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Indonesian presidential hopeful’s murky past refuses to disappear

Eyewitness accounts detail Timor-Leste atrocities allegedly committed under Prabowo Subianto's watch

<p><span class="Apple-style-span">Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, wearing a "Banser" camouflage uniform, greets members of Banser, the youth wing of the Nahdlatul Ulama – </span><span class="Apple-style-span">the country's largest Muslim organization – as he campaigns in Mojokerto, in eastern Java this week (AFP PHOTO/Juni Kriswanto)</span></p>

Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, wearing a "Banser" camouflage uniform, greets members of Banser, the youth wing of the Nahdlatul Ulama – the country's largest Muslim organization – as he campaigns in Mojokerto, in eastern Java this week (AFP PHOTO/Juni Kriswanto)

  • Francis Wade, Kraras
  • Timor Leste
  • June 26, 2014
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On July 9 the world’s attention will turn to Indonesia, with 187 million people set to cast ballots and choose a new leader.

But new evidence surrounding events that played out three decades ago, and more than 2,000 kilometers from the seat of government in Jakarta, casts a shadow over one of the two candidates duking it out for the presidency.

Prabowo Subianto, a former military commander already under fire for his role in the kidnapping of Indonesian students in 1998, is the focus of new testimony that suggests the controversies of his military record stretch far beyond the borders of mainland Indonesia.

Kraras is a quiet village on Timor-Leste’s southern coast, nestled at the foot of a mountain range that stretches the length of the island nation.

In early August 1983, Indonesian troops arrived in the village and torched the home of JDC (a pseudonym), then age 12, forcing him and his family to flee to the nearby Mount Bibileo. Days earlier, on August 8, a civilian force recruited by the Indonesian army had turned on the Indonesians, killing 14, as part of a planned attack widely known among Timorese at the levantamento, or the uprising – the beginninng of a major resistance campaign by Timorese guerilla groups.

By that point Timor-Leste had been under brutal Indonesian occupation for eight years – 16 more were to pass before Indonesia’s withdrawal in 1999, leaving close to 200,000 people, or a third of the population, dead.

JDC, his family and others spent a month in hiding on the mountain. On September 9, Indonesian troops located them and opened fire. The following day they were arrested – among them was a man called Bento who coordinated a clandestine Timorese movement that launched attacks on the occupying Indonesian forces.

“Commander Prabowo and his men were the ones that arrested us,” JDC told Dominggos Brandao, a researcher with the International Centre for Transitional Justice and Viqueque District Victims' Association coordinator, in testimony that has only just come to light. “Bento with his assistant were arrested there, they bound them, tied his neck and legs.”

Two days later, on September 12, they were taken to the town of Viqueque, near Kraras.

“They led us through the coconuts and across the river,” JDC recalled, and into an area called Aisesu, where they found a large group of Indonesian soldiers waiting.

“On arrival they ordered us to stand in a line and the military started shooting us. My mother, who couldn’t walk any further, they just stabbed with a knife.”

The massacre at Aisesu was one of several to occur in and around Kraras in the middle of September 1983. It unleashed a campaign of mass killings of civilians in the quiet district over the following week that ranks as one of the bloodiest episodes in the 24-year occupation of Timor-Leste.

“Chega!”, the report released in 2005 by the East Timorese truth commission CAVR, logs the names of hundreds of people killed in Kraras in the days following the Aisesu massacre – 55 identified victims on September 16, including a one-year old child; 141 the following day. The list goes on.

The exact role Prabowo played in the Kraras massacres has been fiercely debated, and defended. He was 32 at the time, and a captain in the secretive Kopassus (special forces command), the pride of the Indonesian military.

According to the “Chega!” report, of all the recorded abuses during the 1983-84 period of the levantamento, during which at least 503 civilians are recorded having been killed, Kopassus was the main perpetrator.

Prabowo’s unit, Chandraca 8, was also responsible for organizing Timorese militias that are known to have been involved in the massacres in Kraras.

Prabowo has long denied complicity in those killings, and has claimed he wasn’t even in the country at the time.

Cornell University’s Indonesia journal, however, includes a report that states he arrived in the country on 28 August 1983, while others have testified that they saw him near Bibileo Mountain in early September.

