Hambalang, West Java: Prabowo Subianto has been described in Indonesia for years as a “former military strongman” and “The General”. These days he is also known as the man most likely to challenge Joko Widodo for the Indonesian presidency in 2019.
So it is a surprise to watch him gently coaxing ants away from the salmon on his plate: “Hey ants, get off my food please!”
Prabowo is an animal lover and has issued strict instructions that no creature be harmed at his picturesque mountain retreat in Hambalang, West Java. Even spider webs are to be left intact.
“That’s the problem with me, you see, they are not allowed to kill any animal here,” he tells Fairfax Media over an ethnically-diverse breakfast of teriyaki salmon, scrambled eggs, miso soup, banana and fried noodles.
“Even the ants cannot be touched, so I have to negotiate with them. But you believe it or not, they don’t bother my food.”
One of Prabowo’s advisers points out that King Solomon, revered in Islam as a prophet, had the ability to communicate with ants.
In the 27th sura or chapter of the Koran, Solomon hears an ant warn her people to enter their homes so they will not be crushed by the king’s soldiers.
Solomon is reminded of the bounty Allah has bestowed upon him and asks for inspiration to do a good deed of which Allah would approve.
“Come on, I am not King Solomon,” Prabowo laughs.
But it was Prabowo who cautioned President Jokowi, as he is widely known, against the April 2015 executions of Bali nine heroin smugglers Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. The Australian government had begged Indonesia to save their lives.
“I said, my opinion is that if the head of a friendly government requests something of Indonesia, I think it will be in our national interest to respect that request. That was my argument, basically. We need friendship, we need good relations. But my advice was not listened to at that time.”
Prabowo worries about the death penalty. He has read too many cases of miscarriages of justice in the US, where advances in DNA testing have found, too late, that the executed person was innocent.
In 2013 he hired a top lawyer to fight for Wilfrida Soik, an Indonesian maid said to be a victim of human trafficking, who was facing a death sentence in Malaysia. One of Prabowo’s staff tells me he wept when her life was spared.
“So yes, I think … the death penalty must be given in very very rare [occasions] and let’s say … cases that you are really convinced, maybe mass murder.”
So would he abolish the death penalty if he became president?
“Maybe it should still be in the books as a sanction … but the mechanism to give the sentence should be very stringent, a lot of review boards. And the power of the president to commute the sentence I think should be really strengthened.”
Prabowo is a member of one of Java’s most aristocratic families and was once married to the daughter of president Suharto.
A former three-star general, Prabowo served in the military for more than 20 years, rising through the ranks to become one of the nation’s most powerful men.
However in 1998 he was discharged after troops under his command kidnapped and tortured anti-Suharto activists. Two years later he was banned from entering the US over alleged human rights abuses.
But after a stint in Jordan, Prabowo – who says he has always wanted to serve the people of Indonesia – staged a remarkable comeback.
God has given him wealth, he tells us. His business interests have included oil and gas, palm oil, forestry and mining.
Prabowo says he could have simply enjoyed his life. His tranquil mountain retreat with its horses, helipad, purple bougainvillea and breathtaking views of shadowy blue mountains is 50 kilometres and a world away from the slums and chaos of Jakarta.
But in 2008 he founded his own party, Gerindra, which positions itself as the champion of theorang kecil – the little people – who, like the ants, are usually overlooked in society.
In 2014, Prabowo ran for president. He was defeated by Jokowi – a political cleanskin – in the closest presidential election in Indonesia’s history.
Now the top job seems within striking distance again.
On the day of Fairfax Media’s breakfast with Prabowo and the ants, it is announced that Gerindra’s candidates in the Jakarta gubernatorial election – Anies Baswedan and Sandiaga Uno – have officially won with 57.96 per cent of the vote.
It was a hardscrabble victory after a bitter and protracted election campaign that polarised Jakarta along religious and ethnic lines.
The party hopes its win will pave the way for “The General”, whose popularity and grassroots campaign helped Anies and Sandiaga.
A triumphant banner erected at a Gerindra meeting in Semarang proclaimed: “We have seized Jakarta, Prabowo for president 2019.”
So will Prabowo run? “I’m philosophical, there must be a decision in a year or so. I want to serve my country, I want to do good for my people. If I have support, if there is opportunity, yeah, I could run.”
But is it something he is seriously considering? “I think so, yeah. I mean, Donald Trump becomes president at what, 70 years old? [Philippine President Rodrigo] Duterte at 71. But again, I will keep my options open. Politics is the art of the possible.”
