Can the KPK and the Indonesian Public Finally Root Out State-Sanctioned Corruption? Updates from Novanto’s Corruption Scandal

Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), established in 2003, has had many successes, including prosecutions of several former Ministers, the former Governor of Indonesia’s Central Bank, and a former Chief of Police. As of the end of last year, the KPK had tried and convicted a total of 119 members of parliament and 17 governors, among others. Now, the KPK is on the verge of catching one of its biggest fish yet: Setya Novanto, former Speaker of Indonesia’s House of Representatives Speaker. Novanto was finally detained, indicted, and brought to trial at the end of last year for his alleged embezzlement of 2.3 trillion rupiah (approximately US$170 million) from a 5.9 trillion rupiah national electronic identity card (e-ID) project. Novanto allegedly played a central role in allowing the mark up e-ID procurement costs in order to steal millions and redistribute them to the pockets of around 100 public officials, including approximately $7.4 million for himself. Novanto had been implicated in many previous scandals, but had managed to avoid punishment. This time, prosecutors are seeking a jail term of at least 16 years, plus a repayment of $7.4 million he is suspected of plundering. Novanto denied all the allegations and blamed the Interior Ministry, but the evidence, gathered and submitted by the KPK, is against him. With the final judgment to be made soon, the KPK is on the verge of winning one of the biggest corruption cases against a senior politician.

If the KPK wins this case, it would be an important victory, demonstrating the KPK’s power, as an independent anticorruption agency, to hold accountable even the most powerful politicians, and inspiring the Indonesian public to hold politicians to higher ethical standards. At the same time, though, a victory in this case won’t mean that the war against endemic corruption of has been won: the legislature and other powerful state actors will continue to fight back, especially by weakening the power of the KPK. Civil society, and the public at large, must continue to be vigilant to provide the backing the KPK needs to retain its power and independence.

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Culture Matters: How Indonesia Should Account Culture to Eradicate Corruption

Corruption in Indonesia is endemic, permeating all levels of society. As I argued in my last post, Indonesia’s culture of corruption is a result of the corruption of culture: Far too many people see corruption as unsolvable and even “normal,” even though they clearly realize its wrongfulness.

To date, Indonesia’s independent anticorruption agency, the KPK, has pursued a main strategy of prosecuting the “big fish”—the high-ranking officials (including numerous parliament members and powerful politicians) whose corrupt behavior has caused massive damage to the country. Laudable though the KPK’s bold enforcement efforts have been, eradicating corruption requires more than prosecutions. Rather, the KPK needs to complement its aggressive law enforcement with preventive measures designed to change Indonesia’s “culture of corruption” to a “culture of anticorruption.” There are several strategies the KPK could pursue to foster such cultural change:

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A Tale of Two Regions: Anticorruption Trends in Southeast Asia and Latin America

OK, “best of times” and “worst of times” would be a gross exaggeration. But still, when I consider recent developments in the fight against corruption in Latin American and Southeast Asia, it seems that these two regions are moving in quite different directions. And the directions are a bit surprising, at least to me.

If you’d asked me two years ago (say, in the summer of 2014) which of these two regions provoked more optimism, I would have said Southeast Asia. After all, Southeast Asia was home to two jurisdictions with “model” anticorruption agencies (ACAs)—Singapore and Hong Kong—and other countries in the regions, including Malaysia and especially Indonesia, had established their own ACAs, which had developed good reputations for independence and effectiveness. Thailand and the Philippines were more of a mixed bag, with revelations of severe high-level corruption scandals (the rice pledging fiasco in Thailand and the pork barrel scam in the Philippines), but there were signs of progress in both of those countries too. More controversially, in Thailand the 2014 military coup was welcomed by many in the anticorruption community, who thought that the military would clean up the systemic corruption associated with the populist administrations of Thaksin Shinawatra and his successor (and sister) Yingluck Shinawatra—and then turn power back over to the civilian government, as the military had done in the past. And in the Philippines, public outrage at the brazenness of the pork barrel scam, stoked by social media, and public support for the Philippines’ increasingly aggressive ACA (the Office of the Ombudsman), was cause for hope that public opinion was finally turning more decisively against the pervasive mix of patronage and corruption that had long afflicted Philippine democracy. True, the region was still home to some of the countries were corruption remained pervasive and signs of progress were scant (such as Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar), but overall, the region-wide story seemed fairly positive—especially compared to Latin America where, aside from the usual bright spots (Chile, Uruguay, and to a somewhat lesser extent Costa Rica), there seemed to be precious little for anticorruption advocates to celebrate.

