During the 2014 presidential campaign in Indonesia, investigative journalist Allan Nairn released previously unpublished discussions with presidential candidate and notorious military leader Prabowo Subianto. Prabowo, who received significant training and support from the United States government, has been implicated in mass killings in Indonesia, East Timor and West Papua during the 1980s and 1990s. Nairn’s articles were based on a 2001 interview between the two, and Prabowo talked candidly about the risk of committing massacres in front of the press and his view that Indonesia was not ready for democracy. As a result of the reports, Nairn was criminally charged at the request of the Prabowo campaign. His reports undoubtedly affected the course of the election, which Prabowo lost.
In addition to Nairn’s recent and ongoing work in Indonesia, he is a lifelong activist and investigative journalist who has played important roles in grassroots solidarity efforts with the peoples of Guatemala, Timor-Leste (formerly East Timor), Indonesia, and elsewhere. He is a survivor of the 1991 Santa Cruz massacre in Timor, which was a decisive turning point in the Timorese struggle for independence.
This interview with Nairn was conducted on January 3rd, 2015 in in New York City. Nairn discusses recent developments in Guatemala and Indonesia, the societal impacts of accountability and impunity for mass crimes, and the role of social movements and international solidarity activists in forging progressive change.
In 2013 Guatemalan’s achieved a successful prosecution of former dictator Rios Montt, who had overseen the torture, disappearance and murder of many thousands of civilians, in addition to the internal displacement of hundreds of thousands. What forces moved that case forward, and what impact did that have in the region?
Nairn: The history is that the military and the oligarchs basically won in Guatemala. They are still in power, although they had to make some concessions, and the power of the military is much less than it used to be. But they were basically the winners. The poor, and especially the indigenous Mayans, were the losers. This was the opposite of victors’ justice, which is what most of these war crimes cases are. In this case those who prevailed in the courtroom were those who lost in the bloodshed. It was a massive achievement.
There was a case where, using the principle of universal jurisdiction, the Spanish courts indicted and filed for the extradition of a series of Guatemalan generals, including Rios Montt. Within the Guatemalan system there were just enough honest judges and prosecutors, and one of them, Claudia Paz y Paz, had become attorney general, and that, combined with the continued pressure from the victims, brought the case together. I think a lot of it was luck. The oligarchy and the military were asleep at the switch – I don’t think they took the effort seriously. By the time they really started to pay attention the case had basically been green-lighted. The attorney general had gone forward with it. That’s part of the reason why they [the oligarchs] acted so fiercely after the verdict of Rios Montt, when he was sentenced to 80 years in prison.
Yassmin Barrios, the judge in the trial, delivered a long decision – the printed version was more than 900 pages – stating that there was genocide, describing it in detail, and attributing it to the military structure of which Rios Montt was a prominent figure. The rulers, the oligarchs, just went crazy. The body of the oligarchy in Guatemala is the CACIF, the Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial, and Financial Associations. They held a press conference and proclaimed, ‘this cannot be tolerated. This verdict cannot be tolerated. It must be annulled, we won’t stand for anything less.’ They got it suspended – they got the Constitutional Court to do their bidding, and the case was thrown into limbo. But the case is due to resume soon. There’s maneuvering going back and forth right now as to whether it really will.
But, the big blow was already struck when it went to trial and when the verdict was delivered, because this was the first time that any nation on its own had brought a head of state to trial for genocide. That’s really the significant part – that they did it on their own. It wasn’t the UN, it wasn’t an international tribunal. Even more significantly, it wasn’t victors’ justice.
How did you end up being asked to testify in the case?
AN: One of the amazing political aspects of it was that it was done under the presidency of Perez Molina, who was himself a general and a key figure in the massacres. Many people were surprised, because he could have intervened to stop the case from going to trial in the first place. He chose not to. He and Rios Montt had split many years back – Perez Molina planned to oust him many years prior. So he allowed the case to go forward and, the theory was that there was a tacit bargain that the case would be limited to Rios Montt and the old intelligence chief [Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez], and no one else. It would not extend to the other generals, and it certainly would not extend to Perez Molina. Essentially under those conditions, he allowed it go forward.
In the process the attorney general’s office and those who were working with them asked me to testify. I had met Perez Molina in the mountains in the midst of the massacres. His men described to me how they went into villages, rounded people up and had them dig their own graves, and they would pull them out one by one for interrogation and finish them off by strangulation, or with machetes, rifle executions, or with whatever method. Then they would come back and bomb the villages with U.S. supplied helicopters and planes.
