Tue, 18 Mar 2003

War on thugs

It has taken the March 8 mob attack on Tempo to bring us to the realization that thuggery is one of the problems that has beset the nation, and that it is continuously undermining our march to democracy.

Preman and premanisme (thugs and thuggery) are not exactly new phenomena. They have been around for much of the past 30 years, even to the point of having some legitimacy under the Soeharto regime. Most people in this country have accepted -- resigned is a more apt term -- that thuggery is here to stay, that there is absolutely nothing that anyone can do about it.

Here is a problem that even civil society has completely neglected. The administration and House of Representatives, both elected on the platform of reform in 1999, have not even considered this to be a serious problem. We have rarely heard the government or any elected politician address the problem in the five years since we started on this path of reform toward democracy.

Deplorable as it may be, the attack on Tempo, therefore, is a blessing in disguise. It has brought the media together to declare war on thugs.

It is a war that we in the media feel should be widely supported by the public. Premanisme is not only a threat to our press freedom: More than that, it is threatening the nation's freedom of expression, and ultimately, our freedom too.

Premanisme reared its ugliest head during the attack on Tempo. It showed how helpless the media is in the face of a mob attack. It showed how impotent our police are in preventing thugs from carrying out their violent acts. As supporters of powerful businessman Tomy Winata conducted the attack, it suggests the power of money over the law. It suggests that some people in this country are above the law. They are untouchables.

None of this, of course, is new to us.

Most people in this country have had to deal with preman in their daily lives. What this incident revealed is our pervasive complacency. The attack on Tempo woke us up to the reality that preman have become a real menace, that even a magazine as influential as Tempo, considered an icon of press freedom and a national institution, is not spared from the violence that thugs can inflict upon us.

The reality is that preman rule our streets. And, we suspect, at a higher level, preman also rule this country.

Ask any bus driver, shopkeeper or trader: They can tell you how preman haunt them all the time. They pay protection money in order to be able to go about their business in peace. This is pure blackmail. They will also tell you that often it is people in uniform that come and collect their money, suggesting that state institutions -- the police and the military -- are involved.

Ask big businesses; they too, privately, though perhaps not publicly, will tell you that they have to pay bribes and protection money on a regular basis, either to thugs, or worse, to units of the police or Military.

The thugs who come and collect their money, and who torment you if you don't pay up, are only the tip of the iceberg of a much larger problem. The thugs are usually pawns working for someone more powerful, and more menacing.

While the thugs are visible, their sponsors are not. In all likelihood these thugs are parts of large organized crime. Organized crime is part of a larger problem of pervasive corruption in this country. It would not surprise us at all if many politicians and government officials were already in the pockets of these powerful mafia bosses.

It is now time for the nation to say "enough is enough" with premanisme.

While our ultimate goal must be to wipe out organized crime in this country, it would be a tall order, especially given the involvement of state apparatus. We can, however, start modestly, declaring a war on preman, keeping in mind that the ultimate goal must be the sponsors behind the thugs.

This nation, led by the government, has declared several wars in recent years. We have declared war on corruption, on drugs and on smugglers. Most of these wars, admittedly, turned out to be mere lip service because the government was never really serious about tackling the problems.

For what it is worth, the nation may as well declare war on another front: A war against preman. But this is a war that cannot be led by the government or law enforcement agencies, because they are part of the problem. They can never be part of the solution.

This is a war that the public, with the support of the media, must declare itself because ultimately, it is our freedom, and not just the freedom of the press, that is ultimately at stake.