Monday, May 19, 2014

Indonesia’s Aceh and the rise and fall of former Suharto son-in-law Prabowo

Prabowo Subianto’s meteoric rise in popularity as presidential hopeful has been conspicuous. In just two years (2008-2010) he has built a highly energetic political party, the Gerindra Party, and persuaded a considerable number of young and old voters to vote for the party in the April legislative election.

This is perhaps not very surprising given his aggressive style of campaigning. A maverick soldier-turned-self-styled populist, Prabowo sees himself as the savior of the nation, who is determined to fight for the great solution. The former Army general promises to transform Indonesia into a big power, the new Asian tiger.

In times of crisis, there have always been idiosyncratic leaders who loved to build a vision and attempted to impose grand designs for state and society.

Men like Joseph Stalin in 1920s, Adolf Hitler in 1930s and the Khmer Rouge leaders in 1970s — they were all invariably driven by authoritarian types of populism, armed with the infrastructure of oppression and a reinvigorated nationalism, which ended at great human cost.

There has also been a trend of sympathy with Hitler’s fascism in Indonesia, as observed by the Greater Indonesia Party (Parindra) in the 1930s.

Prabowo, too, as one of his old friends recently confirms, admired Hitler
. Now, however, referring to China’s Deng Xiaoping and Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, he praises the kind of leaders who used an iron fist to guard and control capitalism and society, and is proud to be part of Soeharto’s New Order, while preparing for a strong doses of economic nationalism and evoking a sense of greatness for the nation and the people.

But Indonesia is not in crisis. Under the umbrella of the big oligarchs who behave as if they own the political parties, the rising middle class with rising prosperity need law enforcement rather than a strong leader, and maintaining pluralism rather than purity of beliefs, which Gerindra’s “Manifesto” apparently prefers.

Recent developments in Aceh suggest how Prabowo’s Gerindra has played its cards. Aceh has turned peace into efforts to build welfare in which the elite — including the former rebels I recently met in Banda Aceh — are keen to build their own sort of nationhood (keAcehan) while Jakarta’s oligarchs play their part.

While the Helsinki peace accord of 2005 is supported by the people of Aceh, its full implementation has been used as leverage to build strength by both Jakarta politicians and the ex-Free Aceh Movement (GAM) ruling elite.

In 2009, trouble came. Then governor Irwandi Yusuf’s reign was regularly disturbed by violent attacks involving ex-GAM factions with local military allegedly secretly running the show.

By the 2012 local regency elections, the military-led operation succeeded in gaining massive support from Central Aceh — the home base of anti-GAM communities — for Irwandi’s rival, the Aceh Party (PA), which resulted in the latter’s dominance in the Aceh administration and legislative body.

Last June, Gerindra and the PA agreed that votes for Gerindra’s local legislators should go to the PA, and PA voters were to support Prabowo for president. To do otherwise would be haram (forbidden), warned the deputy governor, former GAM commander Muzakkir “Mualem” Manaf.

Under the PA, Aceh looks like a one party-state with former combatants turned into omnipresent party-militias — a pattern prone to intimidation and violence. The Gerindra-PA deal ignored this potential issue and focused exclusively on electoral gain.

For Aceh, however, the alliance is important since Jakarta — i.e. the Army — harbors deep-seated suspicion that the ex-GAM elite harbors a “hidden agenda of independence”.

“It’s uncomfortable to live with [this suspicion],” Governor Zaini Abdullah complained. Even Malik Mahmud, the former GAM official and current Wali Nanggroe (the “Guardian of the Aceh State” a legal honorific title), who stays aloof from political life, responded with body language indicating his being unable to comprehend it.

“As a result, Aceh has been kept awaiting for years for Jakarta to finalize the laws on local government on important matters related to mining, symbols and the flag, despite the Helsinki accord,” Zaini protested.

In short, it’s only by building some modus vivendi that Aceh will be able to enjoy its special status, strengthen security and stabilize its relationship with Jakarta.

When in 2009 the PA opted for the Democratic Party, the result was Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s big election victory. In turn, the president, at the opening of the Tsunami Museum in February 2009, asked local military commander Maj. Gen. Soenarko, now a Gerindra executive, to keep the peace. But to the dismay of the PA, the Democrats left them and then came Gerindra.

However, it is hard to many Acehnese, including many PA leaders, to accept Prabowo as a bedfellow. He is associated with the Army’s Special Forces’ (Kopassus) dirty war in Aceh in the 1980s, called DOM or the military operations, which is still widely remembered with pain.

The psychological legacy of the “House of Torture”, the infamous Rumoh Geudong in Pidie, remains. Aceh is a unique, if problematic, historic symbol of Indonesia’s unity. To embrace Aceh is to strengthen the nation.

If GAM leaders now reunited with the nation, Prabowo might recognize the career of his own father, who in 1958 joined a rebellion only to return home a decade later — albeit in his case with the help of a foreign intelligence agency.

On human rights abuses, he may have thought he would be forgiven when he, last March, for the first time after decades, offered an apology in general terms for what his soldiers did. Yet, it’s all too little, too late.

The election outcome demonstrates not only the growing strength of the national parties but the serious loss of Gerindra’s partner, the PA, from 48 percent to 36 percent of total seats in the local legislative body (from 33 of 69 seats in 2009 to 29 of 81 seats). At the national level, Gerindra only won two seats from Aceh instead of the targeted six.

This clearly reflects not only dissatisfaction with Aceh’s administration and the violence and fraud as a consequence of the PA’s hegemonic rule, but also the grassroots rejection of Gerindra’s Prabowo.

While this may or may not prejudge the fall of Prabowo’s Gerindra on a national scale, it sends a powerful message that politicians like him should take past human rights abuses seriously.

 The writer
Aboeprijadi Santoso, Jakarta is a journalist who recently covered the 2014 legislative election in Aceh.

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