As we prepare to commemorate another year of Independence from Sabang to Merauke, thought I'd share a little excerpt of something I'm currently working on...Those that don't know, care or understand the history here, will inevitably become victims of it.

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The dawn of the mafia state and the birth of the gangster culture

In ancient times on Java, long before the Dutch came, common mobs of bandits were a regular part of the social milieu and took to regularly extorting travelers, most often in quite a violent manner. Some of the early kingdoms were able to measure their power by their ability to quell these gangs.

However, over time, some of the gangsters and mobs became more sadistic and rulers were not able to control or suppress them, which led to some politically minded rulers incorporating the mob leaders into their own private militias. These “alliances” almost never remained stable.

The Dutch blind eye
When the Dutch did arrive and began cultivating, via large coffee, sugar and tobacco plantations throughout much of the Javanese countryside, it was the descendants of these gang leaders that the Dutch plantation owners and/or governors turned to when they needed labor gangs to work in their fields.

These gangs inevitably became embroiled in fierce ‘tribal wars’ to establish a kind of supremacy and to ensure labor contracts with the plantation owners. The Dutch administrators, enjoying the economic benefits of not having to comb the countryside for laborers, were wholly unconcerned by the gang wars that ensued.

Vice syndicates emerge
By the early 1920s, the growing labor gangs had begun to turn to other methods of doing “business” to become more powerful and make more money. These, as could have been predicted, included vice syndicates. And yet again, just as long as the gangsters did not attack or impede upon anything regarding the Dutch establishment, the large network of homegrown Javanese mafia groups remained legally and administratively ‘under the radar’ – and in many cases the “Mafia Dons” were appointed as regents (bupati) or mayors of little towns.

As the archipelago lurched toward independence in the first half the 20th century, these gang leaders became ever more politicized, as independence-leaning academics or student groups often called upon them any time there was a need for violence, threats, extortion or intimidation. This occurred in a number of cases during the occupation by the Japanese and thereafter.

Indonesian Independence
In August 1945, Sukarno declared independence for Indonesia. During that time, a coalition emerged comprising nationalists (mostly students and other fairly educated types) and mafia-style gangs across western Java (including Jakarta). To some, they were known as the People’s Militia of Greater Jakarta (Milisi Rakyat Jabotabek), and would become one of the most potent and brutal irregular army groups during the independence battles between 1945 and 1949.

Gangster officers
There were many others like them in Bandung, Surabaya, Yogyakarta and dozens of other small towns and villages across Java and Sumatra. As full independence appeared imminent, thousands of these hardened criminal gangsters had become, effectively, a part of the regular army, and almost all of these gang/militia leaders received a rank of officer.

That trend started just a few weeks after Sukarno's seminal declaration in August of 1945, when the gang leader, known as Moefreni, “officially” received the rank of colonel in the Republican (Indonesian) Army.

The animals take control of the zoo
These uneducated, yet hardened and street-wise, militia commanders essentially became equals with the upper-class, academic-oriented officers in the fledgling Republican Army. Most importantly, these gang bosses eventually went well beyond just being equals with the educated officers, but came to dominate the armed forces and, later, the entire Indonesian government apparatus.
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Just here proffering my pearls to swine, my throat to wolves and my trousers to the flagpole.