Among questions that should have been asked: Was Prabowo Subianto truly the single “mastermind”?
by Jose Manuel Tesoro
At night on May 21, 1998, the story goes, dozens of soldiers took up positions around Jakarta’s Merdeka palace and the suburban home of B.J. Habibie, who less than 24 hours before had become the third president of Indonesia. The commander of this force was the brutal Lt.-Gen. Prabowo Subianto. A week before, he had marshaled the dark forces at his call – special forces operatives, inner-city gangsters, Muslim radicals – to murder, burn, rape, loot and sow ethnic hatred in the heart of Jakarta. His aim: to undermine his rival, armed forces chief Gen. Wiranto, and force his father-in-law, Suharto, to make him leader of the armed forces – a step closer, in a time of turmoil, to Prabowo himself becoming president.
Suharto’s premature resignation as president frustrated Prabowo’s ambitions. So he turned his wrath on Habibie. Disaster for Indonesia – and a nightmare for Southeast Asia – might have followed, if not for an order from Wiranto relieving the dangerously out-of-control general of his command position. Enraged, Prabowo brought his troops to the palace grounds and tried to burst, armed, into Habibie’s chambers. But he was eventually outmaneuvered. His attempted coup d’etat was the climax to the 10-day drama surrounding the fall of Suharto, Indonesia’s leader for three decades.
The problem is that not all of it is true. Maybe even none of it is.
The first to say that is Prabowo. “I never threatened Habibie,” he says. Did Prabowo plan the May unrest against Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese to bring down Wiranto or Suharto? “I was not behind the riots. That is a great lie,” he responds firmly. “I never betrayed Pak Harto. I never betrayed Habibie. I never betrayed my country.”
Prabowo, 48, is no saint. For 24 years, he belonged to the Indonesian military, which loyally followed the president’s orders. He built up its elite special forces, Kopassus, to combat insurgency and internal terrorism. Prabowo was also married to Suharto’s second daughter and enjoyed the wealth, power and freedom from accountability the First Family afforded. He admits to abducting in early 1998 nine activists, some of whom underwent torture. About a dozen others believed kidnapped in the same operation remain missing.
But is Prabowo a demon? In August 1998, a military honor court found him guilty of misinterpreting orders and recommended sanctions or a court-martial. Prabowo was later discharged. In its October 1998 report, the government Joint Fact-Finding Team (TGPF by its Indonesian initials) on the May riots asked that he be investigated for the unrest. Indonesian and foreign media have since linked his name with words such as “scheming,” “ruthless and reckless,” “power-hungry fanatic.” Wrote one Asian paper: “He is said to hate the Chinese.” The belief that he started the riots and failed to contain them has already found its way into history books. “I’m the monster behind everything,” Prabowo says with undisguised irony.
Yet nearly two years after Suharto’s resignation, no evidence has surfaced connecting him to the riots that triggered it. The complete picture of those days remains obscured by conflicting accounts and unnamed sources. In September 1998, Marzuki Darusman, then TGPF chair and today attorney-general, mused to reporters: “I think there’s more to it than just Prabowo. I say he’s a keeper of secrets. And he might be predisposed to reveal a few if forced to.” Prabowo had been tried by public opinion and found guilty. But he had never had the chance to give his testimony. He now spends all his time abroad, though local papers say he did make a brief, discreet trip home in January, the first time in 15 months. (His wife remains in Indonesia, while their son is studying in the U.S.)
Now, many thinking Indonesians are acknowledging that Prabowo was perhaps the easy but not necessarily right target. Says veteran journalist Aristedes Katoppo: “He was made the fall guy for a lot of mistakes not of his making. He may have demanded things. But launching a coup? That is wrong. It’s disinformation.” Prabowo himself believes that his persecution has a reason: “There was a certain group that wanted to make me a scapegoat, maybe to hide their involvement.”
What emerges from Prabowo’s own account, coupled with this magazine’s independent inquiry, is a far different, more nuanced tale than the accepted assessment that Suharto’s fall stemmed from a battle between good and evil – and that Prabowo was the villain. This story is a report from and about the highest reaches of Indonesian politics, a revelation of its treacherously shifting nature and the complexities of its actors. It challenges what many accept about the country: its military, its former ruling family, its history. Whatever verdict you draw, it is impossible to look at the fall of Suharto in the past – or the personalities and conflicts of the present – in the same way again.
