As Indonesia's New President Takes Office, Cabinet Includes Officials Tied to Atrocities of Old

October 28, 2014



Allan Nairn

journalist and activist. Nairn has reported from Indonesia for years, previously exposing government killings of civilians.

Indonesia’s new president, Joko Widodo, has held his first Cabinet meeting amidst criticism from human rights activists for picking a new defense minister who once defended military killings of civilians. In July, the former Jakarta governor known as "Jokowi" defeated the U.S.-trained former army general Prabowo Subianto, who had been accused of mass killings when he headed the Indonesian special forces in the 1990s. While human rights groups hailed the defeat of Prabowo in July’s election, the new president is facing opposition for picking former Army Chief of Staff Ryamizard Ryacudu to be Indonesia’s new defense minister. Over the past decade, Ryamizard has defended the military’s actions in West Papua and Aceh and publicly claimed that civilians become legitimate army targets if they "dislike" army policy or have "the same voice" as anti-government rebels. We are joined from Indonesia by veteran investigative journalist Allan Nairn, whose dispatches shook up the presidential race when he reported on human rights abuses committed by Prabowo and the U.S.-trained general’s statement that Indonesia needs "a benign authoritarian regime" because the country was “not ready for democracy." Nairn also discusses his latest major report, revealing that a top adviser to Indonesia’s new president has admitted "command responsibility" in the 2004 assassination of the country’s leading human rights activist, Munir Thalib.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AARON MATÉ: We turn now to Indonesia. On Monday, the country’s new president, Joko Widodo, held his first Cabinet meeting a week after being sworn in. In July, the former Jakarta governor, known as "Jokowi," defeated the U.S.-trained former army general Prabowo Subianto, who had been accused of mass killings when he headed the Indonesian special forces in the 1990s. Over the weekend, President Jokowi said he wanted to form a, quote, "clean Cabinet."

PRESIDENT JOKO WIDODO: [translated] The process of choosing ministers was done carefully and cautiously. Carefully and cautiously. This is a priority, because this Cabinet will be working for five years, and we want to choose clean people. We choose not only those capable in their fields, but candidates who are also strong in operational leadership and have great managerial ability.

AMY GOODMAN: While human rights groups hailed the defeat of General Prabowo in July’s election, President Jokowi is facing criticism for picking former Army Chief of Staff Ryamizard Ryacudu to be Indonesia’s new defense minister. Over the past decade, Ryamizard has defended the military’s actions in West Papua and Aceh, and publicly claimed civilians become legitimate army targets if they "dislike" army policy or have "the same voice" as anti-government rebels.

Joining us from Jakarta, Indonesia, is investigative reporter Allan Nairn, who has reported on Indonesia for more than 20 years. His reporting shook up the presidential race when he reported on human rights abuses committed by Prabowo, the U.S.-trained general. Nairn also revealed that in 2001 Prabowo told him, in an off-the-record interview, that Indonesia needs "a benign authoritarian regime," because the country was, quote, "not ready for democracy." Just this week, Allan Nairn broke another major story. He revealed that General A.M. Hendropriyono, a top adviser to Indonesia’s new president, Jokowi, had admitted "command responsibility" in the 2004 assassination of the country’s leading human rights activist, Munir.

Allan, welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you start off by talking about the significance of Jokowi’s election, the new president of Indonesia, and then the significance of who he’s chosen to be in his Cabinet?

ALLAN NAIRN: Well, Jokowi—the biggest significance was who Jokowi defeated. General Prabowo, who had worked with U.S. intelligence, was openly calling for the abolition of direct presidential elections. When Prabowo spoke to me, he was musing about a fascist dictatorship. He is the general most implicated in the mass killing of civilians. He is the general closest to Washington. And if he had taken power, it could have brought Indonesia back to the Suharto era.

Jokowi is a civilian, and he comes from a poor neighborhood. He speaks a language like poor people do. And there was hope that he could represent the beginning of a departure from the tradition of military dictatorship. But in the campaign, he was surrounded by killers. Prabowo, his opponent, was a killer, but Jokowi was surrounded by killers. And some of those killers are now contending to be in his Cabinet. One of them, General Ryamizard, as you just mentioned, is already in. There are a few others in contention now.

