ELISABETH KRAMER speaks to independent anti-corruption activist Arifin Wardiyanto about his ‘extremist’ approach to fighting corruption
Arifin draws the line at suicide, but will go a long way to draw attention to his cause
Arifin Wardiyanto first came to my attention in August 2011, when his picture was strewn across the print, internet and television media in response to his one-man show of support for the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) in front of its Jakarta headquarters. The images showed Arifin chained to the building, yelling ‘I am willing to die to fight corruption!’ as he cut himself across his forehead, blood spilling down his face and onto his white dress shirt.
Speaking to Arifin one-on-one provided some insight into the man and his motivations on this particular occasion but also into his broader vigilante approach to seeking justice, as his personal experiences and upbringing have clearly played a key role in shaping his anti-corruption activism.
From wrongly accused to crusader
Arifin’s fight against corruption was not born out of thin air. In the mid-1990s he was a branch manager for Telkom Indonesia – Indonesia’s premier telecommunications company – in the Yogyakarta region. Suspicious of corrupt activities amongst some of his peers, he became a whistleblower, reporting them to the authorities and the media. Instead of being brought to justice, the charges were turned back on him and he was arrested. He spent two months in prison and was not able to fully clear his name until 2002. After this, Arifin vowed that he would do what he could to expose corruption and support anti-corruption efforts.
So where did this vehement attitude to corruption come from? Arifin cites the strong influence of his father, who was a military man during the Suharto years. He describes how, in 1974, his father experienced a great deal of stress when he was put in charge of a million-rupiah project (a large amount at that time) because of his attempts to maintain the integrity of the project. Having seen his father do his utmost to maintain his personal integrity in the face of this pressure, Arifin vowed he would never tolerate corruption.
Arifin is reluctant to join any official anti-corruption organisations, which he claims are at risk of being co-opted. While he acknowledges the positive work of some anti-corruption NGOs, and even to some extent the KPK and government, he says overall the movement is all talk and not enough action. What use are seminars and meetings if wrongdoers are under-sentenced, or worse, go unpunished?
Instead, Arifin maintains his independence, which he says allows him to take more ‘radical’ actions to bring attention to the corruption. Arifin’s modus operandi is not limited to confronting acts of self-mutilation in the public eye. He also works ‘behind-the-scenes’ investigating corruption accusations. A few years ago he used his connections in his old workplace to help uncover dodgy procurement dealings in Telkom. By looking through receipts and following up with suppliers he was able to prove that fake goods had been bought at ‘genuine’ prices. As a result three employees lost their jobs. While they were not tried for corruption, Arifin was pleased with the outcome, saying that these people now have to live with the stigma, as everyone knows what they have done.
In a more recent example, Arifin was asked to intervene in a police extortion case involving a traffic accident – a common occurrence that he refers to as a police ‘mafia’ racket – where drivers involved in crashes are asked to pay up in order to avoid being charged, even if they are not at fault. The victim had seen him identified on television as an anti-corruption campaigner and asked him to come to Lampung to help him. Arifin marched into the police office and demanded to speak to the officer in charge, explaining all the laws that had been violated. He says that by the time he left the office that afternoon the issue was resolved in such a way that police got nothing.
But while Arifin claims to be a man of many talents, he is best known for his self-harm and vociferous behaviour, often before a media audience. Some may argue that his use of self-harm sends the wrong message to other activists, but he argues that the attention it garners makes it worthwhile. He describes recent actions by another human rights activist, who set himself alight in front of the State Palace, as ‘silly’ because by killing himself he has prevented any future good he might be able to do for the cause he represents. While Arifin has exclaimed repeatedly in the past that he is willing to die in his fight against corruption, he claims that he has never had any suicidal intentions. He says he is more likely to be killed by one of the many enemies his campaigning has earned him rather than by his own hand. Regardless of how or when he dies, Arifin is prepared, flashing a picture on his mobile phone of the cemetery plot he has pre-purchased.
‘I fight all types of injustice’
While corruption is a key focus of his activism, Arifin says he fights all types of injustice and has become particularly intent on challenging ‘mafia’ rackets in his hometown of Yogyakarta. He is also interested in broader issues: the day after our discussion, Arifin was off to Jakarta to show protest against calls to give Jogjakarta’s Sultan Hamengkubuwana X lifelong governorship of the region, claiming that it undermines democracy and the Indonesian Constitution.
Arifin says that he often has to use his own funds to help poor people who come to him for assistance, which he says has earned him the nickname ‘Robin Hood’. However, he acknowledges that anyone can be a victim, and has built up a long list of public figures to which he has lent his support, including former KPK figures Antasari, Bibit and Chandra. He understands that officials and politicians who stand up to corruption run the risk of becoming scapegoats themselves, a lesson he knows only too well from his personal experience.
Arifin refers to himself as a ‘national’ figure, whose profile as a revolutionary activist has brought him renown across the country. He says he no longer needs to look for causes because people come to him. Although people might not recognise him right away, they have generally heard about him either from the TV or newspapers. But when asked how his family reacts to his one-man revolution, he is a little coy. He rarely tells his wife when he is going to Jakarta: she often ends up finding out what he is up to when she sees him on the television. Although his wife supports his causes, she does sometimes get mad at antics, he says sheepishly. But it never lasts very long.
Elisabeth Kramer (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney, where she is researching the anti-corruption movement in Indonesia, and co-editor of the upcoming Inside Indonesia edition on corruption.