Kopassus and the legend of ‘Mpu Gandring’

Men and weapons are sometimes seen as a pair of symbolic importance in maintaining the greatness of the state. In Javanese mythology, one such weapon was named after the great master artisan (Mpu) who created it: Mpu Gandring. But once the master was illegitimately disowned from his creation, the weapon – the Mpu Gandring kris – turned into a curse that shaped a bloody discourse in which its users lost their divine blessing (wahyu).

Mpu Gandring

Modern reality is complex. However, the imagery (rather than the reality) and the public discourse (rather than the history) about Indonesia’s elite Army Special Forces (Kopassus), as a killing machine, has shown parallels with the bloody Mpu Gandring legend.

The American journalist Allan Nairn recently accused the Kopassus of killing unarmed civilians. Such allegations are not new, except that they now refer to what he claims to be “a program of assassinations” of former rebels, who led the Aceh Party in the run up to the general elections last year. While the details are not fully known, the tragic events could hardly be surprising to Aceh observers and local journalists.

At least 29 mysterious assaults and killings (the party claimed 55 incidents) occurred in Aceh early last year when this writer was there to cover the

Ken Arok

elections, and now Nairn has attempted to substantiate the story of just two of them.It is a fact that Army members continue to harbor a deep distrust toward former GAM (Free Aceh Movement) rebels, including even the regional commander most respected by the ex-GAMs, in particular since the latter won the 2006 gubernatorial election.

However, never since the Helsinki peace (2005) have conditions been so bad, since early last year when the regional command was led by a Kopassus general who was dismissed shortly afterwards. Such was the tense atmosphere then that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and the visiting Helsinki architect Martti Ahtisaari (March 2009) expressed serious concerns.


A bomb was put under the car and various dirty tricks were played out to victimize or incriminate ex-GAM leaders, but none of the incidents have been resolved despite the fact that three of the perpetrators have been brought to Jakarta. The local police was unable to handle the cases and witnesses chose to remain silent – both apparently out fear of reprisal.

The Jakarta media and commentators have alas stopped short of considering Aceh sources, while the military denial (“there is no Kopassus there”) have missed the point. For, at issue is not a formal Kopassus assignment (which was probably none since this would explicitly violate the Helsinki pact), but covert operations involving individual Kopassus members.

Neither, unfortunately, has the military been able to spell out the reform of the Kopassus, which they claim to have performed during the last 12 years.


Nairn’s investigation was intended to hit Indonesia’s bid to lift the US ban on military training that President Barack Obama reportedly intended to review. Recalling the Aceh incidents is important for us, first because they highlight the urgency of unresolved human rights cases here; second, they refresh the public memory by reinforcing the existing Kopassus’ imagery in Aceh and elsewhere.

Many of the atrocities in the former conflict areas, the killings, poisoning and missing activists elsewhere in Indonesia have been linked to the Kopassus or its individual members. None of these has been brought to justice or satisfactorily resolved. Impunity thus runs as a thread from the 1965-66 tragedy, to troubles in East Timor, Aceh and Papua.

This series of repeated state violence – many cases of which have been well documented for example, see the C.A.V.R. (Timor-Leste Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation) report on East Timor (2004) – have created the imagery of what Kopassus “did” among the people affected.

Ask any local around the former Rumah Geudong in Pidie, Aceh, or the surviving families in Kraras, near Viqueque, East Timor. They will tell you what they know about the Kopassus (or its predecessors, the RPKAD).

To be fair, the killing-machine image should include some infamous battalions of the Army’s Strategic Reserves Command or Kostrad (in the case of East Timor) and the Police Mobile Brigade (Brimob) in Aceh. The point here, however, is that this popular image was shaped by recent history of brutality as interpreted in the local discourse and blamed on the Kopassus.

Now legend has it that the Mpu Gandring kris precipitated a series of assassinations, each of which led to power usurpation. A villager named Ken

Gerakan Aceh Merdeka

Arok betrayed and killed the great master Gandring and used the unfinished kris to kill the King in order to claim the throne and the divine blessing. The kris, however, took its own course and later disappeared. Only then did the killings stop and could the kingdom celebrate its greatness.

This discourse shows that once you use the weapon for a purpose without the consent of its great master-creator you will lose your legitimacy: A powerful moral message. Army members continue to harbor a deep distrust toward former GAM rebels since the latter won the 2006 gubernatorial election. ( Note: the writer is a journalist).

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