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Police patrol lonely road

By Amy Chew for CNN

Indonesians have long held a view of police as corrupt traffic cops.
Indonesians have long held a view of police as corrupt traffic cops.

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(CNN) -- In the world's most populous Muslim nation, police are facing a daunting task as they track down terrorists amid growing outrage from radical Islamic groups.

Just this weekend alone, two top terror suspects were reportedly walking around the West Java city of Bandung with bombs strapped to their bodies.

Police almost apprehended them on Wednesday, but did not shoot as the two fled off into a crowded residential neighborhood. (Police hunt for 'walking bombs')

While they have their hands full chasing terrorists still on the loose following the devastating Bali bombs in October 2002 and the August attack on the Mariott hotel in Jakarta, they are getting little public support.

Indonesians have long held a view of police as corrupt traffic cops, rather than detectives carrying out the dangerous and hard work of tracking down terrorists and criminals.

'Best' but 'most hated'

While the police are "the best part of the government," with a "dedicated criminal and terrorist investigation team," they are still despised, says Sidney Jones, executive director of the International Crisis Group (ICG).

"Despite all their success -- Bali and Marriott cases -- they are the most hated institution in Indonesia. This is due to the behavior of local and traffic cops extorting money which is felt by the people."

Corruption among police has been rife as they try to uphold the law across the vast archipelago on a scant budget. The rank and file receive salaries of 900,000 rupiah a month (U.S. $106).

What's more, radical Islamic groups have slammed the poorly paid police force for oppressing Muslims.

When police arrested 17 people in September, Muslim groups accused them of "kidnapping."

But authorities were quick to defend their stance, saying that a new anti-terror law allows them to hold suspected terrorists for a week.

"The arrests were done according to law. Their families were informed of the arrests within seven days as provided under the anti-terrorist law," says National Police Spokesman Zainuri Lubis.

While police are still in hot pursuit of top terror suspects, they have become much more hesitant in making pre-emptive arrests, intelligence sources say.

"They are very aggressive in intelligence-gathering and going after those involved in bombings. But when it comes to making pre-emptive arrests, they now hesitate a little bit. They want to be very sure. This slows down the overall progress of investigations," a regional intelligence official told CNN.


Police officers also have a history of becoming scapegoats for violations committed by the military.

During the 32-year rule of former President Suharto, which ended in 1998, the police were incorporated into the armed forces and had few powers.

During this time activists and dissidents were often captured by the police for the army and never seen again.

"I have lost more than 20 friends. They were detained by the police and then the army came to "borrow" them and they never returned," an activist, who requested anonymity, told CNN.

"The police couldn't do anything because the army was their superior. The police ended up being blamed for everything."

In 2000, the then President Abdurrahman Wahid separated the police from the military and charged them with enforcing the law. Laws were amended so that the army could not "borrow suspects" like before.

"This was part of his efforts to forge a democratic and civilian society," Hasyim Wahid, the brother and one-time confidant of former President Wahid, told CNN.

Hasyim says the people's attitude toward the police has been very unfair.

"The people are mad with the military because they have been oppressed by them but they take it out on the police," he said.

Commentators have warned the military has become jealous of the police's newfound powers, and may try to grab it back, putting a dent in progress.

"The police is a very important institution for the democratization of Indonesian society. Unless the police is firmly put in front in charge of internal security, this country is going to go backwards," said ICG's Jones.

Already there are signs of the military is gaining ground, with Jakarta saying it would give the military greater powers following the Marriott blast.

With the holy month of Ramadan, police are on the lookout for radical elements who may be seeking to provoke Muslims as they spend more time gathering together to pray.

"In Indonesia, people are easily influenced by those whom they have think have a deeper understanding of Islam than themselves. We will be on the alert for elements who may try to inflame passions during Ramadan," a police source told CNN.

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