Medan, Indonesia – Indonesians are questioning the source of a mid-level tax official’s wealth after a video appearing to show his university student son beating up a teenager led internet sleuths to expose his family’s ostentatious lifestyle.
The finances of Rafael Alun Trisambodo, a tax official in Jakarta, came under scrutiny after a 57-second video of his son Mario Dandy Satriyo punching, kicking and stamping on the head of a 17-year-old teen went viral online last month.
The alleged victim, the ex-boyfriend of Satriyo’s current girlfriend, has been in a coma in hospital since the attack.
After the video spread online, Indonesian internet users tracked down social media posts by Satriyo showing the student driving a Harley Davidson motorcycle and Jeep Wrangler SUV, which are both worth multiples of an average Indonesian salary, prompting questions about how his family would be able to afford the vehicles on a civil servant’s pay.
On Friday, Indonesian finance minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati said in a statement that Trisambodo had been suspended while an investigation into his wealth was carried out.
Indrawati also appealed to Indonesians to not let the controversy put them off from paying their taxes.
Trisambodo was questioned on Wednesday by Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission about the source of his wealth, which is reported to be 56 billion Indonesian rupiahs ($3.67m).
The finance ministry has refused to accept Trisambodo’s resignation, citing the need to establish whether he is guilty of wrongdoing and should be dishonourably fired, which would strip him of his pension.
Alexander Arifianto, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore, said the case has caused a public uproar due to a widespread perception that Indonesian officials are not held to the same standards as everyone else.
“People hear news about high-level officials and their families riding around on Harleys, owning luxury cars and other luxury products, so they feel that there is one rule applying to officials and another rule for the public,” Arifianto told Al Jazeera.
Arifianto added that the timing of the controversy was especially fraught, as Indonesians have to file their tax returns before the end of March.
Indonesia’s tax rates range from 5 to 35 percent, depending on earnings. The Ministry of Finance last month announced that Indonesia had collected 162 trillion Indonesian rupiahs ($10.6bn) in tax in January 2023, up nearly 50 percent year-on-year.
“People are getting upset since they are expected to pay taxes and comply with the tax rules, but their tax money ends up subsidising the lifestyle of these senior tax officials. This is why there is so much outrage regarding this case now,” Arifianto said.
Indonesia ranked 110 out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s 2022 Corruption Perceptions Index, a fall of 14 places from the previous year.
“We see corruption not just in the tax office but across many other government sectors. The Corruption Eradication Commission often focuses on cases that have caused state losses directly from the state budget, but outside that are many other instances of corruption of state funds such as misappropriation of tax monies,” Kamal Pane, an Indonesian lawyer who specialises in corruption cases, told Al Jazeera.
Pane said authorities needed to be able to explain how the tax official came by his wealth.
“The Godfather by Mario Puzo starts with a quote by Balzac that says: ‘Behind every great fortune is a crime,’” he said. “That is the issue here. It has to be clear where the money comes from.”
At a press conference on Wednesday, Pahala Nainggolan, a senior official at the Corruption Eradication Commission, said questions about Trisambodo’s finances had been raised before and that he had first been investigated in 2018.
“In terms of administration in the field, it was OK, in terms of his bank accounts and those of his wife and child, those were all correct. But with that amount of wealth and so much activity with his bank accounts, we thought something wasn’t right,” Nainggolan said, adding that the commission felt at the time that it did not have enough evidence to continue to investigate.
Nainggolan said a team of investigators was recently sent to North Minahasa in North Sulawesi and to Yogyakarta in Java to investigate businesses and homes purportedly belonging to Trisambodo and his family, and that inquiries are ongoing.
Trisambodo’s son is not the only figure with a connection to the government who has been accused of inappropriately flaunting wealth.
On Sunday, Indrawati, the finance minister, said Tax Directorate General (DJP) officials should immediately disband a motorcycle riding club they had formed as the attention it was receiving risked bringing the tax authorities into disrepute.
“Even if the large motorcycles were obtained using clean money or official salaries, driving them around and flaunting them is unbecoming for officials and employees of tax offices and the Ministry of Finance,” she wrote in a post on Instagram.
While the fallout for the tax authorities continues, the teen who was attacked on video remains in a coma, and his family has reportedly applied to enter the witness protection programme given the high-profile nature of the case and those involved.
Satriyo has been arrested and named a suspect in the case along with his friend, 19-year-old Shane Lukas Rotua, who allegedly filmed the video of the assault. Both face up to five years in prison for aggravated assault if found guilty.
Arifianto, the RSIS fellow, said the public’s cynicism about special treatment for the country’s elites extended to the legal process involving Trisambodo’s son.
“People suspect the tax official’s son might get away with only a slap of the wrist from assaulting [the teen], yet if it was an ordinary person who had done it, they would face severe penalties,” Arifianto said.