‘I Never Betrayed My Country’
“Prabowo Subianto is blamed for the violence surrounding the fall of Indonesia’s Suharto. Now the former general tells his story”
By JOSE MANUEL TESORO. Articles and Photos courtesy of Asiaweek Magazine
The trickle of calls for change was quickly turning into a torrent. Factions of the ruling party, retired generals – all began demanding the president’s resignation. On the 15th, NU leaders delivered a five-point statement. One point underlined their respect for Suharto’s attitude in Egypt, where he had said: “If I am no longer trusted, I will become a pandito [wise man].” The NU response was a diplomatic way of saying that they, too, believed his time was over.
Prabowo had spent most of the weekend, from the 15th to the 17th, at Kostrad HQ handling his troops. On the evening of Saturday, the 16th, a friend showed Prabowo a copy of what appeared to be a press statement from armed forces headquarters supporting NU’s stance. Prabowo went straight to the president. “Sir, this means the military is asking you to step down!” he says he told Suharto.
The president asked his son-in-law to check with Subagyo. Prabowo says the army chief told him he had not known of this position. Both generals reported to Suharto. Early in the morning of the 17th, military headquarters retracted the statement before it was published in most papers. According to Prabowo, later that morning, Wiranto arrived at Cendana to insist that he, too, could not have known about the statement.
I obtained a copy of this release, which is dated May 16. It has neither an official signature nor letterhead of the armed forces. To understand its existence, I met Brig.-Gen. A. Wahab Mokodongan, armed forces spokesman in May 1998. He confirmed that the military had to pull it back, but claimed he did not know where it came from. After a late-night press conference, he says, he was surprised to find it in his photocopies. When he informed Wiranto, the armed forces chief ordered an investigation. Mokodongan says intelligence checked computers throughout the sprawling military headquarters complex. “There was nothing like this,” he says.
We spoke to three Indonesian journalists who covered the 1998 events. Two remembered that they had received the statement at Mokodongan’s press conference. (One recalled him reading it out.) Another believes her magazine had even been faxed it by Mokodongan’s office. Its provenance thus remains hidden. How could a statement so sensitive appear without the knowledge of the spokesman or the chief of the armed forces?
On the 18th, Prabowo met Rais. The oppositionist, recalls Prabowo, told him: “I think the situation is now untenable. I think you should convince Pak Harto to resign.” But Prabowo was simply not in that position. At Cendana that evening, he says he saw Wiranto, who informed him the children wanted to fight. “How can we?” cried Prabowo. That day, Rais had issued a call for a demonstration to be held May 20 at the National Monument (Monas). Preventing the protest, which was expected to draw thousands, might result in more martyrs.
Prabowo next saw Suharto’s eldest daughter Siti Hardiyanti Rukmana a.k.a Tutut. Prabowo says she asked him what their next move should be. “My advice,” he says, “was that you must replace Wiranto or put in an emergency decree. Suharto did not want to [do either]. So I said: ‘What other way is there?'” Tutut asked Prabowo, what happens if her father steps down? Prabowo says he responded: Constitutionally, Habibie steps up.
The direct call for Suharto to resign came that same day. At about 3:00 p.m. on May 18, as the parliament building filled up with student demonstrators, MPR chief Harmoko asked for Suharto’s resignation. Late that evening, Wiranto declared in front of a packed press conference that Harmoko’s statement was “an individual opinion.” As for the students’ presence in parliament, early the previous evening Wiranto had met a group that included University of Indonesia alumni leader Hariadi Darmawan. They confirmed that students were planning to march to parliament, and discussed the best way to prevent possible riots. Someone suggested that the students be guarded by the military, or brought in by vehicles. The next morning, says Jakarta commander Syafrie, he was instructed by two of Wiranto’s aides to prepare transportation. At around 10 a.m., he says, he was also informed that the MPR leadership had given permission for students to enter. The students refused most of the military’s vehicles, but as long as the students came on wheels Syafrie guaranteed they had an unobstructed journey to parliament.
The following day, May 19, Prabowo participated wholly in efforts to secure Monas from Rais’s planned protest. That night, Wiranto met the senior command to discuss the demonstration. “The meeting chaired by Wiranto said the order was to prevent the march at all costs,” recalls Prabowo. “I asked many times what this means. Do we use live bullets? He did not want to give a clear answer.” Through the night, Rais received emissaries sent to persuade him to call off the demonstration. He finally caved in and the feared march never happened. But on May 20, Suharto received two blows. Fourteen of his ministers resigned from the cabinet. And he received one refusal after another from those invited to join a “Reform Committee.”
After sunset, Prabowo visited Habibie: “I mentioned to him: Sir, the old man might step down. Are you ready? He was, you know, yes, yes, yes. I said: You must prepare yourself.” From Habibie’s house, Prabowo returned to Cendana. “Once it was clear everything was safe, I walked in, still in my camouflage,” he says. “I was thinking I might get a pat on the back: Successfully prevented the demonstrations. No more killings. No more martyrs. Soldiers under discipline. Syafrie did a good job. And then, wham!”
