Robertus Robet (360info), Jakarta – A fatal oversight in Indonesia's history of political reform is the absence of efforts to reform Indonesian police. The militaristic nature of the police lingers despite two decades of institutional separation with the armed forces. But any efforts to reform them cannot be left to the hands of the president, parliament, or the internal police structure. Instead, reform must come from those who represent civilians.
Since President's Suharto regime was toppled in 1998, demands to reform the police appeared only sporadically, dying down as soon as they surfaced. Both reformists and post-Suharto governments never exerted a concerted attempt to push police reformation.
The post-Suharto police force was better than the military in combating drug-related crimes, terrorism, and public security during the critical moments of regional and national elections. But they continue to violate human rights. Throughout Joko Widodo's presidency, press, non government activists and academics have been wary of the emergence of an Indonesian "police state", as high-ranking police officers assume leadership posts in powerful state institutions such as the Indonesian Intelligence Agency, Corruption Eradication Commission, and several ministries. The numerous privileges president Joko Widodo granted for police officers has led to a "police double-function" (dwi fungsi polisi) that risks evoking demands from the military to be treated in equal fashion. The end result, it is predicted by a Tempo editorial, will be the erosion of democracy and civilian authority in the future.
The recent high-profile murder case of police officer Brigadier Joshua Hutabarat in July 2022 by his own superior, Two-Star-General Ferdy Sambo, has helped pull back the curtain on the 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 thrown into the spotlight for their roles in the more covert "political functions" of the police, such as criminalising human rights activists.
In 2007, then-President Abdurrahman Wahid called for comprehensive reform of the police force. Wahid asserted that the State Police of the Republic of Indonesia (Polri) reporting directly to the President was worrying, as it allowed Polri to take action without prior coordination with other relevant state institutions. He also suggested the police force's official roles should be chiselled down to only matters of security and public order, with criminal investigation and inquiry tasks handed over to the state attorney's office. As a result of these reforms, he said the police force would fit better under the purview of the Ministry of Home Affairs. In 2021, the Governor of Lemhannas Agus Widjojo repeated a similar opinion. Yet these ideas, like so many others, quickly dissipated.
All this leads to the question: are police reforms still feasible in Indonesia?
The study conducted by Harvard public policy researcher Yanilda Maria Gonzales on police authoritarianism in Latin America might offer a clue. Gonzales explored why police in Colombia, Brazil, and Argentina reproduce their cultures of violence, cruelty, and corruption in spite of democratic transitions in those countries. She concluded that "inequality pervades policing practices". In other words, police behaviour is determined by the fragmented 'demands' of a society. As long as the political elite selectively endorse the needs of the upper-class, the police will continue being authoritarian in their efforts to meet those demands. The authoritarianism of police forces contains an inherently discriminatory dimension towards those of the lower-class.
The main lesson from Gonzales' study is that political elites tend to deliberately privilege the police force. As such, police reform cannot be left to the hands of the president, parliament, or internal police mechanisms. Instead, they have to first and foremost be formulated and contested by those who represent civilians 'from below', such as by Indonesian human rights organisations. And these struggles must be complemented by simultaneous efforts to foster a norm amongst the political elites to adhere to human rights and dignity. As long as the gist and fervour of police reform is not conducted by a strong civil society alliance, the changes won't amount to much.
[The writer is a lecturer in the Faculty of Social Science at State University of Jakarta, Indonesia. He is a human rights activist who is a founder of Perhimpunan Pendidikan Demokrasi, Imparsial, and Amnesty International Indonesia (2018-2021). During 1998's riot and Timor Leste's election, Dr Robet was the member of fact-finding committees. Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info.]