Many tales circulate in Jakarta about Prabowo. In the popular narrative of Suharto’s fall, the former special forces officer is often cast as its author: an evil genius who, if he cared to explain, could show how the entire arc of events he designed made up one clever yet suicidally flawed conspiracy. But at the end of Suharto’s rule, he was not the only figure. There were many actors, thus many motives and maneuvers. Amid social unrest and economic collapse, it had become clear long before May 1998 to Jakarta’s elite that the question was not if the president would step down, but when. Most important to them was to survive or even benefit. That meant playing a difficult game: stay – or at least seem to stay – unwaveringly loyal to Suharto yet at the same time move into the best position for a future without him.
The students and the popular oppositionists, despite their high profile, were the least powerful of the players. The real decisions were made around the aging president. There were Suharto’s six children. There was his vice president, Habibie. There were Suharto’s ministers and the chiefs of his parliament. And there were his armed forces, and its two top generals, Wiranto and Prabowo.
In the run-up to May, Prabowo was snug in the center. In March 1998, he had been promoted from chief of the special forces, Kopassus, to head the army’s key strategic reserve, Kostrad. The new job made him a three-star general. His Kopassus classmate Maj.-Gen. Syafrie Syamsuddin had taken command of the Jakarta garrison in September 1997. Prabowo’s former Kopassus superior, Gen. Subagyo Hadisiswoyo, was army chief of staff. Other allies included new Kopassus boss Maj.-Gen. Muchdi Purwopranjono.
The one general Prabowo did not get along with was his superior, Wiranto. “There was not good chemistry between us,” says Prabowo. “We never served in the same units. We came from different backgrounds.” Wiranto grew up in traditional Central Java. Prabowo grew up abroad in European and Asian capitals. Where Prabowo’s postings were field and combat assignments, Wiranto spent time in staff jobs and provincial commands. After four years as Suharto’s adjutant, Wiranto rose quickly from Jakarta garrison commander to Kostrad chief. In 1997, he became army chief of staff. In March 1998, Suharto made him both the armed forces chief and the defense minister. (Asiaweek sent Wiranto Prabowo’s claims and comments as well as questions appearing in this story. Wiranto’s aide replied that the general had chosen to respond to Asiaweek in a later issue.)
Wiranto and Prabowo were equally balanced. But in March, when the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) re-elected Suharto and appointed Habibie vice president, Prabowo seemed to move a notch higher. He was a longtime friend of Habibie. They shared Western temperaments and an optimistic idealism. “I liked his vision of high technology,” Prabowo says. “That captured my heart. There was always this: We’ll show [that] Indonesia can be great.” They met often. To fellow generals, Prabowo was Habibie’s most ardent defender.
Given the shaky state of Suharto’s health – he had had a mild stroke in December 1997 – Habibie’s chances of succeeding him were better than those of any previous vice president. For Prabowo, Habibie’s ascension meant a shot at becoming the military’s boss: “Several times he mentioned: If I become president, you’ll be armed forces chief, you’ll be four-star.”
That is, if there were an orderly succession. The collapse of the rupiah, which began in October 1997, had sent waves of social unrest throughout the archipelago. The following January, a bomb exploded in a Jakarta apartment occupied by members of the banned leftist People’s Democratic Party (PRD). The military struggled to face strident student demonstrations. Some activists mysteriously went missing. On April 27, Pius Lustrilanang testified to his kidnapping and two-month imprisonment – the first of many accounts by abducted activists. During his interrogation, Lustrilanang said, he had received electric shocks and been held under water. Despite Wiranto’s denials that kidnapping was policy, popular suspicion fell on the military, and especially on Kopassus, still identified with Prabowo though he was no longer with the unit.
While he had a reputation for absolute loyalty to Suharto, Prabowo also maintained friendships with critics of the president’s “New Order” regime. These ranged from Suharto’s disenchanted contemporary Gen. Nasution to Adnan Buyung Nasution, a lawyer who helped found the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation, which defended and fostered anti-Suharto activists. Prabowo built relations with Muslim figures, who perceived themselves as both victimized by a Christian-influenced military and government as well as isolated in an ethnic Chinese-dominated economy. Among these: Amien Rais, a Jogjakarta professor whose attacks on Christian power and Chinese capital were turning into open criticism of Suharto. Prabowo’s unconventional contacts, and closeness to Habibie, set him apart from others around the president.
The drama began on Tuesday, May 12, when Prabowo received a phone call. Some students had been shot during a demonstration at Trisakti University. Prabowo’s first instinct was to blame ill-disciplined security forces: “Sometimes our police and soldiers are so unprofessional. You get some of these units – oh my God, this is stupid. That was my first reaction.”
