JAKARTA: High school student Ujang Amaluddin looked like a seasoned professional soldier in military fatigue and army boots.
He sported a crew cut and his skin was tanned. The 17-year-old had been standing guard at the gates of the Gelaro Bung Karno stadium for more than 12 hours on Saturday afternoon (Apr 13).
Mr Ujang, alongside three others members of the paramilitary group Banser, was on duty for Mr Joko Widodo’s final rally of his 2019 presidential campaign.
Although they were sleep deprived, the four of them afforded a smile when interviewed by CNA.
“We are here to help with security,” said Mr Achmad, who goes by one name. “We are all here voluntarily, and we want to see the leader of our future," he added.
Mr Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, is seeking a second term, but faces stiff competition from former general Prabowo Subianto, who was also his opponent in 2014.
Banser is an affiliated group of the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), a large Islamic organisation in Indonesia that claims to have more than 70 million members. NU has publicly backed Jokowi’s 2019 campaign, as his running mate and candidate for vice president is Mr Ma’ruf Amin, an NU member.
Observers highlighted that paramilitary groups like Banser play a crucial role for candidates, especially in such a tightly contested election between the two main presidential candidates.
In particular, they have played a part in mobilising people to attend rallies and providing assurances of protection.
Human Rights Watch researcher Andreas Harsono told CNA that the primary role of these "election thugs" is to protect the campaign staff and supporters, and this could mean getting into “street fights” with groups from the opposing side.
“Protection means a lot. If needed, they can clash with other militias to help their candidates or supporters to campaign in areas which are not their strongholds,” he said.
Although the Banser members were not visibly armed at Mr Widodo's rally, some videos circulated online have showed them training using machetes and swords.
Mr Harsono said these groups do not need to carry weapons at rallies because skirmishes have been far and few between during this campaign. However, he warned that they were trained to use weapons if the need arises.
MOBILISING SUPPORTERS FOR RALLIES
Besides security, Mr Harsono said that these groups also help with the logistics to mobilise people to attend rallies. “They provide buses, T-shirts, lunch boxes and even help organise the rallies,” he said.
Mr Prabowo, who has a military background, also has strong support from various paramilitary wings like PPIR, an organisation comprising retired military personnel.
One of its senior members, Mr Haji Ganda, told CNA that PPIR helped gather supporters for the Mr Prabowo's rally at Banten province on Saturday morning.
“People are here from Java, Bogor and all other parts of Indonesia. They came on their own volition. We didn’t need to pay them,” said Mr Ganda, who was an assistant first lieutenant when he retired.
It was estimated that tens of thousands of Prabowo supporters attended the rally, held at a stadium at Tangerang city, about 20km from Jakarta.
Mr Ganda claimed that there were more people. “Look at the crowd, they have not stopped coming. I think there are about one million people inside (the stadium). Maybe even two or three million,” he said.
‘WE DID NOT RECEIVE A SINGLE DIME’
The Islamic Defender’s Front (FPI), another paramilitary wing which supports Mr Prabowo, was also present in huge numbers at Tangerang on Saturday.
One of its members, Mr Sandi Wibowo, said FPI’s motorcycle convoy travelled for around four hours to attend the rally.
“We believe that Prabowo and his (vice-president running mate) Sandiaga Uno would be better because they are the choice of the religious leaders. We have to follow the words of our leaders,” he said.
He also maintained that FPI members made the trip to help provide support and security at the rally, at their own will.
“We do not force anyone to join in, as we purely (believe in Prabowo). We did not tell them, ‘you must join in’ or things like that,” he said.
There have been media reports suggesting that the paramilitary groups were funded by the presidential campaigns to provide protection and support.
Mr Wibowo rebuffed the allegations. “There is no such payment. We did not receive a single dime. Instead, we help our friends who do not have any funds to join us for the trip,” he said.
Mr Muhammad Said, leader for Ansor, a youth military wing for NU, said being part of the security personnel for Mr Widodo’s final rally at GBK stadium was a “moral responsibility”. He too emphasised that his organisation did not receive any special fee.
“We are there to support (Mr Widodo), to ensure that there is peace. But it is not our job to take over the role of the police or the army,” he said. “We value peace.”
Despite the largely peaceful situation so far, Mr Harsono of Human Rights Watch said things could change “in an instant”, especially in the lead up to polling day on Wednesday.
“It’s very difficult. People can be smiling and chatting but the moment something happens, they will kill each other,” he warned.