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Indonesia fights its reputation for graft

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

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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.

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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."