Indonesia fights its reputation for graft
An elite government agency is nabbing offenders in one of the world's most corrupt countries.
Once a byword for corruption, Indonesia has begun to fight back against the well-connected bribers, brokers, and embezzlers who have for decades fed off its public sector.Skip to next paragraph
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Almost every day brings news of another arrest or trial hearing on corruption charges, and the faces of the accused are familiar: lawmakers, judges, police, and other government officials. Once ensnared, these high-fliers try to wriggle off the hook, as was so often the case during past anticorruption drives. But these days they usually find their efforts are in vain.
Last Wednesday, a court convicted former central bank governor Burhanuddin Abdullah of bribing lawmakers in 2003 to pass legislation. Several other bank officials and lawmakers are either on trial or have been named as suspects in the high-profile case.
At the forefront of Indonesia's battle with public-sector graft is the elite Corruption Eradication Commission, known as the KPK, which reports directly to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. After quietly building up its manpower and expertise, with help from the United States and other foreign donors, the KPK has gone on the warpath this year, taking on powerful institutions long seen as untouchable.
Its efforts have lifted Indonesia's reputation in international surveys. Transparency International, a watchdog group that compiles a widely watched corruption index, gave Indonesia a score of 2.6 out of 10 for 2008, up from 1.9 in 2003, and ranked it 126th out of 180 countries surveyed.
This turnaround underpins an often turbulent overhaul of governance in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, since the ouster in 1998 of US-backed President Suharto. Mr. Yudhoyono took office in 2004 on an antigraft platform.
His reelection campaign next year is certain to stress his record on corruption, even though the economy will probably be the No. 1 issue, says Kevin O'Rourke, a political analyst in Jakarta. "Voters in polls clearly rate the Yudhoyono administration as clean and relatively effective with regards to corruption, and that's pretty much down to the KPK," he says.
The KPK, set up in 2003, took its time to make its mark with a handful of high-profile busts. Last year, its first intake of commissioners was replaced by a new board that was criticized by anticorruption advocates as less than ideal. Far from backpedaling, though, the agency has stepped up its rate of arrests and convictions. Lawmakers have been caught red-handed with bribe money. A senior prosecutor was jailed for accepting payoffs to drop investigations.