But now, in the summer of 2016, things look quite a bit different. In Southeast Asia, the optimism I felt two years ago has turned to worry bordering on despair, while in Latin America, things are actually starting to look up, at least in some countries. I don’t want to over-generalize: Every country’s situation is unique, and too complicated to reduce to a simple better/worse assessment. I’m also well aware that “regional trends” are often artificial constructs with limited usefulness for serious analysis. But still, I thought it might be worthwhile to step back and compare these two regions, and explain why I’m so depressed about Southeast Asia and so cautiously optimistic about Latin America at the moment.

I’ll start with the sources of my Southeast Asian pessimism, highlighting the jurisdictions that have me most worried: Continue reading

The Culture of Corruption and the Corruption of Culture in Indonesia

With over 300 ethnic groups scattered across more than 17,000 of its islands, Indonesia is justly proud of its extremely diverse cultural heritage. But Indonesia is certainly not proud of a different aspect of its culture: a ”culture of corruption” so pervasive that it is not merely associated with grand corruption in the central government, but also infects the daily lives of the citizens through petty corruption, as well as daily harassment by local officials and governmental departments.

When trying to diagnose the root cause of such pervasive corruption, a common knee-jerk response is to focus on the legal system and law enforcement institutions. Yet Indonesia seems to do fairly well on these dimensions: A well-regarded independent anticorruption agency, the KPK, in cooperation with the police and prosecution spearheads enforcement of a comprehensive Anticorruption Law that both considers domestic needs and incorporates principles enshrined in international materials such as the United Nations Convention Against Corruption. Still, corruption persists. Why?

To answer this question, one must look at not only the legal system, but also the society—the people whose conduct the laws are supposed to regulate. Such observation reveals that the “culture of corruption”— society’s permissive, tolerant, and even accepting attitude toward corruption – is perhaps the main culprit responsible for Indonesia’s incurable corruption.

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TNI’s Gold Mine: Corruption and Military-Owned Businesses in Indonesia

The Grasberg Mine, located close to the highest mountain in West Papua, Indonesia, is the world’s largest gold mine and third-largest copper mine. The mine, owned by the corporation Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold, has been the site of strings of grave human rights abuses, linked to Indonesia’s own National Armed Forces (Tentara National Indonesia/TNI). TNI’s presence in the territory is ostensibly to protect the mine, and Freeport’s Indonesian subsidiary acknowledges having made payments of as much as US$4.7 million in 2001 and US$5.6 million in 2002 for such government-provided security. A report by Global Witness, however, revealed numerous other payments ranging from US$200 to US$60,000 that Freeport Indonesia allegedly made to individual military officers.

The TNI’s sale of security services to companies like Freeport is only one of the many business ventures conducted by the TNI and its officers. As Human Rights Watch has reported, the Indonesian military has been supplementing its income through both its formally established companies, and through informal and often illicit businesses such as black market dealing. Moreover, the military’s business activities (both lawful and unlawful) are largely shielded from public scrutiny: budgeting for military purposes is generally kept secret, and TNI members generally refuse to answer questions about institutional spending.

Military-owned business in Indonesia are problematic, not only because this private-sector activity impedes military professionalism and distorts the function of the military, but also because it also contributes to crime, human rights abuses, and especially corruption. This problem is greatly compounded by the fact that TNI officers generally enjoy immunity from corruption charges brought by civilian institutions. In fact, the Transparency International’s Defense and Security Program has deemed Indonesia one of the countries most prone to corruption in its defense and security institutions. It is therefore appalling that this issue has not been addressed more seriously by the Indonesian government. Although a 2004 law mandated the transfer of control over TNI businesses to the civilian government within five years, the law did not clearly specify which types of business activities were covered, and this legal loophole enabled the TNI to preserve many of its moneymaking ventures, including TNI’s infamous security services—to say nothing of already-illegal criminal enterprises and illicit corporations. Moreover, despite the five-year timetable in the law, the government has been notably reluctant to enforce the transfer of ownership, making repeated excuses alluding vaguely to the need for the TNI to compensate for the lack of budgeting for security purposes. As a result, despite some efforts to reform the way the TNI is allowed to handle its businesses, military-owned businesses in Indonesia continues to flourish, with the Indonesian people of Indonesia having to pay the price.

