The Social Origins and Political Power of Blaters (Thugs) in Madura

Abdur Rozaki

The symbolic image of Madurese is associated with violence and religiosity. But in fact, these words theoretically represent different, even contradictory meanings. Religious people live ascetically and steer away from committing bad deeds and violent acts. By contrast, people accustomed to violence tend to stay away from ascetic lives. Yet, social reality presents complex problems that does not always subscribe to normative theories. In the context of culture, violence and religiosity do not operate in an empty space, but their existence is always interrelated with power relations and interest interactions in the social structure (Foucault: 2002).

Both violence and religiosity are the “children” of human culture. Violence can be differentiated into various kinds based on contexts and motives. Consider carok, the violent tradition of settling conflict among the Madurese. It can end in serious injury or even death to those involved in the process, depending on the ardor and feeling with which they upheld their self-esteem and honor. Madurese commit carok when their honor and self-esteem are insulted or when they feel offended and hurt. When their feeling of being stressed develops into feeling ashamed (maloh or todus), Madurese resort to carok to settle conflict. The context is affirmed in the Madurese popular saying, ango ’an pote tolang etembang pote matah,” literally “it is better to have white bone than white eyes” and metaphorically “Life is meaningless without self-esteem.”

The intense emotion embarrassment that becomes maloh and results in carok is often associated with tension relating to a man’s wife. A Madurese can be offended and commit carok whenever his wife is disturbed. Likewise when he becomes jealous due to reports of a wife’s adulterous relations, the wife’s co-adulteror becomes the target of his carok. Carok can also take the form of acts of revenge, especially to avenge a murdered family member. Carok is thus understoond as an act of defending one’s integrity and struggling to preserve one’s legacy. (Wiyata, 2002: 89-159). In carok, the motive and target are very clear-cut: individuals become involved in violent disputes arising from offended self-esteem.

A Madurese committing carok in the name of self-esteem and honor will be perceived and deemed to have been brave (blater). Blater can refer to a fearless spirit, arrogance, and being courageous by settling blows to one’s self-esteem by violence. On the other hand, those who opt for “tolerance” in defense of their self-esteem are regarded by the local community as having no blater spirit. There are many cases of Madurese who are previously considered non-blater being recognized as blater once after committing carok, especially if winning the bloody tussle. Hence, carok is associated with courage in settling disputes in the community and committing carok is an important social act to strengthen and legitimate one’s social status as blater.

Committing carok is not the only way to legitimate blater status, and there are many other social mores that can turn a Madurese into blater. Involvement in kerapan sapi (Madurese bull race), cock fighting, criminality, and remoh blater – all these constitute cultural reproductions of blater.

The prevailing dynamism creates this particular culture and community in Madura, and thus it comes as no surprise when a Madurese identifies himself as blater he also assumes a particular social position in society. Culturally a blater will be highly regarded and socially respected, and it is hard to find a blater who is not.

Anyone can become blater – may come from a various groups or social classes, from santri (strict Muslim) as well as non-santri community. A blater who is an ex-santri is usually skilful in ngaji (reciting Koranic verses) and in reading kitab kuning (Yellow Book, a book in Arabic script used in pesantren). This is also common in Madurese society, since in the Madurese tradition, religious teachings are part of everyday life, starting with youth when every child is taught religion in the langgar or musolla, surau, mosque, and pesantren scattered across hamlets and villages throughout island. Such contexts enables an ex-santri blater to develop a cultural network and tradition that may even treat him like a kyai (Islamic cleric) (Mansoornoor 1990; Bruinessen 1995).

Islam has a central role in Madurese society and various social rituals are always associated with religious spirit, with the kyai always having a leading role. The social dynamism makes religion deeply-rooted in the social and cultural structure of the community, hence it fuses into the Madurese identity. Such a process also makes Islam a part of Madurese dignity and self-esteem; therefore when there is any disturbance or religion-associated defamation, it is perceived as humiliating religious self-esteem and Madurese identity. This is why it triggers carok.

