Indonesia at a crossroads
I recently spent two weeks travelling in Indonesia during the run-up to yesterday’s presidential election. Never has one in Indonesia been so polarising, or so high-stakes, with an outcome that was almost too close to call. Joko Widodo (known as “Jokowi”), the populist grassroots politician, is the presumed winner by almost five percentage points, although his rival Prabowo Subianto has fought back with his own declaration of victory.
I was wary of Prabowo from the very start, given his background as a military strongman and the fervent nationalist rhetoric in his campaign. Posters around the country proclaimed INDONESIA BANGKIT! (“Rise up, Indonesia!”), and added that voting for him would be the “patriotic” choice. Others suggested that Prabowo’s leadership would pave the way for Indonesia to become a new Asian Tiger.
But Prabowo has a chequered past that he has never accounted for in public. Throughout his military career, he has served in Kopassus, the Indonesian Special Forces, responsible for an untold number of human rights abuses in occupied East Timor. In 1978, as a 26-year-old lieutenant, Prabowo led the mission to capture the fledgling nation’s first president, Nicolau dos Reis Lobato. The statesman was found, ambushed and killed, his body taken to Dili and photographed by the media. In the 1990s Prabowo played a vital role in attempts to stamp out East Timor’s independence movement, using Kopassus-trained militia to terrorise and hunt out supporters under cover of darkness.
The US has slapped a travel ban on Prabowo for his role in the kidnapping and torture of nine student pro-democracy activists in 1998, a move that led to his dismissal from military service. The Lieutenant-General was due to be court-martialed, but he fled to Jordan and returned in 2002. Tellingly, no prosecution has since taken place; it certainly helps that Prabowo is the former son-in-law of the dictator Suharto, and comes from a well-known family among Indonesia’s political elite.
And yet, many have voted for him in spite of such a tarnished past. For someone from Hong Kong, a jurisdiction where we are fighting for the right to elect our own leader, I was alarmed by what I saw among Prabowo supporters: the ones Bama and I met were casting their ballots based on appearances and superficial reasons alone. A former marine who had spent a few years in Europe told us, “I will vote Prabowo because he is stern”, while a Javanese housewife said, “I will vote Prabowo because Hatta [his running mate] is well-mannered and attended [Indonesia’s top university] ITB.”
A guide in the growing port town of Labuan Bajo said he would vote Prabowo “because he has been good to East Nusa Tenggara”, without substantiating how a military man who had never been in elected office had helped the province.
Perhaps most shocking of all was the stark comment from a young, educated employee at an industrial conglomerate in central Jakarta. Alluding to Acting Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, who took the position after Jokowi announced his running for the presidency, she told Bama, “I will vote Prabowo because I do not want Jakarta’s governor to be a Chinese Christian.”
It wasn’t so long ago that being Chinese in Indonesia would make you a victim of persecution. In May 1998 riots swept across the country, with armed mobs targeting its ethnic Chinese minority. Homes and businesses were burned; ethnic Chinese women were gang-raped; and over a thousand people were killed. One of my own childhood friends, whose mother was Chinese-Indonesian from Bandung, had recently moved to that city with his family; they soon emigrated to California.
There is evidence of Prabowo’s hand in fomenting anti-Chinese sentiment just months before the deadly riots, as the value of the rupiah plummeted and Indonesia reeled in the Asian Financial Crisis. In late January that year, Prabowo gave a speech at Kopassus headquarters – delivered to an audience of roughly 5,000 Muslim intellectuals and clerics – detailing foreign threats to the country as his staff handed out data pointing to the economic dominance of the ethnic Chinese community.
While the Lieutenant-General spoke, elaborating that the financial crisis was caused by a Chinese-Indonesian conspiracy to sabotage the nation, a sympathetic crowd was mobilising elsewhere in Jakarta. Under Prabowo’s orders, hundreds of demonstrators were sent to intimidate CSIS (Centre for Strategic and International Studies), a think-tank founded by two prominent Chinese-Indonesian businessmen. Today CSIS is one of several reliable pollsters forecasting Jokowi’s narrow victory after a quick count, which has been an accurate bellwether in the past two elections.
Prabowo swayed many voters on the promise that the rise of a “strong” Indonesia would garner respect on the international stage. But true and lasting respect will not come without real improvements in education, a culture of critical thinking, and the fair treatment of religious and ethnic minorities. ◊