Java’s ninja terror : Politics at play?

Black-clad men on the prowl, grotesque killings and a mounting death toll in East Java reflect a move by competing power centres for dominance. DERWIN PEREIRA of The Straits Times Foreign Desk reports from Banyuwangi in East Java

AS INDONESIANS and others look on with growing consternation, a town in East Java shudders under a wave of mysterious killings and murderous violence.

The hills and beaches of Bali are visible in the distance from Banyuwangi port. But they are a world away.

And Banyuwangi is a place of fear that analysts say is now symptomatic of a brewing power struggle and ideological battle among Indonesia’s political elite.

This once congenial city in the south-eastern tip of Java has not been able to rest easy in recent weeks as its terrified residents try to cope with a spate of killings and gruesome revenge attacks.

Victims are sometimes doused in flames or mutilated, their bodies left in front of houses, mosque compounds or hung from trees.

In one case, a victim’s decapitated head was paraded by a mob in public.

There appears to be no let up in the intensity of the killings, and the terror and psychological trauma persists.

Life has come to a standstill as hysteria grips this community of two million.

People fear the dark.

Mosques in this traditionalist Muslim stronghold are now empty in the evenings.

At sundown, the streets are deserted. Stores are closed. Roadblocks, manned by youths with swords, knives and sickles are positioned every 100 m, until dawn.

The threat is from “ninjas” – mysterious men dressed in black who have allegedly killed at least 180 people in East Java.

The killing spree started with sorcerers as the primary victims but then expanded to include Muslim clerics and supporters of the Nadhlatul Ulama (NU) organisation.


The shift in target has raised questions about the real motive behind the violence which has spread like a virus to other parts of East Java, notably Jember, Pasuruan, Malang and Madura.

There have also been isolated cases in Central and West Java.

Explanations for the killings abound.

Some say the communists have returned to seek revenge on ancient enemies.

During the 1965-66 massacre of almost a million communists – after an abortive coup against the government of then-President Sukarno – this area suffered badly.

Landowners, many of them NU members, victimised communist party members and their supporters.

Respected Islamic scholar Nurcholish Majid believes that long-standing personal grievances still exist.

The advanced age of some of those killed lends itself to this theory.

The younger victims could be from families held responsible for the wrongs of the last generation.

But Mr Nurcholish stops short of suggesting that the killings are an indication of a communist resurgence – a suggestion put forward by some senior military figures such as retired General Feisal Tanjung, the Coordinating Minister for Security and Political Affairs.

The popular theory of a comeback by the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) is seriously flawed.

Communists are the traditional bogey men of Indonesian political discourse.

It also seems beyond the capacity of PKI remnants or other known left-wing groups to fund the killings and operate over a wide area.

A more convincing explanation – also accepted here – is that the killings are by those seeking revenge against black magic practitioners or shamans after being cursed.

Fear of the occult runs deep in the Javanese psyche, particularly in this area.

Many people attribute an occurance such as sickness, or misfortune for that matter, to the shaman.

Sociologists say that in the heightened economic distress of the post-Suharto era, traditional social restraints are breaking down.

People are more willing to take the law into their own hands and attack and kill those whom they believe practice the black arts.

According to the current affairs weekly Gatra, the Gantung – an anti-shaman movement – has claimed responsibility for some of the killings and has distributed pamphlets warning people not to protect the sorcerers.

This may go some way towards explaining a portion of the murders – those committed up until mid-July this year, when all the victims were shamans.

But it fails to account for why Muslim preachers and NU supporters have also fallen prey to the ninjas.


It is hard to assess the veracity of the two theories – which some analysts say are nothing but a “smoke-screen”. The killings are also not a recent development.

A Western diplomat noted that 37 people in Banyuwangi were murdered in “witch hunts” between January and July.

The pattern intensified and broadened after this to include more than 100 victims, nearly all Muslim clerics and NU members.

This, to him, suggested that the initial spate of shaman killings was a red herring and that the more accurate explanation was one involving power and political opportunism.

Political analyst Daniel Sparingga of the University of Airlangga says the timing, organisation and scale of the attacks point to a “power struggle within the elite who are making use of Banyuwangi and other areas as an ideological battlefield”.

“The power centre in Jakarta is not united. It is fractured and competing groups are now trying to shore up their positions,” he said.

“The aim appears to be an attempt by one group to send a signal to their opponents and the country’s next President that they are a force to be reckoned with and ought to be included in any future political format.”

Dr Sparingga said that the ideological fault lines and competition were principally between two streams in Indonesian politics: the modernist Muslim groups, and the traditionalist NU plus nationalists, each of which is backed by Cabinet ministers and senior Indonesian armed forces (Abri) officers.

While Indonesia has become much more uniformly Islamic over the past 30 years, the political values, beliefs and attitudes of Muslims are still diverse.

This is reflected in the two main Muslim organisations – the traditionalist NU and the modernist Muhammadiyah group.

Between them, they claim to have over 50 million members. In the 50s, instability in Indonesia was due largely to a conflict between the two groups.

NU members, in an indirect swipe at Muhammadiyah, have in the past warned the country could become another Algeria if extremism prevailed.

NU chairman Abdurrahman Wahid, underscoring the fact that local factors do not explain the East Java killings completely, said recently the influence of Jakarta was also felt – and charged that some Cabinet ministers masterminded the sordid affair.

