By JOE COCHRANE
The former special forces commander Prabowo Subianto kicked off his party’s campaign for legislative elections with a rally last weekend that the local news media characterized as “military-style.” He rode into a Jakarta stadium in a jeep to greet the party faithful, mounted a horse to circle the grounds and paraded before uniformed party cadres standing at attention.
Despite widespread allegations that he took part in some of Indonesia’s worst human rights abuses during his time as a military officer, Mr. Prabowo — who has announced his candidacy for president — is not playing down his military credentials in a country that many see as craving a strong leader.
But Mr. Prabowo’s candidacy has raised deep concerns among rights activists in Indonesia and abroad. They note that the country’s human rights commission recommended that he be prosecuted in the alleged abductions of pro-democracy activists in the late 1990s, during the final months of the military-backed government of President Suharto, his father-in-law at the time.
Mr. Prabowo’s attempt to become the country’s second democratically elected president has also put the Obama administration in a difficult position.
Mr. Prabowo, who graduated from American military training programs in the 1980s and is an admirer of the United States, has for years made it clear that he would like to meet with high-level American officials. So far, the United States has demurred.
“The sensitivity comes from the extremely close association between the U.S. and Indonesian militaries during the atrocities the Indonesian military committed,” said Jeffrey Winters, a professor of political science at Northwestern University, adding that the administration appears to be banking on Mr. Prabowo’s losing or on patching up any bruised feelings if he wins.
“Indonesia is far too strategically important to the U.S. to have frosty relations between the countries,” Mr. Winters said. It not only has strong economic and security ties to the United States, it also has the world’s largest Muslim population.
For the moment, Mr. Prabowo, of the Great Indonesia Movement Party, has been polling behind Joko Widodo, the popular governor of Jakarta who has made his name as a squeaky-clean leader who tackles popular issues like education and Jakarta’s chronic traffic. But the presidential election is still months away — in July, after next month’s legislative election — and the charismatic Mr. Prabowo, 62, has many ardent supporters at the grass-roots level, as well as among powerful businessmen and retired military commanders.
Allegations against Mr. Prabowo extend back to his early career, when he was a young officer in the 1980s in East Timor, where an armed movement was fighting Indonesian occupation. Some human rights groups called for an investigation over allegations that he ordered the massacre of nearly 300 civilians. Mr. Prabowo has vehemently denied being on the scene of the massacre or having any involvement in it.
Later accusations center on his time as one of Indonesia’s most powerful military men under Mr. Suharto. Human rights groups say Mr. Prabowo, then a three-star general, was responsible for the abduction and torture of 23 pro-democracy activists in 1997 and 1998, and for orchestrating riots in May 1998 — just days before Mr. Suharto resigned as president — that resulted in more than 1,000 deaths and the rapes of at least 168 women.
A government-appointed fact-finding team established by Mr. Suharto’s successor reported that Mr. Prabowo had met in his office with military, government and political figures during the riots. That stoked speculation that they had plotted to use the crisis as a way for Mr. Prabowo to take over the crumbling government in a coup. Mr. Prabowo denies any such plot and, in a recent interview, said he could have “taken over if I wanted to.”
A member of the fact-finding team, Marzuki Darusman, said, “To be fair, it’s all circumstantial, and it’s still unresolved.”
In 2006, the National Commission on Human Rights released a report saying 11 people, including Mr. Prabowo, should be prosecuted in the activists’ abductions. The attorney general’s office, which has shied away from most investigations of Suharto-era abuses, declined that request.
The abductions case did end Mr. Prabowo’s military career. He was discharged in August 1998 for “exceeding orders” by arresting the activists, some of whom, according to Mr. Prabowo, had bomb-making equipment. While he accepted responsibility as a senior officer for the torture of nine of the activists, he has said he did not order it and has denied any knowledge about the disappearances of the other 14.
“The main thing about Prabowo is, he’s never been investigated, let alone prosecuted, for the long list of things he’s been linked to,” said Matthew Easton, a former program director for Human Rights First, an organization based in the United States. “His actual command responsibility needs to be investigated.”
Mr. Prabowo argues that he has been made a scapegoat for the abuses committed by the military during Mr. Suharto’s 32 years in power.
“I’ve never been indicted for anything; it’s always innuendos, always allegations,” he said, speaking fluent English in the recent interview. “My critics always say I am a threat to democracy, blah, blah, blah. I believe in democracy and in human rights.”
The United States — which had worried about Indonesia’s stability amid American fears of Communist takeovers in Southeast Asia — had supported Mr. Suharto, but appeared to begin to distance itself from him and figures like Mr. Prabowo after Mr. Suharto lost power.
The State Department denied Mr. Prabowo a visa in 2000 to attend his son’s university graduation in Boston, although it has never explained why. And as Mr. Prabowo’s political career took off over the last six years, successive American ambassadors have given him a wide berth even as other foreign diplomats have met with him and as his brother, a prominent businessman, made several trips to Washington to appeal for opening a dialogue.
Lower-level United States officials have met with members of Mr. Prabowo’s circle, though not with him, according to one of his party’s officials.
A State Department spokeswoman recently appeared to suggest that Mr. Prabowo was not being singled out, saying the United States ambassador, Robert O. Blake, “has no plans to meet with declared candidates.” And at a recent gathering organized by the Jakarta Foreign Correspondents Club, Mr. Blake said, “Whoever is elected, we will gladly work with.”
But the decision not to meet with Mr. Prabowo before the election stands in contrast to the American approach in India, where the ambassador broke nine years of American estrangement with Narendra Modi, whose party is leading in polls, by holding a publicized meeting with him in February. The State Department had revoked Mr. Modi’s visa in 2005 over his alleged role in sectarian violence in Gujarat.
Political analysts say generational change and Mr. Prabowo’s charm help explain why he is considered a strong candidate. Many of the tens of millions of young Indonesian voters do not remember much about the Suharto days, while many older voters contend that army commanders were just trying to keep the fractious archipelago intact.
Mr. Prabowo also has won fans in business, in part for his decisiveness. After he spoke at a gathering last year with Indonesian business leaders and Jakarta-based American executives, “half of them wanted to vote for him right there, even the foreigners who can’t vote,” said one American who attended.
As for the chances of a falling-out with Indonesia if Mr. Prabowo wins, analysts say that is unlikely. They note that Mr. Prabowo remains an American supporter despite the cold shoulder. Barry Desker, a former Singaporean ambassador to Indonesia, said he expected the United States to exercise the same pragmatism it has in India if Mr. Prabowo emerged as the front-runner.
“The State Department would re-establish direct contacts with Prabowo,” Mr. Desker predicted, “and will not pursue allegations of human rights abuses.
Sumber: New York Times 26/3/2014