Will Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission Be Paralyzed During the Term of President Jokowi?

By Budiman Tanuredjo, Kompas daily,  4 July 2017

The actions of the Indonesian House of Representatives Committee of Inquiry into the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) are becoming increasingly absurd. The Inquiry Committee is to go on safari to Pondok Bambu and Sukamiskin prisons to meet inmates convicted of corruption offences. It is hoped the Inquiry Committee will find information on how the corruption convicts were treated inappropriately by the Commission.

“We want to look for information about anything they have felt while they were witnesses, suspects and prisoners convicted in corruption cases,” said Deputy Chairman of the Inquiry Committee Rep. Risa Mariska (PDIP-West Java), House member for the electoral district covering the towns of Bogor and Bekasi. She said the Inquiry Committee has received information there was improper treatment when the suspects were interviewed by the Corruption Eradication Commission.

Doubtless the Inquiry Committee will not have any trouble meeting any number of corruption convicts. Take for instance former Chief Justice of Indonesia’s Constitutional Court Akil Mochtar, former Democrat Party Representative and party treasurer Muhammad Nazaruddin, former Democrat Party Representative and party secretary-general Anas Urbaningrum, former Democrat Party Representative Angelina Sondakh, former Banten province Governor Atut Chosiyah, along with any number of other names. From them, one can guess, will emerge any amount of ammunition to finish off the Commission as an ad hoc institution ending in the Commission being disbanded or neutered.

Parahyangan University criminal law lecturer Agustinus Pohan views the effort of the Inquiry Committee as an attempt by politicians to take revenge on the Commission. “The fight against corruption is now dealing with white-collar plunderers who want to prove their power to pay back,” Pohan said.

Earlier, Deputy Chairman of the House Inquiry Committee into the Corruption Eradication Commission Rep. Taufiqulhadi (Nasdem-East Java) planned to invite constitutional law experts to justify the legality of the Inquiry. “Some say this inquiry is not appropriate. Different opinions are all right but we hope it can be kept balanced,” said the National Democratic Party politician, as quoted by Kompas daily on 30 June 2017.

The action of the Inquiry Committee in inviting constitutional law experts Professor Dr Yusril Ihza Mahendra and Professor Jimly Asshiddiqie will be a priority before it calls Rep. Miryam S Haryani (Hanura-West Java) who has been detained by the Commission. Miryam was declared a suspect by the Commission over allegations of providing false information. Her case is to go to trial soon.

The origins of the House Inquiry Committee started when the Commission leadership rejected a request from House of Representatives Commission III to make public the recording of the examination of Miryam Haryani by Commission investigators. The Commission refused to make the recording public without a trial. Up until now, recordings resulting from wiretaps have always been made public in trial hearings. Previously as a witness appearing before the Criminal Corruption Court, Miryam retracted part of her testimony contained in a brief of evidence giving as the reason that she had been coerced by Commission investigators.

In response to the retraction of her testimony in the brief of evidence, senior Commission investigator Novel Baswedan was examined as a witness in the trial. Novel testified there had been no intimidation or coercion. Novel went so far as to claim Miryam had been influenced by House of Representatives colleagues to retract the testimony in the brief of evidence. Novel mentioned several names including Rep. Bambang Soesatyo (Golkar-Central Java) and Rep. Masinton Pasaribu (PDIP-Jakarta) as those who had influenced Miryam. She denied ever having referred to their names. From this, House Commission III asked the Corruption Eradication Commission to make the recording public which the Commission refused to do.

Whether it is related or not is not known, but Novel Baswedan was attacked with acid by an unknown assailant several days after testifying. His eyesight was damaged. He was taken to hospital and is still receiving ongoing treatment. Police are still investigating the case but so far the person who sprayed Novel with acid has not been identified.

After undergoing further questioning at the Commission’s Jakarta offices on Wednesday 21 June, Hanura Party politician Rep. Miryam S Haryani’s (Hanura-West Java) brief of evidence was declared complete, or Form 21 was issued, and ready for trial in relation to the case of providing false testimony in the electronic identity card implementation corruption trial.

Strong resistance

The House of Representatives Inquiry Committee into the Commission seems to need to look for political support from constitutional law experts. Earlier 357 academics from various universities and a range of disciplines issued a “petition” rejecting the House Inquiry Committee into the Commission on a number of grounds. The 357 academics included Professor Dr Mahfud MD, Professor Dr Denny Indrayana, Professor Dr Rhenald Kasali and many other prominent academics.

