Tawuran: Identity-based violence among students

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Devie Rahmawati
Permanent Lecturer, Communications
Vocation Program, University of Indonesia

IO – Recently, another tawuran or student’s mob fighting occurred in Jabodetabek, causing yet another useless loss of life. Tawuran is a sadly frequent reality here in our country. According to Indonesia’s Commission of Child Protection (Komisi Perlindungan Anak Indonesia – “KPAI”) data, there were 3,184 complaints of violence against children in the 2011-2018 period alone. This number comprises of cases that include the victims of tawuran, violence at school, and children victimized by school policies.

Tawuran is a relatively different type of violence. Though violent, tawuran is relatively free from political and economic motives. It is not performed by people who are busy seeking income for their livelihood. Tawuran is primarily caused by issues of identity and tradition. This is reflected in the fact that most tawuran occurs between two or more schools that have maintained tension between them for a long time. These years, or even decades, are inherited by new students, or in other words, by the new generation, along with a sense of identity: a new student will only be acknowledged as a student of that school if he attacks a student from “the other school”.

A sample of inherited violence is the fact that the students in one of the schools known for frequent tawuran in Jakarta know how to make use of their belts as makeshift weapons. This tradition is carefully passed on from one generation of students to another. Empirical findings in the field show that the alumni actually pride themselves on how their schools have the “guts” to attack other schools, and how they are respected for their physical prowess.

This admission shows just how deeply entrenched violence is as a means of proving self and identity among students. KPAI data shows that tawuran continues to occur year after year, and the level of violence in these tawurans tend to escalate. The reasons for the increased intensity are quite complex. However, seeing how the citizens of Jakarta increase drastically year after year, we can say that tawuran is caused among others by drastic increase of the number of residents, which also brings drastic increase of the number of students, which means that there are more energetic young people ready and willing to fight, with less controllability due to numbers.

Other than tradition and increased population as the intensifying factor, layout also matters. Schools that fight with each other tend to be located close to each other. We are painfully familiar with these students’ habit of throwing rocks at public transport that carry passengers from the “opposing school” on their way to school or back home. This shows that such rival schools at least share the same bus route.

What is “tawuran” itself, anyway? How would we define it? First thing to do is to check the dictionary. A comprehensive Sundanese-English dictionary compiled by an English linguist in 1862 defines “tawuran” as “to pay for” or “to redeem”. This meaning carries an implicit sense of “repaying one’s debts”. With the start of post-independence mass education in Indonesia and the rise of student fights, the meaning of this term transforms into “mass or mob fighting”. The first person who used the term to denote this meaning probably noted that such mass student fights carry with them a sense of retribution, of “paying back” what the other school did to them ad infinitum.

The use of the term “tawuran” spread like wildfire among the young. This is only natural, because young people – or in our case, middle-school students – have always been the ones to spot trends and innovate, and then to spread these trends and innovations widely only to forget them again by the next generation. We can see this in current terms like “alay” (“no-class, common”), “lebay” (“dramatically exaggerated”), or “cuco(k)” (“extremely proper or suitable”). These terms originated from young people in the media, hosts and celebrities and such, and imitated and spread out by young students.

Tawuran as a mass institution developed along with the amassing of hotblooded students in schools. The school years are the only time that we humans gather for a prolonged period of time in a great mass as we develop. In this way, this collection of humanity generates a pattern of identity and groupings: Humans naturally seek to form groups of similarity when crowded together, and so no school is completely free of “gangs”.

Don’t think that these youthful gangs are “child’s play”: they are strictly enforced organizations. The members have deathly loyality to their gang. Let’s take the example of a notorious motorcycle gang was established in a city in Java 1982. This gang was originally established by students in an elite high school.

Police records quoted by Sidik Jatmiko states that initiation to this gang’s membership includes brutal physical endurance tests such as getting punched and kicked by many. When they have passed the preliminary endurance test, new members must prove their bravery by riding their motorcycles without using brakes from Lembang to Bandung. Acceptance ceremony may include a loyalty vow strengthened by the drinking of animal blood. The group may perform “raids”, such as assaulting or robbing specific targets. Membership is for life – any member wishing to leave the group must also leave his little finger to be cut off to symbolize eternal severance from the brotherhood. Yet the group also protect their members very strictly: anyone insulting, hurting, or targeting a member group is deemed to be insulting, hurting, or targeting the group as a whole, and will be ruthlessly hunted down by all members.

This gang is far from being the only one. Jatmiko notes that the phenomenon is quite massive and similar. The above gang has several deadly enemies: motorcycle gang rivals originating from other elite high schools. These gangs have a similar triadic principle: “police is the enemy”, “fight the parents”, and “do crimes at night”.

These phenomena show that schools as an institution can also generate fanatism and strong sense of identity among its students, whose intensity is similar with ethnic, racial, or religious fanatism. This is worsened by the fact that students are generally not burdened with a sense of responsibility towards their families, or work, so that there is less to consider in the taking of any action.

Jerome Tadie, a French researcher, noted in his book, Wilayah-wilayah Kekerasan di Jakarta (“Areas of Violence in Jakarta”) that mass student fighting or tawuran in Jakarta has strict, established pattern. Tawuran generally occurs between schools that are located closely with each other. There are many possible causes that trigger a fight; most important among them is the fight to get on a public transportation or an “insult” delivered by a rival school student on the way to school or back. These students generally have the same route to travel to or from school, thus their paths would generally cross. The issue most apparent here is “turf war”, a fight to gain control over a specific area.

Timeline also matters. Tawurans more frequently occur on days where schools finish early (excess energy) and on Thursdays (where study loads increase). Jerome further notes that tawurans most rarely occur in May-June, as these months are usually filled with tests and holidays. Tawurans would generally recommence in June and peak in August-September, during the start of the school year, as this is the time teenage gangs start to recruit members. The fighting will decrease in October to February, when schools are most active, then peak again in March-April, nearing final tests. The most likely periods for tawuran to occur in the day are 06.00-07.00 a.m. (leaving for school), 12.00-14.00 p.m. (lunch break), and 17.00-19.00 p.m. (going home).

As the pattern of teenage school gang fights emerge, we note that it is mostly a matter of pride of identity and area control. We might find that changing the layout of school locations might help by keeping schools to be not to close to each other. Teenage gangs generally have it as their basic tenet to show all possible disrespect to all authority figures such as counselors, teachers, police, and parents. This means that moralistic solutions would be hard to implement.

Furthermore, peace treaties between schools or areas would be difficult to implement. We must assume that students in a tawuran hold deep sentiment of hatred against gangs from other schools, so it will be difficult to get them to trust each other enough to sit down and talk about the division of areas without them killing each other.

At macro level, adult stakeholders need to release the negative label or stigma placed on the actors of tawuran. They are actually victims from structures that generally do not support child protection in general. As mandated in the Constitution of RI Article 28 Paragraph 2, “All children have the right to survive, grow, and develop, as well as the right to protection against violence and discrimination.” Therefore, these children in a tawuran should also be treated properly according to rules and regulations, including those relating to underage crime.

To give up and blame teenagers for their frequently uncontrollable behavior is not an effective long-term solution. Everyone needs to commit to provide children with protection before all children undergo any conflict. We need to make our efforts far before that, by embracing all their interests, talents, and potential into a starting point that would be able to prevent violence in children and teenagers.