Medan Murders Most Foul, and With Relish Part 3


North Sumatra was a natural zone for successful recruiting by a reborn PKI, which had been suppressed

by the Dutch after the failed uprisings of 1926-27 and later by the Japanese military.

The single most

militant organization there in the 1950s was the Sarekat Buruh Perkebunan Indonesia, or Sarbupri, a

huge union for plantation laborers, whose mass base lay in the once indentured Javanese labor force,

combined with leadership mostly provided by educated Javanese and Protestant Batak activists.

It is useful to note that the PKI Politburo, headed from 1951 on by D N Aidit, had real trouble with

Sarbupri’s militancy, since the party, having chosen to join the parliamentary system (at the national and

local levels) was worried by unauthorized local revolutionary activities that could damage its cautious

political strategy. A number of Sarbupri leaders were demoted, kicked out, or disciplined. Sarbupri also

got political support from the smallholder migrants of the Japanese occupations whom the returning

white planters were eager to kick out or subdue. Strikes in Tandjung Morawa, in the plantation belt, only

14 kilometers from Medan’s city center even brought down one of the early constitutional-era cabinets.

Medan proved an especially difficult city to handle from Jakarta because there was no “traditional”

social order, to work with, and no ethnic, party-political, or religious group in a dominant position. It

also contained, proportionately, the highest number of “foreign Asian” inhabitants. Situated close to

Singapore, it was also notorious for its talented smugglers. In addition, the fractious local military often

created additional problems.

When the revolution of 1945 broke out, the national army was formed in a very unusual way. The core

of its middle- and upper-echelon leaders had been low-level NCOs and junior officers in Japanesecreated auxiliary forces trained to help the Imperial armies, if and when the Allies landed, in local

guerilla warfare. Since Sumatra and Java were controlled by different Japanese armies not subordinated

one to the other, the Peta in Java and the much smaller Giyugun in Sumatra had no organic connection.

Almost all recruits to the new national army were in their 20s, no matter what posts they held, so that

it was usual for commanders to be chosen by their own men, rather than by any higher authorities. In

the 1950s therefore, the High Command in Jakarta had great difficulties in controlling local, and locally

popular, military officers, who frequently refused to carry out orders and sometimes acted like warlords.

Medan was a striking case. The Protestant Toba Batak commander for the seven years between 1950

and 1957 was Colonel Simbolon, who controlled large-scale smuggling operations through Medan’s

port, and refused to be transferred. But when he joined the anti-Jakarta coalition that in February 1958

started the PRRI rebellion, [1] he was quickly toppled by a counter-coalition of the High Command,

leftist local Javanese juniors, and the clique of his successor, Lieutenant Colonel Djamin Ginting, a Karo

Batak who claimed to speak for Karos oppressed by their distant Toba cousins.

Once installed, Ginting turned on the leftist Javanese officers. Many Islamic organizations, mostly

controlled by Minangkabau, who also supported the PRRI, were crippled by its defeat and the ban on

the Masjumi modernist Islamic party on the grounds of rebellion.

The other crucial development came from the mess created by President Sukarno’s rash decision in

December 1957 to nationalize all Dutch enterprises in retaliation for The Hague’s constant refusal to

settle diplomatically the conflict over Western Papua, which was supposed to have been solved early

in the 1950s. Takeovers were initiated by unions affiliated with the PKI’s secular rival, the PNI, but the

communists quickly joined in.

Not for long. The Army High Command used its emergency powers to take control of all the nationalized

enterprises, claiming that they were vital assets for the nation. For the first time in its history, the

military obtained vast economic and financial resources, especially plantations, mines, trading

companies, utilities, banks, and so forth. Needless to say, strikes were forbidden in all these sectors.

Since these sectors, owned hitherto by foreigners, were those where leftist and nationalist unions had

had the greatest freedom, the military had to develop an effective corporatist counterforce.

