The comeback kid heads to Washington
Champions of Donald Trump’s style of politics will warm to Prabowo Subianto. They’ll understand why Washington is forgetting Indonesia’s Defence Minister was once banned from the US and Australia for alleged human rights abuses, and get onside with another tough.
Now the blacklist has been burned. This month Prabowo (as he’s publicly known without inferring intimacy) is scheduled to visit the US after earlier making trips to Russia and China. As reported in this column earlier, these arms-shopping jaunts have made Washington fear the world’s third-largest democracy is warming to Beijing despite its South China Sea claims.
Presumably the invitee will get an earbashing similar to that of FM Marise Payne when she met State Secretary Mike Pompeo in July and again this month; he fumed against Communist ‘exploitation, corruption and coercion’ and ‘malign activity’ in the region.
If Pompeo asks Indonesia to join his ‘alliance of democracies’ Prabowo might want to plagiarise Payne’s response: ‘The relationship we have with China is very important, and we have no intention of injuring it ...We make our own decisions, our own judgments in the Australian national interest, and about upholding our security, our prosperity, and our values.’
Although not his job (the FM is professional diplomat Retno Marsudi) Prabowo can also remind his host that Indonesia’s non-alignment policy forbids defence pacts and military alignments – although joint military exercises are allowed. Indonesia bans Communism but it’s deeply in debt to China through infrastructure loans and trade.
It’s also the recipient of Beijing’s so-called ‘vaccine diplomacy’. FM Wang Yi has reportedly told Indonesian minister Luhut Binsar Panjaitan that ‘China is willing to work with Indonesia on vaccine research, production and distribution, and support exchanges of relevant departments and medical institutes to help ensure access to affordable vaccines across the region and around the world.’
Luhut, another former general, is Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investment and close to President Joko Widodo.
Prabowo is Indonesia’s Il Duce who likes to parade on horseback in knee-high boots and cowboy hat. He could again try for the top job of the world’s fourth most populous nation at the 2024 election. By then he’ll be 73 in a country where the life expectancy for men is around 70 (83 in Australia), and the poli is almost as plump as Kim Jong-un.
Yet he remains raving ambitious, driven by a sense of destiny which darts past some truly awful notes on his CV. These include being dishonourably discharged from the military in 1998 by the Dewan Kehormatan Perwira (Officers’ Honour Council) for ‘misinterpreting orders’ relating to the kidnapping of anti-Suharto pro-democracy student activists.
In 1997 and 1998, KONTRAS (Commission for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence) reported 23 young men had been abducted by Tim Mawar (Rose Team) from the army’s special forces unit Kopassus.
One was found dead, nine were released and 13 are still missing. The commander of the 27,000-strong Army Strategic Reserves denied all charges. But at the inglorious end of his military career Prabowo fled to exile in Jordan.
Before Covid-19 clampdowns on protests, members of the Indonesian Association of the Families of Missing Persons regularly demonstrated outside the Presidential Palace in Jakarta.
Prabowo Subianto Djojohadikusumo is an aging prince of the Jakarta oligarchy, a mega-rich Java blue-blood reputed to have an explosive temper, untested by this journalist as interview requests are ignored.
However, The Guardian’s Kate Lamb does know. Last year she scored an audience in his private jet during the presidential campaign which he lost to the civilian Widodo 55.5 – 44.5 per cent. He was also humiliated in the 2014 election by Widodo 53.15 - 46.85.
Lamb reported Prabowo ‘exudes a complex kind of swagger, he is clever, charismatic and also, a bit erratic.
‘After asking a series of questions about whether he is playing identity politics, cosying up to Islamist hardliners for political gain, an exasperated Prabowo unleashes a tirade.
‘I am not somebody who is afraid of white people,’ he thunders, slamming a saucer down onto the polished wooden table in front of him.
‘Don’t come and teach me democracy! Don’t teach me politics of identity, I know! I was a commander, I had Christian soldiers, Hindu soldiers, die under my command. You think I am going to betray them?’
After that outburst (he later apologised) Lamb presumably didn’t get a chance to ask about the fate of the 13 students. In any case he’s long denied involvement.
Till their divorce in 1998 Prabowo was married to second president Soeharto’s second daughter Titiek. The union produced one son Didit Hediprasetyo, 36, who was educated in the US. He now lives in Germany and works as a fashion and industrial designer where he’s known as a socialite. He’s not married and his dad has not remarried or been linked romantically to any women.
Prabowo’s father was Sumitro Djojohadikusumo, a French-educated economist and academic who served in Soekarno and Soeharto cabinets. He also worked in Europe where teenage Prabowo was schooled in London.
His mother Dora Marie Sigar was a Protestant from North Sulawesi, diluting her son’s claim to being a pure Muslim. His younger brother Hashim has reportedly converted to Christianity.
Such issues are important in Indonesia where family history and religion dominate public talk . There’s no space for atheists and agnostics, and for those who are it’s best to stay in the closet.
After returning from Jordan Prabowo joined Hashim’s paper and pulp business which owns or has concessions over 12,000 square kilometres in East Kalimantan, the province chosen (before the pandemic) as the site to build a new capital.
Prabowo’s Nusantara Group reportedly controls 27 companies involved in energy and primary production. Last year the General Elections Commission gave his net worth as ‘Rp 1,952,013,493,659’ (AUD 185 million). Hashim is supposed to have almost six times more.
Despite his post-army career as a successful capitalist Prabowo also portrays himself as a protector of the wee folk as president of a farmers’ association and a market traders’ NGO.
After losing last year’s bitterly fought presidential election Prabowo initially refused to accept the result. Supporters of his party Gerindra (Great Indonesia Movement) rioted in Jakarta. Eight died and hundreds were injured.
To universal surprise Widodo then offered his rival the Defence portfolio, sold as an ultra-smart move neutering opposition. The crude Lyndon Johnson quote about FBI head J Edgar Hoover (1895-1972) is relevant: ‘It's probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in’.
The other view is that Widodo should have let Prabowo, having strutted and fretted his hour upon the stage, to be heard no more, retire to his ranch and breed Lusitano horses.
Instead he has a platform and credibility as a senior minister with a government credit card, welcomed in Moscow, Beijing and now Washington. Next stop Australia?
First published in Pearls and Irritations, 15 October 2020: