JOURNAL | INDONESIA 360 By: Eduardo Mariz , Rendi Widodo
There is a common thread between reported street robberies, assaults, communal clashes and murders across Indonesia: motorcycle gang violence. While crime rates continued to decline across the country in 2014, in provinces such as West Java, Jakarta and South Sulawesi, police and the public are increasingly concerned that rowdy teenagers on motorcycles could become the next big thing in criminal activity on the streets.
Last year, Indonesia Police Watch documented 28 biker gang-related deaths nationwide through December. While this is significantly less than the 68 murders recorded in 2013, experts believe that the incentives for youths to join gangs remain unchanged and are highly appealing. Monitoring by Concord Consulting, the firm where Eduardo Mariz works, also found a significantly higher prevalence of youth and motorcycle gang-related crime last year.
An egocentric search for identity, a craving for respect, domination of school cultures by older students and the dynamic nature of motorcycle groups are among the factors encouraging teenagers to join such gangs. Globalized popular culture and new gender identities, meanwhile, are helping define the features of what has become a new subculture in Indonesia, which unlike other social collectives, is highly mobile and detached from any specific locality. These characteristics make violent motorcycle gangs hard to differentiate from clubs of motoring enthusiasts, undermining efforts by authorities to identify and deter them. In some regions, such as South Sulawesi and West Java, local police have standing shoot-on-sight orders against violent biker gang members, but their effectiveness is surely debatable because they, among other things, create an “us or them” situation. Police in Makassar, the capital of South Sulawesi, appear to have become the target of at least two revenge attacks since introducing a shoot-on-sight policy in August 2014.
The problem is age-specific, unlike in some Western countries where biker gangs can involve a lifelong commitment. Most members of gangs in Indonesia are teenagers in junior or senior high school. Once they leave school, they also tend to leave gang life behind them. What constitutes motorcycle gang violence often remains a matter of opinion. In many cases, victims of crimes committed by assailants on motorcycles mistakenly identify them as members of gangs. In other cases, junior gang members commit crimes without the knowledge or approval of senior members. This is particularly true in the case of well-known gangs such as Exalt to Coitus in West Java.
The difficulties in differentiating motorcycle gang-related violence have also prevented crime watchdogs from tracing the true extent of the gangs’ involvement in crime. The National Violence Monitoring System, an initiative funded by The Habibie Center, has followed this issue closely, but is so far unable to pin down the exact number of cases linked to biker gangs. This essay attempts to examine the development and motives behind motorcycle gang violence in Indonesia, including its origins and social circumstances, and looks at one longstanding case in West Java that was the focus of our research.
Measuring biker violence
Indonesia Police Watch is the only organization that publishes annual statistics on motorcycle gang violence in Indonesia. While police statistics often underreport the real situation, they nonetheless do provide an indicator of general trends. The 28 deaths caused by biker gang-related violence from January through December 2014 were a far cry from figures recorded in previous years: 68 deaths in 2013, 65 in 2011, 62 in 2010 and 68 in 2009. (No figures were available for 2012.)
Increased nationwide public security during Indonesia’s elections in 2014, which saw both national legislative elections and a hotly contested presidential poll, is believed to have been one of the main contributors to the decline, with lower crime figures seen across the board. According to Indonesia Police Watch, only 11 of the country’s 33 provinces have active motorcycle gangs. In total, only 38 incidents of biker gang brutality were recorded in 2014, including 24 people being seriously injured, in addition to the 28 deaths.
West Java led all provinces with 11 incidents that consisted of 10 deaths and 12 injured. The province was followed by South Sulawesi with seven dead, while East Java registered three dead. There were also biker gang-related deaths in the provinces of North Sumatra, Yogyakarta, Central Java, East Kalimantan and Banten. Our crime monitoring shows a similar distribution of cases but a far higher prevalence, with incidents of alleged and confirmed motorcycle gang violence numbering between four and 12 each month across the country through 2014. Some of the most common crimes include purse-snatching, armed robberies of mini-marts, vehicle robbery (particularly motorcycles) and arbitrary beatings.
In most cases, the assailants carried bladed weapons such as knives and machetes, but several homemade firearms were also seized during police raids. In South Sulawesi and West Java, firebomb attacks against police posts and street brawls between rival groups were also recorded. Youth violence, including attacks committed by motorcycle gangs, was also the biggest driver of social conflicts recorded by our own monitoring in 2014, accounting for 22 percent of the total. In 2013, 18 percent of social conflicts were related to youth violence, including motorcycle gang activity.
How the gangs got started
Organized youth crime, including motorcycle gang violence, has deep roots in Indonesia. In West Java, the most notorious province for biker gangs, Exalt to Coitus, infamously known as XTC, dates back to 1982, when four senior high school students in Bandung, the provincial capital, created the group. Another well-known gang, Brigade Seven, was born out of the same school. The two groups, along with Grab on Road, also founded by students in the 1980s, and Moonraker, are the biggest motorcycle gangs in West Java. They collectively have thousands of members with deep-rooted school rivalries that led to the formation of the gangs in the first place.
