John Mcbeth Senior Writer

The Prabowo Subianto I know

As Indonesians head to the polls on July 9 to choose their president, a writer pens a word-portrait of the Prabowo Subianto he knows.

Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto (centre) arriving at a Ramadan concert in Jakarta on July 2, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto (centre) arriving at a Ramadan concert in Jakarta on July 2, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

It is probably fair to say I have known Prabowo Subianto longer than most foreign journalists - 20 years, to be exact.

But I have exchanged words with him on only very infrequent social occasions since he was cashiered from the Indonesian Armed Forces in 1998. Part of the reason was a brief story I had written a year later, which he and other members of the Djojohadikusumo family wrongly construed as an attempt on my part to lay some of the blame for the 1999 East Timor bloodshed at his door.

That was not my intention, but apart from one sister, none of them would talk to me for more than a decade. For all their prominence in public life down through the years, the Djojohadikusumos have always been just a little thin-skinned.

As the July 9 presidential race heats up, so has the rhetoric from his rivals and many genuinely fearful constituents. The charges fly thick and fast: Mr Prabowo is a psychopath; Mr Prabowo is Asia's Adolf Hitler, a dictator in the making; Mr Prabowo will return Indonesia to a darker authoritarian age.

But will he really?

Misdeeds and allegations of misdeeds litter his 24-year military career. They range from a village massacre in the then East Timor in 1983 to the 1997-1998 abductions of pro-democracy activists and the leading role he is often accused of playing in the bloody riots that ended president Suharto's 32-year rule.

Bursting into the palace in 1998 to confront president B.J. Habibie is just one example of his erratic behaviour. In more recent years, he is said to have struck a United Development Party politician on the head with a cellphone and beaten up a hotel waiter, among other outbursts.

But as with everything else about him, it is not always easy to sort out fact from rumour. With this man, there are no grey areas, just black and white.

My first meeting with him was in 1994 at No. 7A Jalan Cendana, a house across the street from father-in-law Suharto's modest bungalow, where the then special forces colonel entertained guests outside the barracks.

He met me at the gate and we had a pleasant hour-long conversation. That and subsequent interviews were always off the record - and will remain so today. But they did help me understand an enigmatic, even fascinating figure who had spent most of his formative years in the West.

Despite his reputation, I don't recall being intimidated at any point; in fact, I rather liked him and came to share the view of a colleague who spent more time with him than I did in later years - "well informed, sober and a generally intelligent observer of events who kept his temper well hidden".

There was no doubt Mr Prabowo's subordinates and many of his fellow officers feared his influence during the Suharto years; his superiors hated the way his authority stretched far beyond his nominal rank and command, especially in East Timor.

I recall him talking freely about Mr Suharto. It was obvious they saw a lot of each other, and while Mr Prabowo's foreign upbringing meant he had none of the president's Javanese style, he clearly absorbed some of this thinking on Indonesia's place in the world.

Western officers rated him as a brilliant soldier, with one even predicting in a cable that he would be a future president.

But after marrying Titiek, Mr Suharto's middle daughter, and getting his first real taste of power, he did seem to change. "At times he would suddenly rant about something with a strange look on his face as he spoke to some spot above and behind me," says one old acquaintance.

One of his favourite topics in earlier days was the dominance that the Jewish-owned media and entertainment industry enjoyed in the US. But in later years, he took to sounding off about the Chinese and the dangers of Chinese expansionism in South-east Asia.

It was something he had to live down when he launched his political career a decade ago, after returning from self-exile in Jordan. But he has also maintained or renewed contacts with some unsavoury figures and people on the religious fringe to stay in the game.

After all, this is probably the last throw of the dice for a 62- year-old who has had a lifelong ambition to be president of Indonesia, ever since he was surprised emulating Charles de Gaulle in front of the mirror when he was a boy growing up in Europe.

Certainly, the consensus among those with long memories of Mr Prabowo is that he would be strong, decisive and even ruthless, the exact opposite of incumbent Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

The police and bureaucracy, they believe, would be in for a hard time. Political debts would be largely ignored and he would seek to claw back some of the presidential powers ceded to Parliament in one way or another over the past decade.

But as the son of an architect of president Suharto's economic miracle in the 1970s, Mr Sumitro Djojohadikusumo, and with businessman-brother Hashim Djojohadikusumo at his shoulder, it is highly doubtful he would go to some of the nationalist extremes he has touched on in his campaign rallies. Says one acquaintance: "I think he will be too shrewd and pragmatic to allow his personal feelings to cloud his judgment on matters of state."

None of which, of course, is all that reassuring for those who fear the worst from a president Prabowo Subianto.

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