Daniel Pope contemplates whether a foreigner could get away with murder in Indonesia.
My local hangout in Jakarta in the mid-1990s – a shabby streetside cafe where large bottles of Bintang beer greatly outsold food – was a secure place to be. The owner’s boyfriend was a young military policeman who, sitting around with his band of cropped-haired comrades, deterred any potential troublemakers.
The wobbly metal tables were often occupied by off-duty policemen, mostly detectives, from the station down the road. Everybody carried a weapon; you could see the bulges made by pistols tucked into waistbands. The atmosphere was friendly enough but had a no-nonsense frigidity to it.
My friend Judd, a gregarious American expatriate, had been accepted into this crowd – indeed, given privileged attention – ever since he first strode into the cafe and conspicuously unfolded a copy of a glossy American gun magazine on a table. Judd knew how to make friends here.
Indonesia has never had a gun culture, not counting Kalimantan’s blowguns, and professional weapons were not easy to obtain. However, just about every other kind of potentially deadly weapon – both legal and possibly legal – could easily be purchased at markets, roadside stalls, and at many of the toy or model shops found inside upscale shopping malls.
Judd had amassed quite a collection of these miscellaneous munitions. Scattered around his house, which resembled an armoury, were knuckle-dusters, coshes, knives, axes, swords, darts, crossbows, BB guns, air rifles, you name it. Some had been modified and enhanced.
His favourite item from this personal arsenal was a pistol crossbow. More than once this black metal weapon had been used to punch a hole through the water dispenser’s chunky plastic bottle in order to either amuse or alarm guests, depending on whether or not they were welcome.
Its lethality had been tested on a visitor who, scoffing at Judd’s boasts about the weapon’s power and range, had agreed to stand against the wall at the end of the alley 30 yards away and be shot at.
He was convinced the dart would lose momentum and drop to the ground before reaching him.Thankfully, his courage deserted him and he hopped aside just as Judd pulled the trigger.
The metal dart traversed the length of the alley faster than the eye could see – all the neighbours had come out to watch – and embedded itself firmly in the wall, precisely where the visitor’s chest had been a moment ago. Had Judd aimed to miss and then failed, then he was fortunate that his visitor had shifted. Though had his aim been accurate, it meant he was a homicidal crack shot.
We had often discussed how easy it would be to get away with murder in Jakarta (my interest was academic – I assumed Judd’s was too). After all, only 10 years earlier, President Soeharto implemented a secret policy of having suspected street criminals killed and their bodies left on the streets to serve as a lesson to other hoodlums. Anyone with a tattoo out late at night was considered fair game. That’s the kind of city it was.
Even though Judd didn’t own a proper gun, he had handled plenty of them. This he achieved by way of charm, guile and brazenness, somehow persuading otherwise rational individuals that he, not just a complete stranger but a stranger from a country infamous for gun-wielding lunatics, was a fit person to let play with their weapon, even for just a minute.
Once, when he was arrested during a traffic accident and I had gone to the police station to pay the bribe for his release, I found him in a back office being allowed to handle a policeman’s unholstered sidearm as though it were a fountain pen rather than a deadly weapon, while he and the officer blithely discussed ammunition types.
The best opportunity for him to get his hands on weapons came in July 1996. A political stand-off between the authorities and supporters of then-opposition figurehead Megawati Sukarnoputri ended in bloodshed. The streets of Jakarta resembled Belfast in the 70s, with soldiers on patrol and guarding key locations.
One of those locations was Hotel Tambora in Blok M, South Jakarta. Presumably it warranted such heavy security on account of being frequented by Western males, who came there in droves for the convivial atmosphere, rather than because of its function as Jakarta’s most popular freewheeling prostitution spot.Into the foyer of this busy den of debauchery marched Judd one evening. He gave the armed soldier sitting on a stool inside the door a friendly mock salute, started chatting with him, and in next to no time had taken possession of his semi-automatic rifle. The soldier had simply surrendered it to him to have a fiddle with, just like that.
No weapon was beneath Judd’s interest. The proprietor’s son at my local cafe, a Chinese lad who had been robbed several times in his notorious Tanah Abang neighborhood, had been showing Judd a stun gun that he wanted to sell. This small hand-held device could deliver a bone-jarring 50,000 volts of electricity at the press of a trigger, enough to incapacitate any assailant.
Judd gleefully played with the device while drinking his coffee – looking around in vain for some way of testing the gun’s effect – and relishing the blue spark which crackled across the contacts. Soon he had negotiated a satisfactory price, and was about to shake hands on the deal. However, to my surprise and to the Chinese lad’s disappointment, he suddenly changed his mind, calling the deal off.
As we left the cafe, he explained that as badly as he had wanted to buy the stun gun, he dared not. This was because he’d have been unable to resist using it. And that would have entailed either roaming a dangerous neighbourhood until a mugger had attacked him, thereby giving him the excuse of self-defence, or else simply by zapping the nearest innocent person. Like me, for instance.
Basically, he had come to his senses – an extremely rare occurrence for Judd with regard to weapons. It was also fortunate. Had he been in a less circumspect frame of mind, he would undoubtedly have snapped up the device and thought nothing of rampaging through a busy market, leaving a trail of bodies writhing on the floor.
Not that indiscriminate violence was out of place in Indonesia. The 1996 mayhem lit a fuse of further unrest that led to the eventual fall of President Soeharto in 1998, when soldiers were too preoccupied to let a foreigner play with their weapons. Despite the chaos, the cheap seedy bars remained open for brisk business. Some of those bars are these days being raided by Immigration officers, brutally apprehending foreigners not carrying passports. It’s a good job Judd isn’t still there – he certainly wouldn’t go quietly.