While these gangs were implicated in several bloody brawls in the 1990s, their existence earned media notoriety in 2007 when, in one of the worst incidents of that year, six members of the Grab on Road gang assaulted eight pedestrians with knives and a samurai sword in Bandung, causing minor injuries and stab wounds. The bikers were arrested, tried and imprisoned for eight months. Biker violence subsequently died down following a massive crackdown in 2008 ordered by Gen. Susno Duadji, who was West Java police chief at the time, which resulted in many gang members being imprisoned. Susno had given district and regional police chiefs a one-month deadline to eradicate biker gang activities and vowed to resign if the problem was not neutralized.
Biker gang violence soon re-emerged in various parts of West Java, despite the leading biker gangs pledging in 2010 to dissolve in response to widespread public anger and concern. But this made little difference, as gang members formed new groups or, such as XTC, became a legally registered mass organization.
Police monitor an Exalt to Coitus event in Pelabuhan Ratu, West Java province.
In Jakarta, two main and mutually opposed gangs exist: Pasukan China Kota (Pachinko), which emerged in the 1970s as a gang of hoodlums, and Generation-Y (GEN-Y), which first appeared in the 1990s. Other gangs have emerged in recent years with less violent reputations. Despite Jakarta’s sizeable population, its biker gangs hardly mirror the size and dominance of their West Java peers. Pachinko’s roots lay with Johannes Eijkenboom, better known as Johny Indo, the notorious former biker leader-turned-actor, while the remaining gangs are linked to youth groups in different districts.
Elsewhere in Indonesia, motorcycle gangs appear to have only emerged in recent years. Sudirman Nasir, a sociologist at Hasanuddin University in Makassar, said that gangs in South Sulawesi had only become visible in the past three years. He added that gang members came from both low-income and wealthier families. Risa Fadil, a researcher at the University of North Sumatra, said the emergence of motorcycle gangs in Medan peaked in 2008 with the release of the popular romantic comedy “Teh Tarik Jabrik.” The film, which was followed by sequels in 2009 and 2011, tells the story of a group of young people in Bandung who form a motorcycle gang in defiance of other brutal gangs in the city. However, aside from cinematic inspirations, some motorcycle gangs in Medan, such as Water Blue and Simple Life, have been linked to rival university mass organizations, a 2012 police report concluded.
The case of XTC
Clad in blue and white, members of XTC number in the thousands and spread across West Java. They are admired by numerous other organizations across the country. Their logo, a bee flashing its stinger, symbolizes solidarity among members. If a member is attacked, others will come to the rescue. XTC’s senior members, however, have been trying to reform the group since its dissolution and re-establishment as a mass youth organization in 2012.
Taufik R Sutapradja, a former secretary general of the organization, told us that XTC members today limit their activities to weekend motorcycle tours around the province and social work in their communities. However, despite Taufik’s assertions, many XTC members continue to have problems with the law. In Pekanbaru, the capital of Riau province, a man claiming to be a senior XTC member was arrested in 2013, having been implicated in a string of robberies, rapes and attacks. At the time, XTC denied this person was a member, saying he used the group’s name to gain respect. Junior XTC members, nonetheless, continue to be routinely arrested for robberies and violent crimes in West Java, including 12 people last November accused of killing a supporter of the Persib Bandung football club.
Taufik denies that XTC is a criminal organization. “It depends on the public’s perspective. We never think that we are criminals and we never try to be,” he said. “You know, the media has depicted us that way. If you come to our meetings and talk to us, you’ll know that we are good, ordinary people, but I admit that we also have several young members who have done bad things.”
Taufik acknowledged that senior members had failed to educate young recruits or scrutinize their behavior prior to admitting them into the organization, but said XTC had been smeared by an unruly minority. His organization, he claimed, has around 100,000 members – far higher than numerous estimates of only 10,000 members.
Biker gangs can be divided into criminal-oriented and violence-related groups, according to monitoring by the National Violence Monitoring System (SNPK). The first are organized groups of career criminals who commit crimes for economic reasons, while the second commit violence purely for the sake of violence. The members of the second type are mostly students and youth who are still seeking an identity. SNPK does not specifically record motorcycle gang-related violence, which it classifies as identity violence if it involves fighting with other motorcycle gangs, or criminal violence in the case of robbery, rape or murder. Despite this difficult classification, SNPK’s research has closely observed the phenomenon throughout the country.
One researcher, Praditya Andika Putra, says that the term “biker gang” comes from the public, but members don’t refer to themselves as gangs. “They define themselves as a biker club or community who they can rely on when they have problems,” he said. “In Indonesia there are many communities of bikers not necessarily classified as motorcycle gangs.” However, he said, some organizations are indeed violent, such as the Jakarta-based Pachinko, which despite having a history of crime involving robberies dating back to the 1970s is now the biggest motorcycle gang in Jakarta, mostly made up of junior and senior high school students. Groups such as Pachinko have two motives: first is to prove that they are stronger than other groups, so no one dares to confront them, and second, to protect their members whenever needed. According to Praditya, crowded urban environments such as Jakarta and Bandung help nurture the emergence of motorcycle gangs, which are influenced by a culture of school or domestic violence.
