Murky Indonesian cults in the spotlight after sex, drug and murder scandals

By Kiki Siregar

Desperate and despondent after losing an Indonesian local election, Abdul Junaidi was the perfect prey for a charismatic cult leader promising great wealth and political success. 

Lured in with assurances that he would see his money multiply, the sugar cane farmer handed over Rp 200 million ($15,000) to the sect. 

But his cash disappeared, his political career stalled, and the leader of the group was arrested, accused of murdering one of Junaidi’s friends for threatening to unmask him. 

“His promise was very tempting — that if I ran at elections, then I would win,” the 50-year-old sugar cane farmer told AFP. 

The case is the latest example of a shadowy sect playing on the widespread belief of the supernatural in Indonesia to allegedly swindle people.

Cult-like groups have long existed across the vast Indonesian archipelago, which is home to hundreds of different ethnic groups and where belief in local spirits and black magic are often fused with the dominant religion of Islam.

Belief in the supernatural is common across Asia. From China to Thailand, politicians often turn to soothsayers for advice.

But in recent times in Indonesia, the deep-rooted belief in the occult has taken a dark turn with several cases of sham cult leaders facing allegations ranging from murder to fraud and sexual assault.

The most high-profile has been the one that embroiled Junaidi, who was among thousands persuaded to join a cult led by Taat Pribadi, who gave himself the Indonesian royal title “Dimas Kanjeng”.

From former lawmakers to army generals and police officers, Pribadi managed to attract a huge and influential following to his cult in Probolinggo on Indonesia’s main island of Java, with members living in his palatial residence and nearby buildings.

He persuaded people to join the group with claims that he could bring them success — in Junaidi’s case by helping him win an election to head a small district on Java — and multiply money they gave him in an elaborate, supernatural ritual.

– Magic money-making –

The case attracted huge attention when videos went viral of Pribadi dressed in flowing white robes sitting on a chair and performing the ritual that ended with him producing fistfuls of money and throwing it onto the floor.

His cult, which had existed for about 15 years, eventually fell apart when Pribadi was arrested in September for allegedly ordering the murder of two of his followers who had attempted to unmask him as a fraud.

He is scheduled to stand trial over the murders and police are also investigating fraud allegations against him.

“I never got my original money back, and certainly did not see it multiply,” Junaidi said.

The killing of his friend finally pushed him to leave the cult after four years as a member, he added. 

Pribadi’s case followed that of another alleged sham cult leader, Gatot Brajamusti, who attracted followers — including high-profile female entertainers — by styling himself as an Islamic spiritual guru. 

But he was arrested in August for allegedly sexually harassing his female followers and drug possession. Police say that he has admitted to engaging in sex parties and using crystal methamphetamine.

At times the belief in the occult in Indonesia has reached the highest levels of government. 

In 2014, then president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono recounted how he and his wife were attacked by mysterious black clouds while at home in an episode of black magic he described as like a “horror movie”.

Indonesian law even bans black magic, with violators facing up to three months in jail or a fine of Rp 450,000, and the government is seeking to strengthen legislation against the practice.

Still, it will be hard to stop people turning to the occult in Indonesia. While most will not join cults, paying visits to spiritual gurus and faith healers is likely to remain popular.

Faith healer Ki Raksa Manggala, who operates from a dark basement in Jakarta and treats people for complaints ranging from headaches to problems in their love life, insists supernatural powers can be a force for good but concedes there are plenty of frauds in the business.

“As a patient you have to be smart, don’t be fooled by faith healers who want to trick you,” he said.

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