At the time I was working with a TV documentary crew, and we were filmed talking, standing over bodies, corpses of men who had just been killed while under interrogation by his men. At that time he did not own up to being Perez Molina, he was using an alias – he called himself Mayor Tito. I said ‘Ok, this is Major Tito,’ or so I thought. Years later I started to hear that some people were saying that the politician Perez Molina, this is before he became president, was Major Tito. He was the field commander for that one particular region, the Ixil region, in late ’82.
As it happened, the war crimes and crimes against humanity case against Rios Montt was based on those massacres, the Ixil region massacres, which were only one small portion of the overall sweep of massacres in Guatemala. But because that’s where they were able to gather the evidence and where the plaintiffs took the initiative to push it, that’s what the case was about. And so Rios Montt was being tried for massacres that, in important part, Perez Molina had carried out on orders originating from Rios Montt.
About 10 days before I was due to take the stand, one of the witnesses, a former army engineer, surprised everyone, including the attorney general’s office who had prepared him. He testified by video hookup from a secret location for his safety. They didn’t feel it was safe for him to come into the courtroom. While testifying under those circumstances he blurted out the name of Major Tito – Perez Molina. He had been in the Ixil region in that same period that Tito was there and that I was there, and he said “yes, Mayor Tito, who is Perez Molina, ordered killings, ordered tortures, ordered the bombing of villages.” This stunned everyone, and it broke the tacit bargain because now Perez Molina had been drawn into the trial. It created a crisis within the case and within all of Guatemalan politics.
Behind the scenes, Perez Molina intervened and kept me off the stand because he was afraid that I would then talk more about him. Then I went public with what had happened behind the scenes with the secret intervention of Perez Molina, which had not been known to that point, and that generated a lot of criticism. Within about two weeks the trial resumed again, and it was able to proceed to verdict, the 80-year verdict. And that caused the oligarchs to band together for the cancellation.
There’s an interesting parallel to Indonesia. I was talking about the case in Indonesia during the presidential campaign and recently, and what a lot of Indonesian’s say is, ‘well that cannot ever happen here because our system’s so corrupt, the military’s so powerful.’ My response is, in some respects, the Guatemalan system is even worse. Guatemala was ruled by an elected general, just like Susilo [Bambang Yudhoyono, Indonesian president 2004-2014]. Perez Molina was a general who won an election because he got money from the oligarchs, as did Susilo. Perez Molina’s crimes were never an issue in the election because the facts weren’t put onto the table by the press, just as the facts of [former General] Prabowo’s crimes were not put on the table in local press in the last election. Even under those conditions, with a president like that, and with a judiciary and legal system that is basically as corrupt as that of Indonesia, they were able to find a way with a few honest people inside the system and with pressure from below.
About pressure from below: Similar to East Timor during the Indonesian occupation, there’s a history of a strong Guatemalan solidarity movement in the U.S. Can you discuss the role that long-term solidarity organizing had in bringing that situation to justice?
AN: Well, in Guatemala in the ‘80s as the terror was happening, which dated back to ’55, a lot of the effort from people in the U.S. was to try and stop the U.S. support for these massacres. In Guatemala, for example, we succeeded, at one point, in getting the delivery of helicopter spare parts cutoff. That may have prevented the machine gunning of number villages and saved some lives, but the basic policy of arming, financing, and backing the killers continued. That’s in contrast to East Timor and Indonesia, where we were able to succeed and help bring down Suharto, and clear the way for an independence move for Timor. The outcomes were very different.
In the aftermath in Guatemala, the international pressure was important in helping to bring the case to fruition, especially through the case in Spain. That was very important, because it developed a lot of the evidence and the legal theories that were later used in the case in Guatemala. I guess you could say that the solidarity work was more successful in helping to prosecute these two killers than it was in stopping them as they were doing the killing. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. It depends on the particular circumstances.
What are the implications of the Guatemalan prosecutions for prosecuting mass crimes in Aceh, West Papua, and Indonesia?
AN: It’s a great precedent. But, in Indonesia, generals like Prabowo, Wiranto, Hendropriyono, Sutiyoso – those involved in the biggest crimes are unlikely to be prosecuted quickly, but they are starting to lose their grip on power, on state power, for the first time.
How do you think the 2014 Indonesian presidential elections affect this?
