Elizabeth Drexler described the controversial practice of kriminalisasi during an Indonesian Studies Colloquium sponsored by the UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies.
by Kevin Sprague (UCLA 2018)
UCLA International institute, March 20, 2017 — Kriminalisasi is one of today’s biggest buzzwords in Indonesia. The term describes the controversial targeted arrests of anti-corruption activists by Indonesian police and is the subject of a current national debate. On March 8, 2017, Elizabeth Drexler of Michigan State University tackled the contentious practice during an Indonesian Studies Colloquium sponsored by the UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies.
Kriminalisasi as a means of censure
Despite Indonesia’s advancements in human rights legislation and protections over the last two decades, its justice system is plagued by kriminalisasi. Loosely defined, kriminalisasi is the use of the law for a goal other than justice. It is most commonly seen in arrests of members and supporters of the Indonesian Corruption Eradication Commission (Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi, or KPK), who are frequently charged for crimes that appear unrelated to their politics and activism.
One example given by the speaker was the arrest of a prominent labor rights activist who was detained for allegedly stealing a pair rubber shoes. The charges were eventually dropped, but the arrest ruined his career.
Criminal charges for petty crimes are effective in silencing opponents, although they don’t appear to be a direct attack on their freedom of speech or assembly. Even if dissenters are not charged or jailed, their cases can be reopened at a moment’s notice. Victims of kriminalisasi accordingly live in constant fear and economic distress. “These cases may seem to be nothing more than technicalities, but they are significant in [terms of] the stigma and effect they produce,” explained the speaker.
Kriminalisasi is enforced both systemically and through cultural norms. Drexler told the audience about a mother whose innocent son spent over a year in jail and did not feel resentment, but rather compassion, for the police. She explained that Indonesians are empathetic regarding the cost and time required to become a police officer. This sentiment towards police, coupled with a pervasive view of criminals as inhuman, is a major roadblock in combating kriminalisasi; anti-corruption activists have been successfully charged with the crime of “ruining the good name and institution of the police.”
The practice of kriminalisasi: Moving from the local to the universal
The ongoing debate about the legitimacy of kriminalisasi has hindered anti-corruption efforts in Indonesia. In multiple cases, people have falsely claimed to be victims of the practice in hopes of getting their cases thrown out of court. In addition, many members of the Indonesian public perceive the KPK and anti-kriminalisasi activists as opportunists who consider themselves above the law.
In response, advocates who seek to halt the practice make it clear that they believe all cases should be investigated fully and fairly, and expect themselves to be held to the same objective standards as the police. In addition, many activists focus on the academic aspect of the discussion, claiming that legal reform would be a contribution to criminal law.
As Drexler sees it, defining kriminalisasi in viable legal terms is a case of “reverse vernacularization.” In anthropology, vernacularization is the process of taking ideas and concepts phrased in broad, universal terms and phrasing them in a way that either makes sense in a more specific local setting or is understood in the local vernacular.
Often, vernacularization accompanies the introduction of human rights concepts in settings where such concepts may be foreign. Yet the speaker argued that the exact opposite process is happening in Indonesia: there, common political practices are being translated into universal legal jargon.
Drexler concluded on a hopeful note, saying that reverse vernacularization would likely be successful in producing legitimate legal solutions, despite her concerns regarding the ongoing targeting of those who speak out against corruption in Indonesia. Kriminalisasi, as understood among Indonesians at the local level, is presently being translated into legal terms so that it can be understood and discussed in the nation’s courts. The speaker hoped that the human rights and political reform activists undertaking this translation would be successful in seeking justice for those who have fallen victim to corruption.