Sensing an impending emergency, he went to his headquarters on Merdeka Square, just beside the Jakarta garrison. As chief of the strategic reserve, Prabowo’s job was to supply men and materiel. “I alerted my troops, to rush them in,” he says. “These troops are always under operational control of the garrison commander. That’s our system. I was basically in an advising capacity. I did not have command.”
He returned home well after midnight, but was back at Kostrad HQ early the next morning, May 13. As marauding mobs began looting and burning buildings, Prabowo spent the day figuring out how to move in and barrack his battalions. Another worry: Wiranto had been scheduled to preside over an army ceremony the next morning, in Malang, East Java – over 650 km from the troubled capital. Throughout the 13th, Prabowo says he tried to persuade Wiranto to cancel his appearance. “I suggested that we call off the ceremony in Malang,” he says. “The result: no, the ceremony was on. [I] phoned back. It went back and forth . . . Eight times I phoned his office. Eight times I was told that the show must go on.”
So at 6:00 a.m. on Thursday the 14th, Prabowo arrived at Halim air base in East Jakarta. He says he was surprised, given the tense situation, to see most of the military’s senior command there. During the flight and the ceremony, he says, Wiranto and he did not say much to each other. They arrived back in the capital after noon. Prabowo returned to Kostrad HQ, where he bumped into Syafrie. The Jakarta garrison commander was heading off to survey the western part of the city by helicopter. Prabowo accepted Syafrie’s invitation to join him. As they watched the second day of rioting from the smoky sky, Prabowo remembers wondering to himself: “Why are there so few troops around?”
At around 3:30 p.m., Prabowo left Kostrad to see Habibie. The president had been away in Cairo since May 9 to attend a summit. The vice president and Prabowo talked about the possibility of a succession. Under the Constitution, Prabowo pointed out, Habibie was next in line. The subject of the future chief of the military came up. “I should have noticed the shift,” says Prabowo. “He said: ‘If your name comes up, I will approve.’ There’s a big difference there.”
On the way back to Kostrad HQ, Prabowo noticed that Jakarta’s main business artery seemed unguarded. He saw the garrison commander: “I said: Syafrie, on Thamrin there are no troops. He was convinced there were enough. He asked me to come along, and we saw!” Prabowo suggested taking half of the 16 armored personnel carriers guarding the defense ministry and sending them instead to Thamrin. This did take place.
As night fell, Prabowo got a call from his secretary. Buyung Nasution and a motley collection of figures from various groups wanted to see him. (This May 14 meeting would become central to the later investigation into the riots.) “When I arrived at headquarters, they were there,” Prabowo says. “I did not call them. They were asking: What’s happening?” Buyung Nasution demanded to know if there was any truth to the spreading rumors that Prabowo had planned the riots, the Trisakti shootings, as well as the abductions. He also asked if there was rivalry between him and Wiranto. Prabowo denied everything. “How can there be rivalry?” he explains now. “He’s a four-star. I’m a three-star. I was trying to step in line. But after him I would be a good candidate, wouldn’t I?”
After a command briefing chaired by Wiranto which ended late, Prabowo arrived at his next appointment at nearly 1:00 a.m. Two close friends from Abdurrahman Wahid’s mass Muslim organization Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) had suggested Prabowo see the cleric, who was already asleep when the general arrived. Wahid, a.k.a. Gus Dur, still received Prabowo and asked about the chaotic situation. “I said, we can get it under control tomorrow,” says Prabowo.
After a change of clothes, he headed for Halim airbase, where Suharto was due to arrive before dawn on May 15, Friday. Prabowo waited in his jeep while Wiranto met Suharto. Then the three, with most of the senior command, drove to Suharto’s home on Cendana Street in central Jakarta. Prabowo says Suharto appeared cold toward him. By now, Prabowo believes, Suharto thought his son-in-law was plotting against him. Says Prabowo: “It came out in the papers that Gen. Nasution, who everyone knew was fond of me, said that Amien Rais should talk to Gen. Prabowo [about] taking care of the situation. This must have been sent to Pak Harto.”
At the end of his rule, Suharto had become as dependent on the ministers, generals and children who surrounded him as they were on him. He was their leader, but, in a sense, he was also their prisoner. “There’s a thousand-year-old art of palace intrigue,” says Prabowo. “You whisper something very delicately, and poison someone’s mind. I tried to give information, but I was considered as meddling. There were people poisoning his mind: that his son-in-law’s there only to grab power.” This, Prabowo now believes, contributed to his downfall.