The government’s weak response towards the military’s non-compliance with the 2004 law is merely one of the many indicators of how impervious the TNI’s power and seeming impunity. There are factors that contribute to this impunity, along with the corresponding corruption and abuse of power in the operations of military-owned businesses: Continue reading

Don’t Blunt the Spearhead: Why the Proposed Revision of Indonesia’s KPK Law is a Bad Idea

Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission (Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi, or “KPK”) was established in the hope that an independent anti-graft agency would effectively and fearlessly combat endemic corruption in Indonesia. True to its purposes, the KPK, in collaboration with other actors, has become one of Indonesia’s few anticorruption success stories. Since its establishment in 2003, the KPK has successfully charged 82 legislators in the parliament for corruption—a remarkable achievement in a country that has been known for the impunity of its political elite. After the appointment of its newest team of commissioners in 2015, the KPK has furthered its success in catching corrupt public officials, one of which was again a member of Indonesia’s House of Representatives (Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat, or “DPR”). It is safe to say that the KPK can indeed be deemed the “spearhead” of Indonesia’s corruption eradication efforts.

Yet, as an Indonesian proverb has it, “The taller the tree stands, the stronger the wind blows”: Attempts to weaken the KPK have grown in direct proportion to the agency’s success in bringing cases against powerful individuals and institutions. One example of this is the ongoing “Gecko v. Crocodile” struggle between the KPK (the small “gecko” with limited resources and young age) and the Indonesian National Police Force (the fierce “crocodile” with abundant power and resources), in which every time the KPK brings corruption charges against members of the Police Force, their members retaliate with criminal charges or harassment against members of the KPK. More recently, and more troublingly, members of the national parliament are now also trying to do what they can to undermine the KPK: Six out of the ten member parties in the DPR have proposed a revision of the current KPK Law–despite protests from the remaining political parties, NGOs, academics, and even the general public. Those opposed to this amendment argue (correctly) that there is no article in the revision that would increase the performance of the KPK, but instead all of the proposed revisions would undermine the KPK’s power and independence. Despite being packaged as a set of procedural improvements, the revision seeks to render KPK impotent – a strategy both subtler and likely more effective than the ham-handed tactics of the police in the “Gecko v. Crocodile” conflict.

The proposed law includes four main points of revision that proponents claim will improve the KPK’s performance. In fact, all four pose threats to the KPK’s independence and effectiveness:

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Should Anticorruption Agencies Have the Power to Prosecute?

One of the main reasons policymakers cite for establishing a standalone, independent anticorruption agency is the need to strengthen the enforcement of their nation’s laws against bribery, conflict of interest, and other corruption crimes.  In the past 25 year some 150 countries have created a specialized, independent agency to fight corruption (De Jaegere 2011), and virtually all have been given the lead responsibility for investigating criminal violations of the anticorruption laws.  But while a broad international consensus exists on the value of creating a new agency with investigative powers, opinion remains sharply divided on whether these agencies should also have the power to prosecute the crimes it uncovers.  As this is written, Indonesian lawmakers are considering legislation to strip its Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) of the power to prosecute while a bill before the Kenyan parliament would grant its Ethics and Anticorruption Commission (EACC) the power to prosecute the cases it investigates.

No matter the country, debate about whether a single agency should have the power to both investigate and prosecute corruption cases inevitably comes down to a small set of conflicting claims.  Those who oppose giving a single agency both powers raise an argument at the center of the older debate about the relative responsibilities of police and prosecutors — investigator bias.  In the words of a British Royal Commission that studied the relationship between English police and prosecutors, an investigator “without any improper motive . . . may be inclined to shut his mind to other evidence telling against the guilt of the suspect or to overestimate the strength of the evidence he has assembled.” That is, once an investigator hones in on a suspect, confirmation bias sets in, and he or she will interpret all evidence as supporting the suspect’s guilt.  Putting the decision about whether to prosecute a case in an agency wholly separate from the one that investigates provides a strong check against such bias, reducing the chances that the innocent will be put to a trial or weak cases brought to court.

The investigator bias argument has a long and distinguished pedigree, and a 2011 survey of the powers of 50 anticorruption agencies by World Bank economist Francesca Recanatini found that it often carries the day.  Only half of the 50 agencies she surveyed have both investigative and prosecutions powers.  But as the contemporary debates in Indonesia and Kenya suggest, proponents of combing investigation and prosecution in a single agency have a very powerful counter argument in their corner.  Continue reading