Both blater and kyai can be regarded as “twin-regimes” that have the capacity and power to reproduce discourse, culture, tradition, and political networks in Madurese society. As the legitimate controller and wielder of the reins of a “violence machine,” the blater often exercises hegemonic influence over the community, extending his power over such traditional practices as remoh, cock-fighting, pencak silat (traditional self-defence), bull racing, and even criminal and violent activity. Likewise, the kyai, with his capacity to develop and enrich religion discourse, can secure hegemony over social behavior, mind, and thought, and assume significant roles in social development. Both actors may also have contradicting visions and thoughts, but these do not affect their efforts to maintain non-conflicting mutual inter- relations in culture, economy, and politics (Rozaki :2004).

Madura is an Indonesian island off the northeastern coast of Java.

Tracking Blater Historically

In tracking the historical phenomena of blater-ism, we often find that it refers to the strongman figure in rural society. Unsurprisingly, blater-ism is also closely related to jago-ism, for, like the jagoan, the blater is a strongman figure, both physically and magically. A blater is well-known for being invulnerable to bullets and sharp weapons, for possessing supernatural power, and for being skillful in self-defence. Both blater and jagoan easily gain followers and loyal men in large number, depending on their supernatural power and self-defence capability. Violent encounters enhances their supernatural powers and adds to their charisma.

Since the pre-colonial era, the jagoan was an important weapon of the ruler. Even the rise to power of a king was often related to the figure of the jagoan. To become a king a candidate had to gain prior wahyu kedaton (divine revelation) to legitimize his claims. That wahyu was often seen as one of the most enduring features of the jagoan, and a powerful king was almost always also seen as a super jagoan  (Onghokham 2002: 102). Studying history provides us with an illustration that kings also often involve jagoan in the pursuit and defense of their power. The jagoan are often mentioned as the king’s hit men or bodyguards. Alberts, a Dutch novelist, wrote a short story telling about a bandit or jagoan living in a rural area of Sumenep Madura in 1710 who could mobilize many people in a mission to overthrow the King of Sumenep. The bandit would conquer the king’s troops, seize his palace, and crown himself as the new king based on his claim to be a descendant of Sedyainingrat a bandit whose genealogy dates back to the Suenep kingdom, and who lived in 1710 in Madura (De Jonge 1995). This “legend” has become part of the knowledge- epistemology that is constantly reproduced by the community up to today.

Another story is about Ke’Lesap, the child of Madurese King Cakraningrat III by one of the royal concubines living outside the palace. Ke’Lesap was said to have organized his loyal followers and led a mutiny against the Bangkalan Kingdom. With his prowess and knowledge in war strategy, he easily conquered the different regions of Madura, from Sumenep to Blega region, Bangkalan. But at the point when the king was about to be toppled, Ke’Lesap’s uprising dissipated when the former adeptly used diplomatic strategy against the latter. The king sent a messenger informing Ke’Lesap that if he would surrender and meet him in his palace, he could live there as his descendent. Ke’Lesap agreed to live in royal palace and once there, was ”murdered quietly,” thereby putting an end his rebellion (Irsyad: 1985).

There is also the patriotic story of Sakera, another legend in the Madurese community. Sakera was a Madurese-blooded jagoan who struggled against Dutch colonial rule in Pasuruan, the so-called ”horseshoe” region located in eastern Java and known for its multi-ethnic community which isdominated by the Madurese. While diverse, the communities living in Pasuruan, Probolinggo, Jember, Situbondo, and Banyuwangi speak Madurese alongside Javanese. Sakera was a blater figure who did not bow to the Dutch colonial rulers. He mastered self-defence and was supposedly invulnerable to Dutch bullets and sharp weapons. Many times Dutch troops tried to quell Sakera’s rebellion, but failed. They only succeeded after they used a dirty trick, trapping him in a traditional dancing party called sandur. Sakera was permitted to dance provided that he was willing to turn off all his magic amulets. Once he did this, Dutch troops ambushed him and Sakera died on the spot. Like the others, Sakera’s story is a living legend in Madurese society up until now. Many Madurese remain very proud of such tales, and this explains why they see no problem in admiring the violence and heroism of the blater figure.