Inviting experts in constitutional law or inviting anyone else is obviously perfectly legitimate. The Inquiry Committee has indeed been given legislative authority to do that. No one is denying that the House of Representatives has the right of inquiry, the right of interpellation and the right to express opinions. But what actually has become an issue is whether it is appropriate for the House to exercise the right of inquiry for the Corruption Eradication Commission. The Commission is a law enforcement agency and an independent institution, not part of the government. Is the action of the House of Representatives in exercising the right of inquiry in line with the will of the people it represents?

Resistance to the use of the House of Representatives’ right of inquiry for the Commission indeed has been strong. The open letter of 357 academics across numerous universities and disciplines is one form of this. These academics have very clearly captured the intention of the House of Representatives in using the right of inquiry as to weaken the Corruption Eradication Commission. The academics have rejected the use of the House’s right of inquiry for the Commission.

Presently, the Commission is investigating a case of alleged corruption involving the procurement of an electronic national identity card involving a number of House members, including House Speaker Rep. Setya Novanto (Golkar-East Nusa Tenggara) who has been banned from travelling overseas. The alleged loss to the public revenue is substantial.

A Kompas daily poll of Monday 8 May 2017 also contained the same message. As many as 58.9 percent of respondents felt the House decision to use the right of inquiry did not represent the interests of the community. While those who thought that it did represent the interests of the community amounted to 35.6 percent. The majority of respondents (72.4 percent) believed the use of the House right of inquiry into the Commission was related to the Commission’s investigation into the electronic identity card corruption case.

In the virtual world, one internet user, Virgo Sulianti Gohardi, garnered support for a petition against the right of inquiry on the site Change.org. As of midday Friday 30 May 2017, the petition had been signed by 44,350 people. Virgo targeted the petition to be signed by 50,000 people.

In terms of representation theory, the formation of the House of Representative Inquiry Committee for the Commission really does not have social legitimacy or has a very low level of representation. In addition, the Democrat Party (PD) House faction, the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) House faction, and the National Awakening Party (PKB) House faction have refused to join the Inquiry Committee.

“The Democrats are not responsible for anything in the Inquiry Committee,” said House Deputy Speaker from the Democrat Party Rep. Agus Hermanto (DP-Central Java) at the congress building while stressing that the Democrat Party does not agree with the Inquiry Committee for the Commission.

“We reject the weakening of the Corruption Eradication Commission through the inquiry. The Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) was being consistent by not sending any members, but the PKS is still critical of the Commission,” said Head of the PKS Advisory Council Rep. Hidayat Nur Wahid (PKS-Jakarta). National Awakening Party (PKB) party Chairman Rep. Muhaimin Iskandar (PKB-East Java) was also of the same opinion, rejecting the use of a House inquiry into the Commission.

History of House inquiries

The right of inquiry is a constitutional right of the House of Representatives. No one can deny this. Article 20A Paragraph 2 of the 1945 Constitution explicitly regulates the right of inquiry. During the period of parliamentary government in the 1950s, the issue of a right of inquiry was also provided for by Public Law No. 6 of 1954 concerning the Right of Inquiry.

Over Indonesia’s history, the right of inquiry was first used in 1959, starting with a resolution by RM Margono Djojohadikusumo that the House of Representatives use its right of inquiry for the government’s efforts to obtain and how it had used foreign exchange. As recorded by Subardjo in The Use of the Right of Inquiry by the Indonesian House of Representatives in Overseeing Government Policy, an inquiry committee during Prime Minister Ali Sastroamidjojo’s first cabinet (30 July 1953-12 August 1955) was given six months. However, this was subsequently extended twice and the committee completed its work in March 1956 during the administration of Prime Minister Burhanuddin Harahap’s cabinet (12 August 1955-24 March 1956). Unfortunately, the fate of this inquiry committee and its results are unclear.

During the New Order period, the House of Representatives also used the right of inquiry several times in relation to the Pertamina case. However, efforts to shake the New Order government failed and were rejected by a plenary session of the House. The New Order government was strong enough to prevent the use of the right of inquiry which had been initiated by Santoso Danuseputro (PDI) and HM Syarakwie Basri (FPP).

In the Reformasi (reform) era, the right of inquiry has also been used. However, all the targets of the right of inquiry have been the government and this is consistent with the legislation.