One very significant thing happened in the past few days. General Wiranto, who was perhaps the worst mass murderer aside from Prabowo, he was penciled in to be the coordinating minister for security in Jokowi’s Cabinet. In that job, he could have taken de facto control of the army, police and intelligence. Word of that came out on Friday at noon. I was able to confirm that and put that out. And people, activists mobilized. And by Saturday night, Jokowi had yanked Wiranto from the Cabinet. And Jokowi told his staff that it was because of that pressure he received from activists on the outside. So that was a victory. That kind of thing could not have happened in any previous administration.

But there are still contenders now to be intelligence chief, which hasn’t been decided yet. One of them is a man named As’ad, who worked with the CIA along with Hendro and was implicated in the assassination of Munir, the leading human rights activist. Another is a general named Sutiyoso, who was implicated in the assassination of journalists in Balibo during the Timor invasion. Another is a general named Sjafrie, who’s been implicated in massacres in Aceh, in the repression in Jakarta in '98 and in Timor in ’99. Sjafrie got five U.S. Special Forces courses in the U.S., and he said, after one of them, that he had been trained by U.S. Special Forces just back from Peru, and they had trained him in "how to create terror." And these are candidates in the running to be intelligence chief. Again, activists are weighing in now, trying to oppose this. And it's possible they can be stopped, because—but there’s a huge struggle for power going on.

AARON MATÉ: And, Allan, you mentioned Munir. Last month was the 10th anniversary of his death. He was flying from Jakarta to Holland and poisoned on board. What new revelations have you learned?

ALLAN NAIRN: Munir was poisoned with a massive dose of arsenic. This was given to him by an agent from BIN, the intelligence agency, which at that time was being run by General Hendropriyono, the man I just interviewed a week ago. And General Hendro admitted to me that he bore command responsibility for the Munir assassination. This is a breakthrough development. He also agreed, after—I had about two hours with him and just was able to repeatedly question him and press him on three major atrocities—Munir, a massacre at Talangsari, the ’99 massacres in Timor—and was able to get him to say in the end that, one, he accepted command responsibility in the Munir assassination, that, two, he was willing to stand trial for those three atrocities, and that, three, he would call for the release of all Indonesian—secret Indonesian government documents and U.S. documents, from the CIA and the NSA and the Pentagon, and the White House, as well, relating to those cases.

So this sets a very important precedent, because, of course, Indonesian generals and U.S. generals and U.S. presidents have made an art form of evading accountability for murders that they commit. The reason the U.S. did not continue its large troop presence in Iraq was that they were unable to negotiate an agreement under which U.S. forces would be exempt from prosecution for atrocities. There was the same issue in Afghanistan. A few years ago, the Obama administration sent Harold Koh to an ICC, International Criminal Court, conference in Africa to try to rewrite the definition of "aggression" so the U.S. couldn’t be touched. Israel has been threatening the Palestinian authorities not to go to the International Criminal Court. Nobody wants accountability. None of these powers want to be held to the same standards that an ordinary person does if they commit murder.

But now, General Hendropriyono, who is one of the biggest figures in Indonesia—he’s the dominant figure in intelligence in the army, he was the CIA’s man in Indonesia—he has made these admissions and concessions: command responsibility, willing to be put on trial. So now the question becomes: If Hendro, General Hendro, is willing to be put on trial, why not the other generals? And since at the time of the Munir assassination he was also working with the CIA, and since his admission of command responsibility means that this was a BIN operation, BIN intelligence operation, therefore the CIA could also be legally liable for this. And if Jokowi allows Hendro to be put on trial, as Hendro says he’s ready to accept, CIA and Pentagon personnel could then be subpoenaed by the Indonesian courts as witnesses, to see what information they have and what role they had in these and other atrocities. And it sets a precedent. If an Indonesian general is willing to accept accountability, is willing to stand trial, why not the American generals, why not the American presidents, once and for all, be willing to sit down in court, like everyone else has to, when you cause the death of a civilian?

AMY GOODMAN: Allan Nairn, can you talk about the significance, for those aren’t familiar with Indonesian politics, of who Munir was, the leading human rights activist in Indonesia, and then why it was that the general, Hendropriyono, was willing to have you at his mansion and answer your questions? I mean, you were instrumental in bringing another general, Prabowo, down. I mean, he—it was possible—was going to win the presidency of Indonesia before you exposed what he had said.