The trickle of calls for change was quickly turning into a torrent. Factions of the ruling party, retired generals – all began demanding the president’s resignation. On the 15th, NU leaders delivered a five-point statement. One point underlined their respect for Suharto’s attitude in Egypt, where he had said: “If I am no longer trusted, I will become a pandito [wise man].” The NU response was a diplomatic way of saying that they, too, believed his time was over.
Prabowo had spent most of the weekend, from the 15th to the 17th, at Kostrad HQ handling his troops. On the evening of Saturday, the 16th, a friend showed Prabowo a copy of what appeared to be a press statement from armed forces headquarters supporting NU’s stance. Prabowo went straight to the president. “Sir, this means the military is asking you to step down!” he says he told Suharto.
The president asked his son-in-law to check with Subagyo. Prabowo says the army chief told him he had not known of this position. Both generals reported to Suharto. Early in the morning of the 17th, military headquarters retracted the statement before it was published in most papers. According to Prabowo, later that morning, Wiranto arrived at Cendana to insist that he, too, could not have known about the statement.
I obtained a copy of this release, which is dated May 16. It has neither an official signature nor letterhead of the armed forces. To understand its existence, I met Brig.-Gen. A. Wahab Mokodongan, armed forces spokesman in May 1998. He confirmed that the military had to pull it back, but claimed he did not know where it came from. After a late-night press conference, he says, he was surprised to find it in his photocopies. When he informed Wiranto, the armed forces chief ordered an investigation. Mokodongan says intelligence checked computers throughout the sprawling military headquarters complex. “There was nothing like this,” he says.
We spoke to three Indonesian journalists who covered the 1998 events. Two remembered that they had received the statement at Mokodongan’s press conference. (One recalled him reading it out.) Another believes her magazine had even been faxed it by Mokodongan’s office. Its provenance thus remains hidden. How could a statement so sensitive appear without the knowledge of the spokesman or the chief of the armed forces?
On the 18th, Prabowo met Rais. The oppositionist, recalls Prabowo, told him: “I think the situation is now untenable. I think you should convince Pak Harto to resign.” But Prabowo was simply not in that position. At Cendana that evening, he says he saw Wiranto, who informed him the children wanted to fight. “How can we?” cried Prabowo. That day, Rais had issued a call for a demonstration to be held May 20 at the National Monument (Monas). Preventing the protest, which was expected to draw thousands, might result in more martyrs.
Prabowo next saw Suharto’s eldest daughter Siti Hardiyanti Rukmana a.k.a Tutut. Prabowo says she asked him what their next move should be. “My advice,” he says, “was that you must replace Wiranto or put in an emergency decree. Suharto did not want to [do either]. So I said: ‘What other way is there?'” Tutut asked Prabowo, what happens if her father steps down? Prabowo says he responded: Constitutionally, Habibie steps up.
The direct call for Suharto to resign came that same day. At about 3:00 p.m. on May 18, as the parliament building filled up with student demonstrators, MPR chief Harmoko asked for Suharto’s resignation. Late that evening, Wiranto declared in front of a packed press conference that Harmoko’s statement was “an individual opinion.” As for the students’ presence in parliament, early the previous evening Wiranto had met a group that included University of Indonesia alumni leader Hariadi Darmawan. They confirmed that students were planning to march to parliament, and discussed the best way to prevent possible riots. Someone suggested that the students be guarded by the military, or brought in by vehicles. The next morning, says Jakarta commander Syafrie, he was instructed by two of Wiranto’s aides to prepare transportation. At around 10 a.m., he says, he was also informed that the MPR leadership had given permission for students to enter. The students refused most of the military’s vehicles, but as long as the students came on wheels Syafrie guaranteed they had an unobstructed journey to parliament.
The following day, May 19, Prabowo participated wholly in efforts to secure Monas from Rais’s planned protest. That night, Wiranto met the senior command to discuss the demonstration. “The meeting chaired by Wiranto said the order was to prevent the march at all costs,” recalls Prabowo. “I asked many times what this means. Do we use live bullets? He did not want to give a clear answer.” Through the night, Rais received emissaries sent to persuade him to call off the demonstration. He finally caved in and the feared march never happened. But on May 20, Suharto received two blows. Fourteen of his ministers resigned from the cabinet. And he received one refusal after another from those invited to join a “Reform Committee.”
