APSN Banner

Indonesian general accused of kidnapping is named defense minister

New York Times - October 23, 2019

Richard C. Paddock, Jakarta, Indonesia – The president of Indonesia, Joko Widodo, named a longtime political rival to his cabinet on Wednesday, appointing a once-disgraced former general accused of human rights violations to the post of defense minister.

The appointment of the new minister, Prabowo Subianto, who has twice lost presidential elections to Mr. Joko, is indicative of the president's willingness to curtail civil liberties in order to maintain a coalition in Parliament with which he can push through an economic agenda.

Weeks after student protests that were fueled in part by a contentious criminal law rocked the capital, Jakarta, Mr. Joko also reappointed the justice minister, Yasonna Laoly, whose policies helped stir the public's outrage.

But Mr. Prabowo is a notorious figure, and his appointment to the cabinet is both the comeback he has been attempting for decades and a sign that Mr. Joko is turning his back on civil liberties.

Mr. Prabowo, 68, was the son-in-law of the former dictator Suharto, who ruled Indonesia for three decades. During the era of military rule, Mr. Prabowo commanded the feared special forces, known as Kopassus, and ordered the kidnapping of student activists in a failed effort to keep Suharto in power. He also was accused of atrocities in East Timor, a former province that broke away in 1999 and became independent in 2002.

As a result of his rights record, he was banned for years from entering the United States.

Now, 31 years after the army unceremoniously discharged him for repeatedly breaking the law, violating human rights and disobeying orders, Mr. Prabowo will oversee the nation's defense policy.

"Prabowo Subianto has a long record of human rights abuses as a former Kopassus commander in East Timor," said Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington. "This is well documented and what got him banned from the United States."

The appointment of Mr. Prabowo is one of several contentious moves by Mr. Joko that signal a departure from his first term. In recent weeks, Mr. Joko has also stripped the national Anti-Corruption Commission of much of its authority and backed legislation that would sharply curtail personal freedoms.

In his inaugural address on Sunday, Mr. Joko made clear that the singular focus of his second five-year term is his economic agenda. His cabinet selections appear aimed at building unity among the major political parties in Parliament.

Mr. Prabowo heads the Gerindra Party, which holds 78 seats in Parliament, making it the third largest party there.

Mr. Prabowo, who lost to Mr. Joko in April's election as well as in 2014, has aligned himself in recent years with hard-line Islamist leaders. After April's election, Mr. Prabowo's supporters challenged the results in protests that turned violent. At the time, Mr. Prabowo accused election officials of widespread fraud.

"As a presidential candidate, he pandered to Islamists and mobilized Islamist groups," Mr. Abuza said. "Prabowo called on them to take to the streets to contest the election results, undermining the rule of law."

After his discharge from the military, Mr. Prabowo disappeared from public view and lived overseas for a time. But since then, he has run for president in all four of Indonesia's direct presidential elections. He failed to secure a party nomination in 2004 and lost as the vice-presidential nominee in 2009.

The president's strategy in naming Mr. Prabowo could be to create a cabinet of rivals so that no one gains too much authority, said Evan Laksmana, a senior researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta.

Mr. Prabowo is not known as a team player and his role in the cabinet could be contentious. "It's a huge gamble," Mr. Laksmana said, describing Mr. Prabowo as a "towering and polarizing" figure.

"This is a classical balancing strategy that a lot of Javanese leaders like to use," he said. "You cultivate and support multiple power centers so there's no one dominant power center other than you."

In demonstrations last month, thousands of students took to the streets across the country to protest a law passed by Parliament that would limit the power of the Anti-Corruption Commission, one of the country's most respected institutions, one known for its success in rooting out corrupt officials.

The students also protested legislation that would have limited free expression and outlawed sex outside marriage, effectively banning gay and lesbian relations. And they protested the government's inability to prevent thousands of fires that devastated the country's rain forests this year.

Mr. Joko, who has ignored the students' concerns since starting his new term, reappointed the two ministers in charge of those policies.

"Reappointing Siti Nurbaya Bakar as minister for forestry and environment and Yasonna Laoly as minister for law and human rights suggests that Jokowi is not concerned at all about the student protests," said Aaron Connelly, a research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, using a nickname for Mr. Joko in a Twitter post.

[Muktita Suhartono contributed reporting.]

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/23/world/asia/indonesia-prabowo-joko-widodo.html