To catch a queen

By: Philip Jacobson - Posted on: December 17, 2013 | Current Affairs

Recent corruption scandals have ignited the debate about dynastic politics in Indonesia. But even experts are unsure of how to address this world of clandestine meetings and mystical martial-arts clans

By Philip Jacobson

The chief justice of Indonesia’s Constitutional Court sobbed as the authorities hauled him away. Akil Mochtar had just been arrested for taking a bribe. Anti-graft investigators caught him in the act on the night of Wednesday, October 2. They showed up at his house in Jakarta just as he opened the door for a politician and a businessman who had come to deliver a bag full of cash – allegedly for a favourable ruling in an election dispute.

In the bag: Indonesian anti-corruption investigators display the alleged bribe money seized from chief justice Akil Mochtar’s home in Jakarta. AFP
In the bag: Indonesian anti-corruption investigators display the alleged bribe money seized from chief justice Akil Mochtar’s home in Jakarta. AFP

The Constitutional Court had previously been seen as much cleaner than the Supreme Court, with which it stands equally as the country’s highest judicial institution, and local media echoed President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono when he said he was shocked by the news. For Akil, though, the raid could not have come as a complete surprise. Journalists had been on his tail for some time. The dirt was that he had made a lucrative practice of peddling his verdicts. It turned out he made millions of dollars that way.

Perhaps what shook Akil, riding as the Corruption Eradication Commission’s (KPK) captive through the streets of Jakarta that night, was the grim irony of his situation. Akil had often spoken out against graft. He once made a particularly brutal statement, telling reporters that corruptors should have one of their fingers cut off. Now he would be the subject of such damnations. A few days later, students at a protest in Surakarta, central Java, staged his reckoning. One of them wore an Akil costume while another used a kitchen knife to remove its digits.

There were calls for a harsher punishment. “The KPK should demand the death sentence for Akil,” Jimly Asshiddiqqie, the Constitutional Court’s founding chief justice, announced to the media. “What he did was such a disgrace.”

The scandal prompted calls for immediate reforms. A few days after the story broke, Yudhoyono issued an emergency decree tightening monitoring and selection procedures for the court’s justices. By that time, though, the calamity’s scope had grown beyond the judiciary. The day after the raid, the KPK had arrested Tubagus Chaeri “Wawan” Wardana, a businessman from Banten province just west of Jakarta, for trying to pay off Akil in relation to a disputed election in Lebak regency, Banten.

Wawan, though, was no ordinary businessman, but rather a key member of a powerful political clan headed by his older sister, Banten province’s governor Ratu Atut Chosiyah. Ever since the days of their late father, Tubagus Chasan Sochib, who got his start trading rice and rose to prominence on his relationship with Suharto’s New Order regime in the 1970s, the family had dominated the region. With the clan’s implication, this “constitutional disaster”, as one observer termed it, had become a broader crisis that broached the issue of political dynasties.

Wily woman: Ratu Atut Chosiyah heads a powerful political clan suspected of paying off Akil Mochtar. AFP
Wily woman: Ratu Atut Chosiyah heads a powerful political clan suspected of paying off Akil Mochtar. AFP

Clan politics hold sway in dozens of Indonesia’s provinces and regencies. Siblings and spouses trade posts to skirt term limits; parents purchase elections for their children; cousins and in-laws follow their brethren into office. “They use their money and power to mobilise the people,” said Jacklevyn Manuputty, a peace activist from Maluku province. Take Central Maluku regency, he said. The previous regent was succeeded by his brother, whose wife was a legislator and whose son had plans to run. “It’s not a good thing,” Manuputty added.

The KPK now had Atut’s clan in its sights. The suspicion was that the governor had helped her brother pay off Akil. Atut and Wawan were known to have met with Akil at a hotel in Singapore in late September. The KPK set about investigating. Meanwhile, reports of the family’s shady dealings made headlines daily. The non-profit Indonesia Corruption Watch said the clan controlled 175 projects in Banten worth about $100 million combined. One of their rackets, activists claimed, involved building hospitals and supplying medical equipment at drastically marked-up prices.