Legislation on the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR), House of Representatives (DPR), Regional Representatives Council (DPD) and regional legislative assemblies (DPRD) regulates the right of inquiry. Article 79 concerning the Rights of the House of Representatives provides among other things that the House of Representatives possesses the right of inquiry. The right of inquiry is the right of the House of Representatives to investigate the implementation of a law and/or government policy which is related to important, strategic matters and has a broad impact on the life of the community, nation and state which allegedly conflicts with the law. The legislation also provides that an inquiry committee has to be joined by all House of Representatives factions.

From a legality standpoint, the House of Representatives Inquiry Committee for the Commission also does not satisfy the aspect of  legality. Historically, the right of inquiry was given to the House of Representatives to investigate government policies which are in conflict with the law. Whether it was the New Order government or post-Reform governments, it has only been the current 2014-2019 House of Representatives which has innovated by using the right of inquiry for a national commission named the Corruption Eradication Commission. The Commission is not the government. The Commission is a law enforcement agency.

The law also requires that an inquiry committee draw members from all factions in the House of Representatives. Thus, when the Democrat Party (DP) House faction, the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) House faction, and the National Awakening Party (PKB) House faction did not send any representatives, the jurisdictional legitimacy of the Inquiry Committee became problematic.

Members of the public in the Healthy Indonesia Movement unfurled posters and banners in front of the offices of the Corruption Eradication Commission in Jakarta on Thursday (15/6). Consisting of writers, artists and anti-corruption activists, the crowd stated that they rejected the inquiry being rolled out by the House of Representatives.

From the political perspective, those who initiated the use of the right of inquiry are overwhelmingly from the parties which support the government. There are the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) House faction which is the main supporter of the government of President Joko Widodo together with the National Democratic Party (Nasdem) and the People’s Conscience Party (Partai Hanura). This coalition of government supporters is actually the group which has been keen to propose the use of the House right of inquiry.

Then there is President Jokowi. He has been placed in the position of a hostage by party officials of his own PDIP. President Jokowi has said he can not interfere in the affairs of the House of Representatives because an inquiry is the business of the House. President Jokowi hopes only that the Commission is still  strengthened.

President Jokowi’s attitude towards the Commission feels different this time. When there was conflict between the Corruption Eradication Commission and Indonesia’s National Police, and the public supported the Commission, President Jokowi demonstrated a firm political stance in support of the Commission. Likewise, when the Commission investigator Novel Baswedan was to be arrested, President Jokowi called loudly for Novel not to be arrested. However, this time President Jokowi is like a hostage, allowing the Commission to be de-legitimized by a coalition of his own supporters in the House of Representatives.

Will the Corruption Eradication Commission be paralyzed during the term of President Joko Widodo? History will record the answer.


Source: Akankah KPK Lumpuh di Era Presiden Jokowi?

The Role of the Indonesian Attorney General’s Office as dominus litis in the Fight Between the Corruption Eradication Commission and the Indonesian National Police

By Adery Ardhan Saputro S.H. (Researcher with the Indonesian Justice Monitoring Community of the University of Indonesia Faculty of Law – MAPPI FHUI), Thursday, 5 February 2015

Background

The chaos occurring now between two Indonesian law enforcement agencies, the Corruption Eradication Commission (Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi or KPK) and the Indonesian National Police (Polisi Republik Indonesia or POLRI), was triggered by the decision of the Corruption Eradication Commission to declare Police Commissioner General Budi Gunawan a suspect in a corruption investigation. Gunawan was also it should be noted candidate for promotion to the position of national police chief, announced by President Joko Widodo and approved by Commission III of the Indonesian House of Representatives. Several days later officers of the Indonesian National Police declared Deputy Head of the Corruption Eradication Commission Bambang Widjojanto a suspect in a criminal investigation in relation to allegations he had obtained false statements from a witness, in breach of Articles 242 and 55 of the Indonesian Criminal Code, during a Constitutional Court case concerning the disputed election for the District Head of West Kotawaringin Regency in Central Kalimantan Province in 2010.

Upon the arrest of Widjojanto, anti-corruption activists and members of the public reacted strongly, flocking to the Corruption Eradication Commission’s offices and protesting strongly over the police action, widely regarded as an arbitrary abuse of power. The storm of protest and controversy has even destabilize the country, evidenced by the statement of head of the Indonesian Armed Forces’ public relations unit Major General Fuad Basya that, “the military is ready to secure the Corruption Eradication Commission’s offices in the event the Police decide to raid the Commission.” President Joko Widodo on the other hand has not taken any meaningful action, afraid of appearing to intervene improperly in a law enforcement issue.

