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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

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From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
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MARCH 3, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 8

Image Of Evil
Prabowo's refracted reputation for ruthlessness in East Timor
By JOSE MANUEL TESORO

There are at least as many tales about Prabowo in East Timor as there are about his May 1998 strategems. Human-rights activists and pro-independence Timorese say that he ranks among the bloodiest commanders ever to serve there. They blame him for mass arrests and summary executions, as well as for establishing an intelligence and paramilitary network that turned Timorese against each other. "Prabowo's presence in East Timor has always been high-profile, leaving a trail of victims," reads one human-rights bulletin.

Prabowo's reputation is such that after East Timor's vote for independence in August last year, there were reports that he had a hand in its subsequent devastation - more than a year after his discharge from the army. Recently, a British newspaper even speculated that Jordanian peacekeeping troops deployed in the territory could be used by the former general to stir up trouble. (Prabowo resides in Jordan and is a friend of King Abdullah.)

Prabowo's response to such charges: "I think a lot of it is distorted." He does not deny he supported East Timor's integration with Indonesia and the pro-Jakarta Timorese who fought for it. "I thought that we had a good cause," he explains. "The Portuguese were there for 500 years, and they left behind a mess. [Pro-independence guerrilla group] Fretilin for us was Marxist-Leninist, an ideological enemy. We had to help the Timorese who were pro-Indonesia - and many of them were." Pro-Jakarta locals assisted Prabowo's units. None were well paid, he says, but he found them the most dedicated fighters for integration. (Pro-independence Timorese naturally viewed them differently.)

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But Prabowo's belief in integration did not mean that he would do anything to achieve it. "I was always against mistreatment of prisoners," he says. "I was always against torture. I have this philosophy: the people's army. We have to have the people on our side. How can you do it by mistreating them?"

Prabowo served in East Timor four times. He arrived there for his first tour of duty in March 1976, some three months after the half-island had been abandoned by Portugal and invaded by Indonesia. "We were sort of a shock unit," he recalls. "We would go out of [the capital] Dili for two, three weeks on long-range patrols. Once, we were surrounded by hundreds of guerrillas. At that time, we didn't have many helicopters and the weather was not very good. I remember hoping: Hey, if I'm hit, let me be hit in the morning. Because if you were hit after 2 o'clock, no helicopter would come and rescue you."

In 1978, he returned as commander of 112 Company, codenamed Nanggala 28. Its signal achievement: the killing of Fretilin president Nicolau Lobato, for which Prabowo was promoted. Five years later, he led an anti-guerrilla task force. Finally, Prabowo was posted in East Timor from 1988 to 1989 as head of the army strategic reserve Kostrad's 328 airborne battalion.

Suspicions that Indonesian troops committed atrocities in East Timor are widespread, and a recent report by the National Commission on Human Rights implicated several top officers, including former military chief Gen. Wiranto, in the violence that erupted after last year's referendum. In the two decades following the 1975 invasion, the military maintained a tough stance toward the territory. Corruption, poor discipline and abuse seem to have flourished among officers and troops stationed in East Timor.

The question is: How far did Prabowo participate in all this? To obtain details of his alleged abuses, Asiaweek contacted four separate non-governmental organizations monitoring military atrocities. These were TAPOL in London; Solidamor in Jakarta; the HAK Foundation, headquartered in Dili; and the East Timor Action Network (ETAN) in New York. We asked for eyewitness reports, transcripts of intercepted communications, leaked papers or anything that could substantiate these stories.

None could provide them. TAPOL's Liem Soei Liong admits: "I don't think we really have a smoking gun." He and Solidamor's Tri Agus Siswowiharjo say their offices have no definitive data linking Prabowo with the abuses. Liem attributes this to Prabowo's being "never part of the official structure." HAK's Levidus Malau says his group did keep some data, but it was lost in last year's devastation of Dili. ETAN directed us to call an East Timorese man whose schooling had been paid for by Prabowo. We did, but the man said he could neither confirm nor deny the stories. ETAN's media and outreach director John Miller asserts: "[Prabowo's] reputation is based on reality."