It is also relevant to introduce here the findings of Anton Lukas on the role of a Madurese blater named Kutil in the rebellion in three regions of Central Java. Kutil was well known for his religious knowledge, but was also very accustomed to the “dark life” of criminality. Lukas’ study illustrates how Kutil could play both sides, controlling and having access to the “dark world” as a criminal and also enjoying a good religious consciousness that blessed him with the popularity that a respected figure receives in a “normal” community setting. Because of this dual access to the normal and dark worlds, Kuntil could organize community uprisings while engaging in the activities of the lenggongs or jagoan. In the struggle for the establishment of the Indonesian republic, the brave Kutil became one of leaders in the fight against the remnants of colonial rule (Lukas 1989: 146-148). Kutil became the spiritual epitome of blater-ism, admired throughout the community for his strong, courageous, and elegant character.

From an ecological perspective, the presence of the blater in the community relates to the infertile and desolate dry-field ecosystem which is not productive for paddy husbandry. It is a context that is worsened by the very limited rainfall that negatively affects harvests. This condition then aggravates the impoverishment of the rural community. With desolate lands having no economic advantages, any change, including rapid demographic growth, could create acute economic problems. Such a situation often forces Madurese to migrate, but even migration does not guarantee a better life. The other option, for some, is the “black” one, i.e., a short cut into the violent and criminal world, becoming a bandit or blater to survive or overcome poverty. This is, of course, not unique to the Madurese: similar behaviours have been noted by scholars in places like Latin America (Hobsbawm 1981).

The blater phenomenon is therefore not only shaped by the religious experiences of the Madurese but also by the socio-ecological context of each individual Madurese and the communities they live in.

Blater-ism is closely related to the spontaneous attempts to overcome the harsh difficulties of life arising from poverty. By becoming a blater or bandit, Madurese are able to explore an alternative way to solve their poverty and overcome life’s burdens. A youngster becomes a blater or joins a blater community to gain self- esteem as “the brave” (jagoan) in the village and to develop a better life than the other peasants living in with insufficient earnings in these desolate dry-lands.

Poverty among Madureses, however, is also caused by the power structure that rules people’s lives. Madurese communities have long been exploited by the so-called “twin-powers” of the aristocracy which owed their power to collaboration with the Dutch and the capitalists. As capitalism spead in Madura, generating more benefits for the Dutch, the (Chinese) capitalists, and the aristocracy at the expense of the marginalized people, the incidence of criminality and violence inevitably increased (De Jonge 1989b: 76). The Dutch worried about these behaviors, as they threatened economic stability, but rarely used the legal approach, instead applying counter- violence and repression and using other bandits to catch the bandits. They considered this method more efficient given the difficulty of the colonial government co-opting the entire community. The method and pattern were also regarded as effective because of colonialists were not willing to establish state agencies to promote the security and stabilization of local communities. Colonialism’s power was thus maintained with the support of bandits, blaters as rural jagoan figures.

Since the colonial state did not encourage the creation of effective state institution to rule on law and justice, the latter are therefore expropriated by the people according their own interpretation, and this included committing violence which they saw as nothing but self-defence measures. Conflict settlement by carok, according to De Jonge, was due to the absence of state in assuring public security among the Madurese. Moreover, Madurese had, in time, become used to experiencing failure in establishing their self-reliant kingdom, and this further perpetrated the idea of a self-governing violence system with the government institution’s playing a minimal, if no role at all (see Kerajaan). Additionally, in Madura, the kingdom was always under the shadow of Javanese domination, starting from Singosari expansion to Mataram (Degraaf and Pigeaud 2001).

Kerapan sapi (Madurese bull race)

During the royal era, power had been based on the king and his charisma backed by the jagoan. During the colonial era, the Dutch state could not sufficiently maintain law and order and was forced to resort to the blater to protect the prevailing formal power. This “model” of relations between blater and state apparatus (e.g., police officers) continued to prevail from the post-colonial period to the present, when part of the “modern government practices in Madura” includes making peace and working together with blater.

In short, the existence of the blater community relates strongly to the weakness of institutionalization and rule of law.