AN: What happened during the election in Indonesia was, I think, a breakthrough. As often happens in politics it emerged quickly, kind of surprisingly.
Jokowi [Joko Widodo] emerged as a candidate quickly, as did Prabowo [Subianto]. So you had this contest setup between a civilian, Jokowi, who speaks the language of the poor and was not himself involved in atrocities, and the worst of the generals, Prabowo, who talked about fascism, talked about dictatorship, and was [former Indonesian dictator] Suharto’s son in law. There was a direct clash, and Suharto and the things he represents lost, and that creates a situation where there’s potential for a basic break in the power of the army. It won’t necessarily happen, but it is possible. And it hasn’t been possible since 1998.
There was a moment in ’98, as Suharto was falling, when the power of the repressive army could’ve been broken. In moments of crisis things happen very quickly. What happened then was that Suharto fell but the army stayed intact. Perhaps the crucial moment was when, after the series of demonstrations that brought down Suharto, there was a plan for a massive demonstration, the ultimate one, that Amien Rais was helping to organize. [Armed forces chief] Wiranto went to him and said, don’t do it, if you do that it will be another Tiananmen. And they cancelled it. The army stayed intact since then, and their doctrines of killing civilians has continued to be the doctrine of the state. They kill them whenever necessary.
Now, with this new government, there is a range of possibilities. Things could stay as they are, or could even get worse. Jokowi is not a killer but he’s surrounded by killers: Hendro and Wiranto for example. But, the difference is, if people mobilize now and there’s mass pressure from below demanding fundamental change, and if they go into the streets, it seems likely that Jokowi could react in a constructive manner. Unlike previous presidents, unlike Prabowo, he probably would not say open-fire. He would probably say, ‘ok, let’s sit down, and see if we can work something out.’ And that could be the beginning of some real change. Jokowi himself is not going to initiate this, but if there’s pressure from below that changes things.
In the recent past major human rights activists have been murdered by Indonesian government agents. What is the current climate like in relation to organizing and potential consequences of organizing?
AN: Well, the threat of abduction, assassination, is not really there anymore for the national-level activists, like it was for [human rights activist] Munir [Said Thalib]. Because of his work and others, people like [labor activist] Marsinah, or Aceh’s [human rights activist] Jafar Siddiq Hamzah, the climate has changed today. So national-level activists don’t really face the threat of death, but, at the local level, many still do.
There are all sorts of people at risk who have been working on local environmental or corruption issues, including many local journalists, especially in West Papua, because Papua is the main target area. There are activists in areas all over the country who have been disappeared, who have been killed. It’s still dangerous for them, but not really at the national level at this point. That’s an example of something that could be changed. If word goes out from the central government that they will no longer tolerate the local military commands and the branches of the national police targeting activists or targeting journalists, they can stop it. But that word has not gone out yet.
The recent massacre in Paniai in Papua is an example. The massacre happened just as it could have in any moment in the previous government. Jokowi was completely silent for 20 days, but then he finally made a statement saying that the killings were bad and, most importantly, that they would convene a fact-finding mission to find out what happened, rather than taking the word from the police as to what happened. That is a basic break from the past, but there has to be massive pressure to ensure that the military and/or police who are behind those shootings are actually put in prison.
Indonesian politicians and military personnel are deeply intertwined. What are the prospects for a strong separation under the current president?
AN: That will be one of the last things to change, because they’re completely intertwined: the politicians, the military, and the oligarchs, the ones who provide the big money.
This is a small example of how it works. The moment when Prabowo truly emerged as a serious candidate with a chance to win – because for a long time Jokowi was the presumptive winner – was when [Aburizal] Bakrie failed to make a deal with [former Indonesian president, 2001-2004] Megawati [Sukarnoputri] and Jokowi to support them. They were making a deal, and it collapsed at the last moment. He switched and backed Prabowo.
Bakrie controlled [Indonesian political party] Golkar, but more importantly he controlled TV1 – one of the two national 24-hour news channels. The other one, Metro TV, is controlled by Surya Paloh, a Jokowi supporter. When that happened TV1 instantly became a 24-hour propaganda outlet for Prabowo. And because it’s a very big operation, very professional, really very high quality – up until that moment they had very high quality news – they did very good propaganda. Their propaganda was actually better than the Jokowi propaganda coming out of MetroTV.
It had a big impact. Prabowo started ascending rapidly in the polls. That’s when I decided, because I wasn’t in Indonesia at the time, I decided to go back there and bring out an old Prabowo interview. I said, ‘oh my god, there’s a chance he could become president,’ which hadn’t seemed like a realistic possibility.
