Prabowo Subianto, the former army general and son-in-law of the late dictator Suharto, is running for president of Indonesia for the third time in 2024.
He claims to be a champion of democracy, development, and national sovereignty, and has gained popularity among many Indonesians who are dissatisfied with the current government.
But behind his political ambition lies a dark and bloody past, involving human rights violations, kidnappings, and disappearances of pro-democracy activists during the last years of Suharto’s regime. The victims and their families have not forgotten, and they are speaking out against Prabowo’s candidacy.
The 1997-1998 Kidnappings
One of the most notorious cases of human rights abuse linked to Prabowo is the kidnapping of 23 activists between 1997 and 1998, when he was the commander of the Army’s Special Forces (Kopassus). The activists were abducted by Kopassus soldiers, who tortured, interrogated, and detained them in secret locations. Nine of them were eventually released, but the fate of the other 14 remains unknown to this day.
The survivors and the relatives of the missing have been demanding justice and accountability for more than two decades, but their efforts have been met with impunity and indifference. Prabowo has never been formally charged or tried for his role in the kidnappings, and he has denied any responsibility or involvement. He has also refused to apologize or meet with the victims and their families, who accuse him of being a coward and a liar.
“He is a human rights violator who should be in jail, not in the presidential palace,” said Mugiyanto, one of the survivors, who was kidnapped and tortured for three days in March 1998. “He has no remorse, no empathy, no dignity. He is not fit to lead this country.”
The East Timor and Aceh Atrocities
Prabowo’s human rights record is not limited to the kidnappings. He has also been implicated in other crimes against humanity, committed in the former Indonesian province of East Timor and the restive region of Aceh. In both places, Prabowo and his troops were accused of killing, raping, torturing, and displacing thousands of civilians, who were suspected of supporting independence or separatist movements.
In East Timor, Prabowo was the commander of the military operation that invaded and annexed the territory in 1975, and he later oversaw the brutal counter-insurgency campaign that lasted until 1999, when East Timor voted for independence in a UN-sponsored referendum. Prabowo was also allegedly involved in the formation and arming of pro-Indonesian militias, who unleashed a wave of violence and destruction after the referendum, killing more than 1,000 people and displacing hundreds of thousands.
In Aceh, Prabowo was the commander of the military operation that declared martial law and launched a massive offensive against the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) in 2003, which ended in 2005 with a peace agreement. Prabowo was also allegedly involved in the abduction and assassination of several prominent Acehnese leaders, such as Teuku Don Zulfahri, the GAM’s chief negotiator, who was killed in 2003.
Prabowo has never been held accountable for his actions in East Timor and Aceh, and he has dismissed the allegations as propaganda and slander. He has also claimed to be a friend and supporter of the people of East Timor and Aceh, and has visited both places during his presidential campaigns, seeking votes and endorsements. But the victims and their families have not been fooled, and they have rejected Prabowo’s overtures.
“He is a war criminal who should be tried by an international tribunal, not welcomed as a guest,” said Jose Ramos-Horta, the former president of East Timor and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who survived an assassination attempt by Prabowo’s men in 1998. “He has no respect, no compassion, no credibility. He is not fit to be a neighbor, let alone a president.”
The Future of Human Rights in Indonesia
Prabowo’s presidential bid poses a serious threat to the future of human rights in Indonesia, a country that has made significant progress in its democratic transition since the fall of Suharto in 1998. Prabowo’s election could undermine the rule of law, the protection of minorities, and the reconciliation of past abuses, and could embolden the forces of intolerance, extremism, and violence.
The victims and their families have vowed to prevent Prabowo from becoming president, and they have called on the Indonesian people to reject his candidacy. They have also urged the incumbent president, Joko Widodo, to fulfill his promises to resolve the human rights cases and to bring the perpetrators to justice.
“We are not asking for revenge, we are asking for truth and justice,” said Budiarti, the mother of Leonardus “Gilang” Nugroho Iskandar, one of the missing activists. “We want to know what happened to our loved ones, and we want to see Prabowo and his accomplices face the consequences of their crimes. We want to end the impunity and the silence that have haunted this country for too long. We want to heal the wounds and restore the dignity of the victims and their families. We want to secure the human rights and the democracy of this country for the present and the future generations.”