Did Prabowo Mastermind the May 1998 Riots?

Posted by on Jul 7, 2014 in Uncategorized | 2 comments

Did Prabowo Mastermind the May 1998 Riots?

The New Order’s end was much like its beginning. Soeharto’s fall was shrouded in mysteries surrounding the Trisakti killings and the riots, just as his rise to power was obscured by the September 30th Movement enigma and the massacre that followed. Just as Sukarno had played a dangerous balancing game between the Army and “the left” during the early-1960s, by the mid-1990s Soeharto engaged in a similar juggling act between the Army and the Islamic right. Although Soeharto’s departure was not precipitated by an event as sensational to the assassination of army leaders and slaughter of hundreds of thousands, over 1,200 died during the nationwide riots that preceded his own resignation.

The riots alone were not enough to bring Soeharto down. In the end, parliamentary leaders, those inside his own cabinet, the Vice President, the military and the modernist Muslim community turned against the President. ICMISecretary General Adi Sasono and his modernist cohorts orchestrated the campaign to force Soeharto’s resignation.[1] They were in continuous contact with key players in the wayang drama – Habibie, Amien Rais, Harmoko, Nurcholish Madjid, Ginandjar, Wiranto, Prabowo, Bambang Yudhoyono, Syarwan Hamid and Feisal Tanjung.

Their roles are clear, all except General Wiranto and presidential son-in-law Prabowo. It seems Prabowo entered the stage determined to defend his father-in-law by employing his amoral Sandi Yudha covert operations skills, as exhibited during the anti-Chinese riots before the 1997 elections and kidnapping of regime opponents in early-1998. From one perspective, his actions (the kidnappings, possibly Trisakti and the riots) seemed intended to vanquish Soeharto’s enemies. Prabowo expected his actions would force a grand crackdown that never came. It was the “ripe fruit” analogy – “allow social disorder to deteriorate in order to create political conditions favorable to intervention.”[2]

Prabowo had close ties to the modernist community, Adi Sasono, Habibie and others determined to end the Javanese King’s reign. He could see Soeharto’s empire was crumbling. If not responsible for the Trisakti tragedy, it seems likely Prabowo and his allies provoked the riots – either as a desperate move to justify a military crackdown to save his father-in-law and benefactor, or in a deliberate move to accelerate the end game.

Even though Wiranto was ABRI Commander and Defense Minister, he lacked a support base. He was insecure due to character and intellectual weaknesses. He felt threatened by Prabowo, a Soeharto family member who operated independently from the Army with his own resources, and had an extensive support base in the military and among outside groups. Prabowo’s network of gangsters, East Timorese militiamen and Muslim militants was not unlike that of Ali Moertopo twenty-five years earlier.

Prabowo had been promoted twice in nineteen months, to major general as Kopassus Commander in August 1996 and to three-stars as Kostrad Commander in March 1998. His meteoric rise because of ties to the Soeharto family and Muslim intellectuals annoyed many officers, active and retired. Even many of his academy classmates ultimately sided with the secular-nationalist Wiranto. The ABRI Commander received support from prominent retired officers, like Rudini Puspohandojo, Bambang Triantoro, Try Sutrisno, Edi Sudrajat and Benny Moerdani, who objected to the regimist officers surrounding Soeharto.[3]

By the time Soeharto returned from Egypt, he could see the outline of a conspiracy. He understood civilian loyalists and military deputies (Wiranto and Prabowo) had turned on him. He knew Habibie was in contact with Adi Sasono, Ginandjar, Harmoko, Amien Rais and Prabowo – and concluded both Habibie and Prabowo were conspiring with his enemies.[4]

Without the column of military support, the New Order edifice crumbled with remarkable speed. Soeharto was an expert judge of character. He liked Wiranto, who had served him loyally for years, and recognized the merit of his halus approach versus his overly ambitious son-in-law’s kasar behavior. After abdicating, Soeharto remained on friendly terms with Wiranto but refused contact with Prabowo and Habibie. With few friends left, the President recognized Wiranto was at least sympathetic; he had been more forthright and maintained a position of neutrality as long as he could. From his position as Armed Forces Commander, Defense Minister and later Coordinating Minister for Political and Security Affairs, Wiranto did everything possible to protect the former President, his family members and their corporate interests – a courtesy he otherwise could not have expected from Habibie or Prabowo.

