Going after the big fish

LIKELY PRESIDENT BAMBANG’S BIG CHALLENGES
LAST OF A THREE-PART SERIES: CORRUPTION

Bambang will head a team to probe graft cases, but observers believe he will not touch Suharto and Megawati.

In what could be his toughest mission over the next five years of his term, high-profile government officials and businessmen will not be spared as president-in-waiting Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono mounts an inevitable crackdown on corruption in Indonesia.

Graft allegations levelled over the past week against outgoing State Enterprises Minister Laksamana Sukardi and other senior bureaucrats is the first salvo in the anti-corruption campaign that will be waged by the incoming administration.

According to aides, former general Bambang will take direct charge of a team, drawn from the Attorney-General’s Office, tax department and the police, to investigate unresolved graft cases.

They will work on a list of about 100 names, compiled by state prosecutors and the tax office, as part of an attempt to weed out an age-old problem that some believe will take a generation or two to disappear, given that it is rooted so deeply in Indonesia.

Graft permeates all aspects of life in the country, from the lowly self-appointed parking attendant who demands 10 cents for his unneeded service, to the top, where multimillion-dollar scams take place at state-owned firms.

International donors have cited the country’s shaky and corruption-prone courts as a major disincentive to foreign investment.

An adviser to Mr Bambang noted: ‘Pak Bambang wants to be involved directly. He wants to make a strong statement that he is serious. So, there will be a few big fishes that will be nabbed.’

The name list that was drawn up by successive governments since Suharto’s fall in May 1998 included several prominent businessmen who owed huge debts to the country.

There had been very few high-profile arrests under the Megawati administration because it was more interested in recovering funds from debtors by selling off their assets than in jailing them.

Mr Marzuki Darusman, who served as attorney-general in the Abdurrahman Wahid government, explained: ‘The rationale was to go after the money and not the man. The aim was always to try and strike a deal with those accused so that the state could recover as much funds as possible back into its coffers.’

The new administration is inclined to move in the other direction.

But how far can Mr Bambang go? Can he be the white knight slaying the dragon of corruption?

Clearly, the target is a number of ‘black businessmen’ who have sought refuge in other countries, as well as senior government officials.

These included a number in Ms Megawati Sukarnoputri’s government, such as Mr Laksamana. Reports delivered to the Attorney-General’s Office by representatives from different universities – most of whom were proxies for the Bambang camp – alleged that Mr Laksamana, for example, was involved in corruption in several divestment programmes over the past few years.

They cited several incidents, including the controversial divestment of telecommunications company Indosat in 2002 and the sale of Pertamina tankers this year.

One of Mr Bambang’s advisers said this was a long time coming. ‘Please, this is not political recrimination. We have evidence to back up the claims. We are raising it in public now because we are concerned that some of them might run off to another country,’ he said.

Some observers also see the graft allegations as part of the elaborate negotiations between the Bambang camp and its Indonesian Democratic Party – Struggle and Golkar opponents, with threats to take action against prominent members of those parties if they tried to block the new leadership politically.

Indeed, many believe that ‘black businessmen’ and a few ‘big fish’, including ex-ministers and bureaucrats, might be the best that Mr Bambang will be able to do.

Political observer and lawyer Muchyar Yara said: ‘Bambang will not want to touch the sacred cow, which is Suharto and his family. He will also not touch Megawati or her husband Taufik Kiemas in the spirit of reconciliation.

‘But it is important for him to put in jail a few big names to show the electorate that he has done a much better job than Megawati.’

Analysts argue that he will get some results, but corruption will continue to be pervasive in Indonesia. Some have raised doubts about whether Mr Bambang will go all out given that his own election campaign – like Ms Megawati’s – lacked transparency.

As it is, after the first round of the presidential election on July 5, Transparency International – one of three watchdogs that scrutinised the Indonesian elections – said there were ‘indications of contributions from unclear donors, otherwise known as fictitious donors’.

Both candidates have denied the irregularities.

Fighting graft in Indonesia has been a tough battle for every leader – a fact that Mr Bambang will soon find out.

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