After sunset, Prabowo visited Habibie: “I mentioned to him: Sir, the old man might step down. Are you ready? He was, you know, yes, yes, yes. I said: You must prepare yourself.” From Habibie’s house, Prabowo returned to Cendana. “Once it was clear everything was safe, I walked in, still in my camouflage,” he says. “I was thinking I might get a pat on the back: Successfully prevented the demonstrations. No more killings. No more martyrs. Soldiers under discipline. Syafrie did a good job. And then, wham!”
In an inner room, says Prabowo, sat the Suharto clan with Wiranto. The first to emerge was Siti Hutami Endang Adiningsih, Suharto’s youngest daughter. Prabowo recalls: “Mamiek sees me, then points a finger about one inch from my nose and said: ‘You traitor! Penkhianat!’ And then: ‘Jangan injak kakimu di rumah saya lagi. Don’t set foot in my house again.’ So I went out. I waited. I wanted to come in. I said I need my explanation. There was my wife, crying.” Prabowo went home.
The next day, May 21, at 9:05 a.m., abandoned by his parliament and his cabinet, Suharto resigned after 32 years as president. His short resignation speech was broadcast to the nation. In spite of his humiliation the previous night at Cendana, Prabowo still attended the May 21 ceremony, he says, to lend moral support to Suharto’s successor, Habibie. After Habibie took his oath, Wiranto strode up to pledge that he and the armed forces would protect Suharto and his family.
When the First Family departed for Cendana, Prabowo followed. “I went just to comfort Pak Harto,” he says. “But of course I was there already under accusation of being the traitor. The situation was very, very tense between me and the other children. Later my wife told me there were reports I was having meetings with Habibie every night. I [met] Gus Dur, Amien Rais, Buyung Nasution. But we were not coordinating the downfall of Suharto. We were [discussing] the best way to calm down this violence.” Suharto did not answer Asiaweek’s request to respond to Prabowo’s assertions.
Habibie was now president. At 4.00 on May 21, Prabowo met his friend to congratulate him. “He kissed me on my cheeks,” says Prabowo, who asked for an appointment that evening.
Late that night, Prabowo arrived at Habibie’s home, accompanied by Kopassus chief Muchdi. Since Wiranto might stay on as defense minister, Prabowo says he suggested that army chief Subagyo be made armed forces boss to prevent too much power in a single person. That move also made Prabowo the best candidate to succeed Subagyo. “Yes, I was trying to influence [Habibie],” Prabowo admits. “I was close to him!” At no point, says Prabowo, did he threaten the new president. Afterwards, he went back to Kostrad headquarters.
The next day, May 22, after Friday prayers, Prabowo’s phone rang. Kostrad’s flag had been requested by army headquarters. Prabowo recalls, “They’re asking for my flag. That means they want to replace me.” He hurried back to Kostrad. “I remember Habibie saying: ‘Prabowo, whenever you’re in doubt, come to me anytime and don’t think about protocol.’ I knew this guy for many years. I felt, okay, I’ll look for Habibie. He’s in the palace. So I went there.”
He arrived in the early afternoon, in a convoy of three Land Rovers carrying staff and bodyguards.”[We] went in,” Prabowo says. “It was very tense. The presidential bodyguards were looking at me with strange faces. I think it was reported I was going to attack or something. I met the aide-de-camp and said: I need to see Pak Habibie. I just want 10 minutes. I just want to ask him a question. It is very important for me.”
Before entering Habibie’s office, Prabowo says he removed his pistol “because this is procedure. Whenever you come to a senior officer, you have to leave all weapons behind. I was not disarmed.” Then he walked into the president’s office. “He kissed me on both cheeks,” says Prabowo. “I said: Sir, did you know I was going to be replaced today? ‘Yes, yes, yes,’ he said. ‘Your father-in-law asked me to replace you. It’s best. If you resign from the army, I’ll make you ambassador to the United States.’ That’s what he said.” Prabowo says he was stunned. “My God, what is this?” he recalls thinking. “In my mind, [Habibie] was still at the time fond of me, but he was being fooled. I went to Subagyo. On my way in, I met some generals who were my supporters. Their message was: Let’s have a confrontation. I said: Just keep quiet. I met Muchdi there. We said: We are willing to step aside, but give us some time, so that the perception is that change of command is something normal. I think Subagyo went over to Wiranto. Wiranto said: No, [it] must be today.”