The convergence of and accommodation between the state power structure and the violent realities of the community socio-culture – that allows elements of thuggery to give birth to the blater) – also breeds an unusual flexibility that enables them to maintain their niche in various cultural and structural positions. Due to rampant banditry in Madura in 1980, the central government deployed the so-called Petrus (mysterious shooting) operation targeting blater and bandits. The Petrus killings were a Soeharto government-sponsored campaign to assassinate criminals who were rampant in big cities and rural areas. Blater figures in Bangkalan became targeted and pressured so immensely that two in particular – Haji Suud and his brother – committed crimes and were murdered. During their lives, these blater controlled the business shipping lane of the coastal harbors of Madura-Pontianak, West Borneo. Haji Suud’s social authority was than that of the Polsek (sub-district police headquarter) of Tempuran, and he was never arrested or jailed despite cases filed against him for crimes like murder.

The Petrus policy did not totally root out the criminal networks, since no sooner had they started killing blater when those in power were exposed as having ties with the targets themselves, as acting as patrons and protectors of blater and thugs so as to maintain their power, especially during general elections, when New Order authorities needed to rejuvenate their legitimation while forestalling any major threat to this ritual.

It is common in Madura for undercover relations to prosper between blater and security officers and for government officers to use “blaters’ hands” to oppress supporters of political parties that challenged GOLKAR. For the blater, the connection with the government provided protection from legal institutions, especially in the conduct of criminal activities. The collusion of blater and police officers arose not merely prior to general elections, but persisted as economic- political transactions. The blater’s role as a broker in bribery cases became all the more important since those arrested, who wanted to be acquitted on charges of criminal activity or carok, required their help. Such notorious patterns are still ongoing in this Reform era.

Thus, the social origin of blater and banditry in Madura has always been closely related to the ecological structure and sociological movement of the communities as they respond to changing social conditions. Amidst the economic hardships from the development of capitalism in the countryside, communities who witness the loss of their power resort to stealing or robbing “the rich” and “the powerful,” through the leadership or the help of sinister jagoan figures. Where there is no open resistance, communities resort to disobedience and the use of hidden social protest, much as James C. Scott in Weapons of the Weak observed. Again, with the help of the jagoan.

Borrowing from George Rude (1980), we can classify blater-ism into three types of crime: 1) acquisitive; 2) social and survival; and 3) protest. This classification is based on both the motives and ideology of banditry. For in Madura, banditry cases could be regarded as a social protest to survive hardship, but also as a motivation to for personal enrichment.

Kyai-Blater becomes a regent

In the post-Reform era, political decentralization and regional autonomy have allowed the full emergence of so-called “local bosses” scattered across rural areas who take advantage of the democratization process and the “wind of change” regarding political openness (Harris and Tornquist 2004). Madura is no exception. During the New Order era, it was difficult to find a regent with the background of a kyai or blater, but during the Reform era those occupying that seat in the four regions of Madura (Bangkalan, Sampang, Pamekasan, and Sumenep) came from religious (kyai), military, and kyai-blater backgrounds. (The last mentioned was a figure who emerged from the santri or kyai community and the blater neighborhood.) Almost all formal political positions at the regional level were occupied by figures whose cultural roots were within the community. The exception is the district of Sampang, where an ex- police officer, Fadillah Budiono, maintained his leadership position as post-Reform regent after being re-elected to the local parliament. His re-election was marked by conflict at the parliamentary and community level, including the burning of the DPRD (regional parliament) office.

Amidst these conflicts, many parties involved deployed blater to mobilize a series of people’s protests.

With the advent of a more open political arena, local figures sought to seize political seats at the regional level. Those with cultural, network, and social capital were able to acquire these seats with ease. Running closely were the blater figures who rose from the criminal and violence-based community. Previously, blater political power was restricted to rural areas, but in the Reform era their political influence has expanded considerably and now reaches the regional level. There were blater in the past whose influence went beyond their village boundaries, but they tended to have connections with formal regional or provincial leaders who controlled posts occupied by military. In this context, the military played a role in the “process of orbiting” blater figures.

Besides prompting the enactment of decentralization and regional autonomy, politicial reforms also revamped the format of political recruitment. DPR(D) direct elections are held on the basis of political party and representation of votes, for example, and the posts of president, governor, and regent have became filled through direct election. All these political events, for blater, denote concurrently opportunity and political commodity to raise their economic and political bargaining position. Blater can be directly involved in running successful teams or indirectly involved by exercising cultural influence over the community.

