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Deadly Protests Erupt in Indonesia as US-Trained Generals Wage War on Democracy

Award-winning journalist Allan Nairn discusses the protests in Indonesia.

In Indonesia, at least six people have died and hundreds have been injured after supporters of former military commander Prabowo Subianto took to the streets to protest his election defeat. The protests began after authorities announced President Joko Widodo — who is known as Jokowi — had won re-election after receiving 55% of the vote. Prabowo has refused to concede and is preparing to challenge the results. We speak to journalist Allan Nairn, who recently returned from Indonesia.


NERMEEN SHAIKH: We begin today’s show in Indonesia, where at least six people have died and hundreds have been injured after supporters of former military commander Prabowo Subianto took to the streets to protest his election defeat. The protests began after authorities announced President Joko Widodo — who is known as Jokowi — has won re-election after receiving 55% of the vote. Prabowo has refused to concede and is preparing to challenge the results.

AMY GOODMAN: Indonesian authorities have also arrested three backers of Prabowo for allegedly plotting to seize government buildings in Jakarta. One of the men arrested was Sunarko, the U.S.-trained former commander of Indonesia’s special forces.

We’re joined now by longtime investigative journalist Allan Nairn, who recently returned from Indonesia. He’s a winner of the George Polk Award and a recipient of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Award. He’s reported on Indonesia for the past three decades.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Allan. Talk about the significance of these elections and what has happened now with these deadly protests.

ALLAN NAIRN: Well, in a sense, this election was a turning point for Indonesia, because if General Prabowo had won, it would have opened the door to a return to a kind of neofascism in Indonesia, a return to the ways of the old Suharto dictatorship. Prabowo is the most notorious mass killer in Indonesia. He has been implicated in mass killings in East Timor, Papua, Aceh, the kidnapping and torture of activists in Jakarta. He was also the closest U.S. protégé in Indonesia, working directly for the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency and U.S. Special Forces, repeatedly bringing U.S. Special Forces into Indonesia, where, among other things, they did reconnaissance for, as Prabowo told me, U.S. contingency planning for an invasion of Indonesia, if the U.S. ever decided to do that — years ago, when Prabowo mused to me, when we had a conversation about the possibility of him seizing power and becoming what he called a “fascist dictator.” So, his defeat is something of a turning point. It’s the second time he has been defeated by Jokowi, the incumbent president.

But he refuses to accept that defeat. He has, in effect, proclaimed himself the president. And now his backers, who include Islamist organizations, including a group called the FPI, and even elements of ISIS, have been out on the street trying to provoke an emergency, which would require army intervention to take over the country and place Prabowo in power. The tactics they’ve used are reminiscent of tactics that were used by Prabowo and other forces when his father-in-law, the dictator Suharto, the U.S.-backed dictator, was falling, was being overthrown by a popular uprising in ’98. In May of ’98, they staged an operation against the local Chinese population, burning, looting, creating chaos. Also similar to tactics used in 1999 in East Timor, where the Indonesian military, including General Sunarko, who you just mentioned, used militias to stage arson, do killings, create chaos in East Timor, after the Timorese voted for independence in a U.N.-sponsored referendum.

And it also is kind of a rerun of an attempted coup, which forces connected to Prabowo tried to stage in late 2016, early 2017, in what was known in Indonesia as the 212 movement, where they aligned with an Islamist street movement, which actually got broad popular support from conservative elements of the Islamist movement in Indonesia. And as military people at the time described it to me, their hope was to go in and actually take over, physically take over, the congress, physically occupy the palace and seize power. They failed at that time. Prabowo tried again this time, after losing the election. But it looks like he doesn’t have enough people on the streets.

The deeper conflict that’s happening is the old U.S.-trained generals versus democracy. There’s Prabowo, who’s trying to overturn an election result, but there are also key generals who are on the side of the winner of the election, President Jokowi — namely, Generals Hendropriyono and Wiranto, who are themselves mass killers, who have been involved in crimes like the ’99 Timor massacres; the assassination of Munir, the leading human rights advocate; the Talangsari massacre. They have been trying to do arrests of political dissidents, and basically trying to crush free speech in Indonesia. So democracy is under siege from both sides of the partisan political spectrum by U.S.-trained generals, some of them working in alliance with these Islamist street organizations, a number of which were originally launched and created by the Indonesian Army.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And can you talk about, Allan, what’s Jokowi’s record been in office?

ALLAN NAIRN: Well, one of his promises when he first ran and defeated Prabowo in 2014 was that he would investigate the major atrocities, the major crimes, including the 1965 slaughter of up to a million civilians, which was backed by the United States and which enabled the Indonesian Army to consolidate power. And he suggested — he heavily implied that he would put the generals on trial. He didn’t do that. In fact, he brought two of the most notorious generals — Hendro and Wiranto — into his circle, in his government, because he’s afraid of the Army. Jokowi is afraid of the Army. He doesn’t — he hasn’t really shown the courage, so far, to confront them and put them on trial. And he doesn’t really have control of the Army. But he has hope that by allying with figures like these, he could maintain control.

