Sat, 08 Apr 2000

Street justice on the rise

For Kusnadi's family -- assuming he has a family -- Tuesday of last week must be a day that will forever remain in their memories. The 30-year-old man was caught red-handed by residents as he was about to make off with a stolen motorcycle. He was beaten until he lay writhing helplessly on the ground, whereupon his captors doused his body with kerosene and set it ablaze. He died in agony, his cries for mercy and help unheeded by the mob.

The tragedy of Kusnadi's life was written about very little in the newspapers of Jakarta in the last few days, together with some other grim stories of violence. The incident put the number of victims of mob justice in Jakarta, for this year, at 28, though some observers believe the real figure is probably higher.

It is no secret that violence is on the rise in this city. In fact, violence appears to have become so much a routine phenomenon in the Indonesian capital that outbreaks are hardly considered newsworthy anymore by the media, unless they involve whole neighborhoods or large groups of the city's population.

Ironically, though, the rise of mob justice comes at a time when the cry for true justice is ringing loud and clear -- an example of this being the growing public pressure for ex- president Soeharto to be brought to trial for alleged corruption during the three decades he was in power. Jakartans, and Indonesians elsewhere, are also still waiting -- with growing indifference -- for the Bank Bali mega-scandal to be properly resolved in a court of justice, as the government had promised.

Obviously, allowing this kind of situation to develop any further has its risks. Already, the timeworn maxim "to steal safely, steal big" is being cited with increasing frequency -- and more disturbingly, with increasing conviction -- among ordinary citizens in Jakarta.

In plain terms, the rise of street justice combined with the growing public scorn for the state's capability to uphold the rule of law could be a signal that the ordinary citizen's respect for the law is gradually breaking down. Obviously, this is a development that the authorities are well advised to deal ugently and fast.

Less glaring signs -- though no less disconcerting -- that respect for the law is declining among ordinary Indonesians can be easily found along Jakarta's roads. Even on busy main streets, motorists in Jakarta tend to ignore road marks, traffic lights and traffic signs unless police are present. At night, bicycles and motorbikes roam the streets without their lights on, apparently without fear of being apprehended.

And so one could go on. It would be almost too irrelevant to mention the violent sectarian conflicts and the more serious violations of the law that are taking place in so many regions of Indonesia. What is obvious, though, is that this country cannot afford to be lax in upholding the law. The smooth running of the nation's social and economic life, and thus its political life as well, depend on it.

It is common knowledge that, at present, constraints of all kinds are hampering the effective operation of Indonesia's law enforcement apparatus. Even so, every effort possible must be made to halt the further decline of the rule of law in this country. Given the constraints that are hampering the authorities, it would seem that educating the public is of the utmost importance. Evidently, this requires that, first and foremost, good examples be set by the officers in charge.