Friction between two investigative agencies is common in other countries. In the United States for example, a dust up over the authority to investigate narcotics cases between the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has broken out on a number of occasions. However, this friction doesn’t cause such serious problems because hierarchically both agencies are directly under the authority of the US Attorney General. The Attorney General in fact has a critical role and is vital to the criminal justice system. A situation such as the controversy now being referred to in Indonesia as “KPK vs POLRI” would not be possible in the United States.

Position and Duties of the Attorney General in Indonesia’s Code of Criminal Procedure

If we reflect on the situation in Indonesia, even though the Attorney General’s Office is generally seen as holding the position of dominus litis, in this controversy it has not taken any meaningful steps to act as intermediary in the fracas. This is clear from the statement of the head of the Attorney General’s public information office Tony Spontana that, “We are guided solely by the Code of Criminal Procedure and we don’t want to be drawn into the polemic. The Attorney General’s Office is currently preparing to issue a direction appointing an investigating prosecutor to be assigned to monitor developments in the investigation.”

From Spontana’s statement we can draw a number of conclusions. 1. The Attorney General’s Office can only monitor and issue directions in relation to the result of an examination of a case file prepared by the Police. 2. The Code of Criminal Procedure prohibits the Attorney General’s Office from becoming directly involved in an investigation conducted by the Police. 3. The relationship between the police as investigator and the Attorney General’s Office according to the Code of Criminal Procedure is limited to functional coordination only. In the light of this, based solely on the Code of Criminal Procedure, Spontana’s argument can be regarded as appropriate, which is to say the authority of the Attorney General’s Office is limited to only monitoring a police investigation and does not extend to the supervision of a police investigation into a case. This is because the principle of functional differentiation on which the Code of Criminal Procedure is founded is the root cause of the problem of frequent friction between the two investigative agencies.

In relation to the police case against KPK Commissioner Bambang Widjojanto, the principle of functional differentiation will lead to significant problems in the future especially for the institution of the Attorney General’s Office. The institution of an attorney general which investigates solely on the basis of case files alone without being permitted to conduct investigations directly can create obstacles to the presentation of  evidence during court hearings. Assuming the case file for the Bambang Widjojanto investigation is regarded as complete by the Attorney General’s Office, the Attorney General’s Office would issue a P-21 Form on the basis of evidence obtained during the investigation. Later at the trial phase, should it become known that in fact some of the items of evidence were obtained other than in accordance with the law, or even, that a certain number of witness statements provided to investigators had been coerced, this could have the implication that the provision of evidence by the prosecution was less than optimal with a reduction in the evidence available for use by the public prosecutor to prove the guilt of the accused.

Thus there is a need for a strong connection between public prosecutors and cases being brought against accused persons which is not simply limited to an examination of case files, or merely to the provision of guidance to investigators. Rather, prosecutors should be able to conduct investigations directly (opsporing) or at least be able to conduct follow-up investigations (nasporing) in relation to enquiries already undertaken by investigators. The aim of this would be for prosecutors to be able to establish how investigators obtained evidence in a case and at the same time to establishing whether a suspect really was a party worth taking to trial.

In contrast, the position and duties of the Attorney General’s Office as dominus litis is in fact very clear in the provisions of the Revised Indonesian Code (Herziene Indonesisch Reglement or HIR). While the HIR remained in force, an investigation was an inseparable part of a prosecution. This authority establishes the Prosecuting Investigator as public prosecutor to be both the coordinator of an investigation and also as having the ability to conduct its own investigations. As a result, the Attorney General’s Office was in the position of a key institution in the overall process of criminal law enforcement from beginning to end.

With the repeal of the HIR by the Code of Criminal Procedure, the authority of the Attorney General’s Office to conduct investigations (opsporing) has been de-legitimised indirectly by the Code. However, the authority of the Attorney General’s Office as dominus litis did not disappear immediately with the repeal of the HIR. This is because of Article 27, paragraph (1), subparagraph (d) of Law No. 5/1991 concerning the Attorney General’s Office which provides that: “(1) In the area of crime, the attorney general’s office has the task of and authority to: (d) complete a particular case file and for this supplementary inquiries can be conducted before being transferred to the court which in their conduct are coordinated by the investigator.”