The modernist Muslim community, even longtime political allies and cabinet members, abandoned Soeharto. Adi Sasono and his ICMI allies orchestrated support for the student movement, a no-confidence vote in Parliament and the mass resignation by cabinet members. Torn between Soeharto and his reformist-modernist comrades, Habibie belatedly joined his ICMI comrades. He was similarly divided between Wiranto (an officer he barely knew) and Prabowo (a Soeharto family member and close friend). Prudence prevailed; by early-May Habibie had reached accommodation with Wiranto. He was acting President while Soeharto was in Egypt. Absent instructions from the strongman, he left security matters to Wiranto – while his ICMI friends worked to engineer Soeharto’s eviction. Wiranto supported – at least, did not obstruct – Habibie’s path to the presidency. Thus, despite his clumsy, some would say bungling, military performance, Wiranto came out on top due to his skillful Javanese, very much Machiavellian politicking, ultimately prevailing over rival Prabowo. From a halus Javanese perspective, power is the essence of everything – and Wiranto’s political performance was halus.

The Wiranto-Prabowo rivalry had emerged in the late-1990s. It perhaps the principal factor in Soeharto’s demise. Remembering the threat Benny Moerdani had posed a decade earlier, the President gave his blessings to both officers and exploited their division. From Soeharto’s perspective, the competing secular-nationalist Wiranto and regimist Prabowo factions kept the Army divided, off-balance and unable to challenge his own hegemony. He advanced officers on both sides of the rift. Army Chief Wiranto replaced Feisal Tanjung as Armed Forces Commander in February 1998. Feisal took the important Coordinating Minister for Political and Security Affairs post and General Hartono became Home Affairs Minister in the March 1998 cabinet. Wiranto was Defense and Security Minister, adding to his influence. Sarwo Edhie Wibowo’s well-regarded son-in-law, Major General Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (a secular reformist) replaced Lieutenant General Muhammad Yunus Yosfiah (Feisal Tanjung’s colleague) as ABRI Chief of Staff for Political and Security Affairs. Deputy Army Chief Subagyo (a Prabowo ally) replaced Wiranto as Army Chief. Prabowo himself was promoted to the key Kostrad post, while loyal minion Muchdi Purwoprandjono took over as Kopassus Commander. Thus, the military was neatly divided and in no position to contest Soeharto’s authority, or so he thought.

It was a dangerous game. Just as the Ali Moertopo-Soemitro rivalry erupted into the Malari riots of January 1974, the Wiranto-Prabowo contest provided the spark to ignite growing discontent. The riots caused Soeharto’s already wobbly regime to collapse under its weight. He lost control in his own risky game, a fatal error that no amount of damage control could recoup. Kidnapping dissidents was ostensibly intended to protect the regime, but the decision to release nine survivors in early-April, followed by the May 12 Trisakti tragedy and the evidently engineered nationwide riots suggested a grand conspiracy. After months of economic chaos and swelling protests, the May 12-16 anarchy destroyed what was left of Soeharto’s legitimacy, especially when framed in the traditional Javanese concept of power, wherein mayhem denotes illegitimacy. It looked to many, even New Order loyalists, as if universal forces were arrayed against Soeharto.

