Richard Gozney
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Indonesia and President-elect Prabowo

Sir Richard Gozney KCMG CVO served as Ambassador to Indonesia, Governor of Bermuda; British High Commissioner to Nigeria; and as High Commissioner to Swaziland.  He was the Lieutenant Governor of the Isle of Man from May 2016 to August 2021.  He has extensive commercial experience in many fields including energy and insurance.


In 2001, two years after Indonesia’s first proper elections for over 40 years, Indonesia’s Special Forces and army Strategic Reserve showed off to visitors from London.  Their displays were stunning, their coordination impeccable, their fitness superb and some of their skill unreal: a double-blindfolded soldier ‘divined’ his way to a small object behind the umpteenth soldier many rows back on the crowded parade ground.  They were brilliant.

Indonesia’s Defence Minister asked the UK for a programme to help to show the Armed Forces that although no longer top dogs in a country they had directed for 30 years, and although Indonesia faced no external threats, their role need not wither.  Many wanted to be convinced.  However, the senior officers of the Special Forces and Strategic Reserve, who had recently played central roles in ousting President Suharto, the country’s military ruler of 30 years, knew that they were more experienced, more disciplined, more skilled as managers and generally more capable than most of their country’s new civilian leaders.  As a senior Special Forces General (and President Suharto son-in-law) who had gone on to command the Strategic Reserve at the very end of military rule, General Prabowo Subianto went too far: he kidnapped and mistreated 9 pro-democracy activists.  He was suspected of torturing others and of scheming to usurp the Armed Forces Commander.  The Armed Forces Commander and the new President discharged Prabowo (honourably) from the army.  

After a few years lying low, living in Jordan for a time and building a string of successful businesses, Prabowo was back in public life in 2009 as a Vice-Presidential candidate, and in 2014 and 2019 as a Presidential candidate.  In February 2024 he won the Presidency at his third attempt, helped by a controversial Constitutional amendment which allowed him to choose the youngish son of the incumbent and popular President Jokowi as his running mate.  He will take office in October 2024.  

The Constitution gives the directly elected President of Indonesia extensive powers, subject to the concurrence of Parliament.  Prabowo’s political party is small, and he is expected to build a broad coalition of parties in parliament, using the patronage of Ministerial posts and favours over policy issues which matter more to the political parties than to him.  Once he secures his coalition, concurrence should not be too difficult, including and perhaps especially in foreign affairs.

Prabowo’s early and recent background has been cosmopolitan.  Until he fell out with him, Prabowo’s father, Professor Sumitro Djojohadikusumo, was Economy Minister to Indonesia’s first President, Soekarno.  He and his family went into exile in South-east Asia and the UK.  As a teenager Prabowo studied in London.  His father returned to a prominent Ministerial role with the country’s second President, Suharto, and the family to a position of privilege. As an army officer Prabowo studied in the US.   After defeating him for the Presidency for a second time in 2019, President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) made him Defence Minister.  Prabowo has shown an appetite for foreign affairs, notably in 2023 when Indonesia chaired the G20 and he proposed a demilitarised zone, UN peacekeepers and a referendum in what he called the disputed territories between Russia and Ukraine.  He may not have cleared his lines with either President Jokowi or the Foreign Minister.  Predictably, Ukraine rubbished the idea.

Apart from showing a forthright personal approach, Prabowo’s Ukraine initiative highlighted Indonesia’s unwillingness to side between Russia (or China) and Western countries on contentious issues.  A founding country of the Non-Aligned Movement in the 1950s, Indonesia still takes its non-alignment seriously, in tandem with a low-key nationalism.  President Prabowo is unlikely to change this theme although his nationalism may be a little noisier than that of President Jokowi or their predecessors, Presidents Bambang Yudhoyono and Megawati Sukarnoputri. President Jokowi ducked an invitation from the BRICS countries to join their recent expansion.  If the invitation remains open President Prabowo may revisit the idea.  He may also emphasise an intent to join the OECD within 4 years, likely to be a challenge given the regulatory hurdles.  Across the foreign policy board, he will expect Indonesia to be taken seriously and is likely to take personal offence if he senses otherwise.