What is the reality? I looked into one incident in which Prabowo was reportedly involved: a massacre of villagers in Craras, in Viqueque regency, southeast of Dili. According to a special forces officer, who asked not to be named, Craras was razed on Aug. 3, 1983, in retaliation for the murders of Indonesian engineers by Fretilin in the village. Prabowo's unit, to which this officer belonged, did not arrive in East Timor until three days after the incident. Sent to Craras, they came across more than 30 survivors, mostly women and children. He says Prabowo gave them red-and-white banners - the Indonesian colors - and a letter to present to the area's commander. His unit then escorted the group as far as a river crossing. The officer says he does not know what happened to them afterwards, but information obtained elsewhere suggests they were killed by another Indonesian unit.

Many of the beliefs about Prabowo do not quite fit with the facts. He has been linked with the 1991 Santa Cruz cemetery massacre, but he was not even in East Timor at the time; what's more, he was serving in Kostrad, rather than Kopassus (the special forces group that deals with intelligence and counterinsurgency). Last September, rumors were rife that Prabowo was in West Timor advising pro-Indonesia militias, but he was in fact in Malaysia being interviewed by Asiaweek.

The paucity of evidence substantiating Prabowo's alleged crimes does not, of course, mean that he did not commit abuses in East Timor. In the absence of a day-to-day, independently verified account of each of Prabowo's tours of duty, doubts will always remain about his record - and that of any officer who served there, for that matter. Such is the strength of his infamy - and the image of the Indonesian military in East Timor.

It was war in East Timor; everyone left it bloodstained. But Prabowo seems to have entered the conflict - as he did much else - as an idealist. He held lofty concepts about the conduct of both warfare and integration that set him apart from his peers. He ordered his troops not to fire on unarmed civilians, even if they were in a group with armed Fretilin rebels (a policy his former subordinates confirm). He says other commanders considered him a wimp for his approach. "Many Indonesian officers were less than professional," he says. "They also had these colonialist, imperialistic attitudes. They just treated East Timor like a fiefdom. I was pushing: No, we have to win the hearts and minds of the people. If the people are not with us, we have problems."

In the early 1990s, Prabowo tried to persuade Jakarta to grant autonomy to the territory - a fact confirmed by Indonesia's ambassador-at-large Francisco Lopez da Cruz and former foreign minister Ali Alatas, both long involved in East Timor policy. That would make Prabowo one of the earliest proponents of autonomy. "In any insurgency situation, there must always be a political solution," says Prabowo, "and I thought that a special autonomous region would be ideal. But of course who would listen to a second lieutenant, a first lieutenant or a captain?"

His status as Suharto's son-in-law made little difference, as the strongman was firm on the matter. "For him, integration was final," says Prabowo, who feels that East Timor's choice to leave Indonesia was, in part, a vindication. "I was always against perpetuating the war. In the end, it proved true. Some of the higher-ups had this crazy idea that it would be a good thing if we could perpetuate this war."

At worst, Prabowo was loyal to an institution that badly mishandled East Timor. At best, he stayed as far as he could above its savagery and even tried to mitigate it. Then why has he been considered the personification of the Indonesian military's brutality? The answer may be that the focus on him blurs the identities of the many more who were responsible for ordering and carrying out abuses. In the same way perhaps, rumors of his presence in West Timor after last August's vote helped draw scrutiny away from the nature of the militias' links with Jakarta.

It would indeed be an irony if Prabowo represents a rare point of convergence between those who cared little about human rights and those who tried to uphold them. The officers and bureaucrats who ordered, committed or aided abuses in East Timor could well have preferred that the consequences of their actions fall on someone else's head. As for human-rights activists and pro-independence Timorese, stories of Prabowo's reputed ruthlessness represented so well Indonesia's sins in East Timor that they were judged more on their usefulness than on the proof.

National Commission on Human Rights member Saparinah Sadli was on the Joint Fact-Finding Team on the May 1998 riots, which implicated Prabowo. She concedes: "We may have been influenced unconsciously. That is possible." She also indicates that the same kind of pressures could be bearing on the investigation into last year's East Timor rampage. "To tell you the truth," she says, "now we are influenced [to think] that somehow Wiranto is behind it." Is the former armed forces chief indeed the villain behind the East Timor tragedy? That, too, may have to wait for the evidence.


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