At least ten of Atut’s relatives occupied political posts. Wawan didn’t, but locals referred to him as the ‘Private-Sector Governor’ for the way he seemed to influence provincial affairs. His other nickname, ‘Shadow Mayor’, was an allusion to his wife, Airin Rachmy Diani, mayor of South Tangerang. When Wawan was arrested, Airin was at Harvard University in the US as part of a month-long program for Indonesian officials to study clean governance.

What’s more, Atut was said to be protected by black magic. The word was she had extensive ties with Banten’s jawara, martial-arts masters with supposed spiritual powers, as well as with local sorcerers. The notion was borne out most dramatically when the KPK called her in for questioning on October 11. As the investigators grilled her, Muslim clerics congregated, vowing to oppose Atut’s attempts to harness witchcraft. One of them was quoted in the press: “If it’s true there’s black magic, please, direct it at me,” he said. “I’m ready. I’ve prepared holy water from an ancient mosque.” KPK chief Abraham Samad gave his own response. “Let Atut be protected by the jawara,” he announced. “The KPK is protected by God.”

The clan’s relationship with the jawara goes back to Chasan, according to Ian Wilson, a Murdoch University professor who focuses on organised crime, militias, corruption and political violence in Indonesia and elsewhere. Chasan was probably the first person to unite the disparate jawara groups, formalising them under a single umbrella, the Banten Martial Arts and Culture Union.

Chasan employed the group as a tool of Suharto’s state. Regime figures used him to “stabilise” the region, ensuring the ruling Golkar Party always got 80% of the vote. In return, Chasan became the preferred client for all infrastructure projects there. “He got countless contracts via the New Order,” Wilson said. “It made him an extremely rich man.”

It was a common arrangement in Suharto’s Indonesia. When the dictator fell in 1998, Chasan and many like him were able to transition from the patron-client relationship to become powerful in their own right. “It’s not an exaggeration to say that Banten province pretty much belonged to him,” Wilson said.

When Chasan died, Atut took his place. But she was just an outcome of her father’s dynasty. And she seemed a weaker heir. “Since his death, there’s been a much greater fragmentation of social and political forces in Banten,” Wilson said. “Atut is in a much less secure position. People might be coming for her head.”

Red handed: Akil Mochtar is led away after being arrested for allegedly accepting a bribe of more than $250,000. AFP
Red handed: Akil Mochtar is led away after being arrested for allegedly accepting a bribe of more than $250,000. AFP

As the spotlight bore down on Atut, debate raged over the merits of a clan crackdown. Some urged new legislation to prevent candidates from running to replace their relatives. The problem was, many of Indonesia’s top politicians were dynasty products themselves. Even the president had to watch what he said. When Yudhoyono criticised clans in the media, his rivals accused him of hypocrisy – weren’t 15 of his family members planning to run for parliament in 2014?

Indonesia seemed to be going the way of the Philippines, where ten political families had run things since the Americans left, said Sidney Jones, director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict. Anyway, she added, the problem was bigger than clans: “What you have to do is ensure corruption is prosecuted.”

This is one of Indonesia’s great challenges, but even the experts are scratching their heads over how to address it. At a panel event on anti-corruption on November 6 in Jakarta, one journalist asked why there wasn’t a greater sense of shame or public outrage among Indonesians over their leaders’ misdeeds. Monica Tanuhandaru, the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime’s national project coordinator for anti-corruption, said Indonesian society was remarkably permissive of graft. Why the anti-corruption movement had remained so small was something she was still trying to figure out. “There’s not enough critical mass,” she said.

Even her own family was sceptical of her efforts. “They say, ‘What are you doing? Corruption is going to happen. You’re just wasting your time.’”




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