Perguruan Silat: A "Tactical Bricolage" Across Indonesia and Timor Leste

Ignoring the violent stereotypes of the East Timorese community, many youths, particularly young men, join martial arts groups and magic or mystical groups, commonly called perguruan. The tradition of becoming a member of such a perguruans dates back to Portugal’s rule over Indonesia during the sixteenth century. In the capital of Dili, there are still around 15-20 martial arts groups, with approximately 20,000 registered members and a 90,000 estimated nonregistered members, or approximately 70 % of the young men in Timor Leste (Scambary 2006). Another type of group, mystical groups or Kakalok, are believed to have magic powers that are useful in protecting the group members from “magic” or dark magic (i.e., suanggi) performed by enemies (Ibid.). There is a high percentage of youth involvement in perguruans in Naibonat, reaching around 60 % of all members, with the last 40 % being comprised of male adults, young women, and children from 6 to 12 years old.

Although most groups claim to have nonviolent principles, only emphasizing sport or self-discipline, communal violence often is associated with both types of groups. The violent image might be rooted in the history of several of these groups that have been politicized and allied with opposing political parties and security forces. For example, Kmanek Oan Rai Klaran (Korka) is officially affiliated with The Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretelin); Persaudaraan Setia Hati Terate (PSHT) allegedly is associated with two main opposition parties, the Partido Democratica (PD) and the Social Democratic Party (PSD); and Seven-Seven (Zeti-Zeti) is believed to be closely linked to Sagrada Familia (Scambary 2006). Aside from that, there are considerable rivalries between these perguruans. For example, PSHT is well-known to have conflicts with martial arts groups such as Korka, Kung Fu Master, Kera Sakti, and Taekwondo. The roots of these rivalries are varied, which includes economic and trade competition, political affiliations, or historical conflicts. To date, these rivalries are preserved and carried everywhere, including to various places in Indonesia.

In Naibonat, there are very popular perguruans such as Kera Sakti, PSHT, Padjadjaran, Korka, Seven, Zeti-Zeti[1] (Seven), and Tunggal Hati Seminari/Tunggal Hati Maria[2] (THS/THM). This chapter, however, only discusses the two most popular perguruans in Naibonat: Kera Sakti and PSHT—they are the so-called “mortal enemies.” They have had historical violent disputes that have caused the members to commit violence against their own relatives who joined the opposite group. Kera Sakti is originally an Indonesian organization but was established in East Timor in 1995. PSHT is the biggest and most controversial group; it originated in Indonesia, currently with a number of international branches (Scambary 2006).

Generally, perguruan was reintroduced by East Timorese leaders to the younger generation in Naibonat as a sport and medium to articulate themselves. Yet, after someone has become member of a perguruan, it is difficult to avoid violent activities. Small personal conflicts between members of two perguruan groups can expand to larger riots involving broader perguruans members. The youths are not alone in this because the adults and elders are also an active support base. Given the violent nature ofperguruans, being a member can be very rough and challenging. In the next section, the youths’ motivations to become involved in perguruans are analyzed as part of their navigating process for finding their place in Naibonat.

  • [1] Zeti-zeti or seven-seven (Seven) is a former clandestine group based in Dili that is believed tohave magical powers by injecting themselves with a medicine that makes them invincible and invisible to enemies (Scambary 2006, 15).
  • [2] THS/THM is a martial arts group from Java thought of in Catholic churches as using Jesus Christand Mother Mary as the spiritual patrons. Not only is the focus on moves and physical training,spiritual and moral development also is crucial part. Priests in Naibonat encourage youths to joinTHS/THM to prevent them from joining violent martial arts groups (interview with Priest AN,July 13, 2014).
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