Suharto's Son-in-Law Under Fire
By Cindy Shiner
Today, Indonesia is watching the story of former president Suharto and his son-in-law, Lt. Gen. Prabowo Subianto.
Hashim Wahid, a businessman who has known Prabowo since kindergarten, said he asked him once in jest: "Who do you want to be? Jaka Tingkir or Ageng Mangir?" The response? "He just slammed the door in my face and never talked to me again for 12 years."
Since Suharto was forced from power by student protests and widespread rioting in May, sources close to Prabowo say the former president has refused to speak to him and considers him a traitor. Prabowo, 46, a mercurial and ambitious soldier, is suspected of involvement in some of the events that led to the end of Suharto's 32-year rule, including the abduction and torture of political activists. He appeared before a military Honor Council Monday to answer questions about his alleged role in the abductions and could face disciplinary action.
Derisively referred to among his peers as a "golden boy" who rapidly rose through the ranks to become the army's youngest peacetime lieutenant general, Prabowo represents both the excesses of the former military-backed government and today's soul-searching by an institution trying to maintain its dignity and redefine its role at a time of democratic reform.
His questioning by the military council is widely seen as a way of putting the Indonesian armed forces on trial. The military is under pressure to investigate its alleged abuses, and blaming someone so closely identified with Suharto as Prabowo helps make it seem that a break has been made with the past.
The public fascination with Prabowo is intense. His face, accented by his special forces red beret, has been splashed on the cover of magazines for the past two weeks. "He's the most charismatic, enigmatic, unusual and weird guy I've ever known in my life," said a defense analyst with long experience in Indonesia. "He's also laudable and detestable. . . . Pick an adjective, and it fits."
Depending on whom you ask, Prabowo is either the fall guy for misdeeds committed by the Suharto government and the military, or he is a power-hungry fanatic who misjudged the forces he might have been up against if he chose to take on his father-in-law. In the end, perhaps Javanese history will have a new legend -- the fall from grace of both the king and the prince. Prabowo has kept his silence in public and declined to be interviewed for this article.
"To be fair, I think there's more to it than just Prabowo here," said Marzuki Darusman, vice chairman of the Indonesian National Commission on Human Rights. "I'd say he's a keeper of secrets, and he might be predisposed to reveal a few if forced to."
Local newspapers reported last week that a group of retired generals has called on the Honor Council to investigate the possible involvement of Suharto, who was commander in chief of the armed forces, in the abduction of the activists. An investigation is already underway into the wealth he amassed during three decades in power.
"I think [Suharto] knew about [the kidnappings], but I don't think he would order initiatives such as this," said a senior government official. "The old man does believe in a need for the Indonesian army to be a real people's army because, after all, he's from the generation [of independence from the Netherlands] who believed in the need of a guerrilla army based on the support of the people."
Some people say that while Suharto might not have ordered Prabowo to abduct political activists -- a practice that human rights groups say has been widespread for years in such rebellious provinces as Aceh, Irian Jaya and East Timor -- Suharto might have indicated that was his wish, and Prabowo could have carried it out to win his favor.
Although Prabowo gained status and power by marrying Suharto's daughter, Siti Hediyati Harijadi, or Titiek, a successful businesswoman, he comes from one of Indonesia's most prominent families. He is the son of Soemitro Djojohadikusumo, a widely respected economist who fled the country in the 1950s after being accused of supporting a rebellion.
During his early years, Prabowo lived in England and Switzerland. He adopted the Western approach of tackling problems head-on, and this later put him in frequent conflict with Suharto, a master of the subtle Javanese style of getting his way. When Prabowo's family returned from Europe, he enrolled in the military academy as a way to pursue his ambitions and to win respect on his own terms.
"It was probably the most prestigious profession then, back in the '70s," the senior government official said. "Later on, with the opening of the economy in the mid-'80s, he began to find that the army officer corps' official social status had declined relative to the emerging new professions, particularly in the modern economy: banking, accountancy, law, architecture." By that time, Prabowo had spent 10 years fighting in East Timor, where guerrillas were waging a war for independence from Indonesia.
Prabowo's commitment to the armed forces deepened after attending U.S. training courses at Fort Benning, Ga., and Fort Bragg, N.C. By 1995, he had risen to command Indonesia's special forces unit, known as Kopassus, and forged close links with the American military.
Reportedly helped by funds from a brother, Prabowo increased the size of Kopassus from 3,500 to 6,000 and provided extra pay and plots of land for homes to his troops. His fellow officers resented his meteoric rise; others worried that he was seeking to create a private army and consolidate his power base.
Prabowo also used his political influence as the son-in-law of the president to bypass the chain of command to secure equipment for his special forces, purchasing it from governments or dealers in France, Britain, the Czech Republic, Australia and Jordan, according to diplomats and defense analysts.
The British Defense Ministry was so impressed with Prabowo after he became head of Kopassus that it intervened to help him get an export license for six armored Land Rovers, according to the Times of London.
In a letter to Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, British secretary of state for defense George Robertson said: "The head of Kopassus is General Prabowo, the son-in-law of President Suharto. The general is recognized as an enlightened officer keen to increase professionalism with the armed forces and to educate them in areas such as human rights."
According to one defense analyst, Prabowo brought the first international Red Cross team to Indonesia to teach his troops about humanitarian and human rights law. Kopassus also received training from elite U.S. forces, but that was suspended after reports surfaced that Kopassus troops were suspected of involvement in the abductions of activists.
Over the years, allegations of human rights abuses in East Timor, Irian Jaya and Aceh arose, and the military's reputation began to slide. Prabowo, it was said, was eager to prove that if the military was no longer revered, he would command respect through force. He developed a reputation for treating his troops brutally and became known for anti-Chinese and antisemitic rhetoric.
In the final days of Suharto's rule, Prabowo was suspected of trying to engineer a takeover of the government. Sources close to him say his offer to send troops to the capital to suppress rioting directed at ethnic Chinese was rejected by more senior military commanders. There was suspicion that Prabowo, or people close to him, had organized the rioting to create an excuse for a crackdown.
"The idea that was presented to me was that Prabowo would come trotting up on a white horse and spreading joy, peace and security in his wake," the defense analyst said. "If so, it was a hell of a gamble, and it backfired."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company