Political society

Civil society is key to preventing an Indonesian police state – Universities

Robertus Robet (360info)

Jakarta ●
Sat 1 October 2022

police, civil society, democracy, democracy in Indonesia, freedom of assembly, freedom of expression

A fatal oversight in the history of political reform in Indonesia is the absence of efforts to reform the Indonesian police. The militaristic nature of the police persists despite two decades of institutional separation from the armed forces. But any effort to reform them cannot be left in the hands of the president, parliament or the internal police structure. Instead, reform must come from those who represent civilians.

Since the overthrow of President Suharto’s regime in 1998, demands for police reform have only arisen sporadically, dying off as soon as they surface. Reformist and post-Suharto governments have never made a concerted attempt to advance police reform.

The post-Suharto police were better than the military in tackling drug-related crimes, terrorism, and public safety during critical moments in regional and national elections. But they keep raping human rights. Throughout Joko Widodo’s presidency, hurry, non-governmental activists and academics were wary of the emergence of an Indonesian”police state”, as a high-ranking police officers assume leadership positions in powerful state institutions such as the Indonesian Intelligence Agency, the Corruption Eradication Commission and several ministries. The many privileges granted by President Joko Widodo to the police have led to a “dual function font” (dwi fungsi polisi) which may lead to demands from the military to be treated on an equal footing. The end result, it is predicted by a Tempo editorial, will be the erosion of democracy and civil authority in the future.

The recent high profile murder case of Brigadier Police Officer Joshua Hutabarat in July 2022 by his own superior, two-star General Ferdy Sambo, has helped to draw the curtain back on acute internal problems within the force. Sambo had assumed the roles of both overseer and executive – an abuse of power. His unit has also been honored for its role in the more secretive “political functions” of the police, such as criminalize human rights activists.

In 2007, then-President Abdurrahman Wahid called for comprehensive police reform. Wahid claimed that the State Police of the Republic of Indonesia (Polri) reporting directly to the President was worrying, as it allowed Polri to operate without prior coordination with other relevant state institutions. He also suggested that the official roles of the police force be reduced to matters of security and public order only, with criminal investigations and investigative tasks being given to the state attorney’s office. As a result of these reforms, he said the police force would be better placed under the Ministry of Interior. In 2021, the Governor of Lemhannas Agus Widjojo repeated a similar opinion. Yet these ideas, like so many others, quickly dissipated.

All of this leads to the question: are police reforms still feasible in Indonesia?

The study conducted by Yanilda Maria Gonzalès, public policy researcher at Harvard, Police authoritarianism in Latin America might offer a clue. Gonzalès explored why police in Colombia, Brazil, and Argentina reproduce their cultures of violence, cruelty, and corruption despite democratic transitions in those countries. She concluded that “inequality permeates policing practices”. In other words, police behavior is determined by the fragmented “demands” of a society. As long as the political elite selectively approves of the needs of the upper class, the police will continue to be authoritarian in their efforts to meet those demands. The authoritarianism of the police forces contains an intrinsically discriminatory dimension with regard to the working classes.

The main lesson of Gonzalès’ study is that political elites tend to deliberately privilege the police. As such, police reform cannot be left in the hands of the president, parliament or internal police mechanisms. Instead, they must first and foremost be formulated and challenged by those who represent civilians “from below”, such as Indonesian human rights organizations. And these struggles must be complemented by simultaneous efforts to foster a norm among political elites to adhere to human rights and dignity. Until the bulk and fervor of police reform is driven by a strong civil society alliance, change will not be significant.

The writer is a lecturer at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Jakarta State University, Indonesia. He is a human rights activist who is one of the founders of Perhimpunan Pendidikan Demokrasi, Imparsial and Amnesty International Indonesia (2018-2021). During the 1998 riots and the election in Timor Leste, Dr. Robet was a member of commissions of inquiry.

Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info™.