Police, Democracy & the Indonesian State


A review of The Rise of Polri: Democratisation and the Political Economy of Security in Indonesia, by Jacqui Baker.

Jacqui Baker’s dissertation is a significant contribution to our understanding of the role of police in democratic transitions. The focus of her study is Indonesia, where the army-dominated New Order regime gave way in 1998 to a succession of democratically elected governments. She shows that with democratization came a complex rebalancing of power within the coercive apparatus of the Indonesian state. Central to this rebalancing has been a strengthening of the police and a transformation of their role, sometimes at the expense of the army.

Baker uses the Indonesian case to challenge a large body of political science literature that has focused on the importance of civilian-military relations in democratic transitions, but has overlooked the role played by the police (e.g. Alfred Stepan, Rethinking Military Politics: Brazil and the Southern Cone, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998). The police are important for democracies because they are needed to guarantee law and order. Thus, she states, “[r]ather than a two-man show between coherent, gain-maximers in the military and civilian faction, I argue that democratic consolidation rests, in part, on the minute tussles, alliances, victories and crevices formed within and between a triad of power made up of the police, military and civilian factions” (p. 36).

The focus on “minute tussles” is important for, in addition to arguing for the need for a triadic model, Baker also makes a methodological argument that it is necessary to conduct “political ethnography” (p. 45) to fully understand the relation between these actors. Baker’s ethnography yields an account of the police that is divided into three sections, each focusing on changes in one domain of the political economy of Indonesian policing: the territorial economy, the economy of friendship and patronage (what police refer to as Parman, or partisipasi teman), and the criminal economy (Parmin, participasi kriminil).

In section one, Baker provides an illuminating analysis of the changing role of the police in the territorial economy. As Baker explains, state power in Indonesia has often been exercised through the control of local territories. She shows that existing literature (e.g. Joshua Barker, The Tattoo and the Fingerprint: Crime and Security in an Indonesian City, PhD Dissertation, Cornell University, Ithaca, 1999) has failed to adequately appreciate that during the New Order the territorial economy was characterized by a complex but muted rivalry between the army and the police. The outcome of this rivalry was the subsumption of the police within the military and overwhelming army dominance of the territorial economy.

Against this backdrop of army domination, the process of democratization raised the prospect of a radical rebalancing of power between the army and the police, with the police potentially taking over the territorial economy as the army was forced to return to the barracks. However, the picture Baker paints is much more nuanced and complex. While she sees some evidence that the police gained territorial power with democratization, she finds that the army remains an important force in the territorial economy. There has been some change, partly as a result of foreign investment in strengthening the civilian police, but it has not been the rupture some might have expected.

What democratization has done is to bring about a much more highly fragmented and unpredictable territorial economy, involving elements in the police and the army, as well as civilian guards of various kinds. This is evident at the institutional level and also at the level of the street, where all sorts of different groups have emerged to stake claims on this economy. In addition to fragmentation, however, Baker also sees some evidence that with democratization the importance of the territorial economy for the police may be beginning to wane, as legal conflicts become an increasingly important source of off budget revenue.

In section two of the dissertation, Baker moves beyond the dynamics of territorial power to focus on shifts in the so-called Parman economy, the networks of patronage that link the coercive state to capitalist enterprises. Critical scholarship on Indonesian capitalism and on the Indonesian military has long noted how capital formation during the New Order rested on an alliance between the military-bureaucratic elite and ethnic Chinese conglomerates (cf. Christian Chua, Chinese Big Business in Indonesia: The State of Capital, London: Routledge, 1998; Richard Robison and Vedi Hadiz, Reorganising Power in Indonesia: The Politics of Oligarchy in an Age of Markets, London & New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004). Baker delves more deeply into this alliance and proceeds to examine how the Indonesian police have fit into it. What she finds is quite striking. She begins by analyzing the police budget, demonstrating just how important off-budget funding has been and continues to be. Proceeding to examine the off-budget parman economy, she shows how during the New Order the Police were quite marginalized. However, with democratization came a new focus on increasing the authority of the police at the expense of the Army, and this has dramatically affected the role of the police in the parman economy. Using a number of inventive methods to untangle these relationships, Baker provides a nuanced and sensitive argument about how necessary the “gift” economy has become for Chinese businesspeople of all social classes, but also how fraught and conflicted the relationships it entails can be. With rich ethnographic detail, she shows how the denial of territorial security is what gives rise to Chinese involvement in the parman economy.

The final section of the dissertation delves into changes in the role of the police in a third economic arena: the criminal economies (Parmin) of gaming and illicit drugs. Baker describes how in the early New Order period, gaming was legal and was a primary source of revenue for the city government. However, as Suharto sought to consolidate his power and grip over the military in the late-1970s and early-1980s, gaming was placed under army control and criminalized. After Suharto’s fall, the police entered this economy in a big way and it came to structure the whole police hierarchy. However, in 2005 a new police chief working closely with President Yudhoyono suddenly eliminated gaming almost completely, apparently by convincing Chinese gambling tycoons to accept enticing opportunities in legal sectors of the economy, like agribusiness and real estate. While the police were compensated for their loss with a larger budget, the end of gaming nonetheless constituted a major economic shock for the rank and file, and precipitated a shift in how the police related to the criminal economy. Instead of providing protection and backing, the police depended increasingly on case-based extortion, for which the launch of a new “war on drugs” provided ready fodder.

Taken as a whole, Baker’s dissertation shows how a consideration of the role of the police in processes of political transition can help us to better understand consequent shifts in the political economy of coercion. Her study deepens our understanding of what democratization means on the ground, and sheds important new light on the militarization and demilitarization of Indonesia’s postcolonial state.

Joshua Barker
University of Toronto
Department of Anthropology

Primary Sources

Ethnographic fieldwork
Interviews with security personnel, politicians, human rights activists, members of criminal underworld, convicts
Indonesian newspaper archives, 1970-2010
Government reports and audits
NGO reports

Dissertation Information

London School of Economics. 2010. 416 pp. Primary Advisor: John T. Sidel.


Image: BRIMOB Vehicle. Wikimedia Commons.

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