Even after being cast out by his in-laws, tossed aside by his ally and fired by his rival, the worst had not yet begun for Prabowo. In the following months, officers supposedly close to him were transferred or removed from active service. On June 25, Wiranto relieved Syafrie of the Jakarta garrison command, the beginning of a wide-ranging military reshuffle. After the findings of the honor council, Kopassus head Muchdi and a Kopassus colonel were released from active duty.
Added to this were the unstoppable rumors that Prabowo and his allies had triggered the May riots. On July 23, Habibie formed the 18-member TGPF to discover the “mastermind” behind the disturbances in six major cities, including Jakarta. After three months, the TGPF concluded that the kidnappings, the economic crisis, the MPR session, the demonstrations and the Trisakti killings all “closely correspond” to the riots.
The first of its nine recommendations was that the government investigate the May 14 meeting at Kostrad “to be able to find out the role of Lt.-Gen. Prabowo and other parties in the process which led to the riot.” The report did not name Prabowo as the riot’s mastermind in the executive summary released to the media. But it referred to him, to the May 14 meeting and to the abductions a total of 11 times. That was more than Syafrie, who received four references, or Wiranto, at that time still defense minister and armed forces chief. Wiranto was mentioned only once – in the context of co-signing the decree that brought the TGPF into existence.
Prabowo lashes out at the report’s insinuations. “What was the motivation that we were going to instigate riots?” he asks. “Our interest is if the government survives. I’m part of the Suharto regime. If Pak Harto survived another three years, I might make four-star general. Why should I burn the capital? It’s against my vested interest, let alone my principles.” He faults the report’s logic. “How can I have a meeting on the 14th?” he says. “The riots were starting on the 13th. And these were so-called opponents of the New Order meeting me.”
He rebuts the impression that he is anti-Chinese. He says that, like many Indonesians, he does not think it is healthy for a minority to control most of the economy. “Chinese businessmen thought I wanted to get rid of them. But my model was Malaysia’s New Economic Policy.” Does that mean he would not start riots to teach the ethnic Chinese a lesson? “Say you don’t believe I have any humanitarian feeling,” he argues. “If we destroy the Chinese, our economy becomes destroyed. It’s like killing yourself . . . If I did start the riots, why am I not indicted? The burden of proof is on the accusers.”
To find that proof, I returned to the work of the TGPF. I pored over a copy of the full six-volume report. (Only the first volume, the executive summary, had been made available to the press.) Four of the five remaining volumes consist of casualty and damage reports, eyewitness accounts of riots and rapes, and attempts to detect patterns. One volume contains transcripts of interviews conducted with military officers in charge during the riots. In addition, I spoke to nine of the TGPF’s 18 members, as well as historian Hermawan Sulistiyo, who headed a separate 12-member team that did much of the legwork.
Were the riots organized? Many who reported to the team believe so, but nowhere in the six volumes is there evidence to back up the eyewitness accounts, much less point to any one person behind the unrest. The riot’s nature remains an open question. That leaves the May 14 meeting. Yet when I spoke to three of those who attended, including TGPF member Bambang Widjoyanto, all denied any connection between them and the rioting, as a number of its participants also did in a press conference the day after the TGPF report was made public. The picture they painted corresponds to Prabowo’s account.
So did the Kostrad chief allow the riots to rage out of control? That would be difficult for him to do, because at no time did he have authority. Under standard procedures, the city police chief handles security. Command goes over to the garrison if police cannot maintain law and order, a fact that police chief Maj.-Gen. Hamami Nata pointed out to the TGPF on Aug. 28, 1998, and which was confirmed by Syafrie. The former Jakarta garrison chief fixed the time when command was transferred: around noon on the 14th. Mobs had begun attacking police posts, so police were withdrawn for their safety. From the 14th onward, Syafrie took charge; by the 15th, the unrest had largely been put out. Syafrie flatly denies that Prabowo had any control over him. “Prabowo has never influenced me,” says Syafrie. “He is my friend, but I have the principles of my duty.” At the time, in fact, Syafrie’s commanding officer was Wiranto.
The release of the TGPF report was delayed to Nov. 3 because of deep infighting within the commission. “The situation was very political,” admits TGPF member Nursyahbani Katjasungkana. “Opinions had already been formed. Then in the process of compiling facts, it was difficult to distinguish sharply between fact and opinion.” Debates became bogged down in splits between civilian and military members, between those who wanted to limit findings to legally admissible evidence and those who wanted to describe what they called “social facts.” An explosive point of contention: the number of rape victims. Sulistiyo says that out of 109 reported cases, his team was able to verify only 14. But some on the commission – who had encountered reported rapes themselves – felt that that number had to be higher. The count that appeared in the final report was 66 verified rapes, plus another 19 victims of sexual harassment and violence.