That’s just an example. They will be the last to change. That whole crew will be together, and of course Jokowi comes out of that confluence of those powers. His party is Megawati’s party. She’s the one who told the military when she was president, don’t worry about human rights. These killer generals who surround Jokowi are Megawati’s generals – Hendro, [Indonesian Defense Minister] Ryamizard [Ryacudu] especially. When, on election afternoon, after the quick count showed that Jokowi was likely the winner, at the victory press conference, Wiranto was sitting at Jokowi’s right hand. So he, Jokowi himself, comes out of this pool of blood and corruption. But, that doesn’t mean that he can’t help to transform it if he wants to, and he may be open to that. But it has to come from a mass of pressure.
What other potential changes are in Jokowi’s power to make?
AN: Some of the earliest changes that could happen would be, for example, Jokowi commits a serious prosecution on the Paniai massacre case. He follows through with his pledge to have what he refers to as a dialogue, but what become actual serious negotiations with Papuans. He removes Ryamizard as defense minister. He takes up the recommendations of [Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights] Komnas HAM, which have been sitting in the attorney general’s office for years. They filed a series of criminal referrals on at least seven different major cases including the  Talangsari massacre, Wamena in Papua, Timor ’99, the ’65-’67 massacres, the mysterious killings of 1982-1985, and a number of others. And they issued criminal referrals on generals, including Hendropriyono, in a number of these cases. The attorney general has never done anything and Jokowi could order that those now be taken up. He could put a stop to Ryamizard’s plans to restore the (what used to be called) the territorial function of the military, where they get involved in local-life at a very intensive level, or the ‘entering the villages’ programs as they call it. Ryamizard has floated the idea of doing that. Jokowi could put a stop to that.
Jokowi could also re-open the Munir case. Komnas HAM has just convened a special, outside advisory investigatory on the Munir case, looking toward re-opening. They’re supposed to report back in a few months. And he can do that.
Jokowi could follow-up on the concessions that Hendropriyono made to me. Hendro said that he was willing to stand trial for Talangsari, for Munir, for Timor in 1999 – he said that he was calling for the release of all Indonesian government documents, including TNI [Indonesian army], BIN Indonesian intelligence agency, and POLRI [Indonesian National Police]relating to those cases. And, also, all U.S. government documents related to those cases. So, Jokowi could immediately, on his own authority, just with the stroke of a pen, order the release of all of those Indonesian government documents. And he could have the attorney general go to the U.S. government and call for the release of the related CIA, NSA, White House, State Department and Pentagon documents. I specifically asked Hendro about those U.S. documents, and they’re especially relevant because Hendro worked with the CIA, as he acknowledged, and he said that, yes, he would call for those to be released as well. So Jokowi could follow-up on all of those things. All those things are very doable.
That’s just in one sphere – that of justice and the military and intelligence. It’s not to mention wages, and agricultural rights, stopping the persecution of religious minorities, and so many other things. There are all sorts of things that could be done very quickly with executive action, and you could imagine them practically happening. So if there is enough pressure from below, those things could happen.
The final disentanglement of the military and the oligarchy, however, will be way down the road. It hasn’t yet happened in the United States. But basic blows can be struck at the power of that system that relies on murder. It’s very important, and there’s a real struggle for power going on, and it’s just beginning.
Journalist Allan Nairn.
So in the meantime, what are the societal impacts of pervasive impunity in places like Timor-Leste, Indonesia, and in the United States?
AN: It’s a good question because sometimes this is discussed as a historical matter, as looking to the past and getting it right, and figuring out who did what and settling the scores. But, in fact, that’s a minor part of the issue. The big part is stopping the killers from killing. Removing them from power. Locking them up so they don’t continue to kill, and creating a precedent that makes the institutions they come from change policy. So they change the policy from, ‘we will kill civilians to we won’t kill civilians.’
