S ource: Vancouver Sun
It is an almost inconceivable political resurrection, but the man widely held responsible for some of the worst human rights abuses of the last years of the Indonesian dictatorship of President Suharto is the front-runner to win the presidency himself.
Maj. Gen. Prabowo Subianto, the son-in-law Suharto, has in the 14 years since the collapse of the old regime refashioned himself beyond belief.
From the personification of all that was vile and violent in the final decade of the Suharto regime, Prabowo has been reborn as a successful businessman, leader of the Great Indonesian Movement Party (Gerindra), and front-running contender for the presidency in elections due in 2014.
That prospect got a boost last week with a win against expectations for the candidate he backed in elections for the mayor of the Indonesian capital, Jakarta.
In siding with Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, Prabowo cast himself as a populist champion of the downtrodden.
But for those with sound memories, one of the most significant aspects of the Prabowo endorsement was Joko’s running mate, Basuki Tjahaja “Ahok” Purnama. Ahok is ethnic Chinese and Prabowo has a record of being violently and vehemently anti-Chinese and the community’s perceived grip on the key elements of the Indonesian economy.
In the final days of the Suharto regime Prabowo publicly urged Indonesians to join him in confronting “traitors to the nation.” Then in May 1998, Prabowo’s troops assembled and organized gangs of thugs who attacked and burned scores of Chinese businesses in Jakarta.
About 1,000 people died in the managed riots.
Sofyan Wanandi, a leading ethnic Chinese businessman, recounted in an interview with author Adam Schwartz how Prabowo once said to him he was prepared to “drive all Chinese out of the country, even if that sets the economy back 20 or 30 years.”
But now Ahok seems confident enough that Prabowo’s anti-Chinese feelings are a thing of the past that he has joined the Gerindra party.
Polls indicate the other main contender for the presidency will be the leader of the Golkar party and one of Indonesia’s most successful businessmen, Aburizal Bakrie, who like Prabowo has already declared his candidacy.
There is now speculation that current President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his Democratic Party might forge a strategic alliance with Prabowo to keep Bakrie out.
Subtlety and nuance are well-known Indonesian cultural characteristics, but given the history, such an alliance pushes the boundaries of political artistry.
Prabowo comes from an aristocratic Javanese family with roots in the country’s fight for independence against the Dutch in the 1940s and 1950s.
He trained at the country’s military academy in the early 1970s and by the end of that decade was leading commandos suppressing the independence movement in East Timor, the former Portuguese colony illegally occupied by Indonesia.
In the early 1990s, Prabowo, by now a major-general commanding special forces called Kopassus, employed the deception tactic of using irregular troops and local militias to attack villages suspected of harbouring separatists.
These bloody operations were the subject of many charges of human rights abuses by international organizations, as were operations led by Prabowo against separatists in Papua, the Indonesian western portion of the island of New Guinea.
Perhaps to deflect the sustained international heat, in the late 1990s Prabowo was appointed head of the Army Strategic Reserve Command, known as Kostrad and the main garrison of the capital, Jakarta.
In May 1998, in the final moments before Suharto resigned and the country moved unsteadily towards democracy, there was a grim standoff in Jakarta.
Prabowo moved his 27,000-strong Kostrad troops into position in the capital in what looked like preparation for a coup.
But Army Commander Gen. Wiranto, who like many Indonesians uses only one name, is a cool-headed warrior. His troops with heavy armour quietly circled the city over two or three days.
Prabowo backed down, was dismissed from the military and went into exile in Jordan where the new monarch, King Abdullah, was a kindred spirit in the exclusive brotherhood of commanders of special forces commandos.
When the dust had settled Prabowo returned to Indonesia, set up in business and in the early 2000s entered politics.
In 2009 he ran unsuccessfully as the vice-presidential candidate with former president Megawati Sukarnoputri against Yudhoyono.
But though the polls look good now, many in Indonesia, including aggrieved officials in his own Gerindra party, remember Prabowo’s record and doubt if the leopard has changed his spots.