Today's image is pure theatre. It shows the former son-in-law of the dethroned dictator Suharto, Prabowo Subianto, prancing in front of a half-filled Bung Karno stadium last Sunday.
Man of the poor and down-trodden is how he's portrayed himself recently, but he came across as the very model of a modern major-general, although Il Duce, the fascist Italian dictator who was lynched by the populace at the end of World War 2 comes readily to mind.
And that was my comment when I first saw the article in Monday's Jakarta Post. The same photo, and a few others can also be seen in Tempo, but it's the Post which has stirred up a lively two-sided debate.
This photo shows that the stadium was far from full, and that pleases me. One of the over 100 comments under the Post article suggests that Gerindra (Great Indonesia Movement Party) "spent more than Rp.1 billion to hire 1000 participants per 1 legislative candidate." That's Rp. 1 million each, a vastly increased sum compared to what other political parties pay to harness 'supporters' for their election rallies.
But then, there are few hard facts about Prabowo. He is widely castigated for his perceived role in the May '98 riots, and an alleged coup attempted shortly after Habibie succeeded Suharto. Yet, as others have pointed out, he may have been a fall guy, possibly set up by the USA – a chilling article.
Disappearances and torture of students, of labour activists, of 'terrorists' in East Timor (now labelled 'freedom fighters' following the new nation's independence and name change to Timor Leste).
All these, and more, can be added to the catalogue of human rights abuses perpetrated pre-reformasi by the armed forces under the command of desk-bound Wiranto, and the commander of the dreaded KOPASSUS (Special Forces Command) lead by Prabowo.
It must be noted here that last Sunday KontraS (The Commission for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence) held a press conference to publically state that neither Wiranto and Prabowo are on their 'clean list'. (in bhs Indonesia)
It is not my intention here to categorically state who did what, when and/or why: I'll leave that to historians and others more academically inclined than I. However, there is one particular incident in Prabowo's career which directly tainted my view of him.
One Saturday morning in 1996 (or 7), I was conducting Cambridge University English oral tests at the British Council. One candidate for the highest level (near native speaker fluency) was Henry Fournier, the (then former?) head of Indonesia's branch of the International Red Cross (ICRC.)
From January 8th to May 15th 1996, Organisasi Papua Merdeka (OPM), the liberation movement of Irian Jaya (now West Papua) held 26 people hostage. 15 were soon released, leaving 11 hostages, four Britons, five Indonesians and two Netherlanders.
The ICRC acted as a neutral humanitarian intermediary between the parties concerned as well as providing humanitarian assistance. When the leader of the hostage-takers, Kelly Kwalik, refused to budge from his demand that Irian Jaya should be granted independence, the ICRC could no longer act as intermediary, but could continue their humanitarian assistance.
The next day, the Indonesian army, under the command of Prabowo, moved in and rescued all but two of the hostages. These two, both Indonesians, were killed by local villagers as a reprisal for the killing of many of their menfolk by Prabowo's forces during the 'operational exercise'.
However, a key question remains, one that Monsieur Fournier expressed to me: did the white helicopter Prabowo's forces use have a red cross painted on it? The ICRC report was published in 1999.
There can be no doubt that the military forces that took action on 9 May 1996 in Ngesselema made perfidious use of the ICRC's role in the affair (i.e. the white helicopter). They may also have misused the emblem, though this has not been definitely proved.
You can see Prabowo, and hear from former hostages, Kelly Kwalik, Henry Fournier and the head of the ICRC in Geneva, and others, including local villagers, in this BBC investigatory documentary broadcast in 1999. It's on YouTube in three parts: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.
There is much more that can be written about Prabowo.
1. His business interests and ethics e.g. PT Nusantara v Churchill
2. His attitude towards workers (whose interests his political party now purports to represent.)
– In 2004, PT Kiani Kertas, a pulp and paper company in East Kalimantan part-owned by Prabowo, had to suspend production (again) for six months. (Did the workers go unpaid?)
– In 2005, PT Kiani Kertas was reported to be using his dreaded Kopassus trioops to provide 'security'.
– In August 2006, PT Kiani Kerta began a campaign of intimidation against the trade union federation of Forestry and Agriculture workers (HUKATAN-KSBSI). …………………………………………………………………………
As much and as often as he uses his western education to portray himself in articulate articles and letters to the media, it doesn't change my opinion of Prabowo.
He must never be entrusted with the presidency of a country which is slowly learning how to be truly independent from its colonial past. He was and, as proved by the photo above, still is, part of it.
Furthermore, much like his erstwhile mentor and father (in law) figure Suharto, would he use the presidency to line his own pockets?
Contrasting fortunes … an essay by Grace Ong worth reading.