The transcript of the testimonies delivered by Prabowo and Syafrie to the TGPF of their activities between May 12 and 14 contains no information different from what they told me almost 20 months later. Nearly all the TGPF members I met denied that there had been any outside attempt to influence the investigation. Some said they were not affected by their own prejudices, or the rumors linking Prabowo to the riots.
Yet on Oct. 12, 1998, the TGPF summoned army chief Subagyo purely in his capacity as head of the military honor council investigating Prabowo. In the transcript, the members questioning Subagyo looked for a link between the disappearances of four youths at the height of the riots to the earlier kidnapping of activists. But Subagyo, at least on record, could provide none. In the final report, a link was still drawn between Prabowo’s pre-May kidnappings and the rioting.
Munir, head of the Commission on Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (KONTRAS), does not see the connection. “In May, I see a movement inside the elite to push the political situation to change,” he says. “This differs from the kidnappings, which is a conspiracy to defend [the system].” One TGPF member, I Made Gelgel, now acknowledges this problem of interpretation. “It doesn’t make sense,” he says. “That on the one hand Prabowo would fortify his father-in-law’s power, and on the other hand foment riots.”
On June 30, 1998, in a meeting with leaders of the Indonesian Islamic Propagation Council, Habibie recounted how Prabowo had threatened him. According to council member Hartono Marjono, Habibie said he received a report from his military aide Lt.-Gen. Sintong Panjaitan that Habibie’s home had been surrounded by Kostrad and Kopassus troops. Panjaitan, said the president, had saved the First Family by airlifting them to the palace. Marjono says that there and then he objected to Habibie’s story. He said it was impossible that Prabowo would have threatened Habibie since in the days leading up to Suharto’s resignation, Prabowo urged everyone he knew to support Habibie. But his opinion, Marjono says, “just passed by Habibie.”
Habibie told a similar tale to London’s Sunday Times. “My house was surrounded by two lots of troops,” he said in an interview published Nov. 8, 1998. “One, the ordinary troops responsible to Gen. Wiranto, who ordered a cordon to protect me and one lot belonged to Kostrad, responsible to Prabowo.” On Feb. 15, 1999, Habibie told a gathering of Asian and German journalists in Jakarta: “Troops under the command of somebody whose name I will not hide – Gen. Prabowo – were concentrated in several places, including my home.” At that time, he indicated Wiranto had reported the situation to him and protected him.
The main problem with all the versions of Habibie’s story is that the troops that guarded his house had been ordered there not by Prabowo but by Wiranto. At the May 14 command briefing, the armed forces chief had directed that Kopassus guard the homes of the president and vice president. These orders were confirmed in writing on May 17 to senior command, including Syafrie, the Jakarta garrison commander at the time, who showed me a copy of the order. In testimony to parliament on Feb. 23, 1999, Wiranto said bluntly: “There was no coup attempt.” When I asked Habibie to respond to Prabowo’s assertions, his aide Dewi Fortuna Anwar replied for him “that it is not necessary for Pak Habibie to make any direct rebuttal of Prabowo’s claims.” She suggested talking to several people, including Panjaitan, all of whom she believed were present on May 22 at the palace. Despite repeated attempts to contact these people throughout our reporting, when this story went to press on Feb. 23, they were either unavailable or unwilling to comment.
Prabowo believes he could have launched a coup during those chaotic May days. But his point is that he did not. “The decision to fire me was legal,” he says. “I knew that many of my soldiers would do what I say. But I did not want them to die fighting for my job. I wanted to show I placed the good of the country and the people above my own position. I proved that I am a loyal soldier. Loyal to the state, loyal to the republic.”
The armed forces had always held that Prabowo had misinterpreted his orders regarding the abductions of the activists early in 1998. In front of the military honor council, Prabowo admitted “his wrongdoing” but now also insists he was following orders known to the rest of his colleagues. Prabowo’s superiors, former armed forces chief Feisal Tanjung and his successor Wiranto, consistently deny that the order had come from them, or from supreme commander Suharto. Prabowo says he was never told directly the honor council’s verdict. “I just heard on the radio,” he says. “These guys didn’t have the guts to face me and call me.” He still objects. “I would like to say this,” Prabowo asserts. “Everything I did, I did with the knowledge of my superiors, with their consent and under their orders. It might not be all in the chain of command, because some of my bosses like to work jumping through several levels. But I say this categorically.” The intent of the operation, he says, was to stop the bombings. “We wanted to prevent a campaign of terror,” he says. Most of those apprehended, he says, were already on the police wanted list. But, he says, “in hindsight, I was careless.” He never visited the cells of the abducted activists, and trusted reports from the men assigned to the operation. He says he never ordered torture.
