The arrest of 'street thugs' and the ritual of 'Yes Sir'

CNN Indonesia – June 16, 2021
67 alleged preman arrested by East Java regional police – Undated (CNN)

Jakarta – Recent moves by police to aggressively arrest preman (street thugs, petty criminals) in various cities around the country will not be able to resolve the age old problem of premanism (thuggery) and violence in Indonesia.

This was revealed by Murdoch University researcher Ian Douglas Wilson who said that the latest wave of arrests are no different from those before and are like a ritual of carrying out orders from a superior, in this case President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo.

"This is like, what I consider to be perhaps like a ritual, yes, there is an order from above and then the police immediately [say], yes we're ready to wipe them out Sir, arrest people", said Wilson when contacted by CNN Indonesia by phone on Wednesday June 16.

Wilson has been conducting research on the history of premanism in Indonesia since 2000. He then conducted field research on the world of preman, society and the government in 2006-2014. Based on this research, he published a book titled "The Politics of Protection Rackets in Post-New Order Indonesia".

Based on his observations since the era of reformasi – the political reform process that began in 1988 – preman are a daily problem in all Indonesian cities. The new Indonesian police chief and his officers have declared that they will wipe out premanism.

"Premanism is constructed as if it is something that is outside the state", said Wilson.

Yet, in the history studied by Wilson, acts of premanism often have a relationship with the police – or at the minimum, the police know about these acts.

Historically, a preman's power – which Wilson refers to as being informal power – is always based on a relationship with formal government power.

"So local police or local officials already have a relationship or at least knowledge about incidents such as this", said Wilson.

This time however, said Wilson, the recent spate of arrests by police was set off by a direct instruction by President Widodo to Indonesian police chief General Listyo Sigit Prabowo.

Following this, several district police chief began aggressively arresting preman. Moreover, according to Wilson, it was as if these police chief were competing with each other statistically to show who had arrested the most preman.

"As if this would overcome the problem of premanism. This is a myth, it won't make the slightest difference to a problem which has long existed in Indonesia", explained Wilson.

Street thugs, he said, are usually unemployed youths. In a difficult economic situation they use coercive methods such as illegal fees and extortion to survive.

Those who are arrested, said Wilson, will usually be detained. They are then given guidance by the police or social organisations (ormas) close to the police. Then they are released and the situation returns to normal.

"Usually, if you look at what has happened before, many are not prosecuted under the law", he said.

Moreover according to the history he has studied, he found that officials often become the backers of certain preman groups in the constellation of groups or competition between preman.

These rouge police offices as well as preman both gain benefits, both in the form of money and other things. This relationship, according to Wilson, is informal in character and not ideal.

"It can perhaps be said to not be ideal, because it's informal and free from transparency and legal accountability", he explained.

Wilson himself admits that he does not know exactly what the situation is like in Indonesia at the moment. Nevertheless, he feels that statements by police that they will eliminate preman without bias won't be effective.

"In policy terms, it's just arresting a person then releasing the person like a political ritual. But it won't solve the root of the premanism problem in Indonesia", he explained.

On June 11, General Prabowo instructed all regional (Polda) and district (Polres) police to eliminate premanism which is creating anxiety among the public.

"All Polda and Polres officers must act firmly against premanism which creates anxiety. This is for the sake of guaranteeing people's safety and providing a sense of peace in society", said Prabowo.

Prabowo also asked officers to publish or release information on every preman arrested, the aim being to muzzle them and create a deterrent effect among preman.

"The country cannot be defeated by premanism. Rogue [officials] and preman [must be] cleaned up, arrested and finished off", said Prabowo. (iam/ain)

[Translated by James Balowski. The original title of the article was "Penangkapan Preman dan Ritual 'Siap Pak'".]