsa that was used to dispel the student movement in 1998. It is therefore no surprise that the police regulation and the involvement of preman in enforcing health protocols during the pandemic have been firmly rejected by many civil society organizations.

 

They argue that the use of Pam Swakarsa will result in conflict in communities and the strengthening of “premanism” and vigilantism. They also say that that the program lacks any oversight and monitoring mechanism.

 

Local and national politicians, however, have expressed strong support for the idea. This is not surprising. Collaboration between state security apparatus (police and military) and non-state security actors like preman and ormas is hardly a new phenomenon in Indonesia. And it has always involved political actors.

 

In the Dutch colonial era, local strongmen referred as jago (literally, cockfighters) acted as intermediaries between the population, and village heads and the colonial government. During the independence struggle, gangsters in Jakarta formed guerilla units to confront the Dutch army as it attempted to reclaim Indonesia after the end of World War II.

 

In post-colonial Indonesia, these non-state security actors were institutionalised by Soeharto’s New Order regime. Pemuda Pancasila and Pemuda Panca Marga were symbols of state-backed vigilantism. Political, business and military elites used these groups as subcontractors of violence and security services in exchange for material benefits for loyal members.

 

This practice of collaboration between state and non-state actors in security and political affairs continued after the fall of Soeharto in 1998, although it has taken a different direction.

Old practice, new configuration?

The willingness of the state to work hand in hand with preman to respond to the Covid-19 crisis is just another manifestation of an old practice. But there are a number of new developments.

 

The first is the use of legal means to legitimise these old patterns. Article 4(4) of the new police regulation refers not only to satpam (security unit) and satkampling (neighbourhood security unit) but also Pam Swakarsa based on ‘local wisdom’ or ‘social institutions’, like pecalang in Bali, Pokdarkamtibmas, or Mahasiswa Bhayangkara. The regulation will allow these previously informal and sometimes criminal groups to be formally recognised. It will boost existing cooperation between state and non-state security actors.

 

Another interesting development is the new form this collaboration has taken. As is widely known, the old Pam Swakarsa was formed by several high-ranking military officers during the turbulent period surrounding the fall of the Soeharto regime. On a practical level, it was first established to secure the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) building from massive student and civil society demonstrations.

 

The new Pam Swakarsa, meanwhile, is focused on the state response to the health and economic crisis caused by Covid-19. In fact, it was President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo himself who first suggested involving a broad alliance of informal organisations and figures in the battle against coronavirus in April 2020. TNI and Polri are now implementing his idea.

 

Interestingly, this time it is Polri, not TNI, that has legitimised Pam Swakarsa through the issuance of a police regulation. This may reflect the growing phenomonenon of the police gradually taking on a dual function under Jokowi’s rule that is beginning to resemble the political role of the army under Soeharto.

 

Even though the old Pam Swakarsa was composed of a broad coalition of ormas and gangsters, such as Pemuda Pancasila, Pemuda Panca Marga, and FKPPI, the dominant forces in the alliance were “volunteers”, many of which shouted Islamic slogans. They were recruited from Tanjung Priok in North Jakarta, Banten province and other nearby areas, and typically wore plain clothes.

 

However, no Islam-based ormas appears to have been included in the new Pam Swakarsa. The Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), for example, is conspicuously absent. The decision not to invite FPI could be as simple as wanting to avoid public controversy, but it could also be a way of punishing the organisation for its leading role in the massive Islamist rallies in Jakarta in late 2016 and early 2017 that were openly hostile to Jokowi. This is particularly interesting, given that FPI is widely considered to have its roots in the old Pam Swakarsa.

 

The recent engagement between state and non-state actors in security provision and the response to Covid-19 is like old wine in new bottles. It has deep historical roots, dating back to the Dutch colonial era. Nevertheless, it will not be without consequences. It will only serve to legitimise these often violent groups and entrench them in state structures, in the same way many similar groups were entrenched under Soeharto.

 

As the old Pam Swakarsa showed, this means there is now new and worrying potential for political corruption, worsening community conflict, and social polarisation.

 

Moh Zaki Arrobi is a PhD researcher working for the ‘Sacralizing Security: Religion, Violence, and Authority’ (SACRASEC) project at the Department of Cultural Anthropology, Utrecht University, the Netherlands. He is also a lecturer at the Department of Sociology, Universitas Gadjah Mada, Indonesia.