Eyewitness accounts of the biggest massacre in Kraras, on September 17, 1983, paint a grisly picture.

JA (a pseudonym), 59, was among a group of around 150 men force-marched by members of the militia network Hansip to a spot known as Tahu Ben next to the river that snakes its way past Kraras.

The Indonesian military was already there, and the men were forced to break into groups of four, embrace one another and sing.

“But we didn't sing so they started shooting at us and I fell into the water. I saw many people fall on top of me, some their stomachs were gone; others had no legs. After they finished shooting, they started poking with their weapons. Those people who stirred were shot, and those who remained quiet were left alone."

“I myself was still in the water, I was there a long time until they left. Some people came and snatched traditional necklaces that some people were wearing. Once those civilians had left, I stood up and walked to the foot of the mountain and started walking into the forest.”

At least 141 men were killed that day. Soon after, 1,300 of those who survived the Kraras killings were placed in a de facto concentration camp in nearby Lalerek Mutin.

“Chega!” recounts the testimony of one survivor who said: “I remember four or five people dying every day [from hunger]. We just wrapped them in mats and buried them.”

The revered Bishop Carlos Belo visited the area and reported that of the roughly 1,300 inhabitants, there were only women and children – all the men had been killed.

By late 1983, Prabowo had been promoted to a major in Kopassus. His renowned aggression and ambition, along with his marriage to the daughter of Indonesia’s then-dictator, General Suharto, helped grease his rise to the upper ranks of Indonesia’s elite forces.

In December last year, well into campaigning for the July elections, he penned a response to an article in The Jakarta Post that questioned his role in a number of atrocities during the Timor war, arguing that none of the allegations had been substantiated.

Critics have argued that if Prabowo is clean then he should release his military record and finally put the case to rest.

“Prabowo is not under enough public pressure in Indonesia to release his military record – particularly not for East Timor, which for most Indonesians was simply a legitimate war,” says Professor Gerry van Klinken, a specialist on Indonesia at the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies.

“Even the most liberal media have refused to touch Prabowo’s East Timor record. Anyway he has ensured a network of writers who will defend him on this issue.”

The disparity between Indonesian law and international law in penalizing war violations also adds to the difficulties in investigating who exactly should be held responsible for atrocities during the Timor war.

“Indonesian criminal law does not recognize line of command responsibility,” van Klinken says. “Indonesian law only considers the man guilty who actually pulls the trigger."

“In other words, Prabowo appears to have been close to some horrendous crimes in East Timor in September and October 1983, and he may bear command responsibility for those crimes under international law. But legally the case for prosecution within Indonesia is weak.”

Prabowo has argued that if he had been responsible for the killings then the likelihood of him being granted audiences with prominent Timorese political figures following the war, as happened, would be slim.

But in a television interview in 2012, Jose Ramos-Horta, Timor-Leste’s independence hero and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, said relations with Prabowo, were he to win, would be strong.

“If he is elected we would welcome him in East Timor and we would continue the excellent relationship we have with Indonesia ... Definitely we would not [blacklist him] – it would be an absurdity on our part,” said Ramos-Horta.

Sisto dos Santos, coordinator of the National Alliance of Timor-Leste for an International Tribunal, said that Timor’s economic dependence on Indonesia leaves little choice but to pursue relations with whoever comes to power on July 9.

“But it doesn’t mean we forget and abandon the accountability process for those who committed crimes against humanity,” he said.

For first-time visitors to Kraras, there are few indications of the events of 1983 – that is, save for the fact that the gender balance has been completely up-ended. The vast majority of the village’s men were slain by Indonesian forces, leaving Kraras to be known for decades after as ‘the village of the widows’.

The Indonesian propaganda machine spun the Timor conflict into a ‘just war’, and with it, the key figures that commanded operations there, like Prabowo, were given carte blanche to proceed as deemed fit.

The reality of events there remains largely hidden from Indonesians, and so therefore does the record of past perpetrators and, possibly, future presidents.

“As victims we continue to appeal for formal accountability and only this way is key to strengthening the relationship for truth and peace,” said Sisto. 

“Without any accountability process it only contributes to, and legitimizes, the impunity that continues to exist, and this will destroy future democracy and human rights in both countries.”

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