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Journalist Allan Nairn Threatened for Exposing Indonesian Pres. Candidate’s Role in Mass Killings

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A former military strongman is running for president in Indonesia. The U.S.-trained Prabowo Subianto has been accused of extensive human rights abuses that took place in the 1990s when he was head of the country’s special forces. He was dismissed from the army in 1998 following accusations he was complicit in the abduction and torture of activists during political unrest in Jakarta that led to the ouster of longtime dictator Suharto. We go to Indonesia to speak with journalist and activist Allan Nairn, who is there to reveal the former general’s role in mass killings of civilians. In a new article that has caused an uproar in the county and prompted death threats, Nairn quotes from a 2001 interview he conducted with Prabowo, who said then, “You don’t massacre civilians in front of the world press. … Indonesia is not ready for democracy.” He argued Indonesia needed “a benign authoritarian regime,” and added, “Do I have the guts? Am I ready to be called a fascist dictator?” This coincides with outrage over the release of a music video made by Prabowo supporters showing them in Nazi-like uniforms.

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StoryFeb 13, 2024Could Indonesia Return to Military Rule? Allan Nairn on the “Massacre General” Running for President
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn to Indonesia, where polls show support is growing for a former military strongman who is now running for president. The U.S.-trained Prabowo Subianto has been accused of extensive human rights abuses that took place in the 1990s when he was head of the country’s special forces. He was dismissed from the army in 1998 following accusations he was complicit in the abduction and torture of activists during political unrest in Jakarta that led to the ouster of longtime dictator Suharto.

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this month, during a debate between the two candidates, Prabowo was repeatedly asked about his role then, as well as in similar abuses in East Timor when it was occupied by Indonesia. Prabowo has denied the accusations and insists he was doing his duty to protect the nation. But on Thursday in Indonesia, he faced fresh accusations of criminal behavior after his former boss revealed details of a military council’s findings that led to his discharge from the armed forces nearly, what, something like 16 years ago.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: On Thursday, Prabowo’s campaign threatened to arrest the American journalist Allan Nairn for revealing the former general’s role in human rights abuses. Nairn wrote an article quoting from a 2001 interview he conducted with Prabowo, where—who said, quote, “You don’t massacre civilians in front of the world press.” Prabowo also said, quote, “Indonesia is not ready for democracy” and needs “a benign authoritarian regime,” adding, “Do I have the guts? Am I ready to be called a fascist dictator?”

AMY GOODMAN: This coincides with outrage over the release of a music video made by Prabowo supporters, and endorsed by Prabowo, showing them in Nazi-like uniforms. The song called “Indonesia Bangkit,” or “Awakening Indonesia,” features musician Ahmad Dhani in militaristic uniform, wearing badges similar to those of SS Commander Heinrich Himmler. The Prabowo campaign initially defended the video but has since called for its removal. Prabowo’s rival in the race is Joko Widodo, the governor of the capital, Jakarta. The elections will be held on July 9th.

For more, we’re going to Indonesia, where journalist and activist Allan Nairn joins us by Democracy Now! video stream. Allan Nairn has reported from Indonesia for years, previously exposing government killings of civilians.

Allan, welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you describe what is taking place in Indonesia right now and what has happened as a result of the article that you’ve just released on your blog at AllanNairn.org?

ALLAN NAIRN: Well, General Prabowo, who has been implicated in mass killings and was a close U.S. protégé—he was the most intensively U.S.-trained officer in Indonesia—may be on the verge of assuming state power. The presidential election is judged by most people to be about 50-50 right now. So he may become the next president of Indonesia.

After my piece came out, there’s been an uproar in the Indonesian press. The army declared that I am an operational target. One of the spokesmen for Prabowo said that I was an enemy of the nation. But, you know, these are kind of standard responses.

Earlier, Juan read some of the quotes of Prabowo in the—in his interviews with me. One additional thing he said, when he was talking about the Santa Cruz massacre, that you and I, Amy, both survived, the full quote was: “You don’t massacre civilians in front of the world press. Maybe commanders do it in villages where no one will ever know, but not in the provincial capital!” So he was saying it’s OK to do it, just where no one will know.

And in fact, in 1983, there was just such a massacre in a remote area around the village of Kraras in the mountains of East Timor. And the official U.N.-chartered truth commission for East Timor, in their report, published testimony indicating that Prabowo was involved.

Prabowo did that after he had been brought to the U.S., brought to Fort Bragg and given the U.S. special forces course. After the Kraras massacre and after his forces were repeatedly over the years implicated in similar mass killings, including in West Papua, in once case, where they masqueraded as the International Red Cross and then went on to shoot down civilians, the U.S. kept bringing him back for more training, and he became what Prabowo described to me as “the Americans’ fair-haired boy.”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Allan, could you talk about the—how you initially interviewed Prabowo and the—why he agreed to do the interview and under what conditions that initial interview was conducted?

