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Megawati's first battle: Security woes

Straits Times - August 4, 2001

Devi Asmarani, Jakarta – Two fatal bombings, the assassination of a top judge and a jail breakout – all took place within the first 10 days of Ms Megawati Sukarnoputri's presidency. Security, or the lack of it, is the burning issue in the country, which has been going through a period of turbulent political transition for three years.

Yet the National Police has barely come out of a critical leadership crisis that has left its image in tatters. How President Megawati will bring a semblance of order to the country is now the big question.

Former police chief Kusparmono Irsan said Ms Megawati should start by consolidating the police force and "get rid of internal friction". And she seems to be doing just that.

Yesterday, in what analysts said was an attempt to ensure the police force is under one command, she reinstated as police chief General Suroyo Bimantoro, who had been sacked recently by deposed president Abdurrahman Wahid.

Gen Chaerudin Ismail, whom Mr Abdurrahman had appointed as acting police chief to support his plan to declare martial law if he was impeached for incompetence and corruption, was removed. Both Gen Bimantoro and Gen Chaerudin have their supporters, and this has resulted in a split within the National Police.

Indeed, the police do not have the luxury of time for politicking, judging by the huge number of unresolved cases, including a series of bomb blasts since last year that have increased in frequency over the past month.

Wednesday's explosion at a busy shopping mall in Central Jakarta happened just a day after a blast at a church in Semarang, Central Java. And a day before Ms Megawati was elected President, 70 people were injured during explosions at two churches.

The public seems to have little hope that the police will ever get to the bottom of the cases. The bombing suspects arrested so far are seen as mere pawns while the real masterminds remain scot-free.

A top officer admitted the police "can't solve the bombing cases without the help of the intelligence body". And that is what they are doing, he said. But when asked whether the ongoing investigations have helped them identify the so-called "rogue elements behind the political bombings", the officer said: "We have no evidence to prove anything so far." As one in charge of security, the police's track record has been poor.

In Aceh, trigger-happy Mobile Brigade troops have either been shooting at civilians or getting killed by separatist rebels.

There has been talk that under the upcoming Cabinet, the police force will be returned to the Home and Defence Ministry as in the administration of former president Suharto. If this happens, the police force will no longer report directly to the President. This plan has received negative responses from police personnel, who feared such a move would make the police force less independent.

But the most crucial task for the Indonesian police now is to change public perception that its officers are corrupt, care little for public service and are slow to react to crime reports.

Indeed, most residents in the capital say it is more effective and cheaper to pay local thugs to maintain security. Said Mr Kusparmono: "Police have a tough job to prove themselves, right now whatever they do it always looks bad."