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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story


In rare interviews Prabowo, Suharto's frank son-in-law, considers the army's -- and his own -- future role in politics

By Keith Loveard / Cilacap

ASKING PRABOWO SUBIANTO IF he would like to be president of Indonesia is an invitation to a fight. "This sort of talk just distracts from my mission and my duty as a soldier," snaps the commander of Indonesia's special forces, Kopassus. Prabowo likes to set the record straight and he does not mince words. "And I'm not a candidate for the vice presidency," he adds sternly, perhaps trying to anticipate my next question.

Despite the denials, and his relatively tender age of 45, there is no shortage of talk about his political prospects. Prabowo certainly has the right connections. Married to President Suharto's second-eldest daughter, Siti Hediati Harijadi, known as Titiek, he travels and is seen widely with his father-in-law. He is also the swiftest-rising officer in the national armed forces (known by their Indonesian initials ABRI). He became a brigadier-general at 43, leap-frogging four military academy classes in 1995. Promoted to major-general last year when Kopassus was expanded, many of his former classmates are still stuck at colonel.

No one is suggesting Prabowo is heading directly to the top -- at least not in the next few years. And while he seems to be a Suharto favorite, that does not mean the president has anointed him for a future post. One previous army commander and Suharto brother-in-law, Wismoyo Arismundar, was also tipped for high office, but -- like several others over the 31-year Suharto reign -- fell from favor.

On the other hand, it is hard to find anyone in the know who does not see Prabowo as one of the people in Indonesia to keep an eye on. Most recently, there has been talk that he will be made Jakarta commander soon. Sri Bintang Pamungkas, the sacked parliamentarian facing jail for allegedly criticizing Suharto, identifies the general as one of the country's welcome breed of future leaders. "People like Prabowo are still looking for the right role to pursue their ambitions," he says.

The general is not without his critics, even among his fans. "If Prabowo measures his pace carefully he may be able to make it [to the presidency]," says Juwono Sudarsono, vice governor of the National Defense Institute. But he adds: "His problem is that his temper can be too abrasive for Indonesians. It may be good for the military, but for a political role it needs to be calibrated." A childhood neighbor notes that Prabowo can fall on the curt side of frank. When he married Titiek, the old friend sent him a message. Prabowo now had only two choices, the friend wrote: either do everything Suharto says or kill him. In reply came a message from Prabowo: "I hate your guts."

Who is this fast-rising star? Watching the man in action offers hints, though he never seems to let down his guard. On a March night before a ceremony for new Kopassus recruits, Prabowo is marshaling his top officers through a "test" of karaoke. The men laugh and joke together, when Prabowo suddenly changes the atmosphere radically. If the officers take their duty lightly, they'll have to answer to him, he warns ominously. Then the general with the tough-as-nails reputation changes again: the song that haunts him most, he says, is the Irish ballad "Danny Boy" because it is "the cry of a mother or father sending their son off to war."

Prabowo spent his formative years largely outside Indonesia, where his critics say he picked up his frank (some call it un-Indonesian) style. As a boy and teenager, Prabowo lived in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, London and Zurich. He was not a diplomat's son or a child sent away to school, but a political exile. In the late 1950s his father, economist Sumitro Djojohadikusumo, was implicated in a revolutionary movement championing the nation's break up. A total failure, its CIA-backed supporters were forced to flee. When his family returned to Indonesia in 1968, Prabowo had to virtually relearn his native tongue.

Sumitro was reportedly less than happy when Prabowo decided to make a career in the army. He was the only one of his siblings who chose to move out of a money-making -- or money-monitoring -- career. Sumitro's second son Hashim is now a leading business force in general trading, cement, coal and power-generation. The two daughters are married to other business players, one of whom, Sudrajat Djiwondono, is governor of the central Bank Indonesia.

When the young Prabowo signed up for the army, many friends thought it was a strange choice. One former associate recalls telling him he was crazy. "I'm going to change it from the inside," Prabowo told him. Whether he has done so is hard to tell, but he has certainly won praise every step of his career. His only fear as a junior officer was not in the field or on parade, but being ordered to take part in one of the corps' oldest traditions: karaoke. "I'm tone deaf," he explains.