The fact that nothing was done substantively after Timor proved to be devastating for people in Indonesia. [former Timor-Leste president Jose] Ramos-Horta and Timor-Leste Prime Minister Xanana [Gusmao], especially Xanana. but both of them, said ‘oh, don’t worry about it, we’re not going to prosecute anybody.’ In fact, they even, especially the people around Xanana, they even went into business with Kopassus men. A former [Indonesian] colonel, who I met in 1990 and ’91, was the intelligence chief at the time of the Santa Cruz massacre– he’s now a businessman who does all sorts of business with the Timorese government. By taking that stance and basically waving away the slaughter of a third of their population, they endangered the lives of people in Aceh, and people in Papua, and undoubtedly cost the lives of thousands in both areas. The Indonesian army used the same policies again — the policy they used in Timor, they then used in Aceh, and they then used in Papua. Each time it was with diminishing intensity, so Aceh was not as intense as Timor, and Papua is now not as intense as Aceh, because there were other pressures from within Indonesian society that made it less tenable to do the mass slaughter that they did in Timor. But the basic policy of being willing to kill civilians and using that as an instrument continued. In fact, even the same individuals continued doing it. Dozens and dozens of the same officers who, in Timor, carried out the slaughter as captains and majors, later did it as colonels and generals in Aceh and Papua. These same guys, the same people who, had there been any justice in Timor would be sitting in jail, instead were sitting in Aceh and Papua giving orders and getting people killed in those places.
Now, it’s true that the Timorese didn’t have the power to actually physically apprehend these people. They had left and were in Indonesia, and they weren’t coming back, and the Timorese couldn’t go into Indonesia and capture them; do rendition back to Dili like the Americans do. But they just waived away, they gave them a free pass — they said don’t worry about it. They could have put them on trial in absentia and attempted to extradite them from Indonesia, though it wouldn’t have succeeded.
What do you see as the potential for change in West Papua?
AN: The situation in Papua is very tough. It’s a lot of tougher than it was for Timor in terms of possibilities. Because, first, Papua is very rich in natural resources. The mainland of Papua is full of minerals, forests and other things that are very important to the Jakarta establishment. And they are not going to give those things up easily. Whereas Timor was seen marginal in an economic sense; even politically, it was somewhat marginal to Jakarta. They just didn’t want the precedent of anyone being able to break away from their control. But, apart from that, it wasn’t as if Timor was part of the economic core of Indonesia. Papua is.
Secondly, the legal status – Timor was recognized as separate internationally. A U.N. Security Council resolution soon after Indonesia’s 1975 invasion called on Indonesia to ‘withdraw without delay’ from Timor. It was a clear act of aggression. But, in Papua, in actually one of the more – maybe the most egregious cases in U.N. history – the U.N collaborated and was complicit in the takeover of Papua by the Indonesian military. So it had the U.N. imprimatur, which makes it harder for them [the Papuans].
The third factor is that with the transmigration and the other forces that push Indonesians into Papua. The Papuans are now a minority in Papua. In Timor there was always a very simply solution and a very good answer to the question, “well, what do the Timorese want?” The answer was, they just want a free election. They just want to vote. Now if you had a referendum in Papua most of the voters would be Indonesians who are relatively recent settlers there, as opposed to the Papuans.
Apart from this is that the structural surveillance and provocation by Indonesia’s security forces. . A few years ago, [army special forces] Kopassus documents on Papua were published. (A lot of them weren’t published, because it would have been too dangerous for too many people.) If you look through these papers it’s astonishing. They’re basically the internal personnel files for Kopassus intelligence on Papua. There are hundreds and hundreds of pages listing people they have worked with, and these are regular people – farmers, shopkeepers, people who work at kiosks, teachers, all sorts of people. And in the file they talk about how they get the people to spy for them. Often it’s coercion, that’s the way a lot of these intelligence operations work. The descriptions of how they turn people into secret collaborators is reminiscent of what the Israeli’s do in the West Bank – they put this ruthless pressure on people. And Kopassus does the same thing in Papua. They’re attempting not to police, or to do military defense, they’re attempting to control the society. So it all creates a very tough situation for Papuans.
There may be a way out though. A first step would be pulling out the army and the police. That’s something Jokowi could do with the stroke of a pen – just stopping that repression. That has to come from Jakarta, and Indonesians have to press for that, international forces have to press that. Within Papua, some unity among the Papuans would help, because there are many splits and it just weakens the movement. But, if there could be enough of a coming together and they can compel Jokowi to sit down with them and start some kind of political process, who knows where it could lead. For example, there might be some way to organize some kind of vote that could lead to a constructive change in the political status of Papua. Hardly anybody remembers it, but when the Timor referendum was held, the Indonesians settlers were not allowed to vote. Nobody really paid any attention then because there were so few of them, they actually hadn’t been there very long. In Papua though, they’re now the majority, so if you tried to use that condition you’d actually, in a sense, disenfranchise the majority of people that are presently there. But, that’s the kind of thing that political talks can go through. You might be able to find some formula that is seen as tolerable by the Indonesian community that’s in Papua, as well as the Papuans themselves, leading up to some kind of vote regarding status with a question proposed in a way that could at least be a first political step.
