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Lunch with Prabowo Subianto

The Financial Times (UK) - June 28, 2013

Ben Bland Lunch with Prabowo Subianto, the former special forces commander who is running to be president of Indonesia, was never destined to be straightforward. An encounter earlier this year at his heavily guarded mountaintop ranch outside Jakarta ended in frustration: the general, regularly described as a "military strongman", was too anxious to engage in an on-the-record interview with the FT.

Now on our second meeting, in Jakarta on the neutral territory of the Four Seasons Hotel, he still looks fidgety, despite being accompanied by his billionaire brother Hashim, an American investor friend and a small battalion of aides.

Reflecting his putative transformation from soldier to statesman, Prabowo takes his wardrobe seriously. A trim-looking 61-year-old with a mop of improbably black hair, he has discarded the trademark dictator-chic safari suit he wears on the rural campaign trail in favour of a double-breasted blue blazer, white monogrammed shirt and ruby red tie. After exchanging pleasantries, we walk up the marble stairs to a private room at the Lai Ching, a Chinese restaurant that, it turns out, is a regular haunt of his. Taped birdsong plays, rather too loudly, in the background.

Prabowo can trace his lineage back to the sultans of Mataram, the last Javanese rulers to fall to the Dutch East India Company in the 18th century. His father and grandfather were leaders in the Indonesian national revolution that led to the expulsion of the Dutch in 1949. Prabowo himself married the daughter of Suharto, the former president and dictator toppled by a popular revolt in 1998 at the height of the Asian financial crisis. Suharto's fall was spectacular but so was that of Prabowo: one of his top generals, he was dismissed from the army following an internal investigation into his role in the kidnapping of anti-Suharto activists, amid claims that he was plotting a coup at the time of his father-in-law's abrupt demise. He remains banned from entering the US because of a wide range of allegations by activists and NGOs.

So there is plenty to probe about Prabowo's suitability for high office. But first I ask him why he wants to become president next year, when the present incumbent Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono steps down. "We have great potential, great wealth," says Prabowo, speaking fluent English, "but we have not managed our wealth wisely. There's too much corruption, too much inefficiency and a lack of wisdom and statesmanship. I'm very worried that, if we don't manage this transition wisely, we could end up as a failed state."

Just in time to avert the apocalypse, a studiously deferential waiter arrives with elaborate menus. Prabowo confesses he is not very hungry, having eaten a pre-lunch snack while on a flight from Malaysia that morning. His brother Hashim takes charge and orders for everyone: fried vegetables, prawns, fried grouper, hot and sour soup and an assortment of other Cantonese dishes.

Full disclosure, my own personal entourage in the shape of Lionel Barber, FT editor, who is on self-assignment in Indonesia and Myanmar is hors de combat, a victim of Jakarta tummy, an occupational hazard in a city where skyscrapers and slums stand side by side.

As the shared dishes are laid out, Prabowo clicks his fingers to summon an aide. "This is my secret weapon," he says, picking up a silver object that resembles a small artillery shell. To our visible relief, the object turns out to be a Thermos flask of iced coffee that the former general takes with him wherever he goes. "I will not divulge the recipe. But with this I can speak without notes for five hours."

Prabowo says he first decided to run for the Indonesian presidency in 2002. The general had been living in self-imposed exile in Jordan as a guest of the young King Abdullah when Hashim was jailed on what his brother calls "trumped-up charges" of failing to repay a debt of $200,000. As the general ruefully admits, these were tough times for one of Indonesia's most celebrated families. "I thought, 'This is the height of injustice. We are becoming a banana republic.'"

In 2004, however, he failed to win nomination as the presidential candidate for the Golkar party, Suharto's former electoral machine which had been retooled for the new democratic era. And so in 2008, with financial backing from Hashim, Prabowo set up his own political party, the Great Indonesia Movement Party, known locally as Gerindra.

Today it is true that some Indonesians, frustrated by what they see as President Yudhoyono's failure to live up to his corruption-busting rhetoric, hanker for the certainties of the Suharto era. "You only needed to pay off one person to get things done back then," they joke. But the country, which suffered a near-death experience in 1998 with the collapse of its currency, has rebounded and experienced an economic and political miracle. Defying predictions that it would become a Balkanised refuge for Islamic terrorism, the densely populated island archipelago has instead turned into one of Asia's hottest emerging markets and a functioning, if sometimes chaotic, democracy. So the question arises: does Indonesia need saving from itself, as Prabowo argues. Or does it need saving from him, as his many detractors counter?

I ask him if he believes he was born to govern. "Not born to rule but born to serve," he responds, with a well-rehearsed line of the kind used by George C Scott playing General Patton. I take a different tack. Which leaders does Prabowo most admire? His choice of Asian role models is revealing, among them is India's Jawaharlal Nehru, who "came from a wealthy family but always defended the poor", as well as southeast Asian strongmen such as Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew, Malaysia's Mahathir Mohamad and Thailand's Thaksin Shinawatra.

Like Prabowo, the latter has been accused of human rights violations and spent time in self-imposed exile. Though Prabowo concedes, albeit euphemistically, that Thaksin, who was overthrown in a military coup in 2006 and subsequently convicted in absentia of abusing his power, was "a bit abrasive, divisive yes". But, he adds, in what is perhaps a hint at his own political leanings and future campaign strategy: "He got things done and the poor love him."

