In Indonesia, Presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto’s campaign has successfully managed damage control over his shady past, controlling the scope and terminology of criticism and the perception of criticism as politically motivated lies rather than rooted in fact.
But behind this new perception of successful businessman and steady-handed national guide lie many accusations that he has disobeyed superiors and committed human rights abuses in the pursuit of personal power. While these incidents have been alluded to during the campaign, rounding them up in one package paints a picture of a dangerous figure who may, either overtly or covertly, resort to further violence whether or not he wins the presidency.
The main criticism voiced in the media about Prabowo’s past is his kidnapping of activists in 1997-1998. For the average Indonesian, given the pace of the presidential campaign, it would be easy to perceive this as an isolated incident. But Prabowo’s entire military career was riddled with accusations of military insubordination and murder. Here are some of the accusations.
1983, East Timor: Many people believe Prabowo masterminded the Kraras Village massacre of September 1983, in which Indonesian soldiers murdered 287 villagers including women and children, in reprisal for the mass desertion of Timorese soldiers from the Indonesian army.
Nearby villagers say that two Timorese militia leaders known to have been Prabowo’s bodyguards had directed the killings. The survivors were reportedly rounded up into a kind of concentration camp, where an estimated further 1,000 died of starvation and disease. Prabowo is reported to have been one of the commanders at the time of the massacres and the concentration camp, though his exact role remains unclear.
Several years later, Prabowo is said to have privately indicated to a US journalist, Allan Nairn, that massacring civilians was okay as long as it was "in villages where no one will ever know, but not in the provincial capital!” He was also said to have argued that Indonesia was not ready for democracy.
In November 1991, some 200 unarmed East Timorese were shot dead during a funeral procession at Santa Cruz cemetery. A fact-finding team led by Gen. Feisal Tanjung deemed the massacre the responsibility of the Bali-based territorial commander, Gen. Sintong Panjaitan, and his Dili-based field commander, Rudy Warouw.
However Sintong maintains that the funeral procession was fired upon by unknown soldiers who were not under Warouw’s command. Sintong said that in the lead-up to the massacre, Prabowo frequently visited Dili even though he was no longer stationed in East Timor and that Prabowo's close friend, Lt. Col. Sjafrie Sjamsoeddin, then the deputy commander of Kolakops, a special operational unit, was supposed to provide support to Warouw. In this version, Prabowo orchestrated the massacre to sideline the careers of commanders with whom he was competing for promotion.
More neutral sources are also convinced of Prabowo’s involvement. Theo Sjafei, who took over as commander of the Kolakops unit in 1992, was reported to have said, “The commander of Korem 164 Rudy Warouw didn't know about the scheme because it was carried out by a commander below Warouw. That man was Sjafrie.”
Similarly, the Governor of East Timor at the time of the massacre, Mario Carrascalao, is said to have felt that Prabowo planned and ordered the massacre to derail the careers of particular Indonesian commanders.
It seems highly plausible that Sintong Panjaitan and Rudy Warouw did not consent to the massacre, especially given that one in the middle of the provincial capital would be highly risky to their career prospects and to Indonesia’s longer-term prospects in East Timor. Moreover, Prabowo had studied or served in the field with many of the commanders stationed in East Timor at the time, and his right-hand man Syafrie Samsudin is said to have visited one such commander on the night before the massacre.
So Prabowo and Syafrie were well-positioned to bypass normal lines of command. However there is much evidence that dozens of unarmed civilians were also executed in Dili in the days after the Santa Cruz massacre. The anti-Prabowo version of events is less clear about how Prabowo’s underlings could have carried out these follow-up executions without Sintong’s and Warouw’s consent. The evidence of Prabowo’s involvement is far from complete.
In 1998 in Jakarta– Prabowo was accused of a trifecta in the wake of economic chaos resulting from the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997: orchestrating deadly riots, unauthorized mobilization of troops around the president’s residence, and unauthorized kidnapping of activists.
