Maintaining harmony (rukun) is a quality embedded in Javanese culture. This is one explanation for Joko Widodo publicly calling bitter rival Prabowo Subianto his ‘best friend’ at the Presidential inauguration.
A few days later Widodo offered Subianto the Defence portfolio. Some interpreted this as a reconciliation gesture to heal post-poll divisions. Others, particularly human rights activists and supporters of democracy, see Widodo’s decision as foolhardy and a threat to national cohesion.
It’s difficult to find pleasant things to write about Subianto.
The 68-year old is an ambitious mega-millionaire international businessman; he’s also a political and military thug known for his furious temper. Given a choice of lunch with the disgraced general or Kim Jong-un, it would be wise to head to Pyongyang.
Subianto was discharged from military service in 1999 for allegedly ‘misinterpreting orders’ during Jakarta riots, and the ‘disappearance’ of 13 student protestors after his father-in-law President Soeharto resigned. He then fled to exile in Jordan.
Since his return Subianto has tried to take over the nation, standing once as vice president, and twice as president. He’s been quoted as saying Indonesia is not ready for democracy, and till now the electors haven’t been ready for him.
Earlier this year Subianto and his followers ran a long and loathsome campaign against Widodo spreading falsehoods that POTUS might hesitate to use, albeit briefly.
During a televised debate Subianto said terrorist attacks in Indonesia were caused by non-Muslims disguised as Muslims. He cited a 2015 US Sci-fi novel Ghost Fleet as proof of overseas plotters planning the disintegration of Indonesia by 2030. Even Trump finds less loony sources.
In April Widodo beat the former general in a two-man direct election for the top job 55.5 to 44.5. The loser alleged outrageous wrongs committed in the count – all rejected by the courts. Riots followed. At least eight died – hundreds were injured.
By forgiving Subianto it seems Widodo hopes to soften his haters. But his actions have worked in reverse, infuriating those who voted for the incumbent because they despised Subianto and his black-uniformed fascist rants from horseback. These made him look and sound like Indonesia’s Il Duce.
The downside of rukun is the suppression of emotions which can explode if bottled too long. This happened in 1965 when an estimated half a million real or imagined Reds were slaughtered by fellow villagers; many used the chaos following the Jakarta anti-Communist coup to settle old scores against neighbours.
Another explanation is that Widodo wants Subianto busy working with the government so he’s not outside plotting a takeover. Chances are he’ll still scheme to wrest power when inside as the man’s ego is gross.
To get a handle on the weirdness (to Western thinking), imagine this: Hillary Clinton winning the 2016 election, then praising the pussy grabber as a buddy and asking him to be in her Ministry.
Plump Subianto’s grin at Widodo’s inauguration was as wide as the auditorium. Instead of being bruised and banished, the prodigal son has been welcomed into the inner circle and given a platform to mount another challenge in 2024. Widodo can’t stand again as he’s limited to two five-year terms.
If Widodo was a Pentecostal his actions could be explained as a splendid demonstration of Christian love and forgiveness. Instead it’s being seen as a brain fart.
Subianto spent all his life in the Army before being kicked out. Military men see an enemy making concessions and offering friendship as signs of weakness. Leaders don’t backslap opponents unless the hand carries a knife.
There’s a famous 13th century Javanese story Widodo might do well to recall. Ken Arok was abandoned as a babe but schemed his way into the royal family. He eventually became ruler of the Hindu-Buddhist kingdom of Singosari in East Java by betraying friends and killing his way to the top.
The reinstatement of Subianto in public life and elevation to the Ministry have damaged the nation’s young democracy and its leader’s credibility. Instead of entering a new era of harmony and development as a united nation, Indonesia is heading for uncertainty as a torn society.
Duncan Graham is an Australian journalist writing from Indonesia.