Activist Lustrilanang says that, while in jail, two others told him they were indeed planning to plant bombs. The PRD’s Feisol Reza, one of the abducted, denies any involvement by his party. “The military made the bomb issue up,” he says. “We’re just victims.” Lustrilanang, however, points out that ending the bombs could not have been the only objective. He believes that he and others were also taken to prevent their demonstrations from disrupting the March 1998 MPR session. Prabowo says it was a single operation. “I have my suspicions,” he says, “but in the end, it is still my responsibility.” According to KONTRAS, at least a dozen activists are still missing. Lustrilanang says that at least three of those were imprisoned with him. Prabowo expressed surprise at this revelation, and said he did not know the fate of those still missing. He will still not reveal the identity of the source of the order.
“A CONSUMMATE OUTSIDER”
Prabowo’s involvement in the abductions and his overt support for Habibie probably doomed him in the eyes of both the public and Suharto. But that loyalty to both president and vice president could be the strongest evidence against the assertion that he launched riots or a coup, which would have endangered both of them. The question may not be why Prabowo turned against his father-in-law and his friend, but why they turned against him.
Part of the reason is Prabowo. “He thought of himself as an insider, but he was a consummate outsider,” says U.S.-based historian Daniel Lev. His foreign upbringing gave him a Western outlook, which worked against him in the politics of Suharto’s army and family. Even his Muslim credentials were considered lacking by the radicals he is often grouped with. He wanted too much change to satisfy conservatives, yet he himself was too much of the old regime to be accepted as a reformist. If he did grab power, he acknowledges, as Suharto’s son-in-law he would have been seen as sustaining a regime’s interests. In short, he was too much out of place, and in the end, out of time.
Another factor had to be his reputation – real, imagined or created. That reputation may have led some TGPF members to believe a certain theory about the riots. That reputation could have perpetuated a possible misunderstanding about the security around Habibie. That reputation allows him to still be linked with Indonesian violence, like the continuing turmoil in Maluku.
These are the easy explanations. Others are tougher. After May, Wiranto was labeled “pro-reform,” “professional,” someone who would “safeguard his country as it inches to democracy.” For a while, he was more popular than Habibie, and was in the running for the presidency, despite his demonstrated loyalty to Suharto. How did he manage to marry such opposites? Other questions: Why did Wiranto insist on taking senior command to East Java on May 14? Who was responsible for the military “statement” about Suharto? Why allow students into parliament and let them stay there until Suharto’s resignation?
Prabowo admits his version is exactly that – his own. The same events might have been seen differently by others: Suharto, Habibie, the children, Wiranto. “I have to be very fair,” says Prabowo of Wiranto. “He wanted to reform but he also had political ambitions.” In his own eyes, Prabowo was loyal. To others, his actions could have seemed those of a deadly rival, a traitor, a conspirator. Mutual suspicion, confusion and misunderstandings must have had a role in the May drama. Every key player may have thought the others were out to get him. If Indonesian politics is supposed to be shadow play, then it is possible to be frightened by each other’s shadows.
One can still find plot and counter-plot. But to see more than conspiracy at work is to release the complicated truth from the cage of a convenient fiction. Whatever the reality behind the riots, the stories since have proven particularly useful. “After the TGPF,” KONTRAS’s Munir points out, “what emerged was that Wiranto is someone who couldn’t be found responsible, when actually in the political structure he was the most. This was Wiranto’s political victory: to obtain a ticket to enter a new regime [when] really he was part of that which was overthrown.” Would Wiranto’s military consolidation and political rise have been possible without the end of Prabowo?
Prabowo’s shadow has been drawn like a blanket over the riots, the kidnappings, abuses in various regions, much of the post-Suharto violence. He has saved a lot of people a lot of explanations. “He shouldn’t be singly blamed for everything,” attorney-general Darusman told Asiaweek. “That’s the easy way out.” But it was the route taken. With scapegoats, no one need explain the persecution of a man, the stalled careers of others. No one need reveal the fate of still-missing people. No one need admit responsibility. As long as enough believe that everyone’s troubles will vanish if someone else – a person, a community – can be blamed and then eliminated.
With additional reporting by Arif Mustolih/Jakarta