Shooters in the Dark

Tempo Magazine
No. 23/VIII
February 05-11, 2008

Cover Story

Thousands of people were mysteriously shot to death in 1983, their corpses dumped in the streets. Were the ‘executions’ committed by the state?

ON the night of June 26, 1983, in Lubuk Pakam, 40 kilometers from Medan, at a dim distance, Suwito, the owner of two food stalls in the village, saw five people approaching him. They asked Suwito to follow them as they needed his information.

Unsuspecting, Suwito got into the white Land Rover of the men picking him up. In the car, they asked him about Usman Bais, a notorious robber and gang leader from Medan who had once eaten at his stall. Suwito denied any relationship with the burglar, let alone the accusation that Usman Bais had supplied capital for the food stall.

As Suwito recounted, he was taken round the suburbs of Medan for two hours. He was photographed twice. He was dropped off at Hamparan Perak village, followed by one of the men. “The man was of average build, upright, but a bit crippled,” said Suwito.

As soon as this lame man got out, he pulled his pistol. “I heard three shots before I fell. I could still hear the other man telling him to shoot me in the head. But the shooter said that I was already dead, after groping around my belly,” added Suwito. He was actually holding his breath, pretending to be dead. Suwito was then dumped into a roadside ditch.

In 1983, such scenes became common all over Indonesia and were later known as Petrus (for penembak misterius, mysterious shooters) incidents. At that time, people in Jakarta and other major cities in Indonesia were becoming accustomed to the sights of scattered dead bodies. However, they didn’t have the slightest idea of who had perpetrated the shootings.

The government was at first reluctant to clarify the number of so many deaths. Security authorities also denied involvement. Then Armed Forces commander Gen. L.B. Moerdani said that the killings had occurred following gang wars. The slayings, Benny said, were not a government decision. He admitted that, “Some were gunned down by security men, but it was because they resisted arrest.”

However, in his biography Ucapan, Pikiran, dan Tindakan Saya (My Words, Thoughts and Deeds) Suharto “confirms” the shootings. He said that the mysterious killings were purposely done as shock therapy to reduce the high rate of crime.

“The incidents were not mysterious. The real problem was that the incidents were preceded by public fears,” indicated Suharto, in Chapter 69 of his biography. Some evil people, he said, had acted beyond the limits of humanity norms. “So, we had to initiate some treatment, some stern action,” he pointed out.”What kind of action? Well, we had to resort to force. But it was not just execution by shootings. No! Those who resisted had to be shot. They were gunned down because they fought back,” explained Suharto in the biography.

No official figures of the shooting victims were ever reported. Until July 1983, according to Benny Moerdani, 300 corpses were recorded throughout Indonesia. The number must have been larger because many criminal elements vanished without a trace.

Mulyana W. Kusumah, a criminologist who researched the Petrus incident, said that the number of shooting victims could be as high as 2,000. Hans van den Broek, then Foreign Minister of The Netherlands, in 1984 requested the Indonesian government to respect human rights, putting the total of victims even higher at 3,000.

Many years later the government’s involvement in the mysterious killings began to be unveiled. Mulyana’s research showed that Petrus constituted a continuation of the Anti-Crime Operation in several major cities.

At first, the operation was announced by Yogyakarta’s garrison commander, Lt. Col. M. Hasbi, in March 1983.

It was followed by other areas, including Jakarta. Some of the thousands of gali, ­as thugs were called, ­were shot, some of them readily surrendered, others fled to hide in the jungle. A few changed their evil ways.

The government regarded the decision to “organize” the Petrus operation as something positive. Criminal activities werereported to decline following the Petrus operation. InYogyakarta, cases of violent crime dropped from 57 to 20 fromJanuary to June 1983. During the same period, the number of crimes in Semarang decreased from 78 to 50.

But this mysterious method of addressing the problem of the high crime rate invited criticism. Mulyana concluded his study by describing the obscure shooting incidents as “extralegal,” which was contrary to the principle of law and justice. The Legal Aid Institute, then headed by Adnan Buyung Nasution, referred to the Petrus operation as “premeditated murder.”