During the last 10 years President Jokowi has focussed on domestic economic policy, although ready to challenge foreign economic voices.  In 2017 Indonesia exported US$3 billion of nickel ore.  The mining was far from Jakarta, poorly regulated and bad for the environment.  Despite dire predictions, President Jokowi banned the export of raw nickel ore.  In 2022 Indonesia exported US$30 billion worth of products containing nickel.  President Prabowo will be tempted by more of the same, whether for aluminium or tin ores, or to promote self-sufficiency in food.  A country which boomed through most of the 1980s and 1990s and which has averaged 5% annual economic growth during the 24 years of this century knows that it is getting stuff right.

Domestic economic initiatives may cause President Prabowo more grief at home than his economic nationalism.  He has promised free school milk and lunches for school pupils, at a likely cost of US$29 billion or 2% of GDP. Indonesian governments are restricted to a ceiling of 3% for the government budget deficit, (a figure familiar to pre-pandemic Europe), and to a ceiling of 60% of GDP for government debt, (a wistful memory for most Europeans).  The ceilings do not look as tight alongside Indonesia’s tax take of only 10% of GDP, low even by South-east Asian standards.  Prabowo has already questioned these ceilings.  

Prabowo has promised continuity.  His Administration may need to find a further US$30 billion or so for the new capital city, Nusantara, in East Kalimantan (on Borneo).  80% of the finance is expected from outside government but private investment, domestic or foreign, has been slow.  It is just possible that the new President will turn to major business families whom he knows from his post-military and pre-political time as a successful businessman, and who have helped government in the past.  In 2002 serious floods in Jakarta prompted a charity football match between the Indonesian Cabinet and the Diplomatic Corps.  I worried that we ambassadors had little or no funds for ad hoc donations on the scale needed.  I need not have worried: as the post-match charity auction began several rich Chinese-Indonesian businessmen arrived and bid outlandish sums for footling prizes.  I sensed that they were paying their corporate taxes for the year.

Domestic politics and foreign concerns over present day human rights may collide in the Indonesian half of New Guinea.  Until the Christmas Day tsunami hit Sumatra in 2004 both ends of the country, Aceh Province in northernmost Sumatra and the Province of Irian Jaya in Indonesia’s half of New Guinea in the east, were fighting on and off for autonomy or even independence from Jakarta and the Javanese.  A silver lining to the havoc the tsunami wreaked on Aceh was Jakarta granting Aceh extensive autonomy, with some parallel concessions to Papua. However, a small and sometimes bloody independence campaign by the Free Papua Organisation has continued, reflecting some Papuans’ sense that as Melanesians of a different race and a culture neither Moslem nor Hindu-Buddhist, and with a different history, they should never have been shoe-horned into Indonesia in the 1960s some 20 years after Indonesia’s independence from the Dutch.  

Papuan independence is out of the question for any government in Jakarta. General Prabowo’s former Special Forces units have been accused not only of human rights abuses against prodemocracy students in Jakarta 25 years ago but periodically of exceeding the army’s rules of engagement in Papua.  The President-elect’s instincts are unlikely to be soft on the Papuan rebels.  Some foreign NGOs, especially in New Zealand and Australia, will be watching, ready to lobby their own governments.

More widely publicised were accusations of General Prabowo’s Special Forces abusing human rights in East Timor during 25 years of Indonesian occupation and the suppression of pro-independence guerilla forces from 1975.  In 2003, a year or two after East Timor’s independence, retired General Prabowo faced the leader of the East Timorese independence fighters, Xanana Gusmao, on stage in Jakarta.  They embraced.  Their sense of forgiveness seemed real.  It was real for Xanana Gusmao whom I knew and who is saintly.  President-elect Prabowo is of a Javanese culture imbued with a custom and belief that the past has gone and issues of the past are best left behind.  In similar vein, in the 25 years since General Prabowo’s forces kidnapped and mistreated the 9 prodemocracy activists in the run up to the fall of President Suharto in 1998, 6 of the 9 have worked for him or backed his candidacy.  As financial advisers are fond of reminding us, ‘Past performance is no guarantee of future prospects.’


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