Impunity and the ability of the well connected to flout laws and do as they like is a subject that Southeast Asian governments wish would just go away. It undermines democracy and that old chestnut the separation of powers, a foundation of democratic principles.
Governments spend fortunes on public relations trying to convince people that the problem is merely a figment of critics’ imagination, parlayed by a media that simply doesn’t understand the true values and characteristics that are the making of their grand societies.
Then along comes Kopassus, an Indonesia special forces group. Its members have long been suspected of leading a dirty tricks department and doing as they please. But the idea that its agents can enter a prison at will and carry out revenge killings of four detainees, before all but issuing a press release stating such thugs deserved to die, beggars belief.
Not only were they able to carry this off, but the police findings from the initial investigation into the killings will be handed over to an army investigation team – basically allowing Kopassus to investigate itself.
Indonesia has pushed long and hard to be seen as a kind of Southeast Asian superpower. With a population of more than 242 million people, it is by far the biggest country in the region, but numbers do not always count when it comes to wielding influence and leading by example.
The four killings were carried out by 11 Kopussus commandos, who raided the Cebongan Penitentiary in Yogyakarta in retaliation for the apparent brutal and sadistic murder of former Kopassus soldier First Sgt. Heru Santoso. The soldiers said they had been angered further by an earlier street attack on another Kopassus commando, First Sgt. Sriyono.
Predictably, the government has tried to clarify the situation while maintaining that its moral beacon had not been compromised by its own security forces acting out of anger and revenge, without orders, embarrassing a nation that desperately wants to be taken seriously.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono – a former general and brother-in-law of the current army chief – rebuked the commandos for their vigilante acts. Nevertheless his faith in the military justice system remains unshakeable and the trial will go ahead.
Kopassus Commandant Maj. Gen. Agus Sutomo told local media, “Everyone will be able to gain access to the court. The open trial is our answer to those who question whether the military can be impartial when trying its own soldiers.”
No doubt such a military tribunal will carry all the pomp and circumstance required to convince a skeptical public that it means business. Whether it actually administers justice, though, is another story.