Prabowo may have been a liberal when he joined the military, but he is now a strong proponent of the army line. In a rare set of interviews, the ever-savvy general stressed the need to preserve national unity -- a concept that many foreign and Indonesian analysts believe is a contradiction in terms. "We are always prepared to discuss differences of opinion," Prabowo says, "but there are some things we cannot negotiate. One is the unity of the country." He disagrees with many retired officers who argue that Indonesia's "security approach" to dissent is outdated. "If they take up arms and attack government buildings, start a terrorist campaign, that is not something to negotiate," he says. "How can you negotiate with people who want to blow your head off?"

Isn't the continued violent dissent a sign that the process of government has failed its people? That's not true, Prabowo replies. "In every society you have fringe elements, a lunatic fringe. Even in the United States, there are people who are very violent. You can't say the government has failed in the United States."

To Prabowo, the need for stability justifies jailing the likes of activist Muchtar Pakpahan or his own fan Bintang. "We know there are certain elements whose strategy is to create chaos," he says. "They talk about human rights or they talk about economic justice but they go around with molotov cocktails and they burn down churches and temples, factories and shops. Who are the victims? It is exactly the poorest segment of the population that suffers."

On the whole, Prabowo's public record is sterling. International Red Cross negotiators praised him highly for his patience during last year's hostage-taking incident in Irian Jaya. Red Cross sources say many senior officers were less than keen to let them spend months in negotiations. But Prabowo insisted that the Red Cross be allowed to do all it could to avoid an armed clash. When the rebels walked out of the talks only hours before a deal was set to go through, Prabowo quickly arranged a strike force. The result: all but two hostages were rescued unharmed.

Prabowo nonetheless remains the subject of much rumor. One allegation is that the military instigated last year's riot at the Irian Jaya township of the Freeport copper mine to justify its strong presence in the mineral-rich area. Activists allege the rioters were led by "short-haired men carrying two-way radios," a claim backed up by some Freeport sources. Prabowo has also been linked to the troubles in secessionist East Timor where, family sources say, he has adopted 10 Timorese youths (he and Titiek have one son, Didit, who is 13). One shadowy organization, Gada Paksi, is said to be "closely related to the military," particularly Prabowo. Gada Paksi has been accused of having been involved in an attack on a local journalist.

Prabowo rails at suggestions that members of the military misuse their power: "I don't know who you met. Here we're close to the grassroots." He admits that some abuses have taken place, but then quickly returns to the attack. "The fact is we've maintained stability for 51 years with one of the lowest levels of military spending in Southeast Asia, with a small number [of personnel] in terms of our population."

He sees ABRI's participation in politics continuing for the foreseeable future. The role is rooted in the policy of dwi fungsi, or dual function, which allows the military a part in governance from the villages to the highest level of power. "If the Indonesian leadership and institutions perform well and become stronger, then logically the implementation of dwi fungsi need not mean that we are everywhere doing everything," the general says. "We are not as active now in day-to-day political activities as we were 30 years ago."

An inherent risk in the military holding such wide powers might be a reluctance to let go, like a parent unwilling to recognize a child's growing independence. "We don't see ourselves as a parent," Prabowo retorts. "We are a member of the family. We are one of the stronger brothers of that family." He quotes academic studies that claim that a viable democracy can only be maintained after a society reaches a per capita GNP of around $2,000 (Indonesia is at $940). In the meantime, he says, "there must be stability to achieve a basic economic level of welfare. We can't have everything at once."

Prabowo's openness and willingness to debate set him apart from his fellow officers, traditionally nervous of the foreign press and inclined to recite a litany of official responses when cornered. By contrast, Prabowo seems to enjoy a test of minds. But his habit of speaking freely has helped to set many against him; one of his tasks may be to learn to criticize less directly, to phrase himself more obliquely.

That may not be a major step. Speaking to Prabowo a few days after a dinner speech in Jakarta by retired U.S. forces chief Gen. Colin Powell, the issue of leadership is pertinent. Powell told his audience that he had pondered the call for him to seek the Republican nomination for the U.S. presidency, and concluded that he could not fully commit himself to the task. How would Prabowo react to such a call from within his own nation?

This time his answer is more refined. "If you are an idealistic patriot you have to do whatever you can for the good of the country," Prabowo says. "To this point I have always tried to ask myself if my actions are for the good of the country or for my own benefit. I have to convince myself that if it's for the good of the country, then I will have no reservations." He ponders his words before continuing. "I might be able to rise further up the ranks," he says, noting that there are 40 other major-generals, seven three-star generals and two four-stars ahead of him. "Then there's the X factor: God," he smiles. "We don't know what he has in store for us." Who says Prabowo cannot be a diplomat?

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home



U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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