In partial imitation of the PKI’s SOBSI, a nationwide federation of its affiliated unions, the army created

SOKSI. Its name indicated the intentions of its creators. K stood for karyawan, a corporatist neologism

for “functionary”. Its membership included everyone – management, office staff and white-collar

workers, as well as labor. One could think of SOKSI as an agglomeration of “company” unions. Thus

the “B” in SOBSI, standing for buruh (labor), was to be eliminated.

In the Medan area, and in the face of SOBSI’s well-established presence, the military needed substantial

manpower outside its own active ranks to impose its will on the huge plantation belt. It so happened

that an instrument was at hand.

In 1952, the army chief of staff, the Mandailing Batak A H Nasution, was suspended for his role in a

failed mini-coup in Jakarta. Still young and ambitious, he decided to form an electoral organization of

his own, which he called IPKI, Ikatan Pendukung Kemerdekaan, or League of Supporters of Indonesian

Independence, described as a movement opposed to the existing major parties, especially the PKI. In the

1955 elections, it won only four seats, but it was evident that the strongest of its bases lay in Medan.

In that year, Nasution was reinstated as army chief of staff by Prime Minister Burhanuddin Harahap,

scion of a clan of Southern Bataks (Angkola) well connected to the Nasution clan – but he kept control

of IPKI. After the crushing of the PRRI, but with martial law in solid place, IPKI developed a “youth

wing”, parallel to those of the major legal parties, which came to be called Pemuda Pantjasila, nominally

composed of retired soldiers and civilian veterans of the revolution.

The key figure in this Pemuda Pantjasila was another Mandailing Batak, a serious Medan gangster and

ex-boxer called Effendy Nasution. [2] These gangsters had had their own clashes with the PKI youth

organization, Pemuda Rakjat, over “turf” as well as ideology, and were ferociously anti-communist.

But as members of a “national organization” sponsored by the top army officer, they had excellent

protection, also for their protection rackets.

Over the six years between 1959 and 1965, the military and the Medan gangsters collaborated more

and more closely with each other. The PP significantly helped SOKSI to control the plantation belt

against formidable SOBSI/Sarbupri resistance. Thus when Suharto decided to inaugurate the massacre

of communists, the Medan underworld, dressed up as Pemuda Pantjasila, was ready to “help” and

accustomed to carry out “confidential” army directives.

The contrast with the huge Javanese plantation belt is striking. We have seen how in this zone the

army could rely on the Nahdlatul Ulama’s huge, and legal, mass-organizations, as well as the authority

of the mainly Javanese territorial civilian bureaucracy, manned heavily by conservative elements

in the PNI. In Medan, the NU presence was minimal; the PNI was factionalized, while the oncepowerful modernist Muslim party Masjumi had been banned in 1959. No united civil bureaucracy

existed in such an ethnically complex melting pot. This is why, when the massacres drew to an end,

NU and Ansor members in Java generally returned to “normal” religious life (and soon came into

conflict with the military), while Medan’s gangsters returned to another “normal life”, of extortion,

blackmail, “protection”, gambling dens, brothels and so on, while staying close to the military.

But with new patrons, as time passed. General Nasution, now retired, gradually faded away. Eventually,

in 1980, the PP’s leadership went to Yapto Soerjosoemarno, the Eurasian son of a Surakartan aristocrat

and general, and a Jewish-Dutch mother. Yapto, ice-cold mercenary killer, and big-game hunter had

long been close to the Medan gangsters, but he was also a relative of Mrs Suharto. Officially, PP was an

independent organization, but it always supported Suharto and his policies, and helped to enforce the

steady series of electoral victories by Golkar, the regime’s nonparty party-of-the-regime. It remained

loyal to its patron right up to his abdication. (Since then, it has found no steady patron, and its power

and unity have visibly declined). Meantime, the NU, a national party, tried its best to compete with

Golkar in elections, and for a time was the most significant component of the impotent legal opposition.


It is instructive to note what happened when Suharto decided, in 1983, to liquidate substantial numbers

of petty gangsters. (In the press the killers were initially termed penembak-penembak misterieus, ie

mysterious shooters, quickly and sardonically given the acronym “Petrus,” that is, Saint Peter, since the

operational mastermind was Catholic Eurasian Lieutenant-General Benny Murdani).

