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Corruption fight in Indonesia slowly marches on

JAKARTA — “A new Indonesia without corruption,” was the theme of this year’s international anti-corruption day here, a signal that completely eradicating endemic graft is still not too lofty a goal in a country that consistently ranks at the low

JAKARTA — “A new Indonesia without corruption,” was the theme of this year’s international anti-corruption day here, a signal that completely eradicating endemic graft is still not too lofty a goal in a country that consistently ranks at the low end of Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.

Some of the country’s youth, however, are a bit more pragmatic.

“Corruption is like a cat in a sack,” said Asagi, 18, a member of the Indonesian Islamic Students Movement, or PMII. “You know it’s there but you can’t get it out.”

Asagi is a whisper of a girl, with a bright smile and unimposing manner that seems ill suited to a demonstration. The flannel-clad political science major was one of only a dozen students protesting corruption in Indonesia outside the country’s Corruption Eradication Commission on Wednesday.

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Many of her companions wore green and purple smocks and shouted quixotic demands for justice into blow horns. A line of police hung on the arm of a security barrier and watched half-heartedly.

Student groups, such as the PMII, started during the politically turbulent 1960s. Later they led the charge that helped bring down the autocratic President, General Suharto, in 1998. But current protests are small and fragmented, drawing only hundreds of people rather than thousands. Though more demonstrators took to the streets Thursday to mark anti-corruption day, some say it takes handouts, such as money or food, to bring big numbers out.

But that is not a sign that the fight against corruption has waned, said Anies Baswedan, dean of Paramadina University in Jakarta.

“Never in the history of Indonesia is there as much effort to combat corruption as there is today,” he said, noting that the transition to democracy has opened the space for public discussion. Corruption exists in China and Vietnam, but it doesn’t translate into a public debate the way it does in Indonesia, Baswedan explained.

More organizations have also sprung up to tackle corruption, and many are focusing on education.

Ade Irawan is the head of monitoring and public service at Indonesia Corruption Watch (ICW), an organization that focuses on training students, teachers and civil society to fight against corruption when they see it taking place in their neighborhoods. He said ICW supports teachers and parents to be active in fighting corruption because they are the ones who suffer most from the practice.

In 2007, the country’s main audit agency reported that 60 percent of Indonesian schools has misappropriated state funds devoted to improving and repairing school facilities. And ICW has accused several government-run schools in Jakarta of allegedly embezzling as much as $633 million in funds awarded by the state for operational assistance.

The country’s education minister, Muhamad Nuh, said the government planned to change the way regional educational offices receive funds to cut out red tape, which he blamed for the cash loss.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was more pointed when he spoke before an audience at a national corruption eradication conference on Dec. 1. “Fraud and abuse in the [tax] sector will significantly affect development and economic growth,” he said, also voicing concern over corruption in the National Police and Attorney General’s Office, two of the country’s most distrusted institutions.

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The attorney general has been at the heart of a year-long corruption investigation involving two anti-corruption commissioners accused by a high-level businessman of soliciting bribes in return for dropping an investigation into his brother. Anti-corruption activists say the charges were trumped up in a move to undermine the power of the anti-corruption agency, which includes wiretapping without a warrant.

Since its creation in 2003 the anti-corruption agency has tried and convicted scores of high-level politicians and law enforcement officials for acts of bribery and embezzlement, including the former central bank deputy governor and father-in-law of the president’s son.

But graft watchdogs said corruption remains rampant within the country’s law enforcement agencies, and they accuse police of not going after suspects tied to powerful political circles.

They say the spectacle of corruption accusations, court trials and acquittals is evidence that vested interests still control the government. Transparency International said politicians who fight for their own interests over the interests of the state are one of the biggest challenges to combating corruption in Indonesia.

The country was given the same score as the previous year and tied with five others for 110th place on this year’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), which measures perceived levels of public-sector corruption in 178 countries.

The countries at the top of the 2010 list are Denmark, New Zealand and Singapore, a country Indonesians recognize as clean, but boring. Somalia grabbed last place, while elsewhere in Asia, Burma and Afghanistan tied for 176th place at the bottom.

Despite ongoing cases like that of a rogue tax official who bribed his way out of jail to watch a tennis match in Bali, Indonesia’s corruption score has always improved since Yudhoyono came to power in the country’s first direct elections in 2004, when it ranked below Pakistan and Iraq.

“Tackling corruption is incredibly complex, and the government is not monolithic,” said Robin Bush, who heads the Jakarta-based Asia Foundation, which works on promoting good governance in Indonesia. She said departments like the Directorate General of Corrections have shown a commitment to curbing graft. (Given the number of high-level prisoners bribing their way to special treatment, this is still a work in progress)

“But it’s no longer politically acceptable to be corrupt, and the public is no longer patient and no longer tolerant of this type of corruption,” Bush said.

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Corruption exists because of need, greed and a political system that rewards bad behavior, said Baswedan, who lists bureaucratic reform and salary improvements as two solutions.

Already financial reform and changes to the tax system that make tax collection more transparent have been credited with helping Indonesia weather the recent global financial crisis. The country’s economy is Southeast Asia’s biggest, and foreign capital has poured into to support new business ventures and bond markets over the past year.

Asagi said teaching youth about corruption is also necessary. She joined the Islamic Students Movement so she could learn more about Indonesian politics and discuss way to improve the system. Paramadina, on the other hand, requires its students to take a summer-long course where they investigate the causes of corruption and discuss the magnitude of the problem.

One of the main reasons corruption is so rampant is the lack of understanding about the issue by graduates of higher education, Baswedan said.

“They study in the universities but they’re not aware of the problems of corruption and or how to combat it,” he said. “The way we view it, let’s cut the supply of potential corruptors; and the way we do it is by educating them about this practice prior to having them enter the job market.”