Ushered to the top primarily by the authorities, Jakarta’s native ethnic Betawi are now basking in a revival era as the conquerors of Jakarta’s lucrative underworld business, after decades of merely enjoying the leftovers. The Jakarta Post’s Rendi A. Witular and Andra Wisnu investigate the changing landscape of the capital’s seedy underbelly, which by nature is the meticulous creation of political parties, law enforcers and bureaucrats. Here are the stories:
Seven senior members of a Maluku gang under the patronage of the late Basri Sangaji wait patiently for three hours to meet with Abraham Lunggana, popularly known as Haji Lulung, the new ruler of the Tanah Abang trade compound — Southeast Asia’s largest textile and garment distribution center.
Arriving at his headquarter, tucked next to the Millennium Hotel on Jl. Fachrudin in Central Jakarta, Lulung is greeted by several members of the gang, who kiss his hand in a gesture signalling more a submission to the powerful 48-year-old than respect for his seniority.
"After the death of Basri, these boys are like loose kites," says Lulung, a Jakarta native Betawi ethnic and has lived in Tanah Abang since childhood.
"For me, it's best to harbor them than let them take to the streets."
Basri, who led the largest Maluku gang in South Jakarta, was killed in October 2004 by members of a rival Maluku gang from Kei Island.
The takeover of Basri's group has given Lulung greater bargaining leverage to expand after successfully driving out for good the notorious godfather Herkules Rozario Marshal from Tanah Abang in 2006.
Herkules, a native of the then East Timor, had ruled the area since the 1980s.
Lulung's rise to power signals the changing face of Jakarta's underworld, whose top ranks are now dominated by Betawi figures wielding Islamic regalia to gain wider public support and acceptance in phasing the old-timers out of the business for good.
Decades of rule by eastern Indonesian ethnic gangs and mass organizations with links to the once powerful Golkar Party and the military are now over, with the Betawi no longer satisfied with the leftovers of the underworld business handed to them by outsiders.
Around 90 percent of security services and garbage handling in the Tanah Abang area now falls under Lulung's group's management, he claims. The debt-collecting business is also in his sights, after the establishment of the law firm Lulung & Associates.
"It's time for the Betawi to be masters in their own town after years of being spectators," he says.
"We're not a new group of thugs, like many have accused us of being. I'm just taking the Betawi people off the streets and helping them get jobs."
The Betawi expansion stretches five kilometers to the north, to the Tamansari district in West Jakarta, where the Laskar Jayakarta (Jayakarta Warriors) stand unchallenged by other groups.
Laskar mobilizes unemployed Betawi youth to work as security guards in nightclubs, stores and business areas in the district, which covers Jl. Mangga Besar, Jl. Hayam Wuruk, Jl. Gadjah Mada, and the Glodok shopping center.
Sixty percent of Jakarta's night entertainment money circulates in this district, according to the Jakarta Association of Tourism, Recreation and Entertainment Businesses.
Since 2004, Laskar (when it was still called the Betawi Community Union, or PMB) has gradually managed to squeeze out other ethnic-based gangs, including those from Maluku, North Sumatra and Banten, from the area.
"Businessmen prefer us over the other groups because we're the natives here," says Oding Djunaidi, head of Laskar's Tamansari branch.
"So they feel more secure than ever. Our presence here also helps law enforcers fight criminals and prevent ethnic clashes."
Oding denies allegations Laskar is a new breed of thugs, saying the group does not engage in crime or in debt collection.
Laskar is led by a serving police officer, the National Police's Adj. Sr. Comr. Susilowadi, also known as Bang Ilo, a native of Riau, according to Oding and the group's organizational structure document.
The group, which also flaunts Islamic attributes in rallies, got a boost after it supported Comr. Gen. (ret) Adang Daradjatun, the former National Police deputy chief, in his 2007 bid to be Jakarta governor.
Despite Adang losing the election, Laskar remains a formidable group, receiving backing from the police to secure the lucrative Tamansari area.
"We work with the police very well because we guard the community, which employs our boys," says senior member Andi Kusuma.
For jobs, the Betawi Brotherhood Forum (FBR) remains a strong draw for many unemployed Betawi youth.
Despite the death in late March of founder Fadhloly El Muhir, the group is still kicking, especially in providing security for businesses and retailers, and collecting debts.
"We supply mostly unemployed Betawi as security guards, including for nightclubs, because not all activities in such places are deemed immoral," say Lutfi Hakim, the FBR's newly elected chairman.
The revival of Betawi rule and the diminishing influence of other groups and mass youth organizations is inextricably linked to a shift in local politics and vested interests.
Soeharto's downfall in 1998 spelled an end to the political and security backing of youth groups, notably the Pancasila Youth and the Panca Marga Youth, and the eastern Indonesian ethnic gangs.
These groups were often used as proxies to help propel the Soeharto regime and family.
It was not until 2004 that their clout faded out entirely, giving room for marginalized Betawi groups to emerge with the full backing of political parties, government officials, the police and the military.
However, most of the field commanders of the Pancasila Youth and Panca Marga Youth are kept on as executives in the new Betawi groups.
Lulung, for instance, remains a senior member of the Panca Marga Youth; Oding and Andi are still top brass at the Jakarta Pancasila Youth.
"There is meticulous engineering by the authorities in the revival of Betawi groups," says University of Indonesia sociologist Imam Prasodjo. "It's not only for political leverage, but also for a proxy to undermine opponents."
Indeed, the decision in 2006 by then Jakarta governor Sutiyoso to revitalize the Tanah Abang area, which included the elimination of the "rebellious" Herkules gang, gave Lulung just the foothold he needed.
Laskar Jayakarta, for their part, would have stayed a petty street organization if the police had not repaid their support of Adang.
Former thug Anton Medan believes the rise of the Betawi groups is also part of a grand design by the authorities to reduce the chance of conflict between ethnic street gangs, by giving the Betawi absolute rule over the Jakarta underworld.
Gang-related ethnic clashes can ignite wider-scale conflicts in the hometowns of the gangs, such as in the Ketapang incident in late 1998 between rival Maluku gangs.
The incident escalated in Maluku's capital, Ambon, leading to bloody battles between Muslims and Christians from 1999 to 2002.
With the Betawi monopolizing the business, Anton says, the other ethnic groups will have less chance to recruit unemployed and uneducated friends from their hometowns to be gang members in Jakarta.
This will eventually help put an end to the influx of unskilled people into the already strained capital with its 8.5 million people.
"Another advantage is obviously a smooth flow of income for the police should there be a few clashes on the streets," says Anton, who now runs an Islamic boarding school.
"With a safer business climate, a sustainable income is guaranteed."
Jakarta Police spokesman Sr. Comr. Chrysnanda does not deny the plan, saying the rise of the new groups and the involvement of an active officer in Laskar Jayakarta are part of a community policing plan.
"Under this strategy, we forge close partnerships with related stakeholders in keeping the community safe," he says.
"But we draw the line at groups that commit violence to conquer an area for economic gain."