On May 12 1998, while the soon-to-be-deposed Suharto was attending a meeting in Egypt, unknown marksmen fired on demonstrators at Trisakti University, killing four. The following day, the demonstrations escalated into riots but the targets were not the government. Instead the main target were Chinese businesses. In Jakarta, more than 1,000 people were estimated to have been killed, mainly from being trapped in burning buildings, and at least 152 women were raped.
Some investigators found evidence of planning at the highest levels and pointed to Prabowo as the likely orchestrator of both the Trisakti killings and the anti-Chinese riots. On Jan. 23 1998, he fuelled anti-Chinese sentiment by urging fellow Muslims to “close ranks” against "traitors" who took their money abroad. One study also identified numerous cases of provocateurs being deployed to turn anti-government protests into anti-Chinese riots in Medan, Solo and Jakarta.
However, the same study suggested this may have been a broadly-based military tactic to deflect blame away from Suharto, and noted that the anti-Chinese statements were made not just by Prabowo but by two other senior generals. It seems likely that Prabowo helped incite the riots but further investigation is needed to determine whether his motive was personal power or more nationalistic, and whether he acted with the consent of other senior generals.
Former Indonesian President BJ Habibie, who took over at Suharto’s fall, felt Prabowo was trying to launch a coup against him when Prabowo, against direct orders from his superiors, sent his troops to surround Habibie’s residence on the night of May 21, 1998. It is still unclear whether Prabowo really intended to launch a coup, but what’s clearer is that Armed Forces Commander Wiranto had opposed the mobilization of Prabowo’s troops.
Even Prabowo’s long-time ally, retired Gen. Kivlar Zen, admits that Prabowo ignored clear clear instructions from Wiranto not to mobilize his troops in central Jakarta. When Prabowo’s forces moved to surround Habibie’s residence, their commander was Syafrie Samsudin, the same Prabowo ally who had been suspected of organizing the Santa Cruz massacre in Dili six and a half years earlier. It is no wonder that Habibie ordered Prabowo vanquished to a desk job the next day.
When Prabowo’s dismissal from the military was signed in August 1998, insubordination was given as the reason, and the case cited was his unauthorized kidnapping of activists in early 1998. Prabowo in 2000 admitted he had kidnapped nine. Similarly, in June 2014 Prabowo said the kidnappings had been authorised by his superiors.
However in April 2014, when asked about 13 other activists who had gone missing in 1997-1998 and were never seen again, the deputy chairman of Prabowo’s Gerindra party said that they had been abducted by an “unknown perpetrator.” This version seems difficult to reconcile with freed activists’ claims that they were locked up together with some of the 13. One explanation is that the activists were released by Prabowo then all recaptured by someone else before they had reached their homes, but the more plausible explanation is that these 13 activists were killed by somebody while in Prabowo’s custody.
Prabowo’s record of torturing fellow Indonesians also looks dubious. In a television interview several years ago, Prabowo did not deny that the activists he kidnapped in 1998 had been tortured, but he said: “I never ordered the torture. It’s completely against my policy.”
However, Timorese captives from earlier encounters with Prabowo attest that he was happy to conduct torture personally. One captive recalled, “For two hours he broke every conceivable thing over my body. He threw beer crates, a petrol lamp, beat me with sticks and punched and kicked me." Another captive recalled that Prabowo had personally broken his legs and teeth.
It’s not clear who bears ultimate responsibility for the riots, extra-judicial killings and kidnappings of 1998. But it’s clear that Prabowo, against the express orders of the Indonesian Armed Forces commander, mobilized troops in Jakarta. And it’s clear that Suharto’s inner circle of generals, as well as Suharto himself, agreed to Prabowo’s dismissal.
The Indonesian media has largely presented the conflict between Prabowo and his critics as two military factions competing to gain power. But closer inspection suggests quite a diverse group of former Prabowo allies, and that the main thing they share is a perception that Prabowo has been prepared to kill hundreds of unarmed fellow-Indonesians and disregard normal military channels of authority in order to gain personal power.