Now that he’s in for a second term, I think there will be a popular demand that Jokowi live up to his old promises and put the generals on trial, including Hendro, Wiranto, Prabowo, for his massacre crimes. And, in my opinion, they should also try to try the U.S. officials who sponsored these generals. Do like the Italians did, when they put CIA agents on trial for a kidnapping in Rome. They can request the U.S. documents on these past atrocities backed by Washington. The U.S. Congress actually wrote a provision into the foreign operations appropriations bill which provides for the U.S. turning over documents to Indonesia in the event that there are investigations and prosecutions. But this can only happen if there’s a popular movement to put pressure on President Jokowi, and if the forces of General Prabowo, who are essentially trying to seize power by violence, if they are finally defeated.

AMY GOODMAN: You had an exposé just before Prabowo was defeated, that could have weighed in there. Explain what you learned.

ALLAN NAIRN: I published the minutes of a meeting that Prabowo held with his top generals and political confidants, where they laid out their plan in the event that he won the election and took power. And their plan was for mass arrests of political opponents, as you might expect given Prabowo’s politics, but also for mass arrests of many of his supporters, many of the leaders of these Islamist organizations who were the grassroots organizational core of his campaign and who are now many of those who are out in the streets throwing Molotov cocktails on Prabowo’s behalf.

And an interesting aspect was that in this meeting they said that they were planning to do these mass arrests of their own allies in order to please the U.S. They talked about a meeting Prabowo had held with the U.S. ambassador, Donovan. And essentially to curry favor with the U.S., trying to get back into their good graces, rekindle the old alliance, they were planning to arrest not just opponents, but also allies, to consolidate sole power in Prabowo’s hands. And after the piece came out, it seemed to have caused some disruption among the ranks of the Islamist groups and perhaps diminished their mobilization for him on Election Day and also in these past two days on the streets.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re about to talk about the Indian elections. And the Indonesian elections are massive. Talk about the numbers, and compare it to the United States.

ALLAN NAIRN: They’re really the second-largest elections in the world. The largest is India, by far. The second is Indonesia, in terms of numbers of participants. In fact, although Indonesia is the fourth-largest country in the world in terms of population — it’s somewhat smaller than the U.S. — but the election participation far outstrips that of the U.S. Jokowi and Prabowo each got many millions of more votes than Hillary Clinton and Trump, respectively, got in the recent U.S. election. Voter participation is about 80% in Indonesia. Plus, on top of that, you have a group of people who abstained from the elections, called the golput movement, on principled grounds, because they were disappointed with Jokowi failing to prosecute the generals. So, if in the U.S. we had that level of voter participation, the political landscape would be entirely different. I think the extremist Republicans and Trump in the U.S. would be swept from power, if the U.S. participation went up from 65%, the current rate, to the Indonesian rate of 80%.

AMY GOODMAN: Just before you leave, can you weigh in on the whole impeachment debate in the United States?

ALLAN NAIRN: Well, it’s a longer discussion. But if you turn on CNN, MSNBC these days, unless you’re someone who has been following these channels avidly, I think you’ll find a lot of what they’re talking about is incomprehensible gobbledygook, because they go on and on about Don McGahn and all these figures who most people don’t know who they are, rather than talking about the substantive issues of the atrocities that Trump is committing daily — the abduction and, as you just mentioned, de facto murder of children on the border, the gutting of labor rights, the gutting of environmental protections. And instead, they’re talking about — the Democrats are going off on a tangent, and they’re handing Trump a political gift. If you’re going to impeach him, impeach him on substance, not a Russia plot, which Mueller already concluded Trump didn’t criminally participate in.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to have to leave it there, because I know you have to catch a train. But I do want to ask you, on other grounds — that’s what a number of the Democrats are talking about now — for example, not being willing to cooperate with Congress on giving over information.

ALLAN NAIRN: Yeah. One problem, though, is the Democrats are creating this constitutional confrontation. They rightly point out that it’s outrageous that Trump is refusing to turn over documents that Congress has legally and rightfully subpoenaed, but the Democrats are doing that premised on what is a very weak premise, the idea that somehow there’s something nefarious in the Russia plot, when Mueller has already concluded that there was nothing there criminally.

Do that based on substance. Do it based on his refusal to turn over documents about the crimes he’s committing along the Mexican border, about the way he’s driving the world to possible extinction through his stance on global warming, about his lifting of restrictions on the killing of civilians with the U.S. bombing and droning operations in the Middle East and North Africa. Do it on real issues, not a premise that has already been undercut by the Mueller investigation.

AMY GOODMAN: Allan Nairn, award-winning investigative journalist.

When we come back, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi appears set to enter a second term in a landslide victory following a six-week parliamentary election. What does this mean for the future of democracy in India? Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Steve Earle singing “John Walker’s Blues” in our studio in 2011. The song is about John Walker Lindh, who’s being released from prison today after 17 years in jail.