ALLAN NAIRN: I went to him because I was investigating some killings that had recently occurred then. This was 2001. And I was hoping that—at that moment, Prabowo was out of power; he had lost a power struggle within the army. I was hoping he might be willing to divulge some details about those recent murders I was looking into. And I offered him off-the-record anonymity.

I don’t know exactly why Prabowo sat down with me. We were adversaries. I had publicly called for him to be tried and jailed for killing civilians. I had been involved, you know, to lead the grassroots campaign to cut off U.S. military aid to Indonesia after the Timor massacre. I don’t know his reasons, but it seemed to me that he enjoyed sitting down and talking shop with an adversary who was familiar with his—familiar with his work.

I offered him off-the-record anonymity. But as it turned out, he really didn’t disclose anything about the killings I was looking into. But we ended up speaking for more than four hours—or for nearly four hours. And he made all sorts of political comments that at the time I thought were extraneous, since he was out of power. But now that he’s on the verge of maybe becoming president of Indonesia—the Indonesian people will have to make that choice in the election on the 9th—I decided that it was my obligation to put this information on the record so that the Indonesian people could consider it in making their decision. And it’s not a decision I made lightly, because an off-the-record promise is serious. But I felt that the harm of breaking that was—would be outweighed by even the greater harm of if I did not disclose the information.

And there’s more. I’ll soon be out with some fairly extensive pieces on Prabowo’s work with the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Allan, when we survived the massacre in 1991, over 271 Timorese were killed. This was when the Indonesian military, armed with U.S. M-16s, opened fire on the people of Timor in occupied Timor at the time. When the people of Timor got to vote for their freedom in 1999, you got into East Timor, and you ultimately were arrested by the Indonesian military. In the massacre, the Indonesian military fractured your skull. Now, in this report that has just come out, well, I want to read one of the messages posted on the official Indonesian armed forces, or TNI, Twitter account. It says, quote, “Foreign journalist Allan Nairn becomes TO (operational target) of TNI.” A message posted on another account says, quote, “Careful you don’t get abducted, Uncle.” How real are these threats? Why have you decided to come forward with this now? And is Prabowo still in charge in any way of the military, of the TNI?

ALLAN NAIRN: No, he’s not in charge in any way, although it seems that a majority of the military and the retired military are backing him in this election. Threats like this are standard practice for the Indonesian armed forces and those who they—those on the outside they sponsor. A few years ago, Kopassus, which is the U.S.-trained special forces that Prabowo used to command, they had an internal manual, which listed as one of their methods what they described as the tactic and technique of terror. And the word “terror” has actually been moved into Indonesian. “Teror,” it’s the sending of death threats to people. It’s standard practice. Anyone who speaks out against things like army killings often receives such threats.

But, of course, they’re not going to do anything to me. But over the years, the Indonesian people and the people in Papua and Aceh and Timor, who became operational targets of the army, many were tortured or assassinated. And one issue is: If Prabowo becomes president, will that increase? Today in West Papua, the Indonesian army is still using these tactics. A few years ago, I put out an internal Kopassus target list of activists in West Papua, and these included religious leaders and academics and local civic leaders, and these are the people who are in danger.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Allan, could you talk about the other candidates lined up against Prabowo? Were you surprised that he has appeared to have garnered so much support? And also, what’s been the impact on Indonesia, which is a largely Muslim country, of the Muslim extremist movements around the world?

ALLAN NAIRN: Well, this is a two-person race for president: It’s Prabowo versus Jokowi, the governor of Jakarta. Jokowi made a name for himself as governor because he actually went out and met the poor. He would go down into the street and speak to people, and he became an overnight political sensation. Jokowi, though, is surrounded by killers—generals like Wiranto and Hendropriyono. Wiranto was involved in leading the '99 massacres in Timor that Amy mentioned. Hendropriyono's men were involved in—or behind the assassination of the great human rights activist Munir. They are among the establishment figures who are supporting Jokowi, although he himself seems to be cut from a different cloth. So, on the one hand, you have Jokowi, who is backed by killers, and then, on the other hand, you have Prabowo, who is a killer himself.

As to why his support is rising, first, for years, to talk about the meddlings by the army has essentially been taboo in the Indonesian press, so the public has been deprived of information for decades. Second, money. There’s massive money behind Prabowo. The TV stations are owned by oligarchs, who directly control the political content, in fact even more directly than the owners control the political content in the U.S.