This provision clearly affirms that the attorney general has the authority to conduct additional investigations (nasporing). This authority affirms that the attorney general continues to constitute the agency in control of a case even at the investigation stage. This is also provided for by Article 30 paragraph (1), subparagraph (d) of Law 16/2004 concerning the Indonesian Attorney General. So the attorney general does in fact have the authority to carry out additional enquiries (nasporing) and as a result, the attorney general has the authority to ensure that investigations carried out by investigators have been conducted properly.

Thus although the Criminal Procedure Code appears to provide for the attorney general having a merely functional coordinating role in investigations which are to be conducted by the police, in fact if one relies on Article 30, paragraph (1), subparagraph (d) of Law No. 16/2004, in fact the Attorney General is able to take action beyond that of merely monitoring the results of police investigations or examining case files based on witness testimony alone. Quite the contrary, the Attorney General’s Office may take a more important role in the process of the inquiry into the case of Commissioner Bambang Widjojanto by way of additional inquiries into the relevant witnesses or suspects.

Quite apart from the attorney general being able to conduct additional inquiries, the writer is of the view that there are still problems in our criminal justice system. This is illustrated by the possibility of conflict between law enforcement agencies in dealing with an investigation. The current dispute indicates that the differentiation and the independence of each law enforcement agency in handling cases represents a conceptual mistake. Because of this there is a need for change in the criminal justice system in Indonesia to minimize friction between law enforcement institutions.

Integrated Criminal Justice System Reform

Change in the roles and duties of the Attorney General’s Office has in fact been accommodated by the proposed Criminal Procedure Code Bill. This is evident from the provisions of Article 46, paragraph (3) and (4).

Article 46 paragraph (3): If the public prosecutor still finds deficiencies in relation to a case file, the public prosecutor may ask the investigator to conduct additional investigations by giving instructions directly or can conduct additional inquiries prior to transferring to the court the implementation of which is coordinated with the investigator.

Article 46 paragraph (4): In subsequent case inquiries if necessary certain legal action to facilitate the conduct of hearings in court or the execution of judicial decisions, the public prosecutor can take legal action himself or ask for investigation assistance to be conducted.

These two articles affirm that the public prosecutor represents the party in control of a case at the investigation stage, even though the case is conducted by a different agency. The writer would add that despite the expanded authority of the attorney general in coordinating investigations, the Bill is not yet able to make the position of the attorney general into that of mediator in the event that the problem of sectoral egos arises between law enforcement agencies in the conduct of a case.

In relation to this problem, solutions can be suggested from the example of criminal justice systems in other countries. Examples include: 1. Coordination between police and prosecutors in the Netherlands is provided for by the Wet Bijzondere opsporingsbevoegd-heden, the Special Powers of Investigation Act or BOB, which came into force on 1 February 2000. This provides that the public prosecutor’s office is the appropriate agency to lead a criminal investigation. 2. Changing the hierarchy and position of the attorney general in Indonesia to be like that in the United States. By positioning the attorney general to be at the same time the Minister of Justice representing the highest agency in control of a case and the use of one investigation warrant (Surat Perintah Pemeriksaan or SPP).

Hopefully the case between the Corruption Eradication Commission and the Indonesian National Police will create momentum for improvement in the criminal justice system in Indonesia. At the same time hopefully it will be a forum that demonstrates the role of the Indonesian Attorney General as the dominus litis agency which is in control of criminal cases. Finally it is to be hoped that reform of the criminal justice system and the future operation of the criminal justice system will be based solely on legal perspectives without being influenced by considerations of a political nature.


Graffiti

7

By Emha Ainun Nadjib

My God

I entrust myself

to the heart

I make a life ready

for the vibration

where courageous thoughts

are solely of the ultimate gift

which is the frailest

of all prayers

My God

in this my small cell

on this aging mat

as I behold the wooden shelves

books

buildings of an overcast civilization

having done battle in the deceiving sun

I lay down my thoughts

I lift up my heart

and wash

in Your hands.


Emha Ainun Nadjib.  99 untuk Tuhanku [99 For My God],  Pustaka Bandung  1983

6

By Emha Ainun Nadjib

My God
Extinguish not the fire
with a bare foot
but allow me to cross it.

My God
be pleased to permit me
in a world of fire
to attempt to tread
the boundary line
between vicious devils
with the source of drizzling rain.