The kidnappings, the Trisakti tragedy and the weak security response to the riots were manifestations of the Prabowo-Wiranto rivalry. Theories emerged suggesting Prabowo had provoked the unrest to discredit Wiranto and convince Soeharto to make him ABRI Commander – or that Wiranto had fostered the chaos so the President would be compelled to transfer power to him, similar to the Supersemar authority Soeharto had wrested from Sukarno in March 1966. Soeharto was comfortable with Wiranto since he lacked a support base in the Army and had advanced to the highest military position through his own grace. He entrusted his ambitious son-in-law, Prabowo, to carry out black operations to protect the regime, in particular the kidnapping of dissidents. Thus, while the Wiranto group engaged Soeharto’s critics in dialogue, Prabowo used terror tactics to defend the regime. It was a pattern repeated over the years as Soeharto exploited rivalries between Soemitro and Ali Moertopo in the early-1970s, Mohammad Jusuf and Benny Moerdani in the early-1980s, Sudharmono and Moerdani in the late-1980s, and Edi Sudrajat and Feisal Tanjung in the early-1990s.

Prabowo and his clique associated with criminals, thuggish militias in East Timor and right wing militant, marginally Muslim groups masquerading as morality police. Starting in the mid-1990s, Prabowo and his henchmen encouraged anti-Chinese and anti-Christian violence to divert attention from internal problems, suppress the “openness” (keterbukaan) movement and, after the monetary crisis, strengthen the regime’s negotiating position with the IMF. Working through his Center for Policy and Development Studies (CPDS) (which he founded with General Hartono) and its progeny, the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), Prabowo and his shady partners incited anti-Chinese and anti-Christian riots across Java during the late-1990s before the regional economic crisis. They used incendiary rhetoric, anti-minority conspiracy theories and Prabowo’s criminal underlings as paid provocateurs, all as part of a strategy to stunt the budding democracy movement and deflect public dissatisfaction with New Order excesses.

Prabowo’s conservative Muslim ties were analogous to the alliance between the Indonesian Socialist Party (ironically, represented by Prabowo’s father, Dr. Sumitro Djojohadikusumo) and Masjumi under Sjafruddin Prawiranegara, Burhanuddin Harahap and Mohammed Natsir during the late-1950s in opposition to Sukarno’s leftist Javanese government. In the late-1990s, the tables were turned; Prabowo and his fundamentalist friends were determined to defend Soeharto’s conservative right wing regime against the pro-democracy movement, which they and military leaders characterized as “the new left.”

The kidnapping, torture and disappearance of dissidents, who Soeharto considered state enemies, starting in early-1998 under Prabowo’s direction amidst the economic crisis, continued Soeharto’s desperate and self-destructive self-preservation maneuvers. Looking at the record, it is not difficult to conclude Prabowo and his allies orchestrated the riots. The evidence of provocation and the strongly anti-Chinese character of the violence was consistent with earlier black operations in Situbondo, Tasikmalaya and elsewhere. Adam Schwarz quotes an unidentified Chinese-Indonesian business associate of Prabowo: “Prabowo told me the Chinese are responsible for the economic crisis. He said he intends to drive all the Chinese out of the country even if it sets back the economy twenty or thirty years. He thinks Christians are trying to topple Soeharto.”[5]

Opposition to Soeharto surged after he appointed the “Crony Cabinet” in mid-March. Prabowo’s fundamentalist friends and ICMI associates complained about his father-in-law. Like Habibie, Prabowo was torn, disappointed with the cabinet selections and shocked to realize Soeharto was grooming eldest daughter Tutut as a successor. The pro-democracy movement and Muslim criticism presented a dilemma. Should he continue to support Soeharto or back Habibie in hopes of high rank and position? Like Wiranto, he hedged his bets by trying to back both men. While pledging loyalty to the President, he met regularly with Habibie, opposition politicians and privately sympathized with the ICMI reform agenda.

General Endriartono Sutarto was Presidential Security Guard (Paspampres) Commander during the riots. He admitted his dislike for Prabowo. Sutarto said it was clear Prabowo had shifted loyalty to Habibie before the riots. He had met opposition figures without approval; he was a regular visitor to Habibie’s office and home; it was apparent Habibie had promised to make him Army Chief. Sutarto advised General Wiranto to separate the red beret officer from the Army for unprofessional conduct. Wiranto had wrung his hands and exclaimed, “That’s something I cannot do!” When Sutarto asked “Why not?” Wiranto indicated he was unwilling to make such a bold move against the President’s son-in-law.[6]

Just a few weeks after the cabinet announcement, Prabowo was implicated in kidnapping pro-democracy dissidents. His relationship with his father-in-law reached a new low after survivors were released. Was that estrangement enough to push Prabowo, already in trouble for the kidnappings, to orchestrate the sniper shootings at Trisakti University and the riots that forced Soeharto to choose between resignation and further violence? At least up to that point, Prabowo’s actions had been intended to protect Soeharto. If Prabowo engineered the Trisakti incident and the May riots, was he trying to bring the President down?

