Is Prabowo Subianto qualified to be Indonesia’s next president?


2024 is looming like a democratic nightmare for two of Australia’s most important allies. The US may elect Donald Trump. On 14 February 2024, Indonesia may elect Prabowo Subianto. The prospect of Suharto’s right-wing ex son-in-law and military heavy taking over our huge neighbour should send shivers down Australia’s collective spine. Not that it will. Prabowo’s candidacy and seriously chequered record in both East Timor and Indonesia have barely rated a mention in our mainstream media. 

Not so Indonesia’s bishops. Acutely aware of the challenge, they have recently spelled out their concerns and hopes at a press conference in Jakarta.

Conference president, Bishop Antonius Subianto Bunjamin OSC, a European educated 55 year-old former lecturer in philosophy, lamented ‘the decline of democracy’ in Indonesia. Avoiding names, he made the pointed observation that, ‘It is no surprise that certain individuals break the law, engage in money politics, and establish family dynasties in order to maintain their power’. Why bribery, disregard for the law and securing post-political interests are ‘no surprise’ in Indonesia is because KKN (corruption, collusion and nepotism) has become as Indonesian as nasi goreng. Even the popular outgoing president, Joko Widodo, once a breath of fresh air, is now being tagged with the label. 

After listing concerns, Bishop Antonius offered an alternative template. Voting, he suggested, is a duty that should be undertaken responsibly. Voters should take the trouble to do their homework. In particular, they should consider the ‘moral and personal’ qualities’ of candidates and whether they have at heart the interests of the environment, the whole nation and the poor, or rather will prioritise their own ambitions and interests. Instead of listening to big talk and being impressed by splashy campaign rallies, voters, he counselled, should look into the ‘concrete achievements’ of the contestants and check if they have ‘an exemplary track record’.

Understandably, the bishop did not mention names or go into detail and it is not for me to put words into his mouth. 

But having worked in Timor-Leste’s truth commission (CAVR) and listened to compelling testimony from victims I am able to point to Prabowo Subianto’s less than ‘exemplary track record‘ and so-called ‘concrete achievements’. A perversion of the natural order, they totally disqualify Prabowo from representing his important and beautiful country.

Prabowo is a former lieutenant-general and son-in-law of Suharto, the Cold War dictator responsible for mass liquidation and imprisonment of multitudes, the engineering of a pseudo referendum in West Papua and the invasion of East Timor. A right-wing nationalist and wealthy businessman, Prabowo lives near Bogor on a sprawling ranch that sports a large stable of thoroughbred horses. He has business interests in oil, natural gas, coal, palm oil plantations, and fishing.


‘Australia has nothing to gain from a Prabowo presidency and a lot to lose. At a time of international stress and heightened competition with China, his election is guaranteed to generate civil society and media criticism and to set back Australia’s efforts to build respect for the rule of law and tighter relations in its near region.’ 


During Indonesia’s 24-year occupation of the former Portuguese Timor, Prabowo undertook at least four tours, each time as a member of Kopassus, Indonesia’s shadowy special forces, and towards the end as its commander. He is accused of killings, massacres, undermining a peace process, insubordination, and the cloning of some of East Timor’s most fanatical and violent militia. Not having reached out to his victims, he would also appear to have an ‘eye that cannot weep’, an arresting term attributed to the Prophet Muhammad in a Hadith.

Based on evidence from hundreds of victims, CAVR concluded that the Indonesian military committed crimes against humanity and war crimes during their forced occupation and that Kopassus, which specialises in unconventional warfare, was the worst offender. 

The term ‘crimes against humanity’ should not be skipped over lightly. It references the committal of systematic and widespread crimes of the worst, most dehumanising, uncivilised kind.  Hersch Lauterpacht, the intellectual giant born in Ukraine who created the term and had it used for the first time at the Nuremberg trials of the Nazis, is said to have cried out awfully in his sleep in reaction to the bestialities he heard described. In East Timor, the extensive violence, which also included rape, forced displacement, massacres, imprisonment, torture and starvation, left a people traumatised but failed to crush their spirit of resistance. Given that outcome and his later dismissal from high military office, Prabowo could also be said to have been a failure in his principal profession, the military.