My God
I beseech you remain alert
within my soul
spray forth the fire
which I may soak in my blood
and so shown forth may be
Your victory.

My God
make of me
part of that fire
which burns up the sun
revolving
opening the dawn of day.

My God
before my future day arrives
leadeth me
to be able to divine
which is the false flame
and which the fire true.

padi

Padi


Emha Ainun Nadjib.  99 untuk Tuhanku [99 For My God],  Pustaka Bandung  1983


The image is “The seal of Sultan Ahmad Tajuddin Halim Syah of Kedah.  The Arabic inscription reads: al-‘azīz dhū al-mulk al-qadīr al-ghālib ghayr al-maghlūb al-sultān khalīfat Allāh ‘alā dā’īrah Kedah wa-huwa al-Sultan Ahmad Tajuddin Halim Syah ibn al-Sultan Abdullah Mukarram Syah sanat 1219, ‘The mighty one, possessor of the kingdom, the powerful one, the conquering [yet] unconquered one, the sultan [who is the] vicegerent of God over the territory of Kedah, and he is Sultan Ahmad Tajuddin Halim Syah, son of Sultan Abdullah Mukarram Syah, the year 1219 (1804/5)’.  The seal is stamped on a letter from the Sultan to the Governor-General of Bengal, [Lord Minto], 26 Rabiulakhir 1226 (20 May 1811), pleading for protection against the Siamese.  British Library, MSS Eur.D.742/1, f.3.”  http://blogs.bl.uk/asian-and-african/2014/02/malay-ballad-from-kedah-the-naval-battle-for-phuket.html

Benteng di Batavia

Jakarta Unfair

“Human rights group ‘LBH Jakarta’ reported that the Jakarta city government destroyed 113 homes in 2015 and planned to destroy 325 more in 2016. At least 70% of the homes were demolished with no consultation or settlement.

Today many of the homes threatened with demolition have been razed. The excuse is always the same: law and order and urban normalization (green open space, weirs or river management) in the interests of a better life.

“Jakarta Unfair” sets out to test the theory of the Jakarta city government that life is better after your home has been demolished.”

From WatchDoc Documentary, Jakarta

Karyamin’s Smile

leftphotoBy Ahmad Tohari

Karyamin measured careful deliberate steps. The weight bearing down across his shoulders was a long supple bamboo pole with woven rattan baskets full of river rocks swinging pendulum like from each end. The steep dirt track leading up the river bank was wet from the sweat that had dripped from Karyamin and the other workers as they trudged up and down the bank hauling rocks from the river to the storage bay at the top.

        Long experience had taught Karyamin that he could make the climb to the top all right if he kept the centre of gravity for his body and the load either on the right, or on the left foot, and if he shifted it very carefully from one foot to the other. He had also learned that to maintain his balance he had to concentrate on each breath and every movement of his arms.

        Even so, Karyamin had slipped over twice that morning, collapsing in a heap and tumbling back down the trail followed by the rocks disgorging from his disheveled baskets. Every time Karyamin’s fellow rock collectors had doubled up in fits of laughter, pleased for the amusement that could be extracted from laughing at one another. This time Karyamin crept up the bank more cautiously. Despite his trembling knees, he gripped the earth with his toes as he went, every ounce of attention focused on maintaining his balance. Tension was visible on his face, sweat covered his body and poured through his shorts. Ridged veins bulged from his neck under the strain of the weight bearing down on his back and shoulders.

        And maybe Karyamin would have made it to the top, if it hadn’t been for that blasted bird! A kingfisher dived from a branch dangling above the river, splashed into the water and emerged with a small fish in its beak. The bird then darted whisker-close across the front of Karyamin’s face.

        “Damn!” cried Karyamin, feeling his balance begin to slip. He tottered momentarily, and then, collapsed, onto the ground surrounded by the clatter of his two baskets of disgorging rocks. Beginning to slide backwards down the slope, Karyamin pulled himself to a halt by grasping handfuls of grass. Four or five of Karyamin’s friends laughed together; the rock collectors pleased they could find some happiness in laughing at themselves.

        “Haven’t you had enough, Min? Go home,” urged Sarji, quietly jealous of Karyamin’s fulsome young wife.  “Your heart isn’t in it, you’ve been daydreaming all morning.

        “And it’s dangerous leaving that wife of yours by herself at home, Min. Remember those young bank workers who call in to the village every day? They’re not just after loan repayments from your wife! Don’t trust those loan sharks. Go on, go home. They’re probably trying to chat her up right now.