Some speculated as much, that he acted to undermine his father-in-law’s position in favor of Habibie, perhaps by precipitating a special MPR session and impeachment proceedings.[7] Or did the black operation simply spin out of control to the extent that Soeharto’s demise became inevitable? It was a risky game and Soeharto was desperate. Never in the previous three decades had the strongman faced such widespread unrest and determined opposition. In many ways, it replayed the relentless army-backed anti-Sukarno protests in 1966-1967 that swept “the smiling general” to power.

By the time of the riots, Prabowo admitted the only solution to the country’s multi-faceted crisis was Soeharto’s resignation. He discussed that eventuality with Amien Rais, Abdurrahman Wahid and others. He had arrived at the same conclusion Wiranto and his ABRI staff had reached – that Vice President B.J. Habibie was the only constitutional successor to Soeharto short of a special MPR session, something he and Wiranto’s men wished to avoid. It was a tactical error to discuss Soeharto’s resignation and the best way to achieve a “soft landing” with daughter Tutut. She conveyed Prabowo’s treasonous remarks to her father. Already angry over the bungled kidnapping operation and Wiranto’s reports about the riots, it turned Soeharto completely against his son-in-law. It convinced him Prabowo was conspiring with Habibie to betray him.[8]

A fellow red beret described Prabowo as “a mango that fell from the tree before it was ripe.” He was promoted too fast and given too much power as a young officer. Overly ambitious, he wanted to be another strongman like Ali Moertopo or Benny Moerdani. He cultivated a network of thuggish Muslim groups. He was overeager and exceeded Soeharto’s verbal instructions (perintah halus). In particular, the kidnappings were Prabowo’s idea, not the President’s. After the devastating revelations about the kidnappings and Prabowo’s failed power play, Army Chief Subagyo and Jakarta Commander Sjafrie Sjamsoeddin prudently shifted loyalty to Wiranto, the apparent victor.[9]

In separate interviews, Generals Endriartono Sutarto, Sofian Effendi, Agus Widjojo, Kiki Syahnakri and Sjafrie Sjamsoeddin all contended by the time of Trisakti killings and the riots, Prabowo was looking out for his own interests and, to a lesser extent, those of his expected benefactor, Vice President Habibie. He had fallen out with Soeharto over the clumsy handling of the kidnappings. Intelligence chief Zacky Anwar Makarim was already in Wiranto’s camp, while Army Chief Subagyo and Jakarta Commander Sjafrie defected when it was clear Prabowo had lost the contest for power.

Soeharto was complacent and overconfident. He took time off to attend the G-15 Conference despite the growing protests. Even before his trip to Egypt, hard-line officers around the President – Feisal Tanjung, Hartono and Prabowo – had urged him to declare martial law, restore Kopkamtib extra-legal security powers and launch a crackdown on the pro-democracy movement. The same regimist officers took precautionary steps to mobilize militant Muslim elements to defend the regime – or, perhaps, more accurately issued warning orders to the same gangsters they had for years employed in black operations.

Still recovering from a stroke, Soeharto preferred to avoid violence that would tarnish Indonesia’s image, endanger the IMF rescue plan and antagonize Jakarta’s western partners. The seventy-six-year-old was weak, frustrated and confused. He had become increasingly soft since Ibu Tien’s death in April 1996. For several years, he had held audience at Cendana instead of the presidential offices because of his declining vigor and health. Soeharto ultimately agreed with the hard-liners. He left for Egypt with the expectation (at least hope) the political crisis would blow over by the time he returned. According to his calculation, and that of the regimist generals, the public would welcome the restoration of stability and order.

