Seizing the Center

Vigilantes and Gangsters in Indonesian Historiography and Contemporary Politics

  • Tomáš Petrů Oriental Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences
Keywords: banditry, co-optation, Indonesia, Indonesian politics, Islamic radicalism, Java, organized crime, militias, vigilantism


This article intends to cast light on historical continuities between pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial organized violent crime in Indonesia and its connection to the country’s rulers. The core argument is that Indonesia and the polities which once existed in its territory have a long history of cooperation between the ruling elites and the criminal world. The early-modern era bandits, called jago, and the modern gangsters, known as preman, arguably represented an important pillar of the power of political regimes in Java from the pre-colonial Javanese kingdoms to the Netherlands East Indies’ colonial state to Soeharto’s New Order. In post-Soeharto Indonesia, political liberation combined with the impact of jihadist Islam(ism) has created conditions in which a number of leather-clad gangsters have turned into vigilante defenders of Islam, who are sometimes co-opted by influential interest groups and sometimes sent back to the political periphery after falling out of favor. While the primary objective of this paper is to analyze the issue of oscillation between incorporation, co-optation, and utilization of criminals and radical Islamic groupings by the powerful, on the one hand, and their elimination, on the other, the paper also looks into how Indonesian historiography has depicted these influential bandits/gangsters/vigilantes and how historiographical sources tend to legitimize them to create an authoritative nationalist narrative.

Author Biography

Tomáš Petrů, Oriental Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences

Research Fellow