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Aid for Indonesia's buffeted police

Efforts to regain public trust and cut vigilantism include foreign training and watchdog groups.

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The accused: a man suspected of stealing a motorbike. The judge and jury: a group of men at the market. The punishment: being doused with gasoline and set on fire.

"I've seen it several times," says Eko Wahyu, a driver who described the grisly street-justice scene. "People are taking the law into their own hands, because if they go to the police, they know the cops will just be paid off with a bribe."

In a nation struggling to cope with economic deterioration, separatism, ethnic violence, and a political crisis that could lead to the impeachment of its president, Indonesia's police force looks like a sputtering vehicle that is failing to transport the country into more stable times.

But several local and foreign initiatives aimed at making the police more accountable and training them to better handle major civil disturbances give some here hope that Indonesia can avert a complete breakdown of law and order.

Policewatch, a civilian watchdog group in Jakarta, says it has seen an upsurge in vigilantism, but declined to provide exact figures. "Every day in Jakarta, there's a case like that," says lawyer Adnan Pandrupaja, a founder of Policewatch, of on-the-spot attacks. "Over 100 rupiahs, people are killing each other. Not for the money, but from the emotional frustration. What's missing in this country is trust, from the president on down to the police. When something happens, people try to solve the problem - instantly."

A group such as Policewatch would not have been allowed to operate under the paternalistic rule of former President Suharto, who was in power for 32 years. But some say the absence of that kind of authority has turned into freedom run amok. Criminals have no fear of being caught, and police have no credibility.

"We used to be under the thumb of an authoritarian system, and now we've got the extreme opposite," says Khrar Nusa Bhakti, a military and police analyst at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences. President Abdurrahman Wahid's move toward regional autonomy, an attempt to placate separatists, is in some places being supplanted by a kind of anarchy. The recent ethnic cleansing by Dayaks of Madurese in Borneo, Dr. Bhakti says, is a prime example.

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