Now, if you reach the point of a test of independence, there will be a huge clash because a lot of the core of the ideology, of not just [Jokowi’s and Megawati’s] PDI-P party but all the national political parties. They wouldn’t tolerate independence for Papua – they just can’t conceive of that. But it should be discussed and it should be on the table, because that is what many Papuans want and that is what strong, persistent movements in Papua want. So it has to be discussed. And Jakarta has to explain themselves, and justify themselves, and look for a way out. But first you have to stop the repression.
Looking back at the case of Munir, the human rights lawyer who was murdered
on Sept. 7, 2004 while traveling to the Netherlands. Do you think there is a chance that the truth will come out publicly in his case? Is there a chance for justice?
AN: There’s already a lot of information on public record. The basic story is mostly there already. The problem has been that the army and the Indonesian system has not allowed fair trials. This was clearly an intelligence operation, led by A.M. Hendropriyono, the head of Indonesia’s Indonesia State Intelligence Agency. If you had an honest, functioning attorney general’s office, they should be able to proceed to trial immediately – a retrial of Pollycarpus Budihari Priyanto who was just released from prison, of As’ad who was the number two in BIN at the time, and of Hendropriyono, and a half dozen other BIN officials, where there’s strong evidence of their involvement.
Then you could do further investigation about the role of Megawati, who was President at the time, and the role of the CIA. Because at the time the CIA had a liaison relationship with BIN, and Hendro was personally working with the CIA. There have been many reports, the Washington Post did a detailed report, and also some U.S. officials have said to me, that Hendro got money from the CIA. He denied that to me; he acknowledged to me that he was working closely with the CIA and that he did indeed meet with George Tenet, the director, but he denied that he got money. At the time of the killing he was working with CIA, he had a liaison relationship with the CIA, so just institutionally that means that the CIA bears some responsibility and the Indonesian government can now subpoena, if they want to, the U.S. documents. If they start a criminal investigation, they can subpoena all the BIN records and the CIA records regarding their meetings with Hendro, meetings with other BIN officials, what information they have. The NSA would have a massive archive of information, because through Australia they do very extensive intercepts of the TNI and of BIN. So, it’d be very easy to quickly gather additional documents, beyond what’s already there – there’s already a ton of material on the public record. It’s just a matter of deciding to honestly proceed to trial. There’s plenty of evidence.
Have you heard anything from U.S officials in response to the recent work you’ve been doing around these issues?
AN: No. Not at all. I haven’t had any dealings with them. And, interestingly, it’s clear that the U.S. influence in Indonesia is much less now than it was. The U.S. is less and less of a factor in terms of what happens in Indonesia. We were able to win the major victories in cutting off arms and training to the TNI, setting the stage for the fall of Suharto and independence in Timor, all through the instrument of changing U.S. policy – pressuring U.S. congress, changing the U.S. policy and thereby changing the Indonesian government policy. That wouldn’t really work today because the U.S. stance is no longer as crucial as it was. They’re still first among equals in terms of outside in terms of outside influences. Bu in the old days, the U.S. would call Suharto or would call Prabowo and would basically get what they happened.
AN: This is yet another consequence of the years of activist pressure on the U.S. by activists from within the U.S., and on the TNI from within Indonesia. First, the TNI is less powerful than it was – the U.S. exerted power mainly through the military and the military is less dominant in Indonesia than they were. So the weakening of the TNI itself was a factor. And then the fact the [military aid] cutoff meant that U.S. power over the TNI is not as direct and decisive as it used to be. Those are all good things. During the last campaign it was very interesting. When I found myself in the middle of it, the U.S. embassy was not a factor at all in any significant way really, which is a switch from previous times, and a good one.
Why do you think you weren’t arrested during the campaign?
AN: Well, I don’t exactly know. The chronology was like this. I published the first of the articles and then the Prabowo campaign demanded that the army capture me; they were calling in the army to do that, not the police. That was the first step. They said that I had previously been captured 7 times, for being in the country without permission, and that I had been declared an enemy of the state and so on. When they said that, I had actually lost count of how many times I had been captured by the army. So when they said 7 times I started to really think about it, and though, that probably is right. And that must mean that they got the internal military records, because some of them were publicized events in the press, but not all of them were. It was true that I had been banned as a threat to national security by, originally by the Suharto administration. They attacked in many different ways.
