The coming of the fear

Mar 1, 2024
Malang, East Java, Indonesia. 18th Nov, 2023. Indonesian defense minister and presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto gave a program speech to hundreds of Muslim scholars ''Kiai Kampung''at a building in Malang city, East java, Indonesia, onA November 18, 2023. Image: Alamy /© Aman Rochman/ZUMA Press Wire

If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they don’t want to hear. ― George Orwell (Eric Blair)

Later this year it’s unlikely you’ll be reading columns like this unless keyboarded outside Indonesia. Ex-pat writers will fear deportation for lese majeste aka ‘subversion’ and ‘against our culture’ while local journalists will risk jail time.

In October, the third largest albeit-flawed democracy (after India and the US) will revert to an army-based government led by disgraced former general Prabowo Subianto, elected the Republic’s eighth president at a national poll on 14 February.

Prabowo was cashiered in 1998 and fled to exile in Jordan. He was banned from entering the US because of alleged human-rights abuses. More details here.

In the latest reinstatement chapter, Prabowo has been made an honorary four-star general by a tone-deaf President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo. The disgraced runaway soldier has been recognised for his “dedication and contribution to the military and defence world.”

When Prabowo met Defence Minister Richard Marles in Jakarta last month he reportedly gave the unlicensed Australian a rifle that can’t be imported without special authority and good reason. Having Opposition members in his sights would not be reason enough.

The present government has laws against criticising authority – though so far not well-used. That could change with the fate of the three solemn academics who produced the Dirty Vote video aired just ahead of the 14 February election. They’ve been dobbed into the police by hard-line Islamic students.

The well-referenced documentary that producers say has been clicked more than eight-million times, alleges systemic election fraud by Jokowi and his administration. It runs for two hours, while a cuddly Prabowo TikTok cartoon that dominated the campaign takes just seconds to watch and absorb.

Like other dictators, Prabowo fears and hates criticism. He’s a cosmopolitan polyglot having been educated in the UK and US, but his reported fiery outbursts are a worry.

Few in Canberra realise how bad the situation could become – and what to do when Prabowo assaults democracy, and civil society’s hostilities to the new president harden and thicken.

Once in power an early target is likely to be the media. The Jakarta Post reported a video of Prabowo “launching a tirade against the press, in which he says that he keeps tabs on all negative coverage of him.” It should be a full file.

Ary Hermawan, a former editor at the Indonesian daily and now a Melbourne Uni graduate researcher, fears the oligarchs as much as Prabowo:

“ …the real question is what the oligarchs are up to now that Prabowo is in charge. At this point, Indonesia’s democracy is already in tatters”.

Indonesia is facing a crisis that threatens to split the country; the progressive and better-educated worrying about the democratic destiny of the Republic and trying to repair the wrongs – and Prabowo’s backers.

Barring an external event – such as a more virulent version of Covid or a deadly plague, the only present hope is that the pudgy septuagenarian will suffer a heart attack; myths of that happening stalk him daily. Life expectancy for Indonesian men is 69. Prabowo will be 73 when he takes office in October.

Between now and then the seriously wounded opposition will have to regroup, get the prosthetics fitted, learn how to use them and grab the wheel before the truck tips over the cliff. At the moment they’re still prone with pain trying to understand what happened.

One reason is the rejection of the U-20 World Cup soccer contest (five months before the 7 October Hamas attack) because it included an Israeli team, so denying Indonesia a host’s right to play on the world stage.

The decision endorsed by Central Java governor Ganjar Pranowo- a presidential candidate- infuriated millions of fans. Indonesians play badly but cheer lustily. Sport scores better than politics.

Gibran’s Pop is the present president Jokowi who was elected in 2014 and again in 2019. In both cases his opponent was Prabowo. Local wisdom claims electors think that having Gibran in Jakarta’s Palace will ensure Daddy’s policies will stay intact.

Gibran is a small-town mayor and caterer who has found himself as Number Two in the world’s fourth most populated nation after India, China and the US. His predecessors were known as ‘spare tyres’ only wanted in a breakdown.

Whether he’ll be able or want to get in the front seat is the critical question. At the moment he looks more like a bunny in the spotlight than the assertive egoists he’ll encounter.

When the opposition regroups and finds an acceptable leader of international standing and credibility, she or he needs to have an open airline ticket to any Western nation and a car with a driver who knows the jalan tikus – back streets – to a private airport.

Saudi Arabia, Israel and Russia aren’t the only states capable of eliminating opponents. In 2004 human rights lawyer and activist Munir Said Thalib was murdered by arsenic in a soft drink given by an off-duty pilot on a flight to the Netherlands with the national carrier Garuda.

The poisoner Pollycarpus Budihari Priyanto, an alleged agent of the State Intelligence Service was jailed, claiming he acted on orders from above. He’s since died.

Indonesia – specifically the island of Hindu Bali – is now the first choice for holidaying Australians. They may want to revert to New Zealand – it’s dearer but safer.

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