It had become increasingly clear to Wiranto and reformist officers in the High Command the New Order was coming to a close. On Wiranto’s instructions, ABRI faction leader Syarwan Hamid, Chief of Staff for Social-Political Affairs Bambang Yudhoyono, Armed Forces Intelligence Agency (BIA) Chief Zacky Anwar and regional commanders had engaged student leaders and opposition figures. By late-April they had concluded it was time for Soeharto to step down. Wiranto was reluctant to employ force against demonstrators. He walked a tightrope, no longer defending the President and going through the motions to protect the regime, while avoiding confrontation with the protesters. He and his assistants made threatening noises but were less than resolute. They tolerated the protests and previously unthinkable personal attacks on Soeharto.

The economic crisis, public anger and the still-fresh Trisakti shootings shook Wiranto’s confidence. As the new ABRI Commander, still unsure of his support within the military, Wiranto was insecure and tentative; he wanted to avoid any more mistakes like Trisakti and was initially hesitant to order firm action against the rioters and looters. Jakarta Commander Sjafrie complained that Wiranto had been indecisive during the riots. He did not know the disposition of Kostrad and Kopassus units and was afraid to ask for support from the elite commands.[10]

Military Police Commander Major General Syamsu Djalaluddin, later a Joint Fact-finding Team (TGPF) member, also maintained the ABRI Commander seemed unable to respond to the crisis quickly or decisively. When the violence started, Djaluluddin had recommended an immediate curfew accompanied by “shoot to kill” orders for the security forces. Concerned about the international reaction, Wiranto refused to give the order.[11] Sjafrie was also gun-shy after the Trisakti disaster. Hence, troops in the capital were not given clear orders, instead posted to guard vital facilities and told to stand by. The situation was chaotic; troop morale was poor; some of Sjafrie’s soldiers had deserted.[12]

On May 18, after the riots, Wiranto defensively declared, “ABRI is not ready to face crisis points with crowds all over the country. ABRI in Jakarta is not designed for such unrest.” Referring to Trisakti and the riots, he announced “to prevent such procedural mistakes from recurring, ABRI is determined to modify its ethics and doctrines.”[13] It was the standard legalistic response and went part-and-parcel with the compulsive obligation to protect ABRI’s institutional reputation. The intelligence agencies and elite units carried out the regime’s dirty work. When the evil deeds were uncovered, military leaders consistently denied having issued such orders, maintained procedures had been violated and blamed a few bad actors (oknum).

In theory, Prabowo aimed to escalate the security situation to show that Wiranto could not maintain order – an uncannily similar scenario to the contest between Ali Moertopo and Soemitro during the January 1974 Malari riots. Prabowo understood Wiranto’s weakness and vulnerability – a lack of support within the Army. He was desperate after Wiranto’s advancement to the top military leadership posts – even though he was younger and still had time to succeed him. Prabowo’s anxiety was heightened by the knowledge his aging father-in-law would probably relinquish power in 2003 after his sixth five-year term.

Because Wiranto and the officers around him were seen to favor the students, the Trisakti shootings and the ensuing riots may have been intended to drive a wedge between the student movement and the Armed Forces, and set the stage for Soeharto to declare martial law – and to replace Wiranto with Army Chief Subagyo. Prabowo was Kostrad Commander, the same position Soeharto held during the momentous events on October 1, 1965. It was logical the President would turn to him, along with fellow red beret Subagyo. It would require the use of force, perhaps on the order of the Tiananmen Square massacre, but Prabowo was a man of action, a bold special forces officer who would not hesitate to do the needful.

Because of their involvement in the kidnappings and disappearance of dissidents, Prabowo and Sjafrie were the obvious suspects in the Trisakti shootings and the riots. Sjafrie, intelligence chief Zacky Anwar, Kopassus Commander Muchdi and Army Chief Subagyo were all characters in the shadow play. The red berets had been the preferred security tool for covert operations throughout the New Order and all four were ambitious and disciplined Kopassus officers associated with Prabowo. All were believers in the New Order security approach, conditioned to follow orders without question. Prabowo and Kopassus were linked to Pemuda Pancasila, the East Timor militias and Muslim militants alleged to have participated in the destructive Jakarta riots, with similar scenarios in other cities.

