JAKARTA — Former special forces commander Prabowo Subianto kicked off his party’s campaign for legislative elections with a rally last weekend that the local media characterised as “military-style”. He had ridden into a Jakarta stadium in a Jeep to greet the party faithful, mounted a horse to circle the grounds and paraded before uniformed party cadres.
Despite widespread allegations that he took part in some of Indonesia’s worst human rights abuses during his time as a military officer, Mr Prabowo — who has announced his candidacy for President — is not playing down his military credentials. But his candidacy has raised concerns among rights activists in Indonesia and abroad. They have noted that the country’s human rights commission recommended that he be prosecuted for the alleged abductions of pro-democracy activists in the late 1990s, during the final months of the military-backed government of former President Suharto.
Mr Prabowo’s attempt to become the country’s second democratically-elected President has also put the Obama administration in a difficult position. Mr Prabowo, who graduated from United States military training programmes in the 1980s and is an admirer of the US, has for years said he would like to meet high-level US officials. So far, the US has demurred.
“The sensitivity comes from the extremely close association between the US and Indonesian militaries during the atrocities the Indonesian military committed,” said political science Professor Jeffrey Winters of Northwestern University, adding that the Obama administration appeared to be banking on Mr Prabowo losing the election or on patching up bruised feelings if he wins.
“Indonesia is far too strategically important to the US to have frosty relations between the countries,” Prof Winters said. It not only has strong economic and security ties to the US, but also has the world’s largest Muslim population.
For the moment, Mr Prabowo, of the Great Indonesia Movement Party, has been polling behind Joko Widodo, the highly popular Governor of Jakarta who has made his name as a squeaky-clean leader who has tackled popular issues such as education. But the presidential election is in July and Mr Prabowo, 62, has many ardent supporters at the grassroots level as well as among powerful businessmen and retired military commanders.
Allegations against Mr Prabowo extend back to his early career when, as was a young officer in the 1980s in East Timor, he allegedly ordered the massacre of nearly 300 civilians. Mr Prabowo has vehemently denied any involvement in this.
Later accusations centre on his time as one of Indonesia’s most powerful military men under Suharto. Human rights groups say Mr Prabowo was responsible for the abduction and torture of 23 pro-democracy activists in 1997 and 1998, and for orchestrating riots in May 1998 that resulted in more than 1,000 deaths and the rapes of at least 168 women.
In 2006, the National Commission on Human Rights released a report that said 11 people, including Mr Prabowo, should be prosecuted in the abductions of the activists. The Attorney-General’s office, which has shied away from investigations of abuses during Suharto’s presidency, declined that request.
The US State Department denied Mr Prabowo a visa in 2000 to attend his son’s university graduation in Boston, although it has never explained why. And as Mr Prabowo’s political career took off over the past six years, successive US ambassadors have given him a wide berth.
Political analysts say generational change and Mr Prabowo’s charm help explain why he is considered a strong candidate. Many young Indonesian voters do not remember much about the Suharto days, while many older ones contend that army commanders were only trying to keep the fractious archipelago intact.