Control the past – then the future. Thus spoke Orwell

Jun 29, 2024
Former general Prabowo Subianto attend for the Inauguration ceremony of Indonesian President, Joko Widodo, and Vice President, Ma'ruf Amin at the House of Representative building, Jakarta on October 20, 2019. Joko Widodo has been re-elected as Indonesian President for period for 2019-2024 with Ma'ruf Amin as Vice President. Image: Alamy / Aditya Irawan/NurPhoto

It’s been argued that Indonesia’s next President may be good for Australian interests; for domestic progressives that’s doubtful.

It’s not just computer apps that get updated. Indonesian President Joko ’Jokowi’ Widodo is fiddling with the future by rewriting history and binning the past. It’s a task made easier by voter ignorance.

The remake started when Jokowi made Prabowo Subianto – his main rival in the 2014 and 2019 elections – Minister of Defence. That gave the loser a public platform as part of the government.

Some saw this as a political masterstroke based on the writings of Chinese General Sun Tzu (probably 544–496 BC) of keeping friends close but enemies closer.

The move pruned Prabowo as the only real thorn, for by then Jokowi had recruited small parties into his coalition.

Prabowo’s promotion also gave the notoriously inflammable wannabe poli something to do. He could now openly talk guns and bombs with men in uniform as he did before he was cashiered.

That was amid the 1998 revolution which saw the authoritarian Soeharto – also a former general – quit the presidency after 32 years of despotic rule.

The revival of democracy wasn’t a good year for Prabowo. He was stripped of his ribbons for alleged insubordination after Soeharto’s replacement Vice President Bacharuddin Jusuf (BJ) Habibie took control.

Prabowo then fled to exile in Jordan following his divorce from Soeharto’s daughter Siti. He returned in 2008 after his former father-in-law died and tried to get into politics failing at every attempt to join an established party.

So he started his own and called it Gerindra (Great Indonesia Movement). It now has 86 seats in the House of Representatives where it’s the third largest party and its leader president-elect.

It’s labelled right-wing by the Western media but that’s too facile. It’s certainly bombastically nationalistic and carries a whiff of fascism.

In this year’s February election, Prabowo won convincingly against two opponents with 55 per cent of the popular vote. (The Constitution prevented Jokowi from standing again for a third term.)

Now Prabowo’s backers are erasing mentions of his alleged human rights abuses that saw him refused entry to the US and Australia earlier this century.

The bans have been quietly lifted. Other subtle changes are underway, particularly descriptors of Prabowo as ‘general, retired’, even used by the supposedly neutral academic journal The Conversation.

Wikipedia now calls him a ‘retired honorary army general.’ In the partisan Indonesian media this title has become commonplace with no mention of past villainies, like the seizure of 13 student protesters by his commandos and never seen again.

Since 2007 their parents have protested silently every Thursday before the State Palace in Jakarta demanding to know what happened to their sons. Jokowi once promised an inquiry. That hasn’t happened.

Prabowo responds that he’s never been charged, which is true, and that it’s time to focus on the future. That’s the standard line for all who want no probe into their past.

Now Jokowi has gone further, reinstating his successor as a four-star honorary general. When kicked out of the army in 1998 he had three stars.

NGOs have taken legal action to rescind the award but neither Prabowo nor Jokowi fronted the court.

Next came the police with their highest honour, Bintang Bhayangkara Utama (star of meritorious service) “awarded to individuals who have made extraordinary contributions to advancing the Indonesian National Police, going beyond their duties.”

Curious praise: A 2022 survey showed the police ranked as the least trusted of all law enforcement bodies. Last century the army ran the police. Separation has been incomplete; soldiers can often be seen with cops acting as security at sporting events.

How can all this happen in a society with easy Internet access to Prabowo’s bio? It’s a question also being asked in the US of Trump, where Republican diehards ignore his lies and failings to win power.

It’s not that bad yet in Indonesia. One theory about support for Prabowo blames 32 years of bibliophobia when Soeharto ruled; rote learning at schools and widespread censorship led electors away from critical thinking and into blandly accepting party propaganda.

As Orwell wrote: “Who controls the past controls the future.”

Completing 12 years of education for 50 million students is supposed to be mandatory, six at primary and three years each at middle and high school.

Public schooling is allegedly free for the first two stages but uniforms and subtle add-ons make education expensive. Many kids drop out in the mid-teens to work or help their parents.

A 2018 report by the Lowy Institute claimed the system had been a “high-volume, low-quality enterprise that has fallen well short of the country’s ambitions for an internationally competitive system”.

It blamed not enough money and poor management but “most fundamentally a matter of politics and power.”

There’s little evidence the situation has improved, though the public may be ahead of their leaders. A Kompas newspaper survey claimed more than 88 per cent of respondents agreed that “political education was crucial to be pursued as a section strengthening democracy.”

By the time Prabowo, 73, is inaugurated on 20 October the world’s third-largest democracy will welcome its eighth president.

By then the embarrassing version will have been erased.

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