Violent Youth Groups in Indonesia: The Cases of Yogyakarta and Nusa Tenggara Barat

By Kristiansen, Stein | SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, April 2003 | Go to article overview

Violent Youth Groups in Indonesia: The Cases of Yogyakarta and Nusa Tenggara Barat


Kristiansen, Stein, SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia


1. Introduction

Since the economic crisis started in 1997, an increasing number of people in Indonesia are thrown into the harsh reality of joblessness. The younger generation is most severely affected by the lack of employment or pertinent possibilities of income generation, and identity creation. More than 40 million people are without a reliable income from employment in Indonesia today, most of them young and male, having nothing to sell but their own muscles. Rates of criminality have increased, not least as a consequence of weakened state and police power since the fall of Soeharto's authoritarian regime in 1998.

Vertical violence and human rights violations in Indonesia continue, especially in the troubled provinces of Aceh and Papua. More alarming, however, is the increase in horizontal violence, theft, and destruction of common property, and ordinary people are being threatened, tortured, and even executed by their peers. It is probable that several hundred people nation-wide are killed every year in incidents of street vigilantism, where angry mobs take the law into their own hands. (1) Much of the horizontal violence observed over the last few years is related to problems of economic crisis and unemployment, combined with the weakening of central state institutions, including the police.

Concurrent with these economic trends in Indonesia are long traditions of youth gangs and organized criminality in Indonesia. Racketeering and forced protection seem to be a growing business. Groups and gangs of unemployed youth have become bolder, making security a highly valued commodity. The demand for security services has increased dramatically and entrepreneurs are seen flocking into the violence business. Entry barriers into this line of business are low, and personal satisfaction seems to be high for the idle young who are undaunted, as it not only provides them with a source of income, but also strengthens their self-identity and confidence. Members of the national and local political elites may also gain from youth mobilization and unrest, and this might have contributed to the escalation of the violence seen.

Given such a background and trend, this paper takes a closer look at violent youth groups in two of Indonesia's provinces, Yogyakarta and Nusa Tenggara Barat (NTB). Within these areas, the phenomenon of youth gangs and the violence business is especially evident in the city of Yogyakarta and on the island of Lombok. Both provinces have been hard hit by the reduced inflow of foreign tourists since 1998. In Yogyakarta, a number of groups affiliated to political parties fight each other and against the police. In Lombok, security groups called Pam Swakarsa also fight each other and against criminality. Dominating groups in both provinces are related to Muslim leaders and organizations, and they use religious teachings to legitimize their actions.

The research underlying this paper is based on my observation of developments in the two provinces through regular visits over the last ten years and through a network of friends and colleagues in the regions. However, the main data collection was made in August 2001, followed by visits to the two provinces again in October 2001 and January 2002. While researching on small-scale entrepreneurship and the conditions for business innovations, my attention was drawn to the role of criminality as a hindrance for small-scale business development. Studying the "violence business" is scary, disappointing, and methodologically difficult to approach. The aim of this paper is thus modest: it throws light on the operations of violent youth groups and the reasons behind their increase in numbers and significance.

The research process was organized into four stages: First, as mentioned, a close following of development trends in the two provinces, rendered possible through an institutional collaboration with Gadjah Mada University, Yogyakarta, and Universitas Mataram, NTB. …

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