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A tangled web of intrigue

A riot tears through Jakarta, and the Islamic Defenders Front is blamed. A blasphemy law is upheld. A rogue police official turns into a whistle-blower, leading to an alleged scandal at the Finance Ministry. Plus, an American idol tobacco controversy.

 Top News: Jakarta’s worst civil unrest in a decade broke out near the city’s main port April 13 after public order officers arrived to evict illegal squatters from land owned by the state seaport operator Pelindo.

More than 500 protestors, wielding machetes and throwing Molotov cocktails, clashed violently with some 2,000 security personnel who responded with tear gas and water cannons. Two officers were killed and more than 90 people were seriously injured. The public order officers are separate from the police department and are typically not trained to handle serious civil unrest.

A rumor that the officers had arrived to dismantle and remove the tomb of an Arab cleric who helped spread Islam in North Jakarta in the 18th Century sparked the riot. It was later revealed that members of the Islamic Defender’s Front, a militant group famous for smashing up nightclubs and burning mosques belonging to Islamic sects it deems blasphemous, were likely responsible for stoking the furor.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono assured the community the tomb would not be removed, reaching an agreement with the seaport operator to build an underpass beneath it.

The Islamic Defender’s Front, a shadow that seems to follow every news story in Jakarta, have also been protesting outside the country’s Constitutional Court since the it agreed to review Indonesia’s controversial anti-blasphemy law. The law calls for up to five years in prison for anyone who “distorts” or “misrepresents” one of the country’s six recognized religions. Opponents said it was unconstitutional because it restricted religious freedom.

During the court’s final hearing on the matter in early April, the militant group attacked several human rights lawyers arguing for the law’s removal as they left the court.

On April 19 the court ruled that the law was constitutional and should remain on the books. Members of the Islamic Defender’s Front responded with shouts of “God is great” inside and outside the courtroom.

It is the second time in a month that the Constitutional Court has upheld antiquated laws that activists say infringe on basic human rights. The court also ruled to uphold the controversial anti-pornography law, which vaguely defines how women are allowed to dress, behave and even dance. Cultural groups from Papua and Bali, where tight and revealing clothing is often part of traditional ceremonies, have refused to enforce the law.

Both rulings, which are seen as a setback for Indonesia’s transition toward democracy, were 8 to 1 decisions. The only dissenting opinion came from the only female justice.

Money: Susno Duadji, a former senior police official, has gone from zero to hero in a way one can only do in Indonesia. Duadji had been dismissed from the police force after wiretap recordings played in court and on television proved he had concocted a plot with a deputy attorney general and a prominent businessman to frame members of the country’s celebrated anti-corruption agency.

Mass protests followed and he was quickly demonized by the public. Duadji had once characterized the fight between the anti-corruption agency and the national police as a gecko attacking a crocodile. 

But now Duadji, with nothing to lose, has gone rogue, exposing multiple case brokering scams involving senior police officials. In his first of what would become many accusations, he told the press about how the police had successfully manufactured the acquittal of a low-level tax office official that had magically amassed millions of dollars.

The police are now going after Duadji. They dramatically arrested him at the airport on April 13 for “breach of professional conduct.” An anti-bribery worker’s group has now awarded him their coveted Whistle-blower Award.

Duadji’s accusations have now led to wide-ranging investigation in the country’s tax office, which was thought to have been successfully cleaned up under the reign of Darmin Nasution, who was appointed by Finance Minister Sri Mulyani. Nasution had implemented administrative reforms to make the office more transparent and efficient. Under Nasution, the number of taxpayers in the country rose from 4.3 million in 2005 to 12.8 million in 2008.

But he must have stepped on some toes when he required political candidates to reveal their tax histories during national elections last year. He was moved to Bank Indonesia and replaced by a man known more for his involvement in corruption scandals than his reformist credentials.

The public backlash over the most recent tax scandals, however, might finally force the president and his team to get serious about cleaning up the tax office — a move that would likely go over well with foreign investors and domestic consumers alike.

Elsewhere: Kelly Clarkson, the first and most successful American Idol, is under fire for her upcoming Jakarta concert, which is being sponsored by a major Indonesian cigarette company. Huge billboards spanning eight-lane highways feature the singer’s face alongside advertisements for “L.A. Lights,” a brand marketed toward women.

Indonesia lags far behind other countries in its effort to curb smoking and has yet to ban cigarette advertisements. Pictures of the Marlboro Man loom over numerous roadways and are plastered on everything from political campaign signs to city buses. Anti-smoking advocates called for Clarkson to cancel her show in protest.

Clarkson protested the demand, saying she didn’t want to disappoint her fans. Fortunately, the promoter managed to strike a deal and the cigarette ads will be removed from billboards and will not be visible during the concert.

This exact same drama played out last year when Alicia Keys came to Jakarta. And it will likely play out again when the next big name American pop star comes through town. With a third of the country smoking, the Indonesian government is unlikely to pursue seriously any anti-smoking campaigns in the near future.