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Policing Indonesia's police

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10 October 2012 16:48

Indonesia's fight against corruption has revealed some of the best and worst of the nation over the past week.

The Indonesian police have been the 'worst', through their brazen defiance, yet again, of efforts to combat high-level corruption within their ranks.

When the nation's former top traffic cop Djoko Susilo finally submitted to questioning on Friday by the Anti-Corruption Commission (KPK), a brewing confrontation between the two institutions came to a head. Previously, police had tried to prevent the KPK from removing evidence from traffic police headquarters after a KPK raid in July; police then tried to take over related investigations from the KPK and recalled 20 of their investigators seconded to KPK, saying their secondment has expired; and, finally, the night after Djoko Susilo's questioning, police sent a large contingent of uniformed officers to the KPK to arrest one of the police investigators seconded there. The police's reason: the shooting death of a criminal suspect by a unit under the investigator's command in 2004. 

As national media editorials noted, it was quite a 'coincidence'  that a 2004 case became a pressing priority for the police on the very same day that KPK had questioned Susilo. (If the allegations are valid, why investigate them that night?) Police explained the timing by saying the deceased suspect's family had only very recently lodged a complaint, an explanation branded as 'amusing' in national news magazine Tempo.

The public demonstrated the 'best', through their response in support of the KPK, a reminder of the domestic constituencies within Indonesia pushing for change. The same night that police were attempting to arrest the KPK investigator, prominent public figures formed a 'fence of legs' in front of the commission's office. Eventually the police backed down, reportedly after an order to withdraw from coordinating minister Djoko Suyanto  (who was also in the news last week for his extraordinary comment that Indonesia would not be what it was today without the 1965-66 killings).

Activists organised demonstrations (admittedly small ones) in support of KPK. Some activists also distributed a mock announcement proclaiming President Yudhoyono as a 'missing person' over social media, reflecting frustration that he had not intervened earlier in the dispute. The move to arrest the investigator also invited the obvious criticism of the overall police record on handling violence perpetrated by their officers, a point human rights group Kontras emphasised by distributing a list of unresolved cases. Meanwhile, the national media came down heavily on the side of the KPK.

President Yudhoyono then weighed into the debate on Monday night , in what seemed a win for the KPK. He ordered police to let KPK investigate Djoko Susilo, and to confine themselves to indirectly related cases. He criticised the timing and method of the police move against the KPK investigator. Responding to a campaign by some members of parliament to reduce the KPK's powers, the president also stated that now was not the time to revise the law, and that any changes should not weaken the KPK's authority.

Will Yudhoyono's intervention translate into genuine political support? It's too early to say. Jakarta Post senior editor Endy Bayuni, writing before police went to the KPK on Friday night, has highlighted Yudhoyono's failure to support the KPK thus far despite his anti-corruption electoral platform, noting that the commission has moved against party figures and one of its backers. 

On the other hand, viewed purely in political terms, the president needs something to reboot his popularity and with it that of his Demokrat party ahead of the 2014 elections. The party has slumped in the polls, and is yet to identify an obvious viable successor for Yudhoyono who is now in his second and final term. Reflective of this predicament, a party figure speculated earlier this year that Demokrat would recruit activists as candidates in the next elections to boost its popularity. 

A concerted push against corruption for the remainder of Yudhoyono's term would be a high-risk strategy though. Senior Demokrat members would be squarely in the firing line; such a move would earn Yudhoyono no shortage of enemies once he steps down. The president would also need to tread a fine line between showing stronger support for independent investigations of corruption and meddling in law enforcement. Nevertheless, the polls may tempt Yudhoyono to look for a circuit-breaker.

 Photo by Flickr user johaneko.

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