Vigilantism in Yogyakarta and its Context

~ A review of the book Crisis of Keistimewaan: Violence Towards Minorities in Yogyakarta (Indonesian title: Krisis Keistimewaan: Kekerasan terhadap Minoritas di Yogyakarta) | Authors: M. Iqbal Ahnaf & Hairus Salim | Publisher: CRCS UGM | First Edition: April 2017 | Length: 134 pages

Vigilantism has been rampant in Yogyakarta over the last few years, and the usual explanations for this phenomenon revolve around an increase in conservative and intolerant understandings of religion. The book Crisis of “Keistimewaan”: Violence Towards Minorities in Yogyakarta (CRCS 2017) attempts to move beyond this explanation. Although attributing the increase in vigilantism to religious conservatism is still relevant to a degree, it doesn’t provide an entirely adequate picture. The main thesis of this book is that the rampant vigilantism in Yogyakarta should be disentangled from the dynamics of changes in the local social-political landscape, referred to in the book’s title as the “crisis” of Yogyakarta’s Special Status (keistimewaaan).

The book provides a number of points in support of this thesis. First, incidents of vigilantism have soared over the last three years, with 53 of the 66 cases reported from 2011-16 occurring in the last three years. Given this data, the authors attempt to answer the question of what is behind this increase over the last few years.

Secondly, in the recorded cases, raids on places considered of ill repute (maksiat) were rare. The targets of vigilantism in Yogyakarta (listed in descending order) are: (1) religious activities held by Christian groups; (2) activities thought to be promoting Communism; (3) groups considered “deviant” [Syiah, Ahmadiyah, LGBT, Sapto Darmo and similiar organizations]; (4) violence between mass organizations; (5) activities regarding human rights activism and freedom of the press; and (6) raids on places of ill repute. Areas around the Pasar Kembang road, which are infamous for prostitution activities, was left unaffected, while the groups responsible for vigilante actions often broke up events at local universities by force.

Third, following the common theory in social science, vigilantism emerges as a result of the absence of the state, occurring when the state is weak or—and this is not rare—when state actors act in cooperation with vigilante groups in pursuit of their own interests. Starting from this premise, the roots of vigilantism must be viewed in the context of changes in the social-political landscape and shifting power in elite circles. The changing political landscape post-Reformasi along with the advent of decentralization is the larger context, and in this case, Yogya is not unique. After Reformasi, civil militias that received backing from Soeharto’s New Order regime sought new forms of support at local levels, often creating alliances between religious groups and local political elites.

Crisis of Keistimewaan mentions three problems that book’s researchers identify as contributing to the region’s crisis. The first problem they identify is the issue of succession. In 2015, Sri Sultan Hamengku Bawono X (at that time still carrying the title Buwono) issued a royal decree that according to his detractors was simply an effort to see his own daughter placed as next in line for the throne, contradicting the paugeran or traditions regarding the hereditary line of descent for the Kraton. Additionally, Law No. 13/2012 on Yogyakarta’s Special Status was brought to the Constitutional Court, as one of its articles was considered discriminatory as it implied that women cannot register as a candidate for the position of governor. In brief, there is conflict in elite circles over the question of succession.

The second problem identified by the researchers pertains to agriculture and land rights. In addition to land belonging to the state, in Yogyakarta land rights to certain areas are also held by Sultan. Under the 2012 Yogyakarta Special Status Law, the Governor and Vice Governor can “inventory in and identify” lands belonging to the Sultan. This contributed to a number of conflicts over land claims; some involving local residents who live on lands that were “identified” as belonging to the Kraton, and others regarding Chinese Indonesians who are only granted land use rights instead of ownership rights because they are considered non-pribumi. Resistance from itinerant merchants who were threatened with relocation was also presented to the Kraton in relation to these land rights issues.