In an inner room, says Prabowo, sat the Suharto clan with Wiranto. The first to emerge was Siti Hutami Endang Adiningsih, Suharto’s youngest daughter. Prabowo recalls: “Mamiek sees me, then points a finger about one inch from my nose and said: ‘You traitor! Penkhianat!’ And then: ‘Jangan injak kakimu di rumah saya lagi. Don’t set foot in my house again.’ So I went out. I waited. I wanted to come in. I said I need my explanation. There was my wife, crying.” Prabowo went home.
The next day, May 21, at 9:05 a.m., abandoned by his parliament and his cabinet, Suharto resigned after 32 years as president. His short resignation speech was broadcast to the nation. In spite of his humiliation the previous night at Cendana, Prabowo still attended the May 21 ceremony, he says, to lend moral support to Suharto’s successor, Habibie. After Habibie took his oath, Wiranto strode up to pledge that he and the armed forces would protect Suharto and his family.
When the First Family departed for Cendana, Prabowo followed. “I went just to comfort Pak Harto,” he says. “But of course I was there already under accusation of being the traitor. The situation was very, very tense between me and the other children. Later my wife told me there were reports I was having meetings with Habibie every night. I [met] Gus Dur, Amien Rais, Buyung Nasution. But we were not coordinating the downfall of Suharto. We were [discussing] the best way to calm down this violence.” Suharto did not answer Asiaweek’s request to respond to Prabowo’s assertions.
Habibie was now president. At 4.00 on May 21, Prabowo met his friend to congratulate him. “He kissed me on my cheeks,” says Prabowo, who asked for an appointment that evening.
Late that night, Prabowo arrived at Habibie’s home, accompanied by Kopassus chief Muchdi. Since Wiranto might stay on as defense minister, Prabowo says he suggested that army chief Subagyo be made armed forces boss to prevent too much power in a single person. That move also made Prabowo the best candidate to succeed Subagyo. “Yes, I was trying to influence [Habibie],” Prabowo admits. “I was close to him!” At no point, says Prabowo, did he threaten the new president. Afterwards, he went back to Kostrad headquarters.
The next day, May 22, after Friday prayers, Prabowo’s phone rang. Kostrad’s flag had been requested by army headquarters. Prabowo recalls, “They’re asking for my flag. That means they want to replace me.” He hurried back to Kostrad. “I remember Habibie saying: ‘Prabowo, whenever you’re in doubt, come to me anytime and don’t think about protocol.’ I knew this guy for many years. I felt, okay, I’ll look for Habibie. He’s in the palace. So I went there.”
He arrived in the early afternoon, in a convoy of three Land Rovers carrying staff and bodyguards.”[We] went in,” Prabowo says. “It was very tense. The presidential bodyguards were looking at me with strange faces. I think it was reported I was going to attack or something. I met the aide-de-camp and said: I need to see Pak Habibie. I just want 10 minutes. I just want to ask him a question. It is very important for me.”
Before entering Habibie’s office, Prabowo says he removed his pistol “because this is procedure. Whenever you come to a senior officer, you have to leave all weapons behind. I was not disarmed.” Then he walked into the president’s office. “He kissed me on both cheeks,” says Prabowo. “I said: Sir, did you know I was going to be replaced today? ‘Yes, yes, yes,’ he said. ‘Your father-in-law asked me to replace you. It’s best. If you resign from the army, I’ll make you ambassador to the United States.’ That’s what he said.” Prabowo says he was stunned. “My God, what is this?” he recalls thinking. “In my mind, [Habibie] was still at the time fond of me, but he was being fooled. I went to Subagyo. On my way in, I met some generals who were my supporters. Their message was: Let’s have a confrontation. I said: Just keep quiet. I met Muchdi there. We said: We are willing to step aside, but give us some time, so that the perception is that change of command is something normal. I think Subagyo went over to Wiranto. Wiranto said: No, [it] must be today.”
Even after being cast out by his in-laws, tossed aside by his ally and fired by his rival, the worst had not yet begun for Prabowo. In the following months, officers supposedly close to him were transferred or removed from active service. On June 25, Wiranto relieved Syafrie of the Jakarta garrison command, the beginning of a wide-ranging military reshuffle. After the findings of the honor council, Kopassus head Muchdi and a Kopassus colonel were released from active duty.
Added to this were the unstoppable rumors that Prabowo and his allies had triggered the May riots. On July 23, Habibie formed the 18-member TGPF to discover the “mastermind” behind the disturbances in six major cities, including Jakarta. After three months, the TGPF concluded that the kidnappings, the economic crisis, the MPR session, the demonstrations and the Trisakti killings all “closely correspond” to the riots.