A point of differentiation between motorcycle gangs and other violent groups is their dynamism. Praditya said gang members may switch sides, potentially engendering new rivalries between groups. Sometimes, groups may form alliances with other gangs, depending on their interests. This dynamism, fellow SNPK researcher Fathun Karib said, has been enabled by the mobility of owning a motorbike, which even poor Indonesians can now afford. “In the past, when we didn’t have access to cheap motorcycles, gangs could only be based in a certain geographical area – you are born there, you belong there, you join the gang there and you fight against other areas. Kampong kids with other kampong kids,” Fathun said. This sort of location-based loyalty is exemplified by the regular gang fights in the Jalan Tambak area of Manggarai in Central Jakarta, which have been going on for decades.
Unlike other types of gangs, biker gangs also tend to lack political or religious affiliations, although some such as XTC have been known to send members to political rallies in exchange for money. An XTC member interviewed by Playboy Indonesia magazine in 2007 said that during the 2004 election season, around 200 of its members attended a rally in Bandung held by the Democratic Party, whose leader is Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the former Indonesian president. The party, he claims, bought the support of XTC, which coincidentally shares the same white and blue colors. Meanwhile, frequent drug seizures, in particular during raids against members of the Moonraker gang in West Java, have led police to believe that gang members could be involved in drug dealing there.
One aspect that remains unchanged from previous gangs is the culture of seniority and rites of passage, which Fathun said had its origins in the paramilitary alignment of New Order institutions during the Suharto era. This includes respecting your seniors, following orders and proving yourself. “It’s part of Indonesian culture, like Ospek (student orientation and introduction to campus activities),” he said. “You will get these kinds of things when you enter senior high school, university and student extracurricular activities.”
Praditya described this as a vicious cycle, where senior motorcycle gang members demand that new recruits rob, assault and display ruthless behavior as a sign of loyalty. The most violent person in the group will progress faster, acquiring the seniority that will empower him to command others to commit similar acts. “To understand motorcycle gang violence, we need to understand the system of violence,” he said. “They see it as a career. More violence advances your career.”
Indonesian schools are the origin of many of these problems, particularly bullying. Sometimes teachers label the students they see as deviant, indirectly excluding them from the school system. A clear indicator that violence is linked to schools is that once members finish or abandon school, they also tend to leave their gangs. Fathun believes that globalization has changed the priorities of Indonesian youth, who now seek a stronger identity. “The politics of identity in Indonesia have increased with the process of decentralization and democratization,” he said. “The new generations are now trying to find a source of identity. Involvement with these kinds of communities (motorcycle gangs) gives them an identity.”
With globalization, the influx of foreign popular culture has shaped the formation and identities of motorcycle gangs in Indonesia. Hollywood movies such as the “Fast and Furious” series have helped define gender roles inside gangs, placing men at the center and women as complements. When recruiting new members, men need to prove they can commit violence, while many women must have sex with gang members if they seek to belong, according to Praditya, who has found recent evidence that women-only gangs may also be forming in Indonesia. The “Hunger Games” movies have also been credited with popularizing archery. While this is a traditional method of hunting in Indonesia, it has now captivated the interest of young urbanites and gang members alike, who frequently employ arrows in their attacks. However, chief among all films is “Crows Zero,” a 2007 Japanese action movie that represents a source of inspiration for many youngsters joining motorcycle gangs. The film depicts a violent struggle between gangs of high school students and has spawned two sequels. The series has a huge following in Indonesia and even inspired a short fan spinoff here titled “Gelut Jero.”
"Crows Zero," a 2007 Japanese action film that represents a unanimous source of inspiration for many youngsters joining motorcycle gangs.
Dealing with the problem
Responses by the police, meanwhile, such as shoot-on-sight orders, have raised significant concerns. While incidents of violence appear to have declined during the past year, there is no evidence that membership in biker gangs has followed. Rather, the tough measures are widely perceived as hollow responses from the police, which is rooted in an authoritarian culture that is failing to cope with rising crime trends in a democratic and increasingly urban society.
In defense of the national police, the root causes of youth violence and gang-related crimes desperately require a coordinated response by various government agencies, in particular in urban areas. The state needs to look carefully at a situation in which the youngest members of society are at risk of becoming disenfranchised or pressured into retaliating against others. The prevalence of hazing in schools and a lack of public space for young people in urban environments appear to be two main incentives for joining motorcycle gangs.
Both can, in theory, be reversed through government policies and the creation of child- and youth-friendly environments. Current gang members, rather than being treated like outcasts and prosecuted at a young age, should be given opportunities for social reintegration, as well as mentoring duties to prevent others from following in their erratic paths.
Eduardo Mariz is a Jakarta-based security analyst.
Rendi Widodo is a journalist and avid motorcyclist in West Java province.