Of the three men who seek to be Indonesia’s next president one stands out, and not for the right reasons.
This article is a summary of a comprehensive backgrounder on Prabowo Subianto.
While Australia switches off to take its long summer break and is largely indifferent to what’s happening next door, Indonesia is seized by election fever. On 14 February 2024, over 200 million Indonesians will decide who to elect as their new president, members of parliament, provincial and municipal representatives.
Of the three men who seek to be Indonesia’s next president, one stands out. Not because he is Indonesia’s Barack Obama but for less flattering reasons. The candidate in question is Prabowo Subianto.
Prabowo differs from his competitors, Ganjar Pranowo and Anies Baswedan, in significant ways. These include his pre-reformasi connection to the discredited Suharto era, his military record, particularly during Indonesia’s war in East Timor, his disregard for the rule of law and suspect human rights record. In addition, Prabowo has run for high office at least twice before but has never been elected to any position or had legislative experience.
By contrast, his rivals are far less shopworn, a shortcoming Prabowo is trying to compensate for by appointing a much younger Indonesian as his running mate. The much younger Ganjar and Anies come from civil society, have strong academic, legislative and governance credentials, are not compromised by human rights accusations and were not involved in violence in East Timor.
They represent the fresh, post-reformasi, modern Indonesia that can showcase the best of Indonesia and position it to be the kind of leader the world needs.
Prabowo’s democratic deficits are referenced in the Indonesian media, particularly social media. Oddly, however, Indonesian media is largely silent on his record in East Timor. This omission serves Prabowo, but not the electorate, well. It leaves voters in the dark about an extended period that reveals a lot about his practices and values which, arguably, may characterise his presidency were he to be elected. I do not wish to tell Indonesians how to vote. But to exercise one’s democratic duty responsibly, voters should have access to the full picture in order to judge whether a candidate is fit and proper to lead their important nation and represent it to the world.
Based on evidence presented to it, East Timor’s truth and reconciliation commission, known as CAVR, concluded that the Indonesian military, and the Kopassus Special Forces in particular, were responsible for committing crimes against humanity and war crimes during Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor, 1975-1999.
As a member then a commander of Kopassus, Prabowo undertook at least four tours of duty in East Timor. These are referenced in the attached backgrounder. They show Prabowo to have been anything but an innocent or bit player.
The CAVR report points to Prabowo’s repeated, but shadowy, appearances in East Timor. These in turn demonstrate his disregard for human rights, the rules of war (that we are hearing so much about in the current context of Israel’s offensive in Gaza), and on occasion insolence towards his own superiors. He is said to have bypassed the local commander in East Timor in 1983 in order to undermine a peace process. On another occasion he was ordered out of East Timor by his superior. And, consistent with his unconventional methods, he cloned East Timorese militia to do his dirty work.
Was it any surprise then that he was dishonourably discharged for the kidnapping of pro-reformasi protestors in Jakarta in 1998? Or that three US presidents banned him from the US for violating human rights in both Indonesia and East Timor? For those prepared to look, the pattern was already clear. Prabowo is a man prepared to bend or ignore principle and to use his military and high-level connections in his interests.
Prabowo denies these accusations. His self-defence includes claims that Indonesia only intervened to help settle an ‘internal conflict’ in East Timor. Were this true, one is entitled to observe that taking 24 years to sort out a so-called ‘internal conflict’ in a small country that, unlike Indonesia, did not receive any external military assistance, does not say much for the competence of the Indonesian military, the Kopassus ‘special forces’ or indeed Prabowo, one of its officers.
He also claims that he was not around at the time various violations were committed. It is true that he was not in East Timor in 1999 when the dogs of war were fully unleashed giving rise to findings by four separate inquiries that gross human rights violations were again committed against East Timorese civilians in the presence of the international community.
Two of these inquiries were Indonesian. Both found that the Indonesian military was responsible. The joint Indonesian/Timor-Leste Commission for Truth and Friendship (CTF) concluded: ‘Pro-autonomy militia groups, TNI, the Indonesian civilian government, and Polri must all bear institutional responsibility for gross human rights violations targeted against civilians’.
Prabowo was not named. But it is self-evident that, like it or not, the Indonesian military and other institutions mentioned by CTF did not suddenly emerge in East Timor in 1999 or only start behaving badly then any more than the war between Palestine and Israel started on October 7 when Hamas assaulted that music festival. As CTF observed: ‘The events of 1999 cannot be understood in isolation from the longer period of conflict that occurred in East Timor… The nature of the violence that occurred in 1999 was shaped by previous patterns of conflict’.
As my longer backgrounder demonstrates, Prabowo was part of these ‘previous patterns of conflict’, including as one of their creators. As such, he bears shared responsibility for the fate of hundreds of civilians who endured ‘crimes against humanity’, a shocking term. We are not talking traffic infringements or lapses in etiquette here. Unpacked, these crimes that offend the very essence of civilised humanity included starvation, forced displacement (including of children), rape, torture, killings, imprisonment and forced displacement.
The vast majority of Indonesians bear no responsibility for these excesses. As I have written elsewhere: ‘(Indonesia’s East Timor) campaign was an injustice to them as well. Living under a dictatorship, they were not consulted or told the truth (and still aren’t). But as patriotic Indonesians they had to suffer the embarrassment of international condemnation for events beyond their control. Through no fault of their own, a beautiful people and country have been left diminished’.
A truth-telling process in Indonesia is needed. I say this acutely aware that a truth-telling exercise in consciousness-raising is only now commencing in Australia in relation to the impact of our colonial past on Indigenous peoples.
The deeply regrettable downside of this overdue process in Indonesia is that a person with demonstrated disregard for the rule of law, of both the domestic and international kind, and regarded by many as a war criminal, may be elected Indonesia’s next president.
Pat Walsh is co-founder of Inside Indonesia magazine and was an adviser to East Timor’s CAVR (Comissão de Acolhimento, Verdade e Reconciliação) and its successor bodies. The Backgrounder on Prabowo Subianto can be found on his website.