The first of its nine recommendations was that the government investigate the May 14 meeting at Kostrad “to be able to find out the role of Lt.-Gen. Prabowo and other parties in the process which led to the riot.” The report did not name Prabowo as the riot’s mastermind in the executive summary released to the media. But it referred to him, to the May 14 meeting and to the abductions a total of 11 times. That was more than Syafrie, who received four references, or Wiranto, at that time still defense minister and armed forces chief. Wiranto was mentioned only once – in the context of co-signing the decree that brought the TGPF into existence.
Prabowo lashes out at the report’s insinuations. “What was the motivation that we were going to instigate riots?” he asks. “Our interest is if the government survives. I’m part of the Suharto regime. If Pak Harto survived another three years, I might make four-star general. Why should I burn the capital? It’s against my vested interest, let alone my principles.” He faults the report’s logic. “How can I have a meeting on the 14th?” he says. “The riots were starting on the 13th. And these were so-called opponents of the New Order meeting me.”
He rebuts the impression that he is anti-Chinese. He says that, like many Indonesians, he does not think it is healthy for a minority to control most of the economy. “Chinese businessmen thought I wanted to get rid of them. But my model was Malaysia’s New Economic Policy.” Does that mean he would not start riots to teach the ethnic Chinese a lesson? “Say you don’t believe I have any humanitarian feeling,” he argues. “If we destroy the Chinese, our economy becomes destroyed. It’s like killing yourself . . . If I did start the riots, why am I not indicted? The burden of proof is on the accusers.”
To find that proof, I returned to the work of the TGPF. I pored over a copy of the full six-volume report. (Only the first volume, the executive summary, had been made available to the press.) Four of the five remaining volumes consist of casualty and damage reports, eyewitness accounts of riots and rapes, and attempts to detect patterns. One volume contains transcripts of interviews conducted with military officers in charge during the riots. In addition, I spoke to nine of the TGPF’s 18 members, as well as historian Hermawan Sulistiyo, who headed a separate 12-member team that did much of the legwork.
Were the riots organized? Many who reported to the team believe so, but nowhere in the six volumes is there evidence to back up the eyewitness accounts, much less point to any one person behind the unrest. The riot’s nature remains an open question. That leaves the May 14 meeting. Yet when I spoke to three of those who attended, including TGPF member Bambang Widjoyanto, all denied any connection between them and the rioting, as a number of its participants also did in a press conference the day after the TGPF report was made public. The picture they painted corresponds to Prabowo’s account.
So did the Kostrad chief allow the riots to rage out of control? That would be difficult for him to do, because at no time did he have authority. Under standard procedures, the city police chief handles security. Command goes over to the garrison if police cannot maintain law and order, a fact that police chief Maj.-Gen. Hamami Nata pointed out to the TGPF on Aug. 28, 1998, and which was confirmed by Syafrie. The former Jakarta garrison chief fixed the time when command was transferred: around noon on the 14th. Mobs had begun attacking police posts, so police were withdrawn for their safety. From the 14th onward, Syafrie took charge; by the 15th, the unrest had largely been put out. Syafrie flatly denies that Prabowo had any control over him. “Prabowo has never influenced me,” says Syafrie. “He is my friend, but I have the principles of my duty.” At the time, in fact, Syafrie’s commanding officer was Wiranto.
The release of the TGPF report was delayed to Nov. 3 because of deep infighting within the commission. “The situation was very political,” admits TGPF member Nursyahbani Katjasungkana. “Opinions had already been formed. Then in the process of compiling facts, it was difficult to distinguish sharply between fact and opinion.” Debates became bogged down in splits between civilian and military members, between those who wanted to limit findings to legally admissible evidence and those who wanted to describe what they called “social facts.” An explosive point of contention: the number of rape victims. Sulistiyo says that out of 109 reported cases, his team was able to verify only 14. But some on the commission – who had encountered reported rapes themselves – felt that that number had to be higher. The count that appeared in the final report was 66 verified rapes, plus another 19 victims of sexual harassment and violence.
The transcript of the testimonies delivered by Prabowo and Syafrie to the TGPF of their activities between May 12 and 14 contains no information different from what they told me almost 20 months later. Nearly all the TGPF members I met denied that there had been any outside attempt to influence the investigation. Some said they were not affected by their own prejudices, or the rumors linking Prabowo to the riots.
Yet on Oct. 12, 1998, the TGPF summoned army chief Subagyo purely in his capacity as head of the military honor council investigating Prabowo. In the transcript, the members questioning Subagyo looked for a link between the disappearances of four youths at the height of the riots to the earlier kidnapping of activists. But Subagyo, at least on record, could provide none. In the final report, a link was still drawn between Prabowo’s pre-May kidnappings and the rioting.
Munir, head of the Commission on Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (KONTRAS), does not see the connection. “In May, I see a movement inside the elite to push the political situation to change,” he says. “This differs from the kidnappings, which is a conspiracy to defend [the system].” One TGPF member, I Made Gelgel, now acknowledges this problem of interpretation. “It doesn’t make sense,” he says. “That on the one hand Prabowo would fortify his father-in-law’s power, and on the other hand foment riots.”