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Home / 2012 / 09 / 12 / Indonesia: Ghosts of Past Abuse Haunt Political Ambition of Prabowo Subianto
September 12, 2012

Indonesia: Ghosts of Past Abuse Haunt Political Ambition of Prabowo Subianto

It wasn’t that long ago that Prabowo Subianto was one of Indonesia's most reviled men. The son-in-law of former Indonesian president General Suharto, Prabowo has been accused of kidnapping, human rights abuses, and an attempted coup.

Today the retired army general is the leading presidential candidate in Indonesia’s 2014 elections.

In May of 1988 General Suharto was thrown out of office following a period of rioting and economic upheaval. Prabowo was accused of instigating the violence. Soon after being dismissed from the army and shunned by the Jakarta elite, he began living in self-exile in Jordan.

In just over a decade, Prabowo has  transformed from one of the most despised men in Indonesia to one of the most celebrated.  Prabowo is the leader of the Great Indonesian Movement Party (Gerindra), a political group with an estimated 15 million members. However, Prabowo still needs the support of the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI-P) or another major party in order to become a coalition’s presidential nominee.

Human rights activists say Prabowo isn't fit to head the country because of his alleged involvement in the violent crackdowns on democracy protestors during the Suharto era. "I think to have Prabowo as the next Indonesian President would have tremendously negative implications for resolving human rights cases," said Haris Azhar, Executive Director of Indonesian human rights NGO KontraS. "How do we expect a policy of human rights accountability from a person responsible for atrocities?"

When Suharto's 32-year reign came to an end in a frenzy of national protest and riots in 1998, members of the Indonesian Special Forces unit that Prabowo commanded were accused by activists of kidnapping democracy advocates, among other crimes. When Suharto stepped down, the military forced out General Prabowo. "[I]n the 1990s, [Prabowo] was instrumental in forcefully defending the Suharto regime from perceived threats, and he was therefore diametrically opposed to the reformist elements that gave rise to Indonesia's democratization," said Kevin O'Rourke, the Jakarta-based author of "Reformasi," a book on Indonesia's transition to a democracy in the late 1990s. "His high ranking in recent presidential preference polls reflects disenchantment with other aspiring nominees."

Prabowo was never charged with any wrongdoing. He claims that he wasn’t involved with any human rights abuses and that political rivals have spread rumors about him. "This is the risk of being a military leader. When you serve a government and serve your country, then when politics change, we have to face the risk of allegations," he said.

Prabowo says his party has a relatively clean record on corruption, long considered a serious problem in Indonesia. Another pillar of Mr. Prabowo's platform is that he is solidly secular, and his party plans to protect the rights of minority religious groups in the Muslim-majority country.

Australia and the United States have made it clear in the past that  they would deny Prabowo a visa because of his human rights record, but now face the possibility that they will have to accept what one diplomat calls "new political realities." Indonesia is the world’s largest Islamic Democracy and a strategic ally for the US in Southeast Asia.

If Prabowo becomes Indonesia’s next President, the US will need to seriously revise its relations with the former general. The relationship could pose further problems with the release of a report by the Indonesian Human Rights Commission, Komnas HAM, about the Suharto-era Communist purge, which could implicate Prabowo.