Wed, 02 Jul 2003

President endorses civilian `guards'

Fabiola Desy Unidjaja and Tiarma Siboro, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Citing the lack of police personnel, President Megawati Soekarnoputri threw her support behind the establishment of armed civilian groups on Tuesday, saying their existence helped defend the people from lawlessness, especially in conflict-torn areas.

"We should consider giving proper recognition to the public's demands to be allowed to defend themselves and their property, especially those living in conflict areas," Megawati said during a ceremony marking the 57th anniversary of the National Police on Tuesday.

According to the President, the existence of armed civilian groups was mandated by the newly amended 1945 Constitution.

"The demand to be allowed to defend one's life and property is not only natural, but also right and constitutionally legitimate," she stressed.

Article 30 of the 1945 Constitution states that the country applies a defense system that requires popular participation.

"In facing armed civilians that extort, torture and even kill other civilians, the people's participation is increasingly necessary given the lack of security personnel," she said.

Indonesia, a sprawling nation with around 210 million people, has about 200,000 police officers and 300,000 military personnel.

Since the downfall of former dictator Soeharto in 1998, crime has been on the increase because the military has reduced its role in policing the civilian population.

Critics say the police force is understaffed and under-equipped, and incapable of maintaining law and order. The force is also widely believed to be riddled with corruption.

This has led to vigilante groups in villages and cities often apprehending and punishing alleged wrongdoers. People suspected of stealing or other crimes are regularly burned or beaten to death in public.

Megawati said the presence of such civilian guards would not only help with security, but also allow the police to focus on other major problems.

A former member of the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM), meanwhile, said that the establishment of civilian guards or task forces would only create fears among the people as such groups did not have the ability to assess whether their actions were legal or not.

"There is no legal basis for seeking their accountability, including when they carry out security tasks that are normally assigned to the military or police," Asmara said on Tuesday.

According to Asmara, the establishment of such groups demonstrated that the country's security forces were still tempted to use proxies whenever possible.

Criminologist from the University of Indonesia (UI), Airlangga Masdia, said the existence of vigilantes reflected the public's disappointment with law enforcers such as prosecutors, the police and judges.

Indonesian Military chief Gen. Endriartono Sutarto and Minister of Defense Matori Abdul Djalil said last year that all civilian guards and task forces should be dissolved as they were of no service to the country.

This, however, was before the military operation in Aceh, where military-backed militias and "people's defense" groups are widely reported to be operating.

During her speech, President Megawati also urged the police to change their approach so as to regain the trust and respect of the public.

"Many of our police officers are said to protect criminals from the law, and some police officers are even involved in criminal activities ... they have to be expelled from the police force," she said.

The celebration involved thousands of police personnel with a high-profile antiterrorist squad demonstrating its prowess in front of the President.

Vice President Hamzah Haz and almost all the members of the Cabinet attended the function, which lasted for more than three hours.

The National Police were officially separated from the TNI in 2000, and became an independent state agency directly under the supervision of the President.

Since the separation, the police have played a greater role in state affairs, and have emerged as an equal partner of the TNI, which was the dominant group during the Soeharto regime.