Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, center, lifts a baby boy during his campaign rally in Bandung, West Java, Indonesia, Thursday. Pic: AP.

Indonesian presidential hopeful Prabowo denounces violence while courting political and religious thugs

The startling hypocrisy of Prabowo Subianto has been spectacularly laid bare in recent days, after the presidential hopeful and his campaign team successfully managed to woo the backing of what can only be described as a tripartite thug alliance, comprised of violent radical Islamists and notorious political paramilitaries. The three groups in question – Pemuda Pancasila, Forum Betawi Rempug and Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defenders Front) – came together last week under the banner of Forum Ormas Bersatu (Forum of United Organisations, or FOB) in order to pledge their support for Gerindra’s campaign and encourage their members to vote Prabowo when the presidential polling booths open on July 9th.

The FOB’s highly-publicised declaration of support for the disgraced former general couldn’t have come at a more problematic point in the electoral season, since it coincided quite precisely with a sudden outpouring of religious violence in the East Java city of Yogyakarta, to which Prabowo has so far responded with little more than routine lip service.

In two separate incidents late last week, members of Indonesia’s Islamic Jihad Front (FJI) brutally attacked a Catholic prayer group using makeshift weapons such as iron bars and plant pots, leaving one man hospitalised with severe wounds and several broken bones. The mob struck again three days later – in the same regency – attempting to smash up a Pentecostal church by throwing rocks at the building’s windows. So far only one person has been arrested in connection with the two incidents, which eye witnesses say police observed but were unwilling to intervene.

As reports of these events proliferated across the archipelago, circumstances have obliged Prabowo to condemn the attacks as a debased expression of religious intolerance and a gross affront to Indonesia’s secular constitution, which theoretically ensures religious freedom for all. By consenting to these righteous demands, however, Prabowo has embroiled himself at the centre of a perfect storm, in which he is required to make an impassioned, ‘presidential’ call for calm and tolerance, despite having just entered into an alliance with some of the most consistently violent and intolerant groups in Indonesia at present. Not surprisingly, the glaring discrepancy between Prabowo’s words and deeds has left the old general wide open to charges of unmitigated hypocrisy.

After meeting with regional heads of his red-and-white coalition in Jakarta on Tuesday, Prabowo declared that, “We do not justify violence of any sort, let alone unlawful attacks on [different] ethnicities, religions or other groups.” Indonesian media outlets have wasted no time pointing out the duplicity of Prabowo’s sentiments, emphasising the impossibility of his coalition offering any meaningful censure of last week’s violence whilst simultaneously courting an alliance with the FOB; particularly the rampageous Islamic Defenders Front, whose own attacks on Shia Muslims, the Ahmadiyyah sect, bars and nightclubs, LGBT persons, Christians and churches often follow a similar format to the violence perpetrated in Yogyakarta last week. Unfortunately, however, the pragmatics of the situation dictate that Prabowo must cling to the tripartite thug alliance regardless of the outcry generated by events in Yogyakarta.

The question must therefore be asked: what makes the Gerindra-FOB alliance so sacrosanct that Prabowo perceives there to be more benefit than harm in upholding such a controversial pact?

On a fairly crude level, one reason is of course votes; something which Prabowo is looking increasingly desperate to obtain as he continues to trail Jokowi in the polls with just over four weeks until election day. Winning the backing of Pemuda Pancasila (PP) is a particular boon in this respect, given that the notorious preman (gangster) collective currently has somewhere in the region of 3 million members. Total PP membership has fallen dramatically since the downfall of Suharto in 1998 – when it claimed 6 million members – but the organisation remains vast and not afraid to intimidate rivals for cash profit and political gain. The FPI and Forum Betawi Rempug (FBR) are comparatively much younger and smaller organisations, and therefore less important in terms of garnering votes, yet they do possess a level of influence which belies their numbers. The FPI and FBR’s characteristically vocal and often violent brand of activism – sometimes described as ‘moral policing’ or vigilantism – has gifted these organisations a formidable media presence, and has also allowed them to set the agenda on so-called religious issues through their aggressive lobbying of local authorities. The FPI has also been accused of acting as an “attack dog” for Indonesia’s police and intelligence services in situations where the authorities feel unable to sufficiently intimidate domestic dissenters.

The long-standing impunity enjoyed by Indonesia’s mob collectives such as those represented by the FOB is not only evidenced by the conspicuous lack of criminal convictions among their members, but is also reflected in the way that high-ranking politicians often seek their favour during times of political challenge or upheaval. Instead of striving to disband known criminal syndicates like the PP, FBR or FPI, Indonesia’s politicians have more typically been inclined to cultivate amicable working ties with such groups.

It’s worth pointing out that Prabowo himself already has a long history of sponsoring various preman groups, particularly during his infamous tenure as KOPASSUS special forces commander in occupied East Timor, where he employed the assistance of paid mobsters to help terrorise the civilian population. Given this extensive track record, Prabowo’s latest courting of the FOB is hardly surprising, but it’s also important to recognise that he is certainly not the only top-level politician with a documented history of preman ties. Even squeaky-clean Jokowi’s presidential running mate – Jusuf Kalla, for example – has been caught on camera at a Pemuda Pancasila rally emphatically extolling the virtues of Indonesia’s largest and most enduring mob: “We need preman to run the economy,” he told an audience of uniformed PP cadres, “We need adventurous people… Without people who are willing to take risks nothing will happen… We need preman to get things done.” Such is the extent to which Indonesia’s gangsters and protection rackets have been integrated into mainstream national politics.

Prabowo’s self-described “embrace” of these violent, criminal gangs – which he euphemistically refers to as “social organisations” (‘organisasi masyarakat’) - signifies one of the greatest shortcomings of post-New Order Indonesia, namely the failure of the state to stamp out vigilantism, radical Islam and political thuggery. Even as Indonesia strives towards greater democracy and stronger rule of law, the three organisations represented by the FOB – as well as even more sinister counterparts, such as the Islamic Jihad Front – still manage to operate with relative impunity across the country, and have at times allegedly received funding from Indonesia’s national police, as revealed by WikiLeaks in 2011. This deeply corrupted state of affairs looks unlikely to improve under a Prabowo presidency, given his current courting of the FOB alliance and his previous utilisation of preman groups prior to his discharge from the army in 1998.

In terms of realpolitik, Prabowo is surely aware that he has entered into an indispensible union with three of the most belligerent, untouchable and effective thug organisations in the country, and this is a great boon to his potential presidency should he emerge victorious on July 9. If such a catastrophe does indeed transpire, then Prabowo will benefit from having pre-emptively defused any potential hostilities with the FOB, and will most likely enjoy the protection offered by a healthy stock of loyal preman who have a long history of conspiring to crush domestic dissent. Last week’s statement sends out out an implicit message that Indonesia’s preman are here to stay, and if they play cards right when it comes to the business of power brokering then long shall they continue to operate with impunity.