The Reform era offers more political opportunities for blater – from the cultural to the structural domains, from rural to urban political arenas. What happened in Bangkalan district underscores this fact. In the past, the regent’s seat was occupied by a retired military officer or a bureaucrat, but during the Reform era many a blater has taken over the position. The case of Fuad is illustrative. He came from a religious family and his grandfather was a noted kyai of Bangkalan, known even in Madura while many of his relatives maintained pesantren and exercised charismatic influence in the community, within political parties, and among governmental bureaucrats. But he was also highly regarded within the community because of his blater connections. He thus had equal influence in the two communities, kyai and blater, and when elected as regent by the local parliament, he was referred to locally as the kyai-blater.

In Sumenep, Ramdam Siraj, who was seen as belonging to the kyai community, won the direct election but his success was also the result of local blater involvement. This is not surprising since the majority of klebun (village leaders) of Sumenep district are also exposed to blater culture. The klebun had a very strategic position in the community as elders and dignified kyai. In Sumenep, the blater established an association called Selendang Hitam (dark shawl) and became known for wearing odeng (a kind of head-cloth for men) and publicly using the word hitam (dark color) to promote their profession.

The pattern of blater or thug networks marks the conduct of strategic politics in the Reform era. Blater live off the informal sectors, with activities ranging from loan shark operations and bodyguard or security services to violence, theft, and gambling. They are also active as merchants, selling local commodities such as livestock (bull), timber, and the like. But once they became more involved in the formal political arena, they began to pose as klebun. In Madura, most villages are now controlled by blater, indicating how deep are the social roots, networks, and influence of the blater among “their” people. During the New Order, it was very difficult for them to rise to higher levels, such as regional politics. In the Reform era, however, openness and political competition has assured them a chance to gain support from the rural community, thus enabling them to enter into formal politics from the district to even higher levels.

Nowadays, blater maintain their influence via the business of violence and security services and their arenas have expanded and been institutionalized in the economic and political domains. As they understand their new opportunities, they learn new techniques to manage development projects through institutions and bureaucracies. There are not a few blater who established business ventures and CV (limited partnerships) in order to compete for district infrastructure development programs, such as road paving projects. And blater CVs tend to win more tenders for rural roads paving and renovation from. Such collusive relations between blater and politicians and bureaucrats create a system of mutual symbiosis. For example, when protest emerges from students, NGOs, or other civil society representative against alleged bureaucratic corruptions, blater are deployed to repress and curb the protests.

The organization of blater networks and access to power in the districts of Sampang, Bangkalan, and Pamekasan have not yet developed to the point of institutionalization and monopoly. In Sumenep district as well, home of Selendang Hitam, the pattern of blater control is still arbitrary and relies mainly on the power and personal influence of the leader. Blater capacity and expertise in organizing also determines the projects a community obtains. For instance, when blater influence covers only the village, the projects that community gets will only be village development projects (and the blater will surely control them). In instances where projects extend beyond the village, blater use their connections to extend their influence as high as the national level.

Social practices reveal that the Reform era has provided wider arenas for blater, sending them from the “tail” of national and local politics to the very “head.” Their networks now expand broadly in the formal political domain, from street politics to the centers of bureaucratic power. They can control national projects and are adept at adjusting the manner in which they can capture resources. Unsurprisingly, conflicts of interests among blater communities in obtaining development projects has began to surface as competition for largesse becomes more intense. The conflicts have not yet evolved into open and physical violence.

The energy of rural and regional political dynamics is now on the hands of two communities, blater and kyai. If both communities are concerned with governance, with improving public services (education, health, housing, etc.) and implementing autonomy and political decentralization, it would result in a better future for the Madurese. But if these parties are not interested in reform or social improvement, the Madurese will surely face a gloomy future. There are, of course, other parties beside these two mainstream groups, such as academics. Here perhaps lies a deterrent to the growing darkening of Madurese politics.

Abdur Rozaki
Institute for Research and Empowerment, Yogyakarta 

Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia Issue 11 (December 2009) 


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