Sex, Scandal, and Murder: Indonesia's Witchcraft Industry Rides Out a Tough Year

Can the country's 'dukun' bounce back from all this negative publicity?

15 September 2017, 5:14am

A dukun practices magic during the Dutch colonial years. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The dark arts took an even darker turn this week. Police in Central Java recently discovered the lifeless body of a local paranormal healer in a rubber plantation in Batang district. The 35-year-old was beaten, stabbed, and suffocated with a plastic bag after he allegedly failed to heal a local woman who had paid him in excess of Rp 150 million ($11,300 USD) to rid her of an unspecified disease.

That brutal murder came on the heels of a different criminal case, this time the arrest of a self-proclaimed paranormal healer who was paid millions of rupiah to heal her patient's impotence—with little effect. When the magic woman's spells failed to cure her patients' sexual dysfunction, they reported her to the police. The dukun, or shaman, now faces up to four years in prison for defrauding her customers with false claims.

These kinds of stories are remarkably common in Indonesia. Dukun have been jailed for murder, fraud, and sexual assault in countless other cases. Other times, the dukun themselves are the victims of revenge attacks by scorned customers or mobs of frightened individuals who believe they are behind a person or entire community's string of bad luck. Sometimes the phrase "witch hunt" takes on a very literal meaning in Indonesia.

So why do so many Indonesians continue to turn to these mystical healers in times of need? Sociologist Nia Elvina believes it's because people still struggle to cope with the pressures of living in country that modernized so rapidly. It's not as easy as it used to be to plan your future, she said, and despite the prevalence of smartphones, internet hoaxes, and social media scandals, a lot the country still believes that there are spiritual things out there that are beyond (most of) our control.

"Basically modern life is so full of uncertainty that people need to believe in something to ease their anxiety," Nia told VICE. "That's why they believe in dukun and spiritual gurus."

And this belief isn't just a symptom of rural life. Generals, businessmen, even presidents have turned to dukun in times of need, asking for their advice and, at times, their supernatural powers. Gen. Suharto routinely consulted with dukun and witchdoctors during his 32 years in power.

A powerful—or lucky—dukun can rise to a level of popularity where they can whisper in the ear of power, even when they aren't in Indonesia. When Indonesian dignitaries made an official visit to Myanmar in 2007, they made sure to book a session with Swe Swe Win, a blind, disabled psychic who was revered for her scarily accurate ability to see into the future or guess the serial numbers on money. The psychic's abilities were so revered in her home country that she famously convinced the then-ruling junta to move the capital to a new city.

But here in Indonesia, belief this strong can be dangerous. A survey by the Pew Research Center in 2012 found that 69 percent of Indonesian Muslims believed in witchcraft. The Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI) has tried to combat the country's love of black magic by issuing a fatwa against witchcraft—effectively declaring the practice haram. The House of Representatives (DPR) is even trying to outlaw dukun santet, or dark sorcerers, entirely.

So how do dukun avoid prosecution in a country that wants them around, but is also eager to send them off to prison of their spells don't work? We're not going to even touch the idea of whether any of this is real. The fact is that, for a lot of Indonesians, dukun perform a real and necessary duty. We've written about the spirit food industry, police learning magical martial arts to combat ISIS, and, hell, we've even tried to curse the leader of ISIS ourselves.

Indonesia, and really all of East and Southeast Asia, is full of sorcerers. But no matter which side of the argument you're on, you can't ignore the fact that Indonesia has a fake dukun problem. Some dukun end up as TV stars, while others keep a low profile. Some are said to deliver real results, while others offer nothing but empty promises.

Dewi Sundari, a mystic, knows the dangers of over-promising all too well. Dukun who tell their customers they can cure any disease completely are a plague on the industry. Dewi told VICE that she would never promise to cure anyone of their illness. She only tells them she'll try her best. Most of her clients only want her help in matters of love, life, and career anyway. But even then, there are some things she won't even try to fix.

"It's almost impossible to restore someone's virginity, for example, so that's why I would never offer such a service to my clients," Dewi told VICE.

To avoid lawsuits, Dewi makes her clients sign a written contract before she starts a session.

"The contract basically states that if I don't succeed in a certain period of time, I will return the fee," she told VICE. "I offer such a contract when the client wants me to do everything for them. So if a mystic promises a 100 percent guarantee of success, and later can't deliver, then the client can sue them. But I always try to explain to them the probability rates and the conditions."

For Aryo Hanindyojati, it's a lot easier to see whether his powers work. Aryo is a pawang hujan, or rain shaman, a man who can make it rain—or, more often, not. He told me he doesn't use supernatural powers, so he technically isn't a dukun at all. Instead, he only uses the power of his mind, and he has failed plenty of times.

But Aryo, who is often paid millions of rupiah for his services, has never been asked to return the money or been sued by an angry concert promoter when their festival was drenched in a downpour. Well, except for that one time when heavy rains lost his client a lot of money. Then he had a problem. It taught him a real lesson: always talk about the terms of the contract first.

"We always negotiate first," he said. "At first we negotiate the terms and conditions. For example, if the stage fell down due to heavy rain, I wouldn't ask for my fee. They could just pay me with whatever they want, transport money, meal money, no problem. But usually that happens when I don't have time for preparation. I would be less likely to take the job if I don't have enough time to prepare."

No one ever said magic was easy.

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