Indonesia, the largest Muslim nation and archipelago on the planet, has climbed the ranks of global neo-liberalism to become the world’s 10th largest economy, as many newspapers announced on May 4, 2014. Within a few decades, the nation managed to increase its gross domestic product (GDP) at a fast and steady rate, primarily by exploiting and extracting its natural resources: timber, oil, coal, gold, and a myriad of other riches. The owners and managers of the country, however, have not succeeded in making substantive improvements in the standards of living of the population.
As the gap in wealth inequality continues to increase across Indonesia, the government lauds itself for allowing the destruction of the forests of Borneo, the mass palm monoculture in Sumatra, the strip-mining of the occupied territories of Papua, and the overfishing of the waters around Sulawesi. They pat themselves on the back while wrapped in the flag to justify their exploitation of people and resources for the sake of the progress of the Nation. On July 9, 2014, the country will choose a new president, but despite this change, the situation does not bode significant improvement.
Indonesia’s economic policies are strongly influenced by a small group of rich, powerful families, and its foreign policy is either directed or tacitly approved by Washington. Politicians switch party allegiances based on political opportunism and are, one way or the other, related to each other. The two leading contenders for President of the Republic of Indonesia are Joko Widodo (Jokowi) of the Democratic Party of Indonesia and Prabowo Subianto, of the Gerindra Party. Prabowo, for example, was head of the special forces (Kopassus), and he was married to the daughter of the former dictator Suharto who deposed President Soekarno.
On the other hand Prabowo was the running mate of Soekarno’s daughter (Megawati, PDI, now Jokowi’s party) in the previous elections. Prabowo’s vice-president nominee is Hatta Rajasa (National Mandate Party – PAN), whose daughter is married to President Yudhoyono’s (Democratic Party – PD) son. In this Brobdingnagian web of familial connection and political alliances it is difficult to discern the ideological stances and nuances of the candidates. Both presidential candidates will almost surely continue the policy of environmental destruction and indigenous oppression to further their interests and those of their circle of friends.
Nevertheless, the ascent of Lt. General (ret.) Prabowo Subianto should sound alarm bells for the future of Indonesia. Much of the country has never addressed the atrocities during Suharto’s regime that resulted in the deaths of over half a million alleged communist sympathizers, the US and British backed invasion of East Timor, and the continuing bloody occupation in West Papua that has resulted in an estimated 500,000 deaths so far. Nor has the country dealt with its accepted militaristic and authoritarian tendencies, which favor the image of a strong patriarch with a military background and flirts, with symbolism and sympathy, with many of the past’s most fascist regimes.
This tendency has manifested itself in its presidents, the brutal occupation of West Papua, and the recent military build up and provocative moves against Papua New Guinea. Of all the Indonesian presidents, the only one who has not held a military title has been the only woman, Megawati Soekarnoputri: the daughter of the military general who secured Indonesia’s independence from the Dutch. Lt. General Prabowo is directly and strongly connected to the former Suharto dictatorship and its so-called New Order, a reign of terror that was financially and politically supported by the United States.
During that particularly dark chapter of Indonesia’s history, which lasted from 1967 to 1998, Prabowo was a lieutenant general in the Indonesian army and head of the Indonesian Special Forces, Kopassus, which protected Suharto’s regime and advanced the dictator’s policies of political persecution and assassination against leftist movements or dissenting voices. It was also during that period that Indonesia’s military grip over West Papua was tightened, and its resources began to be sold off to the highest bidders. At least nine democracy activists seeking the fall of Suharto are confirmed to have been tortured and kidnapped while Kopassus was commanded by Prabowo; he is suspected of having been in charge of the kidnappings of many student activists who sought the overthrow of the dictatorship in 1997, 13 of whom were never found, and he has been identified by United Nations interviews as the leader of the operation that resulted in the Kraras Massacre of 1977 and that earned him the nickname “The Butcher of Timor.” Prabowo has pledged that, as president, he will manage the country with “military efficiency.”
During the economic turmoil that plagued Indonesia and much of Asia in the late 1990s, Prabowo fueled ethnic tensions and openly called for the Muslim Indonesian population to join him in annihilating the “traitors to the nation,” referring to the Chinese who were viewed as the source of the economic troubles. Not surprisingly, much of the economic devastation then could easily be linked to Suharto’s embezzlement of billions of dollars from the country’s development and industry – an arrangement that would likely have benefited an in-law of the First Family, like Prabowo. His massive conglomerate of oil, coal, paper pulping, palm oil, and timber industries, incorporated under the “Nusantara Group,” have made him one of the richest men in Indonesia, with a net worth, as of 2009, of $127 million (Rp 1.5 trillion).
The people of West Papua know that a switch of presidents will result in no significant development in their cause for self-determination, and Benny Wenda, the nation’s tribal leader in exile, has thus called for a boycott of the vote. The environmental destruction, which has brought Indonesia to the echelons of the fastest deforesting zones in the world, is likely to continue, to justify the capitalist “progress” while mostly benefiting the country’s corrupt elite. Leftist resistance movements will live in fear of the shadow of persecution from the country’s uncomfortable authoritarian legacy.
Given all these dark aspects of the potential president’s past, it is pertinent to ask what kind of government Prabowo would lead, whether the occupation of West Papua will escalate, and if the level of impunity enjoyed by Prabowo’s troops in Timor in 1977, and Jakarta in 1998, will be reinforced and applied all across Indonesia to silence dissenting voices.
Sadly, a vote for Jokowi will also maintain the status quo of social and natural devastation. The people of Indonesia are the victims of a cruel joke, stuck between a rock and a hard place and forced to vote for the “lesser of two evils.”
Ruben Rosenberg Colorni writes for News Junkie Post, where this article first appeared.