The General himself is 66 this year. “I don’t feel old,” he says.
His energy and military bearing belie his years. He later jests with West Javan cadres, “Don’t you dare, even once call me eyang. [“Grandpa” in the Sundanese language.] Bung [brother] Bowo is fine. Eyang?? Are you out of your mind? Do you think I am an old man? I’m still capable of fighting.”
Prabowo has invited Fairfax Media to Hambalang for a rare interview.
His disillusionment with the Western press goes back 20 years. Prabowo was a major in East Timor when he says he gave an interview to an American journalist who asked to interview five or six prisoners held by his battalion.
“Although they were guerrilla soldiers of opposing forces, they had military etiquette, so of course they stood up to attention when I came into the room,” Prabowo says. “I was a bit shocked – the final article was very slanted. In the article he [the journalist] said: ‘They stood up very stiff and Prabowo showed off his military trophies’.”
Prabowo says he got on with his life without giving access to foreign journalists or even countries that traditionally had negative views about Indonesia or the Indonesian military.
“I’m a proud alumnus of the Indonesian military,” he says. “A Western … army can be patriotic and do their duty for their country, but if a Third World army is doing their duty for their country it’s different. We are always accused of being fascists, power hungry … human rights violators.”
But despite Prabowo’s misgivings, here we are, to discuss – amongst other things – the Jakarta election campaign, the most divisive in the history of Indonesia.
“I do realise that sometimes we need to open up and give our side of the story,” Prabowo says.
Post-election surveys have indicated religion was the number one issue that influenced voters when deciding between Anies, a former education minister who is a Muslim, and the Christian and ethnically Chinese incumbent, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama.
Religion only became a major factor after Ahok told fishermen his opponents were deceiving them into not voting for him using a verse from the Koran, which some interpret to mean Muslims cannot be led by a non-Muslim.
“He practically self-destructed,” Prabowo says. “In a country like Indonesia, usually political leaders will avoid using verses from other people’s religion. Even I don’t dare use verses from Islam. I’m a Muslim, I don’t dare because I’m not an expert. That’s why we have the ulema [religious scholars].”
Ahok’s comments were seized upon by his opponents, including longtime provocateurs the Islam Defenders Front (FPI), who spearheaded several massive protests. Ahok was brazenly religiously and racially vilified at the rallies, which repeatedly brought the capital to a standstill. The embattled governor was ultimately put on trial for blasphemy and will be sentenced next Tuesday.
Prabowo will not be drawn on whether Ahok should be jailed: “It’s not my decision.” He says blasphemy is the realm of the clerics. “I’m not an expert but our Majelis Ulama, the official clerics’ council of Indonesia, recognised by the … Indonesian government, I think their finding was blasphemy.”
Ironically, it was Prabowo who nominated Ahok to become the vice-governor of Jakarta, which he won in 2012. At the time Ahok was a member of Gerindra. “[Former president] Megawati (Sukarnoputri) didn’t want him. I convinced Megawati. Many Muslim clerics were angry at me. I wanted to show our commitment to inclusiveness.”
Prabowo’s own family embodies the national motto of Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity).
“I have two sisters; one is Catholic, my younger brother is Protestant, my elder sister is, what do you call it, like kejawen. Kejawen is the Javanese religion even before the all the others came… she’s into that, a lot of meditating. So we are pretty laid back about religion.”
Prabowo puts the blame for Ahok’s demise squarely on what he says is the flaw in Ahok’s own character.
“I have to say I was the most disappointed because I was the one who pushed his career.”
“I think his leadership actually caused a dent in the effort to create a really inclusive and harmonious … society. Had he been a bit more … let’s say cool, calming, maybe the situation would be very different.”
The international media has largely portrayed the election result as a win for conservative Islamism in Indonesia and a setback for religious pluralism.
Headlines such as “Hard-Line Islamism Gains Ground with Vote in Jakarta” have irritated not just Gerindra but also Indonesian Vice-President Jusuf Kalla and religious peace activist Yenny Wahid, whose father, the late president Abdurrahman Wahid, was considered a paragon of moderation in Islam.
“I oppose the foreign media’s use of headlines saying that radical Islamic groups have won,” Yenny, whose husband is a Gerindra member, was quoted as saying in the Jakarta Globe. «There is much diversity behind Anies – his success team comprises not only of Muslims.»
