Editorial: Violent, Corrupt & Politicized, Is There Any Hope for Indonesian Police?

Editorial Omong-Omong

6 min read

Every Indonesia’s president has tried and failed to clean and reform the police after the force was separated from the Indonesian Armed Forces in 2000. Instead, the country’s leaders pull them back into politics and use them as a tool to win elections, shut down political rivals and silence critics.

Such failed attempts partly explain why Indonesia’s progress towards a more mature democracy has been stalled. Without clean and impartial police, there will be no proper law enforcement, and without law enforcement and respect for the rule of the game, there is no democracy because everybody can do and will do whatever they want.

The current criticism against President Joko Widodo administration’s trending towards authoritarianism places police at the center of the problems. With or without Jokowi’s order they are the one who have arrested all critics – from hunting down and arresting street artists painting murals criticizing Jokowi in many places across the Indonesia to violently shutting down rallies, taking life of students – and ignoring people’s reports, like reports of rapes and sexual harassment cases, such as those in Luwu, South Sulawesi, to more covert operation like amputating the power of Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK).

Almost every government’s action accused of silencing critics or undermining democracy were carried out by the police. There is no other way for Indonesia to move forward but to quickly reform the police, and in all honesty, looking at how deep and the difficult the problems are, this is much easier said than done. The fact that series of Indonesia’s presidents have tried and failed to reform the police, or that some even have opted to avoid doing it show that this is the single biggest challenge Indonesia’s democracy is facing and must overcome.

Police Violence

Violence within Indonesian police is as normal as street police taking bribe from drivers in a broad daylight in any city across the country. From beating up street criminals they manage to catch to making their detainees a punching bag to torturing and bullying their own subordinates, culture of violence is something the police can’t live without.

That’s why it is not really a surprise to watch a police precinct chief in Nunukan, West Kalimantan, beating up his subordinates for not showing up in preparing a zoom meeting with the police headquarters in Jakarta. Adj. Sr. Commissioner Syaiful Anwar, the precinct chief, is seen in a video to angrily hit and kick his subordinate after Syaiful blamed this officer’s absence for his zoom failure during the conference.

And if the police officers could do such a furious and out-of-control violence against their own officers, they could do anything to anybody outside their corp.

Just two weeks ago, a police officer in Tangerang, Banten, beat and strangled a college student who together with his friends staged a demonstration in front of Tangerang regent’s office, protesting against the regent’s policies.

The video went viral in social media, inviting comments from both National Police Chief Gen. Listyo Sigit Prabowo and President Joko Widodo. Jokowi directly asked Listyo to fix his squad while in return Listyo threatened to punish his subordinates if they repeat such violence.

However, the video of Syaiful’s beating his subordinates shows that the police violence in Indonesia is here to stay.

In February, for instance, at least two people in different locations died at the hand of police officers without police leaders taking any action against the perpetrators.

Several months later, a fruit seller in Tanah Datar, West Sumatra, was tortured by local police officers after he was accused of stealing a motorcycle. However, the police provided no evidence, and the protests from the seller’s wife, who revealed the case to the public, was ignored

In September 2019 in Kendari, Southeast Sulawesi, three police killed two college students after they shot into a crowd of student demonstrators, who were rallying against local and central government.

Despite the fatal incident, the three officers only received disciplinary sanctioned without clear confirmation if they will be brought to court and charged with murder.

These are just examples of long list of police violence. According to a record from KontraS (Commission for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence), in the last one year police officers have involved in 814 violent conducts, with activists alleging that the police leadership seemed to ignore and even justify such series of violent conducts.

However, pointing to violent conduct is only scratching the surface of myriad of problems inside the country’s police force.

The Most Corrupt Institution

Year after year various surveys have put police – together with the court and prosecutor’s office – as the most corrupt state institution in Indonesia. A 2017 survey by the Indonesian Survey Institute (LSI), for instance, put the police as the country’s most corrupt office, with more than a third of people asked said they were asked by officers to pay when they made a police report.

In a court trial last year, tycoon Djoko Tjandra, a convict who stole trillions rupiah of state budget, admitted to have bribed Insp. Gen. Napoleon Bonaparte and Brig. Gen. Prasetijo Utomo to strip his name from national and international criminal wanted list.