        “And it’s not just those young bank workers who have their eyes on your wife! Don’t forget the door-to-door lottery ticket hawker. I hear he’s always hanging around your place when you’re away. He isn’t just selling lottery tickets either; he’s got to be pushing some other kind of business too!!”

        The sound of laughter intermingled with the clatter of rocks landing on the edge of the river and the splash of water as the rock collectors moved around through the river. One large teak tree leaf lept from a branch and sailed down to land on the surface of the river. Impelled by the breeze, it began to move upstream in opposition to the current. Further up the river, three women were preparing to cross on their way home again from market. The rock collectors fell silent, entertained by the sight of the women gathering up their sarongs.

        Karyamin sat on the ground, stunned, staring at his empty disheveled baskets, the gentle breeze bringing goose bumps to his arms even though the sun was already starting to become hot. Then the same kingfisher again flew past just above his head. Karyamin was about to curse it but stars suddenly began to fill his eyes and a roar like the roar of swarming bees filled his ears, and he could hear his empty stomach rumbling full of nothing but wind. Everything in front of Karyamin turned yellow, bathed in bright dazzling light.

        Karyamin’s friends meanwhile had started guffawing about the women crossing the river. They had seen something wonderful, or something with the power to induce them to forget, even if just for a moment, the pain in their fingers made sore by scratching over the rocky riverbed; forget the rock trader who they had not seen for a fortnight after vanishing with a truckload of their rock, unpaid for; forget the woman selling packets of peanut-flavoured pecel salad and boiled rice wrapped in banana leaves who were going to arrive in the afternoon asking to be paid; forget the lottery tickets which, not for want of trying, they never won.

        “Min!” Sarji called out, “where’s your tongue? Take a look at those big white fish. They’re as big as thighs!”

        Everyone laughed again. The rock collectors really did find some joy in laughing at each other. But this time Karyamin didn’t join in the laughter; he settled on a smile. They could all laugh and smile together. That, all accepted, was their ultimate defence, a symbol of their victory over the traders, over the low price of rock, over the slipperiness of the steep climb up the river bank. That morning too, Karyamin’s smile was a sign of his victory; victory over his gnawing stomach and his blinding star-filled eyes.

        Karyamin had succeeded in creating an illusory paradise of victory by laughing and smiling in the face of his fate. The strange thing was, he felt so annoyed by the kingfisher flying back and forth over his head. For a moment he wanted to grab his bamboo pole and hit the bird, but suddenly he changed his mind. He realized that he would never be able to do that with all these stars swirling in front of his face.

        So Karyamin just smiled and got to his feet even though his head was still pounding, and the sky still seemed to be spinning. He picked up his baskets, then his pole, and then set to climb the bank again smiling wryly as he noticed he was stepping through the depression he had made in the earth where he had fallen a few moments earlier. At the top of the bank he stood for a moment, startled by the sight of the pile of rocks that didn’t yet amount to even a quarter of a cubic metre. Even so he had to head for home. Under a waru hibiscus, Saidah had laid out her food for sale, rice and packets of pecel salad. Karyamin swallowed and felt a knot form in his stomach.

        “Going home so early, Min?” asked Saidah. “Not feeling well?”

        Karyamin shook his head, then smiled. Saidah noticed his lips were quite blue, that the palms of his hands were pale, and, as he drew slightly closer that his stomach seemed to be making a noise.

        “Have something to eat, Min.”

        “No. A drink will be fine. Just look at how little you have to sell, and, anyway, I already owe you enough as it is.”

        “Yes, yes, Min. But you’re hungry, aren’t you?” asked Saidah.

Karyamin just smiled, then took the glass of boiled water Saidah was holding out. A warm comforting feeling swept over his throat and down through his stomach.

        “Won’t you have something to eat, Min? I can’t stand to see someone hungry. I don’t mind waiting for the money. I can wait till the rock trader shows up. He hasn’t paid for your rock yet, has he?”

        The kingfisher once again flashed past singing. Realizing that it was probably only searching for food for its babies, tucked away in a nest somewhere, Karyamin no longer felt hatred for the bird. He pictured the bird’s chicks huddled weakly in a nest that the bird had built in some sheltered ledge in the side of a cliff. The breeze began to blow again and teak tree leaves started to swirl through the air. Several glided down to land on the surface of the water. Compelled by the wind, the leaves always struggled upstream against the current.