ALLAN NAIRN: Well, that was the reason, apparently, that Hendro received me, because—according to Hendro, because he saw me as having helped to bring Prabowo down, and Hendro was on the other side in that campaign. Hendro was on the side of Jokowi. So, when we started, before I could say anything, Hendro said, "I’m very"—it shocked me. He said, "I’m honored to receive you, because of the way you hurt Prabowo." In the campaign, Prabowo ended up filing criminal charges against me. His people said it was in part for inciting hatred of the army and for causing Prabowo to lose. So I think that was the reason Hendro let me into the room. During the campaign, though, I had also called for Hendro to be put on trial for crimes against humanity, as well as other Jokowi generals. But it was the damage I did to Prabowo that caused him to receive me.

Munir was a giant in Indonesian politics and society. He was the pioneering human rights activist. He exposed atrocities by Hendropriyono, by Wiranto, by all of the generals. He did it impartially and evenhandedly. He was also extremely brilliant. He was one of the clearest, most brilliant thinkers I’ve ever met. He was a friend of mine. And he died vomiting to death on a plane, because BIN, which was in liaison with the CIA, slipped him a massive dose of arsenic. And today Munir is a legend, especially among the young people of Indonesia. And it’s appropriate. It’s one of those rare cases where historical credit goes to the person who actually deserves it—there are Munir T-shirts, there are songs about Munir—because people know that he was one who stood up for the people and they killed him for it.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Allan Nairn, his responsibility, Hendropriyono’s responsibility, in the 1999 terror campaign in East Timor? When the Timorese were voting for their independence, Indonesia burned almost all of it to the ground. You survived that. You covered it to the end, the last Western journalist in Timor at that time. Hendropriyono’s responsibility, but then going back, as you were saying, to the United States?

ALLAN NAIRN: Hendropriyono at the time was the minister of transmigration. According to the U.N. truth commission in Timor, Hendro was one of the architects of the militia terror campaign that burned down 80 percent of the structures in Timor, included massacres, rape, machete attacks on churches, etc. And he was also the one who, they said, masterminded the mass deportation, forced deportation of almost 400,000 Timorese—an astonishing operation. And as that was going on, the U.S. was still backing the Indonesian army. The Clinton White House was still backing the Indonesian army. And it was only the rising crescendo of world press coverage of the arson and the rape and the terror that was happening, and pressure from Congress, that finally, at the last minute, caused Clinton to relent, say, "OK," he gave the concession, "we will cut off aid to the Indonesian army," finally, all of it. And within about a day after that, the Indonesian army announced that they were giving up and pulling out of Timor and would allow the U.N.-sponsored referendum in which the Timorese had voted for independence, allow that to go into effect.

And during that campaign, at the end, as I was there, left in Dili, I was arrested on the streets by Wiranto’s army and held as prisoner in the military headquarters. And I could see, from inside that military headquarters, the militia, the men in red headbands, in civilian dress, who would go out and commit the atrocities. And they were running right out of the army bases. But now Hendro, General Hendropriyono, says he’s willing to be put on trial for that, as well as the Talangsari massacre, as well as the Munir assassination. So now it’s up to President Jokowi to see whether he will allow such trials to go forward.

And it sets a precedent. Imagine, trials for generals like Hendropriyono; trials for the American CIA directors, like George Tenet, who met with Hendropriyono, who were sponsoring people like that; trials for the American generals, who were committing similar atrocities, directly in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, indirectly in places like Guatemala and Salvador and Gaza, countless other places; trials for the American presidents who sponsored this. The kinds of concessions that Hendropriyono made set very important precedents. Just beginning with the release of all those secret documents from the CIA, from the NSA, from the White House, from the Indonesian police, intelligence and military, it would be opening a Pandora’s box. And it’s long overdue, because we have to know the truth about state mass murder, and we have to put those who commit it on trial, be they Indonesians, be they Americans, anyone.

AMY GOODMAN: Allan Nairn, I want to thank you for being with us, journalist and activist, has reported from Indonesia for decades, previously exposing government killings of civilians, as well as in Latin America, an award-winning journalist. We have been speaking to him in Jakarta, Indonesia. We’ll link to his reports at

When we come back, voters in Colorado and Oregon are going to the polls. They want labeling for genetically modified foods. Monsanto is pouring in a fortune to prevent that from happening. We’ll talk to the editor of a new book, The GMO Deception. Stay with us.

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