Zacky and Sjafrie both served in the Jakarta Command during the July 27, 1996 attack on PDI headquarters.[14] Both had experience recruiting and training militia forces, and were well-positioned to engage the criminal elements involved in the riots. Zacky disagreed with Prabowo’s ties to hard-line Muslim groups.[15] He refused to support Prabowo’s more risky political activities with militant Muslim groups and protested the abductions in early-1998. Prabowo, in turn, considered Zacky “too soft.” By the time of the riots, Zacky feared Prabowo might have him killed. When his military sedan was rear-ended in a Jakarta traffic accident just before the riots, Zacky panicked thinking Prabowo’s men had ambushed him. Later, Zacky told friends, “If Prabowo had listened to us he would not be in trouble.”[16]

Prabowo admitted differences with Zacky but claimed Sjafrie knew in detail what was going on with the kidnappings and was with him almost continuously during the riots. By cooperating in the abductions, the Jakarta Commander apparently believed he was acting on Soeharto’s wishes, as conveyed to him by Prabowo. Later, he complained Prabowo had promised to keep him informed about Palace developments, but had failed to do so. After helping round up the dissidents, he was frustrated and confused after the survivors were released in mid-April and unsure how to respond to the growing protests. Prabowo complained that both Subagyo and Sjafrie had “abandoned ship,” cruelly adding that Subagyo was “never very bright.” Sjafrie had acted in his own self-interest. “He is a survivor,” Prabowo said.[17]

Sensing the futility of further bloodshed, Wiranto and Army Chief Subagyo, subservient Javanese former presidential aides, refused to embrace the martial law strategy advocated by Prabowo and palace insiders Feisal Tanjung and Hartono. Another former Soeharto bodyguard, Sjafrie turned to Wiranto during the riots after realizing Prabowo had lost his gamble. As Jakarta Commander, Sjafrie accepted Wiranto’s orders and acted to protect the Soeharto family. On Friday, May 22, the day after he resigned, Soeharto summoned Sjafrie to Cendana and asked him why he had allowed the students to enter the National Assembly. Soeharto met with silence Sjafrie’s explanation that he was following Wiranto’s orders.[18]

Just as Subagyo, Sjafrie and Zacky had ties to Prabowo, they each shared common ground with Wiranto. Wiranto, Subagyo and Sjafrie had all served as aides to Soeharto. Wiranto was the President’s adjutant for nearly five years, from 1989 to early-1993. Subagyo was responsible for Soeharto’s security detail from 1986 to late-1994, a period of roughly eight years. And Sjafrie was Soeharto’s bodyguard from 1993 to 1995. As an intelligence officer, Zacky had been involved in palace security during the same period and was on good terms with Wiranto. Wiranto and Subagyo were Seskoad classmates and had seen their careers climb to the two most powerful positions in the Armed Forces due to their palace ties. Sjafrie and Zacky had served under Wiranto in the Jakarta Command and at Army Headquarters, during a time both officers had seen their own careers take off.

Kevin O’Rourke suggests the collaboration between Wiranto, Sjafrie and Zacky started before the May riots – and the three generals might have been the true culprits behind the Trisakti shootings and chaos that brought down Soeharto.[19] Kopassus had been implicated in the kidnapping and disappearance of political activists; Prabowo was in deep trouble; his accomplices, Sjafrie and Zacky, were worried about their careers. It is not unreasonable to presume both sought to protect themselves through alliance with Wiranto. O’Rourke suggested Sjafrie and Zacky orchestrated the mayhem while Prabowo took the blame. Wiranto restricted the police to their barracks after the Trisakti shootings. He ordered the marines deployed from Surabaya and additional territorial units from Central and East Java. The situation was out of control by the time those units reached Jakarta.

