Confessions of a Former High School Gangster

'Tawuran' or after-school mass brawls between rival schools is a violent tradition that have terrorized Jakarta for decades.
February 26, 2018, 9:15am
Illustration by Adam Noor Iman

Many men may find Dilan 1990, an Indonesian film about teenage love that hit theaters earlier this month, cheesy and over-the-top romantic. But I have a feeling that men like me, who spent their youth getting into "tawuran" can probably relate to the movie's main character, Dilan, and his motor gang more than anyone.

When I watched the film, especially as Dilan’s crew was attacked by a rival school’s motor gang, I found myself experiencing major flashbacks of my early high school days. Between 2007 and 2009, South Jakarta was my battleground. One day, a group of students from Melawai High School—my high school's arch enemy—was approaching from the intersection of Blok M. They proceeded to throw rocks and bottles at my school, Mahakam High School. Us freshmen were told to go inside for safety, while the older kids fought back. Chaos broke out in front of Losari Hotel until my seniors managed to get them to retreat all the way to the Mahakam intersection.


That day, after school, I was called by the seniors to come to a nearby park. I was about to be prepped for the school informal organization—a gang, if you will. Since then, tawuran became my after-school activity. Nobody could tell me why we had to do it. It's just tradition. Participating in tawuran was the identity of a high schooler in Jakarta and its surrounding areas.

For me, it all started in middle school. I went to a reputable middle school in South Jakarta, the one on Bumi Street. I was in the 9th grade then. My friends and I threw punches against the students from Melawai Middle School. The fight went pretty "normally"—what came next was worse. I separated myself from the group and walked from the school to Visi, a learning center. In an alley near Sambas Park, I was greeted by some kids from a school I didn’t recognize.

I tried to be tactical. When they interrogated me, I said that I was from Melawai Middle School. It worked at first, until one of them saw what kind of shoes I was wearing.

“Melawai kids don't wear Puma," he said. "They all wear Warrior."

That day, I arrived at the learning center full of bruises. I could’ve gone straight home, but taking shelter at the learning center was much safer than taking the public mini bus or going through small alleys on the way home.

What happened to me that day became the reason I wanted to go to Mahakam High School, which had a longstanding rivalry with nearby Bulungan High School. People said Bulungan was a better school overall, but my older brother said the seniority was terrible there. There, even kids from different grades went against one another sometimes.


I felt like being in an egalitarian environment was better than being in a hierarchical one. In Mahakam, the seniors welcomed the new kids just fine, though of course, there was hazing involved shortly after the beginning of the new school year.

“Instead of doing nothing here, why don’t you walk around?" said one of my seniors one day. "Start some riot in Limau."

Limau was the name of the street where one of our rival schools stood. Among our other rivals (Melawai High School, Panglima Polim High School, and Bulungan High School), Limau was the least of our concern. I was ambushed by some students from Limau once as I was walking to Vila Merah learning center, but the very next day, we attacked them back and tied the score.

Three friends and I took his challenge. We put on our jackets and hopped on our motorcycles. We provoked the Limau boys in the most boring way possible. We hung out at a street stall near their school, which attracted their attention, and eventually started a riot there and then.

No matter how this provocation turned out, it was going to lead to a bigger brawl anyway. If we won, then their school would come to attack us. Otherwise, we could head back to the park, tell the seniors what happened, and go back with the seniors for revenge.

As somebody who grew up accustomed to tawuran, I learned to come up with any excuse with to start one, especially with Bulungan High School. There were many ways to tick them off, like hanging out at Warsam, which was part of their territory.


Alternatively, I could bring it online. In 2005, we were just getting hooked with the internet. Many kids, myself included, spent countless of hours at local internet cafes or "warnet". At the time, it was cool to create a site for your school. It was initially intended to a forum for the alumni. But since the sites were public, students from rival schools used the platform to leave insults to one another. Of course, all this led back to more tawuran.

One time, my friends and I were ambushed by students from Panglima Polim High School. We were eating at Gultik, a strip in Blok M full of street stalls, when they attacked us with little warning. One of them smashed a glass bottle on my friend's head.

We ran as far as we could. We ran towards Aquarius, turned into an alley, and went to a cart owned by a man we knew, where we store our weapons: celurit or traditional machetes, samurai blades, and my favorite: a motor gear wrapped in karate belt.

Students in a brawl near the Golkar Party office in Jakarta, in the early 2000s. Photo by Dadang Tri/Reuters

Out of all the tawuran I’ve participated in, the most memorable one happened in my senior year. It didn’t happen on a Friday, the assigned day for tawuran. Friends and I were hanging out at Warsam and were spotted by Bulungan kids. Within minutes, a tawuran broke out.

The problem was there were only five of us, the rest were at a nearby park. There were ten of them. We stepped out of the stall and went for it anyway. My friends tried their best, but eventually they retreated and ran towards safety at a nearby KFC. Meanwhile, I continued attacking without looking back—until I realized my weapon wasn’t scaring them anymore. I turned around, and no one else was there.


Struggling, I ran in the direction I presumed my friends ran towards. I tripped and fell. Three of my opponents caught up to me. Just as they were about to beat me up, my friends who had left me earlier came to the rescue. That's the biggest lesson in tawuran: you can’t win without proper preparation. Those Bulungan kids beat us fair and square.

In the end, Jakarta’s police, schools, and government could no longer tolerate this form of high school violence that often resulted in death. However, after I graduated high school, tawuran got worse. Between 2011 and 2012, around a hundred students died meaninglessly during a tawuran.

Things got better in 2014, Jakarta’s Education Agency was firmly ordered by then-governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama to disband high school gangs in the area. It was the end of fifteen most infamous groups such as Boedoet, Texas 46 and Psycho 60.

That marked the end of tawuran culture. I mean, kids still fight, and occasionally someone get stabbed, but it’s nowhere as bad as it was seven years ago.

Back then, tawuran was our way of having fun, to kill time. To get the adrenaline going and to improve solidarity between students from the same school. It wasn't something to avoid. But I admit, things could easily get out of hand. I witnessed a friend getting attacked so bad, one of his ear almost cut off completely. My deskmate dropped out of school because his tawuran addiction was impossible to cure.

Maybe others will disagree. But from the bottom of my heart, I think it's possible to do tawuran right—as long as we do it without the intention of killing or torturing others, like how it often was, after I graduated.