        “So you really won’t have anything to eat, Min?” asked Saidah, as Karyamin stood up.

        “No. If you can’t stand to see me hungry, well I can’t stand to watch all your stock disappear with me and the others not being able to pay,” he replied.

        “Yes, yes, Min. But… “

        Saidah didn’t finish because Karyamin was already walking away. But she did catch sight of him turn and glance back at her. She noticed him smile. Saidah smiled back and swallowed anxiously. Something had stuck in her throat and she couldn’t make it go away. She watched Karyamin as he made his way along the narrow path winding through the undergrowth along the river basin. Karyamin’s friends called out friendly obscenities but he only stopped once, turning and beaming back to them a large smile.

        Before climbing up out of the river basin, Karyamin caught sight of something moving on a small branch overhanging the water. Oh it was the kingfisher again. Bright blue back, clean white chest, and sago-red beak. Suddenly the bird dived down plunging into the water. Then with a victim in its beak it shot past the rock collectors, rose to avoid a clump of tall reeds and vanished behind a clump of pandanus grass. Karyamin felt a sense of jealousy towards the bird, but as he looked at his two empty baskets he could only smile.

        Karyamin did not have any idea why he was going home. There wasn’t anything there that was going to stop the gurgling in his stomach. There was also no point his wife worrying. Oh yes, Karyamin remembered. His wife was a good reason to go home. Last night his wife hadn’t been able to sleep because of a boil right on the top of her backside.

        “So what’s wrong if I go home to look after my sick wife,” he thought.

        Karyamin tried to walk a little faster although from time to time he suddenly felt a dizziness and a sea of stars swam before his eyes. As soon as he reached the other side of the bamboo bridge he noticed a crisp ripe water guava. He was about to pick it from the tree but changed his mind when he noticed bat bite marks. He also saw snakeskin fruit scattered on the ground below a snakeskin fruit tree. He picked one from the tree, took a bite, then threw it as far as he could. The dry-bitter sourness of the unripe snakeskin fruit tasted like poison on his tongue. Karyamin continued. His ears rang as he ascended a small slope but he didn’t worry; this was the hill leading up to his house.

        Before he reached the crest of the slope he suddenly came to a stop. Two bicycles were parked at the front of his house. The ringing in his ears seemed to be growing louder; he seemed to be feeling dizzier. So he stopped, completely still, and stared. He thought of his sick wife having to deal with the two debt collectors from the bank. He knew she didn’t have the money to make today’s payments, or tomorrow’s, or the next day’s, or whenever’s; just as he had no idea when the rock trader who a month ago had taken their rock would show up again.

        Stars still swam in front of his face. Karyamin started to wonder whether coming home was such a good idea. He knew there was nothing he would be able to do; nothing he could do to help his wife deal with the two debt collectors. He turned round slowly ready to head back down the hill but Karyamin noticed a man coming up behind him wearing a long-sleeved batik shirt. The worn out reddish fez on the man’s head convinced Karyamin that this was the Village secretary.

        “Now I’ve finally caught you, Min. I’ve been calling in all morning looking for you but you’ve been out. Then I looked at the river but you weren’t there. You’re not trying to avoid me now, are you?”

        “Avoid you?”

        “Yes, you are being very difficult, Min. In this area you’re the only person who hasn’t made a contribution yet. You’re the only one who hasn’t put anything into the African Relief Fund to help starving people in Africa. Now, today is the last day and I won’t put up with any more silly business.”

        Karyamin could hear the sound of his own breathing, quietly, and also the rhythmic throb of his own heartbeat, but he couldn’t see the smile that began to spread over his lips. He smiled widely, deeply aware of his own condition and the situation that was now staring him in the face. Sadly, however, the Village secretary took Karyamin’s smile the wrong way and started to grow angry.

        “Are you laughing at me, Min?”

        “No, sir. Definitely not.”

        “Then what’s that smirk all about? Come on, hurry up and hand over your contribution to the fund.”

        But this time Karyamin didn’t just smile; he began to laugh out loud. He laughed so hard in fact that it reignited the beehive hum roaring in his ears and the world slowly dissolved into a sea of swirling stars in front of him and his stomach began to heave throwing him off balance.

        Seeing Karyamin stumble and start to tumble down the embankment back towards the valley, the Village secretary tried to catch Karyamin. Unfortunately, he failed.


(1) Senyum Karyamin was published in Kompas daily in July 1987.