Certainly the 2014 presidential election has polarized Indonesia’s retired generals, including many who worked alongside Prabowo during his days in the Indonesian special forces, Kopassus. Former special forces commander Sintong Panjaitan felt Prabowo had engineered the Santa Cruz massacre to destroy Sintong’s career. Another Kopassus officer, Major Luhut Panjaitan, also fell out with Prabowo after they served together in East Timor. Luhut is now one of the retired generals publicly supporting the Jokowi-Jusuf Kalla camp. Asked why, Luhut answered simply because he knew Prabowo’s temperament. Luhut also advised people to read Sintong Panjaitan’s book.
Another former Kopassus officer now opposed to Prabowo is Major Gen. Muchdi PR, in fact one of Prabowo’s closest allies during the Suharto era. He was also a senior official in Prabowo’s Gerindra party both during and after Muchdi went on trial for the murder of well-known human rights activist Munir. However after falling out with Prabowo, Muchdi left Gerindra in 2011. And even after his new party, the Islamic party PPP, turned to support Prabowo in the July 2014 presidential election, Muchdi refused to support Prabowo.
Two other former Kopassus officers have been particularly outspoken during the 2014 presidential campaign. AS Hendropriyono previously served as a minister under Habibie and as head of Indonesia’s national intelligence agency (BIN) under President Megawati. He recently deemed Prabowo a “psychopath” and mentally unfit to become president. A more detailed criticism has come from Sumatran-born Gen. Samsudin, no relation to to Prabowo’s right hand man, Gen. Syafrie Samsudin. He recently listed Prabowo’s many cases of ill-discipline and concluded that Prabowo suffered from megalomania.
Prabowo’s dismissal from the military in August 1998 was signed by a different set of generals: Fachrul Razi, Djamari Chaniago, now-President Susilo B. Yudhoyono, Yusuf Kartanegara, Agum Gumelar and Arie J. Kumaat. And before deciding to dismiss Prabowo, Habibie consulted not just with Wiranto but also with senior generals Subagyo Hadisiswoyo and Feisal Tanjung. They also green-lighted the dismissal.
Since 1998, the generals have gone in different directions politically, favoring parties as diverse as PDIP, the Democrats, Hanura, Golkar and the Islamic PPP. What has united them in recent months is concern about Prabowo gaining power, and if many Indonesians dismiss the generals’ criticisms of Prabowo as politically motivated lies, that is a victory for Prabowo’s media team.
Figures have been bandied about of 170 retired generals supporting presidential rival Jokowi and 200 retired mid-to-senior level officers supporting Prabowo. These sheer numbers raise questions about why so many retired officers are not supporting a presidential candidate with a military background.
But presentation of the Prabowo-Wiranto conflict as simple gamesmanship between two military factions has been achieved by hiding the fact that former allies who have fallen out with Prabowo are not just senior military people. Former East Timor Governor Mario Carrascalao believes Prabowo engineered the murder of hundreds of East Timorese civilians in November 1991 in order to blame Panjaitan.
Prabowo even ended up falling out with Suharto and Suharto’s family. Prabowo himself admitted that when he met Suharto on 15 May 1998, Suharto had turned cold toward him. He intimated that it was because he had met leaders of the reform movement the previous night, though it seems more likely that Suharto’s attitude was formed based on multiple incidences. When Prabowo visited Suharto’s family residence on 20 May 1998, Suharto’s daughter Mamiek reportedly said to Prabowo, “You traitor. Never set foot in my house again.”
Recent sources say Prabowo’s separation from his wife Titiek, who was another of Suharto’s daughters, was due to “political reasons.”
If so many different people and groups have fallen out with Prabowo, it seems unlikely that they are all part of a single faction or part of a conspiracy against him. It seems more likely that they have good reason for not trusting him.
How might Prabowo react, overtly and covertly, if he loses the election? How might anti-Prabowo forces, both within the military and civil society, react if he wins the presidency?
The author, Warren Doull, has worked in East Timor and Indonesia for many years