Nov 28, 2023 Last Updated 8:29 PM, Nov 27, 2023

Filling the void

Filling the void
Published: Apr 02, 2012

Budi Setiyono

Civil Society protesters hold an anti-corruption rally
Budi Setiyono

Anti-corruption agendas have been a catch-cry of each of Indonesia’s post-Suharto administrations, all of which have promised to initiate new, more effective anti-corruption strategies. These promises included formulating more transparent fiscal management systems, reforming the legal system, reforming civil service management and creating a set of new oversight institutions and anti-corruption task forces. Efforts, however, have generally not been very successful, thwarted by the massive scale of the problem, with difficulties in developing a coherent program across different government agencies. The absence of clear, measurable goals has also attracted widespread criticism, leading to a public perception that the government is merely paying lip-service to the fight against corruption, and cherry-picking the cases and causes it wishes to pursue.

In the face of this lack of commitment, civil society organisations (CSOs) have stepped up to force the government to make changes. Since 2000, hundreds of organisations have been formed, along with various nation-wide anti-corruption networks, many of them attracting international support. These CSOs generally work to fight corruption at both the strategic and practical levels. At the strategic level, they advocate a better legal and institutional framework for dealing with corruption. At the practical level, they monitor and investigate corruption, and campaign for the punishment of corrupt officials, trying to force the government’s hand on the issue.

Big-picture strategies

The key strategy of the CSOs that now dominate the anti-corruption movement has been to exert pressure on policy makers to pick up their game. As part of this, CSOs have engaged in a massive propaganda campaign to generate public support through the mass media, conducting frequent press conferences to ensure that their opinions are broadcast through a range of media outlets. Activists also use various public forums – from street demonstrations to the podium of conference rooms in five star hotels – to deliver their message.

In doing so, CSOs use a combination of antagonistic and cooperative approaches, at times confronting politicians and bureaucrats with harsh criticism but not infrequently working hand in hand with them. Where they cooperate, CSOs typically analyse existing policies and regulations in order to identify elements of them that may encourage corrupt practices and then make recommendations about how to improve theme. The recommendations are then made public before being delivered to parliament or other government institutions, putting pressure on officials to consider them seriously.

These strategies have proven to be somewhat hit-or-miss. The first CSO attempt to establish an anti-corruption body failed terribly. Initially, the anti-corruption movement lobbied President Abdurrahman Wahid to establish the United Team for Corruption Eradication (TGPTPK). Established on 23 May 2000, TGTPK was the first task force unit to combat corruption following democratisation. The team was assigned to deal with sophisticated corruption cases that needed a high degree of investigation, and accordingly were difficult for conventional legal authorities. But TGPTPK was disbanded on 8 August 2001 after corruption suspects mounted a legal challenge against it in the Supreme Court.

However, later attempts did yield some results. The establishment of the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) is a prime example. When promoting the establishment of the KPK, CSOs looked at case studies of success story from anti-corruption commissions in Hong Kong and Thailand, publically arguing that Indonesia should follow suit. Policy makers initially showed little interest in creating such body. This was not surprising, given that many of the decision-makers were themselves suspecting of indulging in corruption. Supporting an anti-corruption commission would therefore be like shooting themselves in the foot.

In order to strengthen their voice, nineteen CSOs formed an alliance called the Advocacy for Anti-Corruption Commission (AKAK) at the end of 2001. Its aim was not only to ensure that an independent commission was established as soon as possible, but also to ensure that it would have enough authority to both prevent and address corruption, as well as the right to carry out investigations, examinations and prosecutions.

At the outset, the alliance organised public discussions and seminars concerning the need for a new law to establish an independent anti-corruption body. Then they also carried out a series of meetings with members of parliament, the Supreme Court, the Attorney General, the Minister of Justice and the State Secretariat to push for the reforms. The working group also carried out a national survey to determine public perception about corruption, the result of which was then forwarded to parliament. Following countless demonstrations, lobbies, and negotiations, parliament finally enacted Law No. 30/2002 on KPK on 27 December 2002.

Fighting corruption on the ground

At the practical level, CSOs generally focus on four possible targets. They aim to raise awareness and generate grassroots movements, assist in detecting graft and advocating punishment for guilty parties and work to prevent the loss of state assets. Finally, they seek to recover state assets that have been illegally captured by corrupt officials. Despite the difficulties for measuring the impact of these kinds of activities, there is no doubt that these organisations have played a key role in the proliferation of an anti-corruption attitude throughout Indonesian society. They have also succeeded in recapturing some state assets that have been stolen by corrupt officials.

One of the most prominent examples of the success of a civil society anti-corruption campaign was the conviction of Acehnese governor, Abdullah Puteh. The exposure of this case was a milestone in demonstrating the ability of civil society to hold powerful figures accountable, which raised confidence among activists, showing that they truly could bring a ‘fat cat’ to justice. The case, known as ‘Helicopter Gate’, centred on the marking-up of the purchase price of a Mi-2 helicopter worth US$ 1.250 million in 2001. The purchase was carried out without going through a competitive tender and believed to be marked up about US$ 725,000. The Anti-corruption People’s Solidarity (SAMAK) and the Aceh People’s Solidarity for Anti-corruption (SoRAK) investigated the case then reported it to the Public Prosecutor Office and the KPK. In 2004, Abdullah Puteh was jailed for 10 years. Following the success of the Aceh case, similar actions were taken by other groups throughout Indonesia, leading to a spate of arrests.

This is not to say that there are no rotten apples in the barrel. Ironically, some organisations that claim to be part of the anti-corruption movement are themselves corrupt, either because they were established in the pursuit of personal interest or because they have fallen prey to the inducements of state and business actors along the way. In the absence of a code of ethics, accountability mechanisms and transparency controls, CSOs are sometimes no more accountable than the organisations they claim they want to ‘clean’. As with any ‘movement’ anti-corruption CSOs are not homogeneous and are not always the good guys in the battle against corruption.

A case in point was an anti-corruption organisation in Tulang Bawang district in Lampung, called the Anti-corruption Committee (KoAK). Activists from this anti-corruption group were reported to the police in December 2007, after they demanded bribes from local school principals to avoid a public corruption scandal. Kompas reported that the activists found that the principals were guilty of misusing financial subsidies from the central government, but promised to take no action if the principals paid them off.

The next stage

Greater democratic freedoms have allowed civil society groups to take the initiative in promoting an anti-corruption agenda. They now serve as an alternative force to stimulate and strengthen public accountability mechanisms. High-level lobbying resulted in the establishment of the KPK, and continues to force the government to address – or at least, appear to address – the many corruption scandals that plague the current administration. By keeping the issue of corruption firmly in the public eye, CSOs are preventing the government from shirking its commitments.

CSOs also play a key role in overseeing projects, budgets and providing community awareness training, something which the government seems less than fully committed to doing. In this sense, CSOs – or at least those acting with integrity – are an integral part of the fight against corruption on the ground. In a context where corruption is so embedded, this is no easy task. The movement faces strong resistance from those who stand to benefit from corruption, many of them very powerful people.

In order to continue its work, the movement needs to broaden its alliances with other pro-reform actors, both inside and outside the state. It also needs to recognise that the struggle should not simply revolve around catching a few corrupt officials, but also targeting poor management practices in the public sector and money politics in elections. In the meantime, CSOs are doing their utmost to make sure the elite are accountable and to encourage the public to dare to hold them to account.

Budi Setiyono ( is a senior lecturer in the Department of Governmental Science, Diponegoro University in Semarang.

Inside Indonesia 108: Apr-June 2012

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