Initially reticent, Prabowo is now in full flow, whole sentences exploding as he practises his stump speech on the future of Indonesia, anti-corruption tactics and the need for the firm smack of leadership. "If you want to lead a political party that claims to be clean, claims to be anti-corruption, claims to be a force for change, you must give the example. You must be squeaky clean," he says.

Throughout the main courses, I notice that he consumes only three forkfuls of sauteed water spinach. I joke about him needing to eat to maintain his energy. "I am trying to lose weight," he replies. "And you guys are keeping me busy. Your questions are quite challenging. I have to think about my answers."

The former commander of the fearsome Kopassus special forces is not without a caring side, insisting politely but firmly that the editor take tea with honey to settle his stomach. The editor agrees but draws the line at charcoal pills, a popular local remedy. Prabowo laughs uproariously; his guests follow on cue.

It is time, however, to explore some of the darker aspects of the man who wants to be president, and I am a little nervous. He has, after all, been accused of directing the killing of separatists in East Timor during the 1970s and 1980s; of kidnapping student dissidents and orchestrating riots against the ethnic Chinese to deflect growing public anger at Suharto's autocratic rule in 1998. The widespread allegations of human rights violations committed during the Suharto era have never been fully investigated in Indonesia. Many claims have not been substantiated.

Prabowo is also said to have an uncontrollable temper and to have whipped out swords and pistols when pushed too far by reporters or political rivals. "I do have a temper but is it terrible or not?" he says, with a not entirely convincing laugh. "My whole life, I've been serving in combat units. I think I managed to lead under very critical and stressful situations and when we came out, most of our operations were successful."

I ask him about one particularly controversial mission, in 1996, in the remote jungles of Papua, when he was accused of improperly using the Red Cross insignia on a combat helicopter during a raid to free a group of European hostages. "I should be given a knighthood by your government," he says, dismissing the claim. "I saved your citizens, I put my own life at risk and my soldiers were killed."

For one brief shining moment, he is back on the battlefield. "I was in the helicopter. I, as a one-star brigadier general, was in the assault move element. I took part in the landing. And I was berated by some of my seniors, 'What the hell are you doing, you are a general leading 40 soldiers?' I said, 'I have to give an example to my men.'"

As he speaks, a waiter is methodically cutting a Peking duck in the background, using surgical gloves and an extremely sharp carving knife precisely the sort of incisive military operation of which the general would approve. I reflect that Prabowo's taste for Chinese food might seem ironic given accusations that he fomented anti-Chinese riots some 15 years ago.

Prabowo rejects any culpability. "I was a serving officer under one political regime, and that regime changed, and, after that, some of the operations were considered illegal, criminal. They had to have a fall guy, somebody to take responsibility." Indeed, far from expressing regret, he is philosophical about his fate. "If you saw the Shah in Iran, when he lost power, many of his generals were shot."

Today, thanks to financial aid from his brother and some of his own dealmaking, Prabowo has all the trappings of the Indonesian business elite: plantations, a pulp mill, a helicopter, an interest in politics and a bitter dispute with western investors (in his case, London-listed Churchill Mining).

Nor is he the only rich businessmen in the presidential race: also running is his bitter rival Aburizal Bakrie, patriarch of the family conglomerate engaged in a ferocious dispute with the British financier Nat Rothschild over Bumi, the London-listed coal mining company both parties created in 2011 before quickly falling out.

Though some early polls show Prabowo in the lead, his party faces an uphill struggle to meet the high threshold to nominate a presidential candidate: 20 per cent of seats in parliament or 25 per cent of the popular vote. (In 2009, his party won just under 5 per cent of the popular seats and the vote.) He believes other, more established parties are trying to manipulate the electoral system to thwart his ambitions. "Politics can be very demeaning, very demoralising," he says.

As the waiter brings out almond pudding with lychees and strawberries Prabowo's favourite dessert I recall our earlielier meeting at his mountaintop retreat, where his preferred company consists of dogs, thoroughbred horses and a falcon. Having watched him summon the bird of prey and tenderly feed it dried fish, I asked why he loves animals.

"When we grow up and see human nature, there's betrayal, perfidy, lying," he said. "But some of these animals are very basic. You give love to them, they give love back. You are loyal to them. They are loyal to you."

Politics is not nearly so straightforward and certainly not in Indonesia. Despite his improbable post-Suharto comeback, Prabowo might seem like a man whose time has come and passed. Yet he persists in his pursuit of the presidency.

Lunch is at an end and, having prevailed in an earlier struggle over who would pay, it is time for the FT party to pick up the rather hefty tab. It turns out that, in addition to his brother and the investor friend, Prabowo's entourage of young aides sitting outside have also been having lunch not so much with the FT as on the FT.

As Prabowo rushes off to his next meeting, well-fed acolytes in tow, I remember something else he said at his retreat. That he could count on the fingers of one hand the number of people who had never betrayed him. I am left wondering whether this was the moment of revelation or a shot across the bows.

[Ben Bland is the FT's Indonesia correspondent.]

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