However many argue that Anies, who had cultivated a reputation as a moderate, ran a dog-whistle campaign by reaching out to groups such as the FPI.
A former fringe vigilante group, the FPI gained notoriety for raids on bars during Ramadan or “enforcing” fatwas banning Muslim shop assistants wearing Santa hats. It has a newfound mainstream status in the wake of the anti-Ahok rallies.
Prabowo is visibly riled about being asked about the FPI.
“You, as a foreigner, you come here and ask Indonesians, why do you visit a hardliner?” His voice rises: “You see, this is exactly the Western press, you come here and you only ask me about the FPI. You don’t ask me: ‘Is there corruption in Indonesia?’ … You don’t ask me: ‘Are the people eating enough?’.
“As if you guys want to frame that Anies and Sandi won because of the FPI. The Western media didn’t cover the election, only one frame. It’s always hardline, hardline [Islam].”
On the night of the election, FPI leader Rizieq Shihab was among those whom Prabowo thanked at Istiqlal Mosque.
“Indonesia is a large country, we have all spectrums, the FPI is a fact of life,” he says. “They have many members. Some people consider them hardline. Who is the judge to say hardline or moderate or extreme or radical? I think people can evolve, organisations can evolve. I am not an apologist but … I believe in engagement. If you don’t bring them into the political process, what are you doing? You want to drive them into what? Extrajudicial measures?”
Anies and Sandiaga campaigned on poverty and inequality. They opposed Ahok’s forced evictions, promised a zero down-payment housing scheme and vowed to stop the Jakarta Bay reclamation, saying it was harming those who lived around the bay.
“Because if we have inequality, economic injustice, mass poverty, who do you think will prevail?” Prabowo asks. “It’s going to be the extremists, the radicals, the demagogues.”
Prabowo has two hobbies in life: books and horses.
Horses are a motif throughout his grandiose home. White stallions rear at the edge of cliffs in moody oil paintings, delicate metal figurines prance on tables, black and white photographs of Indonesia’s founding father Sukarno on horseback stare down from the walls.
Books are everywhere too. Prabowo’s taste is eclectic. The Robb Report, an American luxury-lifestyle magazine, is in the bathroom. Among the tomes on his coffee table are Why Nations Failby Turkish-American economist Daron Acemoglu, Altruism, which explores the power of compassion to change the world, and Prabowo’s own book, Paradoks Indonesia. The paradox of Indonesia, according to Prabowo, is that it is a country rich in natural resources while so many of its people live below the poverty line.
Prabowo has developed a personal philosophy late in life: “One thousand friends too few, one enemy too many.”
“I wished I had learned it as a young officer, I made a lot of enemies I think, among my seniors,” he says, laughing.
Despite losing to Jokowi in 2014, he has met with him on a couple of occasions, including, famously, on horseback at Hambalang. (This was the president’s people’s idea, Prabowo tells us, and he worried the horses would be spooked by photographers’ flashes: “Inside me, I’m saying ‘My God, if anything happens, they would say I did it on purpose’.”)
Twitter Ads info and privacyIt is rumoured that Prabowo advised Jokowi to join prayers at the December 2 mass rally, where protesters demanded Ahok be jailed. Jokowi, who briefly addressed the crowd, was praised for defusing had thrown Ahok under a bus.
Prabowo refuses to confirm he gave advice, saying he has to respect his confidential communications with the president. “I always try to advise whoever is in power, which I think is my duty as a member of the Indonesian political leadership, to communicate, to be a mediator or messenger.”
Indonesians must eat, Prabowo tells us, otherwise they cannot think. He invites us not just to breakfast, but to lunch with the West Javan Gerindra cadres.
After lunch, Prabowo urges one of his aides-de-camp, as everyone calls The General’s staff, to sing “the Bee Gees, or ‘Waltzing Matilda’ or something”.
The “ADC” chooses the Bee Gees: Don’t forget to remember me, And the love that used to be, I still remember you, I love you.
The room has emptied out but many of those remaining are singing along.
“That’s why radical Islam will never win in Indonesia,” Prabowo tells me. “They don’t like music and we love it.” (Jewel Topsfield)
The national correspondent for The Age and Sydney Morning Herald, based in Melbourne. She was previously the Indonesia correspondent. She has won multiple awards, including a Walkley for international journalism and the Lowy Institute Media Award.
This article first published in The Sydney Morning Herald, Australian Breaking News Headlines & World News Online on May 8, 2017 – 12:15am
(updated 12:55am on the same date)