Those who transgress to this degree of lawlessness outrage the conscience of the world and have no claim to immunity. At the very least, any leader in an institution accused of crimes of this gravity should be automatically disqualified from office, or at the very least not voted into office until declared innocent by a properly constituted, independent court. This applies especially in Indonesia that, post-Suharto, is working on restoring its reputation and has espoused human rights and the international rule of law. 

Prabowo dismisses these allegations. He does this by hiding behind the fiction that the war in East Timor was an ‘internal conflict’. Implying that his mission was legitimate and undertaken to control Timorese in-fighting and establish peace, the claim flies in the face of the record, numerous inquiries and UN resolutions. As early as 1975, the UN Security Council called on Indonesia to withdraw and allow the East Timorese to freely exercise their right of self-determination, a right that the Indonesian military blocked until 1999. 

Also in self-defence, Prabowo says he was not in East Timor in 1999 when the Indonesian military resorted to extreme violence to subvert the successful UN referendum on Timor’s future. This is true. Ironically, however, he had gone into self-exile in Jordan after being dishonourably discharged from the military in 1998 for the kidnapping, deaths and injuries of protestors who were calling for an end to his father-in-law’s dictatorship and its replacement with a new era of reformasi. He is also said to be responsible for the disappearance of another 13 activists. Analysts believe that Prabowo engaged in terror to demonstrate his strong man capacity to succeed his father-in-law Suharto as Indonesia’s next president at the time, tactics which backfired on him.  

Prabowo’s absence does not excuse him from blame or shame. A joint Indonesia/Timor-Leste Commission for Truth and Friendship (CTF) concluded not only that crimes against humanity were committed by the military in East Timor in 1999 but that these offences were not unique to 1999. As with the shocking Hamas assault of October 7 in Israel, the CTF emphasized that ‘the events of 1999 cannot be understood in isolation from the longer period of conflict that occurred in East Timor… the nature of the violence that occurred in 1999 was shaped by previous patterns of conflict’. 

For his violations of human rights in both Indonesia and East Timor, Prabowo was banned from the US by three successive presidents. The ban was only lifted by Trump in 2019 after Prabowo was appointed Indonesia’s Minister for Defence. For further insights into his unconventional ways, see Controversies in Prabowo’s Wikipedia entry. 

Like Trump, Prabowo is not short of self-belief. Having failed to win office as a member of another political party, he founded his own party in 2008. In 2009, he tried and failed to be elected vice-president. And after losing presidential bids in 2014 and 2019, he blamed ‘massive, structured and systematic cheating’ for the loss. On the second occasion, his finger-pointing sparked riots and deaths. Both claims were dismissed by the courts. 

Like Trump who had never been elected or had legislative experience until his election in 2016, Prabowo is also deficient on both scores. In contrast, his competitors do have experience in these fields. They come from civil society, have broader educations, are not stained with accusations of violations of the rule of law and international human rights and, being much younger, are less shopworn. The famous Jesuit intellectual, Fr Magnis-Suseno, recently received a visit by one of these candidates, Ganjar Pranowo. 

Australia has nothing to gain from a Prabowo presidency and a lot to lose. At a time of international stress and heightened competition with China, his election is guaranteed to generate civil society and media criticism and to set back Australia’s efforts to build respect for the rule of law and tighter relations in its near region. 

Neither is it fair for East Timorese victims of crimes against humanity to have to accommodate their tormentor as leader of the important neighbour their country needs to work with. 



Read more here for additional background to this article, or visit Inside Indonesia magazine.



Pat Walsh AM is co-founder of Inside Indonesia magazine and a former adviser to East Timor’s CAVR truth commission. 

Main image: Indonesian Presidential Candidate Prabowo Subianto speaks to supporters two days after a general election was held on April 19, 2019 in Jakarta, Indonesia. (Ed Wray/Getty Images)


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