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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

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

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MARCH 3, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 8

An Idealist's Rise And Fall
How an ambitious officer tried to make a difference - but compromised himself in the process
By JOSE MANUEL TESORO Jakarta


Tempo
Strategic Match: Probowo and Titiek, Suharto's second daughter, at their 1983 wedding

Nearly 30 years ago, while still a cadet, Prabowo wrote to a close friend about struggling for power. "Because by getting power," he explained, "we can do good." That Prabowo was ambitious is no secret. Most in Indonesia believe that this lust for power drove him to join the military, marry into the First Family - and then in May 1998 assemble a plot against his enemies. But why did Prabowo want power? The answer could be his story's most surprising revelation. He may have been less a schemer than someone who answered a question all young idealists ask of themselves: Does one work inside or outside a system to change it? Prabowo made his choice and kept to it. His life since is the consequence.

Prabowo's earliest memories are of his grandfather taking him to the graves of two uncles killed in the anticolonial struggle. Prabowo had been given the older martyr's name, Subianto. "My grandfather inculcated me with the values of the ksatria - the warrior - and patriotism," he says.

Prabowo saw those values tested when his father, a respected economist, was forced out by the government of first president Sukarno. Sumitro Djojohadikusumo fled Indonesia in 1958 for what became a 10-year exile. The family moved constantly, ultimately ending up in Europe. There, Prabowo's nationalism grew, as did his admiration for Western ideas.

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In 1965, Indonesia saw the rise of a young general named Suharto following a failed communist coup. Prabowo had already been accepted into college in the U.S. when he begged his father to let him return to Indonesia. "A lot of things were happening - student demonstrations, the New Order," he says. "I said: I want to be part of that. I want to come back."

Prabowo returned home in 1968 and fell straight into the ferment. As Suharto succeeded Sukarno, a debate began among the young activists: Do they work with the emerging military regime or do they stay outside and try to keep it in check? Many of the political and business figures who prospered during Suharto's rule chose the former. Most of Prabowo's friends and mentors opted for the latter.

But Prabowo's fascination for the military, instilled by his grandfather, ran deep. "I told my friends I was thinking of going into the military," recalls Prabowo. "They looked at me: Are you serious? I explained: The military is very important. Some of us must be in the military. You guys be the technocrats. We will meet one day and take part in the modernization of our country." Some friends were supportive, others not. "One said: Prabowo, you'll be indoctrinated. You'll come out a fascist. I said: No, we must modernize from within. We must carry out reforms from within."

In 1970, Prabowo enrolled in the military academy. Life there was a far cry from the comforts he had known. He felt his seniors were harder on him and other children of the elite. When he was demoted for a disciplinary violation, his mother told him he could leave the academy if he wanted. He declined. "I said: No, I love the army. Whatever happens, I will stay in the army."

The decision proved fateful. The army brought him in contact with Indonesia's First Family. His special forces group commander in the early 1980s was Suharto's brother-in-law. The First Family was intrigued by the well-born officer and matched him with Suharto's second daughter, Siti Hediati Harijadi ("Titiek"). The couple wed on May 8, 1983.

Prabowo cannot tell exactly when the murmurings began after that, but he knew their content. That he was Suharto's favored. That his path had been smoothed through promotion. That he received orders directly from the president, bypassing layers of more senior officers. That he enjoyed both the Suharto clan's business interests as well as that of his own family. Prabowo believes the resentment was not just because of his access. It was because, son-in-law or not, he was enacting a vision of the military at odds with what its leaders expected. "I wanted merit. I wanted professionalism. I wanted discipline," he says. "But many of [the generals], they don't give a damn. They say I come from a rich family. But they are more feudal."

As head of training for the Kopassus special forces group, Prabowo rationalized drills, cleaned up the management and even banned his officers from playing golf, a game favored by generals. In 1995, he became Kopassus deputy commander; he was promoted to commander the following year. Kopassus quickly gained a reputation for being one of the best-trained - and best-funded - branches of the military. Prabowo admits to raising money from business contacts outside the military. "I was not the only one doing it," he protests. "Many officers were doing it. You had to do it. Our budget was never enough."

Prabowo also suggested - cautiously - that the First Family should embrace change. Over the years, he tried to warn of the growing public dissatisfaction with Suharto's autocratic rule and its corruption, especially among his in-laws. Even his wife was developing business interests. Prabowo says he tried to discourage her, to no avail. "I slowly became exasperated," he says. "He [Suharto] was so overconfident. He didn't think there needed to be any improvement to the system." So in addition to frictions with Suharto's generals, Prabowo built up tensions with Suharto's children. He says: "In the end, I found out that all the smiles were just a front. They would say something to me and do another thing behind my back."

Yet Prabowo continued to be loyal to Suharto. "I'm too much of a samurai," he says. "You don't leave your lord." Prabowo's fidelity may be key to why Suharto tolerated him. As long as Prabowo remained loyal, all his quirks and obsessions - his ideas for reform, his criticisms, his ties to New Order opponents - could be turned into assets. "There's one thing about Pak Harto," says retired general Hasnan Habib. "He knew people by intuition."

Was being Suharto's son-in-law useful to Prabowo's career? Not always. Prabowo and Lt.-Gen. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono entered the academy at the same time; both became three-star generals within a month of each other. Still, Prabowo avoided desk jobs and provincial commands that were the common fate of officers. He got combat duties as he wanted.

The constant frictions with his superiors probably hastened his downfall. Former military spokesman Maj.-Gen. Sudrajat recalls spending long nights discussing military reform with Prabowo. "His ideas were brilliant," recalls Sudrajat. "But he was too impatient. He didn't wait for the system to do it. He made shortcuts, which offended his superiors." Prabowo acknowledges his mistake: "I thought, in the end, results would prevail. I didn't think too much about how I'd have to please people. I thought my reputation, my performance would be enough."

Prabowo naïvely believed that winning the game of politics could simply be a matter of his own personal excellence. That stubborn single-mindedness sustained him in his ascent and his struggles in Suharto's system, and gave him his charisma. But it also left him vulnerable to manipulation and self-delusion. By the end, he was convinced that the authoritarian New Order was worth defending. Perhaps he no longer had any choice. As Suharto's general and son-in-law, he had become an inextricable part of it. The idealist who had set out for the top had just gotten in too deep.

"I hoped against hope that [Suharto] might in the end reform or hand the reins to somebody who would," he says. "That was always my hope: reform from within, reform from above. But when the system becomes so clogged, it cannot be done. Maybe that is one of my failures - that I could not see that."


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