And then, in his campaign, Prabowo, who is a strong speaker, has presented himself as two things: one, the champion of the poor, and, two, the man who will fight America, the man who will not bow down to America. And those are two very popular positions in Indonesia, for very good reasons, because Indonesia has been abused and exploited by America for decades, and everyone here knows that. And, of course, the poor in Indonesia have exploited. The problem—and are still being, as happens everywhere around the world, and it’s especially intense in Indonesia, and the poor are the majority.

But the problem is that Prabowo is—that Prabowo is exactly the person who will not act on those claims. He is, himself, the main—has, himself, been the main U.S. agent over the years within the Indonesian armed forces. He has been Washington’s man. He, as he told me, was “Washington’s fair-haired boy.” He’s not the person who will fight the U.S.; he is the U.S.’s man.

And secondly, in terms of rich and poor, Prabowo’s campaign is financed by his brother Hashim, who is a billionaire, who’s one of the richest men in Indonesia, who is tied in to the very multinational corporations that Prabowo rightly says are exploiting the country. Prabowo himself was in business with a whole range of multinationals. When his Kopassus—when he had his Kopassus force in West Papua, they, Kopassus, were taking payoffs from Freeport-McMoRan, the American mining giant, which has laid waste to the environment in West Papua and has helped loot Indonesia of its resources.

In response to my article, the Prabowo campaign came back with a counterattack: They said that I was part of a conspiracy by the United States government and U.S. business. So I, just today—or, yesterday, put out a response to them, saying, well, I’m—for 40 years, I’ve been an adversary of the U.S. state and of U.S. corporations, but if General Prabowo wants to say that, I have a couple challenges to him. First, I challenge Prabowo to join with me in calling for all the living U.S. presidents to be put on trial and jailed for their role in crimes against humanity and mass killing of civilians in places ranging from Central America to, in recent years, places like Iraq and Afghanistan. I challenge to Prabowo to join me in calling for that. And secondly, I challenge him to join me in calling for Freeport-McMoRan to be expelled from Indonesia. Those challenges have gotten huge coverage in the Indonesian press, and they’re being talked about a lot in the last 24 hours, but as far as I know, he hasn’t yet responded to them.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Allan, as we wrap up, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal over the weekend, U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia Robert Blake said Indonesia should look into Prabowo Subianto’s complicity in human rights abuses in the '90s, when he was the general heading the country's special forces. Ambassador Blake said, quote, “We do not take a position on Indonesia’s presidential candidates. We do, however, take seriously allegations of human rights abuses, and urge the Indonesian government to fully investigate.” I’m just wondering, your response to this, given the U.S. role in Indonesia, and the significance of the U.S. ambassador weighing in right now?

ALLAN NAIRN: Yeah, I think the U.S. is saying this because if Prabowo wins, it will become embarrassing for the U.S., because with Prabowo as president, Prabowo’s record will get scrutiny, and soon people will start to see the blood on the U.S. hands, because the U.S. was Prabowo’s sponsor. So, it’s a little embarrassing for the U.S. Of course, if Prabowo does win, the U.S. will welcome him with open arms. It’ll be like old times. But at the moment there’s some embarrassment. Whenever U.S. officials call for investigations of the murders by the people who they were arming, training, financing and backing politically, it staggers the—it staggers the imagination. Of course, Prabowo should be put on trial and jailed for his role in the killing of civilians, but if that is done, then the U.S. officials who backed him must also be put on trial and jailed. For the U.S. to be talking otherwise is hypocrisy.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Allan, the Prabowo forces have said that the army says they’re going to capture you if you return to Indonesia. You responded you’re in Indonesia. How are you going to protect yourself?

ALLAN NAIRN: I don’t think they’ll do anything. But, yeah, in my statement yesterday, I said—I announced, yeah, I’m here; they can capture me if they want. I also said to General Prabowo, who has—his people have reacted very angrily against my article, denying it, making all sorts of outrageous statements—that if he wants to deny it, he should face me in Indonesian court of law. He should bring charges against me under the Indonesia criminal libel law, and we can face off in the courtroom. And in court, under oath, I can talk about Prabowo’s role in murdering citizens. I can talk about the U.S. role in backing Prabowo. So, I welcome the general taking up that challenge, but he hasn’t done so yet.

AMY GOODMAN: Allan Nairn, I want to thank you for being with us. Please be safe. Allan Nairn is in Indonesia. We’ll link to your article at AllanNairn.org. That’s A-L-L-A-N-N-A-I-R-N.org.

This is Democracy Now! And as we move into Independence Day, there is a new book out that challenges the mainstream narrative about the founding of the United States of America. We’ll speak with historian Gerald Horne here in Chicago. Stay with us.

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