Then Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto speaks on the defending Islam in Jakarta, December 2, 2018. Photo: NurPhoto via AFP/Anton Raharjo

JAKARTA – Why, curious reporters recently asked, does newly minted Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto never talk about politics anymore, at least since his shock appointment to presidential rival Joko Widodo’s new second-term Cabinet in the wake of last year’s bitterly fought election campaign.

The Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) leader, his spokesman patiently explained, was too busy concentrating on his new job as defense chief to worry about domestic politics.

Indeed, over the past four months, Prabowo has become Widodo’s most visible minister, joining Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati and State Enterprise Minister Erick Thohir in one poll as one of the top performing Cabinet members.

He less popular in the United States, where the former special forces general remains on a blacklist for his alleged involvement in human rights abuses dating back to the 1990’s. That ban is complicating strategic relations at a time when both nations look for partners to counter China’s rising military might in the region.

To say the retired 68-year-old soldier is enjoying himself is an understatement. Friends have never seen him so happy, thriving in the public spotlight and in an environment he understands and which gives him a sense of purpose.

It’s too early to talk about him running again in 2024, but the signs appear to be there with a wide-open field in the offing. “He’s healthy and he’s got a lot of energy,” says one long-time acquaintance. “He’s living in the moment and he’s loving it.”

The media, as it often does in Indonesia’s free-wheeling context, has criticized Prabowo for travelling too much, ignoring the fact that defense diplomacy – as Widodo has pointed out in his new role as Prabowo’s defender – is an important part of what a security minister does.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, right, shakes hands with Prabowo Subianto, left, after the former was sworn in for a second term as president at the parliament building in Jakarta on October 20, 2019. Photo: AFP/Achmad Ibrahim/Pool

Since he took the job in October, Probowo has visited ten countries – Malaysia, Thailand, Turkey, Germany, China, Japan, the Philippines, France, Russia and the United Arab Emirates. Each time, as a professional soldier, he has made a point of grading the honor guards turned out to receive him.

China gets top ranking, followed closely by a battalion of the Royal Malay Regiment – “more British than the British”, Prabowo later remarked. He couldn’t give Russia a mark because Moscow was hit by a snowstorm the day he arrived in late January and the welcoming parade was thus cancelled.

It was only in Japan that he delved into geo-strategic issues, including the situation in the South China Sea. As Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) partners, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines are traditionally early destinations for a new Indonesian defense minister.

He recently had to cancel a trip to Vietnam, this year’s rotating chair of the ASEAN bloc, but it will reportedly be rescheduled.

In Turkey and China, Prabowo discussed the joint production of drones and other military hardware. In Russia, it was the planned purchase of Su-35 interceptors. And in France, his interest centered on new-generation Dassault Rafale multi-role jets.

The US opposes the Russian deal and while Prabowo is still undecided on going ahead with last October’s announced purchase of two squadrons of US-built F-16 fighters, buying the unfamiliar French aircraft as a compromise would leave the air force with a costly third logistics tail.

Indonesia’s defense budget this year is earmarked for US$8.9 billion, a 16% increase over last year and about 5% of overall government spending. Prabowo has prioritized major equipment expenditures for the air force and the navy as key to the military’s external defense role.

The one country Prabowo is not welcome to visit is the US.

Indonesian activists at Jakarta’s international airport with a wanted sign for General Prabowo Subianto while welcoming back kidnapping victim Pius Lustrilanang from the Netherlands in a file photo. Photo: AFP/Dadnag Tri

In taking command responsibility for the abduction and torture of eight pro-democracy activists at a special forces jail in South Jakarta in early 1998, Prabowo likely didn’t realize at the time the abuse would put him on an enduring US blacklist.

Although human rights groups have often linked him to the massacre of up to 280 people during a counterinsurgency operation near the East Timor town of Viqueque in late 1983, there has been no conclusive proof that the then-young captain’s unit was involved.