The third problem discussed in the book is the massive development of hotels and malls in Yogyakarta that has surpassed the demand, and often contravenes the rules on environmental and urban planning for the city. Critiques of this unbridled development have increasingly emerged among local residents, with the slogans Jogja Asat (Yogya Drying Up) and Jogja Ora Didol (Yogya Is Not For Sale) becoming popular expressions of resistance. 

These accumulating problems have begun to weaken the potency of the Kraton, and caused friction among royal elites. Protests and critiques have emerged from the local community. It is at this moment that vigilante groups have found their significance, that is, they have found an opportunity to forge alliances to confirm the basis of their legitimacy. It is this socio-political landscape that has become fertile ground for fostering the growth of civil militia vigilantes in Yogyakarta.

Crisis of Keistimewaan analyzes how these civil militias establish their legitimacy. On one hand, they play the role of brokers in the redistribution of resources. Yet they also exploit sectarian issue and accusations of “deviance” as a tool for mobilization and building social legitimacy.

The book explains three additional issues that support the “institutionalization” of civil militia vigilantes. First, the politics surrounding the division of space that have been present since the New Order leading to the polarization of the “green” division (associated with the United Development Party – PPP) and the “red” division (associated with the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle – PDIP). Each of these divisions have territories that fall under their control, as well as agreements to respect each other’s territories. One of the effects of this division of space is that local communities tend to tolerate vigilante actions because they fear that conflicts could evolve into bigger clashes.

Second, that the oligarchy of power and capital establishes mutually beneficial relationships with these civil militias that is manifested in the existence of concessions in the provision of public services and economic activity.

Third, the involvement of contestation over identity, especially the narratives of combatting Christianization and deviant religious practices. This kind of discourse is heavily relied upon in campaigns by the civil militias. The authors of Crisis of Keistimewaan argue that sectarian issues and the claim of Christianization is part of the repertoire the vigilante groups use to strengthen their basis for legitimacy among the local populace.

In addition to the policy recommendations outlined in the closing section, the book would benefit from the addition of an academic reflection that positions the results of this research in relation to other works on vigilantism internationally, or at the very least, in the wider context of Indonesia. Although unfolding in different political landscapes, the case of vigilante groups in Yogyakarta, with the Islamic Community Forum (FUI) and the Islamic Jihad Front (FJI) at the forefront, resembles the case of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) in Jakarta. Borrowing a phrase from Ian Wilson, all these groups engage in “morality racketeering” with the grassroots and “political patronage” to the elites

What differentiates FUI-FJI in Yogyakarta from FPI in Jakarta is that the Yogyakarta groups have no agenda to promote Shariah bylaw (perda syariah) in Yogyakarta, while FPI has a mission to realize “The Unitary State of Republic of Indonesia under Shariah” (NKRI Bersyariah). More importantly, in their discourse, FUI has not adopted the narrative of “Islamic populism” in the same way as FPI. Here, Islamic populism means political narration that frames political rivals in a binary fashion that pits oppressed Muslims on one side against corrupt and oppressive politicians on the other. FUI certainly uses populist rhetoric in reference to the central government, but in their resistance towards the Yogyakarta sultanate that rhetoric is rarely employed.

In relating this book specifically to works on vigilantism, the argument can be enriched with the question of how to identify when vigilantism employs political or religious issues as merely a strategic tool, and when these actions are “sincere”. This book argues that vigilantism against minority groups in Yogyakarta is only used as a means of mobilization and to strengthen their social legitimacy. This implies that the groups these civil militias have attacked are only intermediary targets.

This final point leaves us with a crucial question that is not thoroughly answered in the book: if vigilante groups partner with one faction of the oligarchy in confronting the communities that are voicing their concerns over the “keistimewaan crisis” (succession, agricultural land rights, and urban planning), why don’t these vigilante groups target those communities directly? Answering this question could explain the causal link between problems in Yogyakarta’s elite circles and how vigilante groups in the region choose their targets.


This article is a translation by Kelli Swazey from its original version in Bahasa Indonesia: Vigilantisme di Yogyakarta dan Konteksnya.

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