While various surveys have put police as the country’s most corrupt institution it has been rare that high-ranking police officers were brought to court because of corruption. Before these two generals, only two other generals were brought to court despite confirmation from the Indonesian Financial Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre or PPATK that dozens of police generals possessed hundreds of billions, or even trillions of rupiah in their personal accounts.

Despite PPATK’s report, there has been zero investigation against the police generals mentioned in the report because who is going to investigate them? The police themselves? All detectives are subordinates or former subordinates of these generals. Even investigators of the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) are police detectives deployed to the antigraft body. To make things impossible for the KPK, its chief is a three-star police general, former subordinates of the generals accused of having “fat” bank accounts.

There have been countless of reports of police taking bribe from low-ranking officials on the streets to generals at the headquarters in Jakarta. But such reports are so prevalent that it seems normal to hear such a crime.

The Indonesian police have been run with almost zero check and balance. All Indonesian presidents, as the police’s direct boss, or actually the only boss, have too much stake and political interests to change the status quo, while lawmakers have been too corrupt and too afraid to confront the police.

Playing Politics

When then President Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid failed in 2001 to remove Gen. Surojo Bimantoro from his position as police chief, something bigger than the event itself was created. It created a leviathan: an uncontrolled force that could undermine the fruits of reformation just three years prior Indonesia had obtained.

It was a turning point that boosted the confidence of generals and elites in the squad. If the president could not do anything to put them under control, then nobody could not. They believed they were invincible.

The police as we know it now, however, blossomed under President Megawati Soekarnoputri, who fell in love with the police and really believed and depended on them. The rise of Gen. Da’i Bachtiar, one of the smartest generals the Indonesian police force ever produced to become the police chief, and the police’s perceived success in handling terror organizations and series of bombings cemented the unshakable position of police, while also further drifting away to play politics. The media reports of how the Banyumas police chief in Central Java instructed his officers to make sure the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) win the 2004 legislative elections in their area were just a small example of police’s partiality in elections.

Da’i’s influence on the police is monumental, and almost all police generals now, including current Home Minister and former police chief Gen. Tito Karnavian, can be traced back to him. Da’i is now a member of Megawati’s PDI-P.

Megawati’s successor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, managed to peacefully replace Da’i with his own choice, Gen. Sutanto. For a brief moment, there was a hope that he with SBY’s full support could reform the police. However, Sutanto only lasted for three years and could not do much. He was replaced  by Gen. Bambang Hendarso Danuri. It was in this time that SBY wasted opportunity, positive energy and hope of reform he brought to the police. Police’s active role in the prosecution of Antasari Azhar, then KPK chief, meant that police were pulled back to become a tool of political interests.

This trend of serving political interests of the president and those in political power continues under Jokowi. In an operation to tear down the KPK, for instance, the Jokowi administration actually only copies the blueprint laid out by SBY when he allowed prosecution against Antasari Azhar to proceed.

Again, Megawati and her PDI-P have maintained close relations with the police. In fact, when Jokowi won his first term in 2014, PDI-P’s priority was to keep the police chief for themselves, and even allowed the attorney general post to be handed to Nasdem.

Now, with national police chief,  home minister (a former national police chief) — a crucial post for any elections because of its possession of voter data — KPK chief (who is a retired three-star police general) all under their control, and as Indonesian scholar and activist Smita Notosusanto reminded that the ever powerful State Intelligence Agency (BIN) chief also a police general who is close to Megawati, PDI-P has tied every loose end for a big victory in 2024 elections.

So, if the script is already written for the status quo to maintain their power in 2024, what is the chance of police reform? It’s actually zero to very slim. However, direct presidential election is more of a figure and personality than political party. So, with PDI-P looks to sideline Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo, PDI-P has a weak candidate if they persist on nominating Puan Maharani, Megawati’s daughter but has low popularity among voters.

So, while PDI-P seems set to win the legislative elections landslide, the presidential post is still very much up for grab, and anybody who has no past attachment to police can be elected.

Indonesia deserves a better president and police force, and hopefully the next president is clean and tough enough to preside a total police reform. For now, we can only pray.

Read more: No Use of Filing Police Report? How Indonesian Police Keep Siding with Sexual Predators


Editorial Omong-Omong

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