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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

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

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek

APRIL 7, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 13

Letters: The Prabowo Question

Your COVER STORY ["I Never Betrayed My Country," March 3] was valuable as it starts a discourse on reopening the old case of the May 1998 riots in Jakarta, which led to Suharto stepping down. Ever since, many military officers have tried to cover up this case. I had hoped many tight-lipped elite military officers would speak sincerely about their role in the riots.

Your report, however, said nothing revealing as far as the result of the government Joint Fact-Finding Team (TGPF) is concerned. You and Prabowo Subianto referred to only part of the result. As 1,190 people were killed and business centers were burned, people still wonder who was responsible for the riots: they could not have happened on such a vast scale without a "mastermind." Jakarta was like a "cremation." Worse, your report was based on a myopic interviewee and too personalized, which likely diverted readers away from the fact that a fledgling democracy eventually would have no place for the military in politics anyway.

 
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To consider the nature of the riots an open question is baseless. I'll cite a few of the many examples we gathered. A local security officer (we have his name) from the Jatinegara subdistrict-level military command, told us of 20 Kopassus officers who ordered rioters to burn down the Bank Central Asia building at Jatinegara, East Jakarta, on May 14, 1998, at around 2.30 p.m. Is it a reliable statement if an officer from military HQ, working with the TGPF, dismisses the report, saying that those wearing Kopassus uniforms are not necessarily special forces officers? A taxi driver (his name is with us) said he saw on May 14 five military helicopters hovering low over a business center at Ciledug, South Jakarta. A man in one of the helicopters fired warning shots into the air, then shouted clearly that the rioters should not hesitate to loot.

We found there were strong indications that the military had at least known about the planned riots. Two shop-owners at the Glodok Plaza in West Jakarta told us that shortly before the riots broke out, military officers tried to blackmail the plaza owners for about 40 million rupiah [then about $5,000]. They would deploy a troop unit if the owners wanted the building to remain intact during the violence that eventually destroyed major business centers in Jakarta's Chinatown.

Indications of direct military involvement in the regions were clearer. A shop-owner in Simalungun, North Sumatra, testified that a dozen army officers from the 122 Rindam Battalion looted his shop of its contents at about 3 a.m. on May 7. A street child in Surakarta, Central Java, confirmed to the team that on May 10 special forces officers ordered him and four friends to join a rioting crowd in the town. They were given money.

Many willing eyewitnesses, mostly ordinary people and including police officers, reported to us about the involvement of military personnel, particularly Kopassus officers. The witnesses talked openly even though intimidation took place throughout the period of the TGPF investigation. We had to protect them as nobody else did.

This question remains valid: Who was responsible for such highly politicized riots? Or, better, who should have taken charge of the riot situation - lest one be strongly suspected of masterminding the unrest? Where would we be if we had let ourselves be drawn into the conflicting statements of the senior military officers? At least we could hold to what senior military intelligence officer Maj.-Gen. Zaky A. Makarim testified on Sept. 2, 1998: that the security command had been transferred from the police to the military command under the so-called Great Jakarta Operation Command (Koops Jaya). The Jakarta military commander had direct control. The then-Jakarta police chief Maj.-Gen. Hamami Nata testified on Aug. 28 that the Koops Jaya was effective from the beginning of the general elections in April 1997 until June 1998, when ended the post-general session of the MPR [parliament] that took place in March 1998.

While there were conflicting reports, Hamami Nata told the team on Aug. 28, 1998, that the live bullets fired at students on May 12 were not those of the police, implying that the perpetrators were from superior troops that they knew well. Furthermore, middle-ranking police mobile brigade officers came to us saying they knew who burned and gutted the police offices during the riots. The police officers said: "They were all trained the same way in how to burn down structures." In addition, they said, although there were many military officers, for example, at Matraman and Salemba streets on May 14, the military was in complicity because they did nothing as police offices and cars and business buildings were burned and looted.

The man you base your report on still had official control over the Kostrad and the Kopassus officers. You quote him as saying he knew many of his soldiers would do whatever he said.
I. Sandyawan Sumardi, SJ
Member of Joint Fact-Finding Team (TGPF)
Jakarta



"I Never Betrayed My Country" did not dispute the eyewitness accounts contained in the TGPF report or cited in this letter. When our story said the nature of the riots was "open," it clearly left open the possibility that the riots were organized. What our Cover Story questioned is whether the data gathered by the TGPF adequately supported all of its conclusions.

Sandyawan's statement that Prabowo, who in May 1998 was Kostrad strategic reserve commander, had official control over Kopassus special forces and Kostrad is factually incorrect. By March 1998, Prabowo had relinquished official control over Kopassus, although it is clear that he maintained personal links with its new commander as well as many of its officers. In May 1998, he did have official authority over Kostrad troops. But under the security plan for Jakarta to which Sandyawan refers, operational command of all troops on the ground during the riots was in the hands of the Jakarta police chief and the Jakarta garrison commander.

This does not eliminate the possibility which Sandyawan suggests: that Prabowo could have used his personal links with soldiers for a certain end during the riots. But up to this point, we have found no evidence or witnesses to prove that he indeed did so.
- The Editors

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