The pro-democracy activists were all released unharmed, according to the longest held of the prisoners, Pius Lustrilanang, now 51, who after making his peace with Prabowo in 1999 later joined Gerindra and served for two terms as a party legislator in East Nusa Tenggara.

Preoccupied with the tumultuous events leading up to President Suharto’s downfall in 1998, Prabowo did not oversee what went on in the jail. But that has made little difference to officials, activists and a Western media that continues to perpetuate his notoriety as Suharto’s then son-in-law.

The US, for its part, has never made clear what else it has on Prabowo, who has also been accused of instigating the May 1998 riots in Jakarta that killed 1,500 people, and also planning a coup d’etat during the power vacuum left in the wake of Suharto’s resignation.

Much of it remains supposition but one significant sticking point is reportedly a notation in the State Department’s Prabowo file, written by then assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs Stanley Roth, which expresses the strong opinion that he should never be allowed into the US.

“It is a good example of bureaucratic mindlessness,” says one former senior US State Department official with long experience in Southeast Asia. “There is simply not enough reason to keep him on a permanent visa ban. It is the influence of bureaucrats who think policy belongs to them.”

Then-presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto greets his supporters after registering his candidacy for the 2019 poll in front of the General Elections Commission (KPU) office in Jakarta in August 2018. Photo: Andalou via AFP Forum/Eko Siswono Toyudho

Another on that blacklist was Thai coup leader Colonel Manoon Roopkachorn, now 84, who was later rehabilitated as the president of Thailand’s senate. In the mid-1990s, he was able to quietly secure a visa to the US by the simple device of changing the name on his Thai passport.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who had his US travel ban lifted in 2014, 14 years after the then-governor of Gujarat state was accused of doing nothing to stop anti-Muslim rioting that left more than 1,000 people dead, has likewise been more fortunate.

Roth had little interest in Southeast Asia and in what one former official calls the biggest failure of US policy since Vietnam, he decided Washington would not be represented at a financial crisis conference called by Japan in 1998 to try to stabilize the situation.

According to a declassified cable, Roth and Prabowo met for an hour of “candid and productive discussion” in November 1997, just three months before special forces operatives under the general’s orders seized Lustrilanang off a Jakarta street.

“My mother told me when I was a child that you should not take revenge on anyone who has hurt you,” Lustrilanang told this correspondent in an interview in 2009.  “I can’t forgive Suharto, but I can forgive Prabowo.”

The Americans, apparently, cannot. But that has a lot to do with its inability to move with the times. Observers recall how long it took after the birth of Indonesia’s democratic era in 1998 for the US to remove the military embargo it had imposed on Indonesia over the brutal events in East Timor.

Australia, by comparison, has resisted ostracizing Prabowo, even though diplomats say it does carry some risk of a backlash. Australian Defense Minister Linda Reynolds has issued several invitations for Prabowo to visit, including at a bilateral meeting in Bali last December. 

Australian Defense Minister Linda Reynolds, left, receives a keris double-edged dagger as a souvenir from Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto, right, during a bilateral meeting in Bali on December 6, 2019. Photo: AFP/Sonny Tumbelaka

Prabowo has often been perceived and portrayed as an authoritarian leader in the making. In an over-the-top assessment in the lead-up to the 2014 elections, where Prabowo came up short against Widodo for the presidency, one academic even compared him to Hitler.

Bombastic to the hilt, and prone to angry outbursts, Prabowo did alarm educated voters and scholars alike with a series of irrational, anti-democratic statements, one of which was his view that direct elections were incompatible with Indonesian cultural values.

As the arch-type populist, he certainly had no compunction about reinventing himself to suit his audience. In the 2019 presidential elections, he openly pandered to an Islamist support base, despite the fact that almost all of his close-knit family members are Christian.

Now, the Western-educated minister appears to have reinvented himself once again. It is a much better look, but only time will tell whether it holds into the next presidential election cycle, when strains within Widodo’s big umbrella ruling coalition are likely to re-emerge.