I responded with a series of challenges to Prabowo – the most important were political. Because one of his angles of attack was to say that I was an agent of American imperialism. I said, well, ok, if that’s the case and Prabowo is an anti-American, will Prabowo join me in calling for the arrest and trial of all living American presidents – Obama, Bush junior, Bush senior, Carter and Clinton – and put them all on trial for crimes against humanity? Secondly, would he join me in calling for [the mining company] Freeport-McMoRan to be expelled from Indonesia? He backed off on both of those – he wouldn’t sign up for either of those. Because he was running as a phony nationalist. And as I described in the second installment of the piece, he worked for years with American intelligence, and he was closer to U.S. intelligence and U.S. special forces than anyone else in the TNI. He was, as he put it, the “American’s fair haired boy” – that’s the way he described himself to me.
Then another challenge was this. His camp had also kept changing their stories, but at some moments they would say I was lying about having interviewed him. At some moments they would say I never met him, he never met me. At others they’d say, well Prabowo didn’t exactly say that to him. My response was to say, well, if Prabowo really thinks that I’m lying then he should bring criminal libel charges against me and we can face off in Indonesian court. I’ll use the opportunity to talk about his murder of civilians, and his work with the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, and the crimes of other generals and their work with the U.S. In response to that they backed off and they said they weren’t going to file the charges. When they did that they got mass ridicule, and the most damaging was the ridicule that said ‘oh Prabowo’s the tough guy and here he is backing down.’ And so, political people told me that a lot of things, but that in particular, hurt him in the campaign.
The very last day of the campaign, the afternoon of the last day, they filed criminal charges against me. I guess in response to all that ridicule, they went ahead and did it. They said the charges included inciting hatred against the army, causing Prabowo to lose, criminal libel, all sorts of things. But the police never followed up. Why? I don’t exactly know.
Now, it’s an interesting situation because – even though the police haven’t contacted me – I think I’m still technically a defendant in those cases. Though they never advanced the cases I believe they’re still there, I don’t think they’ve been dropped.
But I’m going to be a witness in another case against Hendropriyono. One of the things that Hendro said to me, regarding Talangsari , he said the victims all committed suicide. He said that he and his forces surrounded the houses, told the people to come out and they didn’t. He said ‘if you don’t come out we will attack,’ and then he said they all committed suicide, they all killed themselves. And I was kind of astonished. I asked him many times if that’s what he meant, he said that’s what he meant. So in response to that statement, the few survivors and the family members of the victims have filed criminal charges saying he libeled them – the dead. The police accepted that case, and I’m going to be filing a formal legal statement to the police attesting to the fact that yes, Hendro really did make these statements to me. So I’m a witness in that case and conceivably a defendant in the others.
Interestingly, after the campaign was over, after the quick counts had shown that Jokowi had won, for several weeks they had the long official counts — that was the period when the Prabowo campaign started agitating intensely, almost on a daily basis, that the police arrest me. And what was happening behind the scenes at the time, is there was a big struggle going on – it wasn’t clear that Jokowi would be allowed to take office, even though he won the election. There was still a bit of an open question. So, as the campaign was attacking like this, demanding every day that the police arrest me, I chose to stay silent because I think they were trying to provoke me, trying to create a diversionary issue – because at that time the main public focus among the public was, ‘oh Prabowo lost the elections it’s such a humiliation for Prabowo.’ They were trying to create a new story about me and the police. I said nothing for weeks. But before the campaign what my position was, and what I was very tempted to say but I always held back on, was, ‘yes, go ahead arrest me, I would love to have a trial with Prabowo.
You were a major part of the East Timor Action Network, now the East Timor and Indonesia Action Network (ETAN), from its founding onward. Can you discuss the effect of ETAN in the struggle for an independent Timor?
AN: In the case of ETAN, I think the biggest effect was legislation – the various congressional actions that we were able to get, that step-by-step cutoff of the weapons, training and political support to the TNI – that was kind of clearly the key. It started with the IMET [military training] cutoff, which was in ’92. It culminated with, during the burning of Dili and the massacres of the countryside and the siege of the U.N. compound in ’99, the withdrawal of U.S. military aid. In the midst of that devastation, which got world press attention and generated intense congressional pressure, Clinton finally – but very reluctantly – pulled the plug on the last of the military aid, and within days Jakarta pulled out of Timor. And of course prior to that, the reason that the UN referendum had taken place in the first place is because Suharto had been toppled.