Although he did not name any minister, this led to speculation that he was referring to Cooperatives and Small Enterprises Minister Adi Sasono.

A senior NU source in East Java also claimed that investigations by his organisation indicated that another Cabinet member with links to the military, and a high-ranking Abri officer, were also involved.

The tie that allegedly binds all three is their affiliation with modernist Islam – though not necessarily with Muhammadiyah.

The NU source said that the recent spate of killings mirrored the 1996 Sitobondo riots in West Java where an attempt was made by pockets of Muhammadiyah supporters to exploit deteriorating social conditions.

He acknowledged that their actions succeeded in provoking NU members to attack churches and the ethnic Chinese community.

Mr Adi has denied any involvement and argued that he had long been the target of baseless rumours.

“Do you believe that a Cabinet member still has time to carry out the killings of alleged sorcerers? It is illogical and absurd,” he said.

The head of Muhammadiyah’s East Java branch, Mr Ustad Rahim, has also rejected suggestions that his organisation is behind the terror campaign.

But he did concede that there could be attempts by groups in Jakarta to try and pit the NU and the nationalists against Muhammadiyah to “break up the Islamic community and generate national instability”.

Banyuwangi’s NU chief Abdul Rahman Hasan said that while there was tension at the broader political level, the killings were not motivated solely by ideology.

They had the specific aim of “clearing the ground” for the general election next May, he said.

“This is a campaign to maintain the status quo.

“They are trying to scare off NU supporters and pave the way for a Golkar victory,” he said.

East Java is an NU stronghold and Mr Abdul reckons that in an election his party will “easily get at least 60 per cent of the votes”.

Diplomatic sources believe that Golkar has little chance here and elsewhere in Java, given the popularity and strength of the NU and the nationalist Indonesian Democratic Party.


The senior NU source said that there is a secret military camp in Central Java where the ninjas are trained.

He claimed that NU confirmed this after interrogating seven ninjas who are still being held in custody.

They confessed to having been co-opted by deserters from the army’s Special Forces (Kopassus) to take part in the East Java killings.

Several of them had also been involved in other “agent provocateur” operations in West Kalimantan and East Timor.

He declined to identify the actual location of the camp but said the ninjas were given “physical and mental training” for 40 days and then sent into Banyuwangi and surrounding areas on missions.

Abri has denied any involvement by its Kopassus forces and also brushed aside suggestions that there were deserters.

This is despite reports that 200 Special Forces personnel absconded from Abri after the May riots.

A senior intelligence source, however, indicated in August that an undisclosed number of soldiers were “still on the loose”.

Teams investigating the killings are beginning to pin the blame on Abri factions.

The Independent Commission for Missing Persons and Victims (Kontras) said that the killers were well trained and systematic in their approach.

Kontras chief Munir noted that they were able to cut electrical power to victims’ homes prior to attacking.

They also carried detailed maps of the areas to help them escape from the police.

Many of them did not speak local dialects and had been seen carrying CB radios.

The NU source said the killings were orchestrated from a central command post that had “access to logistics information”.

A legislator who is part of an eight-man parliamentary task force looking into the killings said investigations thus far have revealed traces of military involvement.

He said: “That is the feedback we have been getting from people on the ground.

“They tell us that low-ranking police and military personnel at the scene either encouraged the killings or did nothing to stop it.”

The question in everyone’s mind was why the military had been slow in responding to the killings, he added.

Sources said Abri received warning of a terror campaign in Banyuwangi five months ago.

National Police chief Roesmanhadi conceded the police are short on resources to protect Banyuwangi.

Observers here said the situation has been further complicated because the current provincial military commander, Major-General Djoko Subroto, and his deputy, Brigadier-General Sudibyo, are newly-appointed and not very familiar with the political turf.

But an Abri insider revealed that police have, in fact, expressed frustrations on several occasions in their investigation because they were being constrained by Maj-Gen Djoko.

Police officers were allegedly ordered not to carry out autopsies of victims and to maintain the official line that the murders were criminal in nature.

Seven out of the more than 120 suspects arrested are Abri personnel.

What has upset local residents is that the police released some of them – along with others – without any explanation.

This goes some way to explaining why local communities have taken the law into their own hands, sometimes by killing the suspects and thereby adding to the orgy of violence.

All this further erodes Abri’s credibility – which is now at its lowest level in 30 years.

Abri chief General Wiranto’s position is also now in doubt, with speculation that forces outside and within the military are attempting to jostle him out of power for failing to control the spiralling violence in the country.

A senior Abri officer and longtime confidant of Gen Wiranto said the military chief was “certain the killings are the result of political rivalry” and involves the different ideological streams.

“He knows that this is a calculated attempt not just to discredit the NU, but also his own position. He has a sense of which group is behind the violence,” said the source.

“But gut feelings or hunches are not enough to prosecute criminals. The facts are now blurred in different theories.

“He will wait, collect hard facts and retaliate at the right time,” he said.

Regardless of Gen Wiranto’s success in getting to the bottom of the issue, substantial damage to the state and Abri’s credibility has already been done.

The events also do not augur well for a peaceful general election campaign and a smooth political transition next year.

Elements within the Indonesian elite remain prepared to sacrifice stability and risk social disintegration for short-term political gains.

If the strategy of creating chaos succeeds, there is profit in this for the old dark forces.

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