In Java, several thousands were brutally murdered, in the dead of night, by army commandos in mufti.

In Medan, their opposite numbers went untouched. The reason for the difference is clear. In 1980,

Central Java was unexpectedly rocked by a coordinated wave of violence against local Chinese, in

which petty gangsters played a visible role. Many of these people had worked as electoral enforcers

for Suharto’s eminence grise, Major-General Ali Murtopo, who also headed Suharto’s private political

intelligence apparatus (Opsus). For an always-suspicious tyrant, it looked as if his once-trusted

accomplice might be flexing his own political muscles, to show what his shady apparatus might do

before and during the next elections.

The unexpected and unauthorized anti-Chinese violence hit Suharto’s nerves in another way. Twentiethcentury Java had a long history of popular Sinophobic movements, which could spread alarmingly fast

if the circumstances were suitable. Furthermore, the successes of Suharto’s New Order “development”

economy depended heavily on the energies of the country’s Chinese, whose safety and prosperity were

excellent signs of stability in the eyes of foreign investors. Thus the liquidation of Murtopo’s gangster

network can be understood both as reassurance to the Chinese, and as depriving Murtopo himself of

any independent political power. Not long afterward, he was exiled as ambassador in Kuala Lumpur

where he succumbed to a heart attack.

Nothing like this happened in distant Medan, since the gangsters were reliable allies of the local military,

not dangerous minions of a key figure in Suharto’s own Jakarta entourage. If, as periodically happened,

they were behind anti-Chinese violence, the main motive was not Sinophobia, but a rising of the level of

protection payments. [3]

It is instructive, in passing, that in his bizarre semi-ghosted memoir, Otobiografi: Pikiran, Ucapan

dan Tindakan Saya (Autobiography: My Thoughts, Statements and Actions) Suharto boastfully took

responsibility for these extrajudicial killings, in the following dishonest manner:

The real problem is that these events [Petrus] were preceded by fear and anxiety among the people.

Threats from criminals, murders, and so on all happened. Stability was shaken. It was as though the

country no longer had any stability. There was only fear. Criminals went beyond human limits. They not

only broke the law, but they stepped beyond the limits of humanity. For instance, old people were robbed

of whatever they had and were then killed.

Isn’t that inhumane? If you are going to take something, well, take it, but don’t murder. There were

women whose wealth was stolen and other people’s wives were even raped by these criminals and in

front of their husbands. Isn’t that going too far? Doesn’t that demand action? […] Naturally, we had to

give them the treatment [original in English], strong measures. And what sort of measures? Yes, with

real firmness. But that firmness did not mean shooting, bang! Bang! Just like that. … But those who

resisted, yes, like it or not, had to be shot. … So the corpses were left where they were, just like that. This

was for shock therapy [original in English] so the masses would understand that, faced with criminals,

there were still some people who would act and would control them.

But the dictator never boasted about his masterminding the massacres of 1965.

With this comparative background in mind, it becomes easier to understand the peculiar impunity

exhibited by Joshua’s collaborators. They had been professional criminals their entire adult lives, and

if some of the leaders had political ambitions these were essentially local or provincial, aiming no

higher than the governorship of North Sumatra and far removed from Jakarta. In power, they pursued

traditional gangsters’ interests, money, respect (fear), immunity from the law, and some political


They were not associated with any nationally important political or religious organizations beyond

Suharto’s own Golkar, which they served obediently. They had worked with the military from well

before the massacres, and carried out the killings of communists with savage efficiency. They did not

organize serious Sinophobic violence after 1966, nor did they put the squeeze on local foreign investors.

One could say that, in an odd way, they even regarded themselves as a sort of half-hidden left hand of

the New Order Leviathan: uncivil servants. [4] Best of all, when Suharto turned on gangsters in Java,

the “boys” were left untouched. Not surprisingly, there was no question of Abdurrahman Wahid’s plea

for forgiveness.

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