When I had asked, after the fact, Suharto’s old security chief Admiral Sudomo, why Suharto had been toppled, he said well, it’s because we – the military and police – failed to open fire on the demonstrators when the people started coming out on the streets in late ’97, early ’98. He said, had we just put them down immediately with a massacre that would have ended it. He might well have been right, because that tactic had been very successful in the past – it was a plausible argument. So I asked, well, why didn’t you? He said because we were afraid that the rest of our U.S. aid would be cutoff that it would be like the Santa Cruz massacre. At the time, in ’97 and ’98, they still had some [military aid], and they wanted to retain that. They were afraid that if they massacred the crowds then they would lose that – this was according to Sudomo. Because of that they held their fire and that emboldened the people – they saw, wow, well you can go out on the street and demonstrate against Suharto and not get shot. So they continued and the crowds got larger and larger. Then, months later, when on three occasions they actually did open fire in a small way (Trisakti, Semanggi I and Semanggi II) and killed a few people, it got a massive popular reaction, because people had grown accustomed to be able to demonstrate without being shot – they had started to accept this as their right and so they were shocked when they opened fire.
As a result there was just a mass explosion and Suharto was overwhelmed, he just couldn’t stand up to the tide anymore, and that – according to Sudomo and I think it’s true – was precipitated, the stage for that was set, by those cuts that we had won with pressure on congress.
Of course that was momentous for Indonesia, but it also proved momentous for Timor because Habibie – who replaced Suharto –commissioned a study by his foreign policy advisors, asking the question: what can we do to get our American military aid back? The answer was that they had to allow a referendum in Timor. And Habibie – and it surprised me at that time, I remember ETAN’s Lynn Frederickson called me with the news it had been announced that Habibie had called for a referendum, I was stunned – I didn’t believe it. But amazingly, Habibie reacted to that advice by saying ‘OK, that’s what we’ll do.’ If that’s what it takes, that’s what we’ll do.’ And he put it before his cabinet, the generals, and they weren’t very happy about it. But they ended up accepting it because they thought they could control the referendum – we’ll do our operations and we’ll intimidate the Timorese. And then they terrorized the Timorese throughout the campaign – the Liquica church massacre, a series of individual killings and rapes, mass terror through the militias – the Kopassus operations.
Apparently, astonishingly, on referendum day these officers really thought they would win. And they were shocked. They were stunned. I think that was one of the reasons for the ferocity of their reaction, where they basically decided, under the command of Wiranto, ok just level the place, just finish it off, just send a message — partly revenge, but also to send a message, to the world, but especially to Indonesians: don’t get any ideas, don’t think you’re going to get away with what the Timorese just got away with. So they did succeed – there was one report that claimed that 80% of the structures in Timor were burnt. Hundreds of people were murdered. And because the world press had been there for the referendum – because the world press loves an election, an election is one spectacle they can’t stay away from – so they were there as witnesses, and that mobilized opinion, and ETAN was able to put pressure on Congress. Clinton wanted to continue backing the TNI, but he just wasn’t able to. So, he finally pulled the plug. And that was it – a couple days later the military left. That was it. It was the beginning of independent Timor.
You’ve seen an immense amount of trauma. How do you manage to deal with all the trauma and manage to keep going without burning out?
AN: I don’t know that I do manage to deal with it. You know it’s very difficult – to have friends murdered, to see people murdered. It creates all sorts of reverberations inside of you that never really stop. But it also creates a spur to go do something about it, to try to stop it, and also to bring to justice those responsible. That is not so easy to do. There are lots of people who have it a lot harder. In many places, but especially in Indonesia, over recent decades I have seen up close people living just day to day on the edge, always pressured by the police, with threat of violence around the corner, people with not enough. People having to ask how many years can they keep the kid in elementary school? Someone gets sick do you pull the kid out of school in order to get them antibiotic? Do you take another portion of protein out of rice for the week? Which, if the kids are 2 or 3 years old, the age when their brain can be stunted, you’d be doing them some harm. People coming up against all sorts of hard barriers. That’s what’s really hard. Most people in the world have to deal with extreme situations. I don’t really have the option of burning out.
Craig Hughes and John M. Miller work with the East Timor and Indonesia Action Network.