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Oversight Needed to Make Police Accountable
Oversight Needed to Make Police Accountable
Briefing 133 / Asia

Indonesia: Cautious Calm in Ambon

Five months after an outbreak of Christian-Muslim violence in Ambon, the city is outwardly calm and bustling, but many issues remain unresolved.

I. Overview

Months after an outbreak of Christian-Muslim violence in Ambon, the city seems quiet. Local authorities learned some lessons from the clashes on 11 September 2011, sparked by the death of a Muslim motorcycle taxi (ojek) driver in a Christian area. Security forces, for example, have been quicker to arrive on the scene in fights that break out along religious lines. While not all those displaced have returned home, some innovative efforts have been initiated to use reconstruction to foster reconciliation. The government is much more conscious of the need to work with the telephone company to get mass text messages out when trouble occurs. Many issues remain unresolved, however, including physical segregation and mutual distrust between Christian and Muslim communities, inadequate police capacity and lack of transparency in investigations into high-profile incidents. Ambon is hosting a national Quran reading contest (Musabaqah Tilawatil Quran, MTQ) in mid-June, and local authorities see it as an opportunity to showcase the city as a model of harmonious relations and a desirable place to invest. Christian and Muslim leaders alike want the contest to succeed as a matter of local pride, and its starting date has become an informal deadline by which all physical reminders of the September violence are to be removed.

Another eruption of violence in mid-December, this time triggered by the unexplained death of a Christian public transport driver, was evidence of ongoing tensions. The city remains segregated, mutual suspicions run high and violence frequently flares from the most trivial of causes. Basic flaws in policing have not been fixed, and the absence of any serious investigations into high-profile incidents keeps the communities polarised and gives rise to conspiracy theories. When investigations do take place, as happened after the death of the motorcycle driver that triggered the September violence, the results are not made public, leading to allegations of cover-ups. Radical elements are active in Ambon, and their tendentious websites suggest a deliberate effort to fan communal flames.

Everyone interviewed could point to possible flashpoints ahead: elections for Central Maluku district head on 27 March 2012; the anniversary of the defunct independence movement, Republic of the South Moluccas (Republik Maluku Selatan, RMS) on 25 April; and the MTQ from 9 to 19 June. But as Ambon’s bishop said in an interview in January, “I’m not worried about the big days. The danger is on the ordinary days when no one’s paying attention”.

Jakarta/Brussels, 13 February 2012

Op-Ed / Asia

Oversight Needed to Make Police Accountable

Originally published in The Jakarta Globe

Indonesia urgently needs a competent civilian body that can police the police and show that there are tangible consequences to refusal to enforce the law or in some cases, actively violate it.

Those with the authority to hold the police accountable, including the president, seem to lack the political will to do so; civil society groups appalled by police behavior have so far been unsuccessful in pressing for change. If Indonesian democracy is going to move forward, it is up to these groups to make a concerted effort to press the president and House of Representatives to bring a civilian oversight body into being.

The standoff with former chief detective Susno Duadji is a case in point. On April 24, West Java Police, together with a political party militia linked to a former justice minister, prevented prosecutors from taking Susno from his luxury house to prison after he lost all appeals against a bribery conviction. Susno was once head of the West Java command, one of the largest regional police units in Indonesia, and many officers there still owe their careers to him. It was clearly more important for top officers to protect the culture of patronage than to enforce the law.

This is not the first time the police have braved public scorn to protect one of their own. Last year, police blocked the anti-corruption commission from investigating the alleged corruption of Djoko Susilo, an active general who once led the lucrative traffic division. He is currently on trial after public uproar, presidential intervention and the discovery of a number of mansions under the names of his multiple wives.

Polls show high distrust of the police. Kompas newspaper last year found that 72.9 percent of respondents thought police would not touch the rich or powerful. In 2011, a survey by human rights group Imparsial revealed that 74.8 percent of those polled associated the police with corruption.

Why are the Indonesian police so tone-deaf to public opinion instead of working to build public trust?

Crisis Group analyzed this problem last year in a report titled The Deadly Cost of Poor Policing. One answer is that police see the post-1999 reforms in terms of structure, not institutional culture. The public may see reform in terms of increased competency, honesty and humanity. Those inside the institution are more focused on sustaining the new privileges, opportunities and powers that reform has brought about.

The 1999 divorce from the armed forces gave police authority over internal security after decades of playing junior partner to the army. But no thought was given to how this newly empowered force would be supervised. The 2002 police law gave it a direct reporting line to the president rather than placing it under a ministry and created a National Police Commission that ended up largely toothless because it can only provide advice to the president, rather than having powers to investigate, subpoena or censure. Since then,  attempts, including a 2007 draft of  the national security bill, to put police under the Home Affairs or Justice Ministry have hit the wall of entrenched police opposition that parliamentarians seem loathe to challenge.

Immune from external supervision that could hold wrongdoers accountable, the police can continue to distribute the increasing spoils of the reform without disruption. A reasonable livelihood is guaranteed as long as members are loyal to the internal norms. In the absence of credible performance-based reviews and an incentive structure that rewards professionalism and punishes incompetence, officers find that their promotions, educational opportunities and access to additional funds depend on relationships inside the force, especially with direct superiors. Deference trumps competence and initiative every time.

This does not mean that civil society should stop complaining about police shortcomings. Public pressure can make a difference. In October 2012, the police in Lampung failed to stop a deadly eruption of inter-ethnic violence when they should have anticipated trouble. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was slow to respond but in the face of public anger, the Lampung Police chief was forced to apologize and saw his scheduled promotion canceled.  Last month, when the Yogyakarta Police failed to protect murder suspects from being executed by soldiers in their cell, Yudhoyono again faced pressure to act, and the Yogyakarta Police chief was replaced. In both cases, the police denied that public uproar had sparked the decisions but events hinted otherwise.

Accountability must be institutionalized, however. It is insufficient to hope that media coverage and public advocacy will force a president to act or a police force effectively to control its own behavior. Indonesia must revisit the idea of a civilian oversight commission with real clout. This will require a new law, and public pressure could help bring it about. It may be the only way to ensure that reform means professionalism rather than patronage.