Indonesia fights its reputation for graft

An elite government agency is nabbing offenders in one of the world's most corrupt countries.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Caught: Former central bank governor Burhanuddin Abdullah left court last week after being found guilty of bribing lawmakers.
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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.

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.

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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.

To those in the KPK's cross hairs, as well as the public, it can appear to be all-powerful. Its investigators use sophisticated wiretaps, track suspicious bank accounts and e-mail addresses, and cooperate with overseas counterparts. It makes its own arrests and prosecutes its own cases in a special anticorruption court.

Officials know they are being watched, and that's a powerful deterrent, says Antisari Azhar, the agency's chief commissioner. "They're afraid, and it's not like being scared of ghosts. Now they're starting to follow the rules," he says.

In fact, the agency is fairly small, with 600 employees and an annual budget of $18 million. By contrast, the police force employs around 350,000 people in a country of 235 million.

The KPK's mandate is to investigate major public-sector corruption cases, not the petty graft that infects daily life here and across much of Asia. By ferreting out corrupt officials, the KPK hopes to spur internal reform within institutions such as the police and judiciary, says Mr. Azhar. That should eventually make them partners in Indonesia's anticorruption battle, even if they initially push back against the KPK.

For all its successes, the KPK has failed to arrest "big fish," says Adnan Topan Husodo, deputy chairman of Indonesian Corruption Watch, a watchdog group in Jakarta that has shared data with the agency. "Corruption is always a trickle-down effect. If you catch big fish, it's easier to address problems in the middle and lower ranks," he says.

Several cabinet ministers have been implicated in KPK prosecutions, including the central-bank bribery case, but none have been named as suspects. Nor has the KPK made any headway in investigating the powerful military, which has its own justice system.

Some politicians have proposed transplanting the agency to Indonesia's provinces, where corruption has flourished under post-1998 decentralization. But that may be spreading it too thin, says Staffan Synnerstrom, an expert on governance at the World Bank in Jakarta.

Alarmed by the KPK's zeal, some state agencies have become reluctant to spend budgeted funds for fear of irregularities in procurement contracts, says Mr. O'Rourke. That has braked the government's economic stimulus efforts.

Taking the grease out of Indonesia's creaky bureaucracy can have other pitfalls, too. Earlier this year, after a surprise inspection, scores of customs officers at Jakarta's port were transferred and new management installed. Containers sat in warehouses for months, unable to move as cargo brokers tried to figure out whom to pay off. Eventually, the new managers became embroiled in a web of corruption that triggered another high-profile raid.

Eradicating corruption "takes time," says Azhar. "I might not be around to see the results. We're talking 5, 10, 15 years. The most important thing is that it must be continuous. We can't stop. If we do, it's difficult to restart."

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