Hawks only become doves in election season 

Jun 20, 2023
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

Any plan to try and end the Ukraine war needs to be welcomed if sincere, well-considered, unencumbered, and authored by a respected source. None of those criteria applies to the peace proposal from Prabowo Subianto at the 20th Asia Security Summit this month.

The Singapore speech was outside his portfolio. It was delivered without clearance from President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo – who reportedly sought an explanation. It blindsided Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi.

The idea of a demilitarised zone followed by a referendum has been widely discredited, ‘triggering fierce criticism from Western security officials but praise from China’, according to the Financial Times. 

The South China Morning Post quoted Ukraine’s defence minister Oleksii Reznikov saying the idea sounded like ‘a Russian plan’.

The man behind the words is far more than Indonesia’s Defence Minister and ‘General (Retd)’ – a tagline as void of context as labelling Ben Roberts-Smith ‘Corporal (Retd)’.

In brief, Prabowo is a disgraced soldier with an appalling record of documented links to massacres in East Timor that once got him banned from entering the US. He’s desperate to become the Republic’s eighth president at next year’s Valentine’s Day election.

The game plan includes softening his fascist Mussolini image (past campaign tactics have mounted him on a strutting stallion reviewing ranks of supporters) and using his media to delete the scowls and bad tempers he favoured as a tough-guy aspirant.

So he’s running an international campaign to redact his past to seem like a peace-loving statesman worthy of running the world’s fourth-largest country. Like Trump, he knows that saying something nutty draws coverage when wise words and sober notions get ignored, so the Singapore forum was ideal.

Jakarta likes Moscow because it’s not Washington. Indonesia hasn’t imposed economic sanctions against the Federation despite voting in favour of a UN resolution condemning the invasion.

Jokowi visited Russia and Ukraine last year and offered to mediate, a gesture which went nowhere. Prabowo has been on state visits to Russia twice in the past three years to buy arms, though thwarted by US sanctions.

One theory is that the floated peace plan will please Indonesian Muslims who see Russia as a friend. It’s been given traction this year by the Embassy holding an Iftar fast-breaking in the courtyard of the capital’s Memorial Mosque to celebrate 73 years of diplomatic relations.

Ambassador Jose Tavares (a Christian) told celebrants that the number of Muslims in Russia is the largest in Europe, while the number of Muslims in Indonesia is the largest in the world. This is a solid foundation for establishing Islamic cooperation.’ About 14 million, or ten per cent of the Russian population follow the Prophet Muhammad.

Back to the man on a mission. He comes from an elite family with solid nationalistic credentials – his Dad was an economist who held ministries in the governments of president Soekarno and Soeharto. He married the latter’s daughter Titiek but they divorced in 1998.

He was educated in the US and UK and became a leader of the Kopassus Special Forces ‘that has forged a reputation as the toughest and most terrifying within a military known for its brutality.’

Former US Ambassador to Indonesia Robert Gelbard reportedly described Prabowo as ‘somebody who is perhaps the greatest violator of human rights in contemporary times among the Indonesian military. His deeds in the late 1990s before democracy took hold, were shocking, even by TNI (Indonesian military) standards.’

Prabowo didn’t retire from the army. After 24 years he was dishonourably discharged in 1998 for disobeying orders, a most serious offence in all armed forces.

At the time he was a three-star general leading a unit called Team Rose. Its soldiers captured 23 students agitating for Reformasi during the chaos surrounding the May 1998 downfall of President Soeharto after 32 years of authoritarian rule.

Those released alleged torture – 13 have ‘disappeared’. Prabowo admitted some kidnappings but has never been charged.

Accounts of what happened during the disorder differ, but Prabowo was involved in the jostling for power, won by vice president B J Habibie.

One popular version has Prabowo confronting the new leader and demanding to be made head of the army. When denied he fled to exile in Jordan, returning to start his political party Gerindra (Great Indonesia Movement) in 2008. It’s bankrolled by his younger brother and dollar billionaire Hashim Djojohadikusumo.

Prabowo’s domestic ambitions include following his former father-in-law’s strategy of getting the army into public life, a policy upended by fourth president Abdurrahman ‘Gus Dur’ Wahid, a pluralist committed to the separation of powers.

The khaki-cladding is already happening, according to one overseas survey: ‘Worrisome reporting revealed that the military manages and funds a network of online news sites spreading pro-government contentcritics of the government, journalists, and ordinary users continued to face criminal charges and harassment.’

Indonesia is already ranked 58 of 100 nations on civil rights and political liberties by the US NGO Freedom House, and that’s with a civilian leader who claims to be a democrat.

When Prabowo lost to Jokowi by eleven percentage points on his second attempt in 2019, riots erupted in Jakarta led by gangs of for-hire preman, street thugs dubbed ‘dark forces’. Six people were killed and more than 200 injured.

Should Prabowo lose again fear something closer to Washington’s 6 January 2021 attack on Congress.

Despite everything Prabowo was made Defence Minister by his rival following the US President Lyndon Baines Johnson dictum: ‘Better to have your enemies inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.’

So far we have a couple of lukewarm-democrat centrists and one hot right-wing militarist chasing Southeast Asia’s top job. If one of the civilians wins our Jakarta Embassy can click back to slumber mode.

If not it’ll be all DFAT staff on havoc alert and rapid rewrites of the hand-me-downs about ‘warm relationships’. How do we deal with a man with Prabowo’s record? Better book for Phuket and forget Bali.

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