Indonesians Rally to Curb Corruption; and It's Only the Beginning

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

JAKARTA - Thousands of protestors gathered outside the presidential residence here Wednesday to mark International Anti-Corruption Day by rallying against a series of recent scandals that prove graft is still alive and well in Indonesia.

Some demonstrators waved flags with the name of their organization while others held cardboard signs that read, "Let the People Judge," "Crush the Corruptors," and "Save our Country from Corruption."

The predictions leading up to the demonstrations were ominous, with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono claiming they were an attempt to attack him, much like the protests in 1998 that led to the ouster of long-running dictator Suharto.

But despite a bit of shoving and the mock immolation of a dummy representing Vice President Boediono, a key figure in the current corruption debacle, the spirit at the rally was almost celebratory.

"Corruption isn't something that is weird here," said Annye, a 24-year-old employee at Uplink, a non-profit organization working in 13 cities to defend the rights of Indonesia's urban poor.
Most of the time people just accept what they see as a part of standard operating procedures, she said. But a series of recent events have woken people up to the need to do something.

First came the arrests of two members of the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), an independent agency that since 2003 has successfully prosecuted around 150 high-level politicians and law enforcement officials for bribery and other forms of graft.

Supporters of the KPK, which has the power to wiretap, arrest, and prosecute anyone it suspects of corruption, believe the arrests were an attempt by the police and attorney general's office to stymie the commission.

In response to the fiasco, President Yudhoyono, better known as SBY, appointed a team of lawyers and reform activists to look into the issue. The team responded by calling on SBY to break up the "judicial mafia" that has been rooted in Indonesia's system for decades and has undermined the rule of law through brokers who receive bribes in exchange for settling legal cases.

Then, as SBY waffled on taking decisive action, civil society groups renewed their calls for an investigation into the bailout of Bank Century, a bank that Indonesia's much-respected finance minister said could not have been allowed to fail.

According to watchdog groups, however, the funds from the bailout found their way into the pockets of businessmen with whom the minister was attempting to curry favor as well as recently re-elected SBY's campaign coffers.

Political analysts say the protests could significantly undermine the social and political stability that SBY struggled to rebuild during his first five years in power, particularly as a larger and more diverse array of organizations seem to be jumping on the anti-corruption bandwagon. "Everybody wants to get involved," said Annye, who along with more than 50 members of Uplink wore a surgical mask painted with the word jijik, disgusting.

"That one word represents everything," she said, noting that the scandals have exposed corrupt politicians and should force them to admit to and correct their wrongs.

But getting those in power to change their ways is easier said than done, according to Max Lawalata, a member of Gerindra, an opposition political party started by Suharto's son-in-law. Lawalata believes the only way to rid the nation of corruption is through reformation or revolution. The normal legal channels are stocked with bureaucrats who are used to operating in this corrupt system, he said.

Shortly before the protests began Wednesday a group called ARUS, the People's Alliance for SBY, held a rally in support of the president at a major traffic roundabout in central Jakarta. But Lawalata said it was purely a political maneuver.

When SBY realized he couldn't stop the protests, he tried to change the atmosphere by calling them celebrations, the politician said. "But this is not a celebration, there are messages that people are sending."

One of those messages advocates a Clean Revolution aimed at wiping out corruption in a nation famed for its lack of transparency. The 1998 protests that drove Suharto from power were the culmination of gross economic disparity and dissatisfaction with a ruler who kept limiting peoples' freedoms in an attempt to tighten his grip on power.

"That experience taught us not to wait for change," said Lawalata, explaining that it took 20 years before people were willing to stand up against Suharto. "We don't want to wait another 20 years ... it's what we call democracy."

In addition to anti-corruption groups, a large number of protestors were university students and human rights activists fighting for the rights of the poor and marginalized who they say are the first to suffer from corruption.

"Indonesia has many social problems, people don't yet have enough to eat and there is lots of inequality," said Kurniawan, an activist who was dressed in dark clothing and had painted his hands and face black to illustrate what he called, the "dark spirit of the Indonesian people."

The event also drew out women, children, grandmothers and leaders of the 1998 riots. Most were adamant that such a strong showing would put pressure on the government to makes some changes. But they also realized that big change would need more drastic measures.

"This is only the beginning," said Lawalata. Which will certainly not make SBY happy.