It can be petty in some instances, but it exists in drugs, religion, politics and even in business. Thugs rule ordinary people’s markets, parking spaces, bus stations, cafes and entertainment joints.
In religion, hard-liners attack Ahmadis and prevent Christians from worshipping. In politics, lawmakers use intimidation against rival politicians and in business, lower-echelon officials often resort to extortion, which makes it difficult for foreign investors to do business in Indonesia.
Thuggery, or “ premanisme ,” flourishes because of weak leadership, lax security and poor law enforcement. And the country now is witnessing thuggery at an alarming rate despite notorious gang leaders Hercules Rosario Marshal and John Kei being in jail.
In the past two weeks, at a cafe in Yogyakarta thugs killed a Kopassus soldier, and in Medan a police chief was beaten to death by thugs.
In Palopo, South Sulawesi, thugs provoked violence between rival political supporters, and violence flares day to day elsewhere, most of which is related to thugs.
Between 1983 and 1985, the alarming level of premanisme prompted the “Petrus killings” in a bid to reduce crime. (The name came from a portmanteau of penembak misterius , meaning “mysterious shooters.”) Thousands of criminals and thugs were shot to death.
It was unclear until recently who ordered the shootings, but the government now appears to have been behind it.
Thirty years later, the nation witnessed another mysterious shooting — of four thugs in temporary police custody at Cebongan Prison in Yogyakarta.
The motive is still unclear but pundits say it was probably an act of vengeance over the death of the Kopassus soldier or over a police-military rivalry in controlling turf in the drugs trade.
But thuggery does not only refer to violence. There is also white-collar thuggery involving lower-echelon officials at some government offices.
At the tax office, a career official on the job for 11 years said — on condition of anonymity — that 60 percent of national tax revenues came from middle- or low-income taxpayers, who earn at most Rp 60 million ($6,150) a year, or Rp 5 million a month.
The rest came from about 1,000 rich individuals, but many are still unidentified and unaccounted for.
He conceded that rogue tax officials existed, but said that if thuggery was eliminated and all taxpayers were sincere, the national tax-collection target of Rp 1,019 trillion could easily be reached.
It would raise enough, apparently, to finance the entire state budget and build infrastructure.
Another example of white-collar thuggery is at the immigration and labor offices. Although treated with a blind eye, both offices collect huge amounts in levies from foreigners wanting to do business in Indonesia. They play by the unwritten rules and use loopholes in existing laws.
If the shareholders of a huge foreign investment company want to appoint a chief executive who is a foreigner, they must be categorized as a foreign worker and pay a substantial sum for work and stay permits.
But that comes with the condition that they could be deported at any time if it is decided requirements have not been met.
This provides room for thuggery and a lucrative business involving hundreds of millions of rupiah in illegal levies. Where is the logic?
The current atmosphere of thuggishness in Indonesia underlines that the government has failed to enforce the law. With such a weak presidency in place and the 2014 elections coming soon, thuggery will continue to haunt us.
Unless the national leadership has the guts to carry out a “shock therapy” by any means to end all kinds of thuggery, people will surely support that change.
Yanto Soegiarto is the managing editor of Globe Asia, a sister publication of the Jakarta Globe.