Major General Sjafrie’s garrison troops were slow in responding to the violence and appeared to stand by passively allowing the riots to worsen. Yet, at the riots’ apex, Thursday, May 14, Wiranto perplexingly insisted on proceeding with a high-level military ceremony in Malang, East Java. Many officers questioned Wiranto’s motives and judgment in going ahead with the Malang trip, and faulted him for failing to explain his actions. Wiranto was understandably defensive about the Malang affair. He insisted it was “at the special request of Prabowo”[20] without mentioning Prabowo had recommended postponing or cancelling the ceremony.

In his own account later posted on his campaign website, Wiranto failed to mention the Malang trip at all. Instead, he shifted blame to subordinates, maintaining he met with Jakarta Governor Lieutenant General Sutiyoso, Military Commander Sjafrie, Police Chief Hamami Nata and their staffs at the Jakarta Garrison on Wednesday evening after the first day’s riots. “I asked the Jakarta Military Commander and the Police Chief whether they were still able to control the situation on the ground. If they had said no, I would have raised the level of reinforcement. However, they replied that they were still able to perform their duties. In order to boost the forces in the field I requested military personnel from East Java as well as Kostrad units to rush to Jakarta.”[21]

Wiranto’s explanation is disingenuous. By that time, it was clear even to ordinary residents the situation was far from normal. Wiranto himself suggested “shock therapy might be needed because the riots were not common in nature.”[22] Then ABRI Chief of General Staff General Fachrul Razi suggested Wiranto was naive and failed to recognize the issue would later be used to fault his judgment – even though no real harm was done; it was more a matter of perception than reality. Wiranto chose to move forward with the Malang ceremony due principally to the rigid command structure and a desire to show the flag as if nothing was wrong. He wanted to convey the appearance of normality. Despite the absence of senior commanders, Wiranto felt the situation under control. Fachrul Razi and operational troop commanders were in Jakarta and in close communication with him.[23]

Then ABRI Assistant for General Planning and Budget Lieutenant General Agus Widjojo, who was among those on the Malang trip, expressed similar judgment. He maintained when the group left Jakarta, they had no idea what was going to happen and assumed the worst had passed. When the officers returned to Jakarta early-afternoon, they were surprised to learn about the expanding violence.[24] Wiranto later insisted “The perpetrators were not from the military, they came from among the looters and thieves who transformed what should have been decent and elegant forms of political demonstrations. Most of the victims in the riots were looters who died while carrying out their activities.”[25] It was a political statement intended to bury the past and protect the Armed Forces as an institution.

Delayed until late-October, more than five months after the riots and just a week before an MPR special session was to determine if Habibie would continue as president, the TGPF report was watered down due to disagreement and infighting among commission members, especially the military representatives. Wiranto, Army Chief Subagyo and Kostrad Commander Djamari Chaniago were unhappy the draft report had included a list indicating military involvement in the riots. They argued the commission’s task was to report facts and wanted to restrict the report to legally admissible evidence, especially regarding the rape question, in which few cases could be documented.[26] Wiranto reportedly replaced TGPF team member Colonel Hendardji Soepandji, the Jakarta Military Police Commander, because he disagreed with changes recommended by other military members.[27] After military editing, ten of the eighteen team members refused to endorse the final report, including TGPF Chairman Marzuki Darusman.[28]

Only the TGPF executive summary was released, although much of the final report leaked and was published in newspapers and magazines. The TGPF tentatively connected the dots between the kidnappings, the Trisakti shootings and the riots – and pointed to Prabowo as the prime suspect. Kevin O’Rourke alleged the military representatives pressured TGPF team members to politicize the report by highlighting an allegedly ominous meeting at Kostrad Headquarters on Thursday night, May 14, between Prabowo, human rights lawyer Adnan Buyung Nasution, Legal Aid Foundation Chairman Bambang Widjojanto and fifteen to twenty others. Kopassus Commander Muchdi and Jakarta Commander Sjafrie were present during the thirty-minute meeting.

Adnan Buyung Nasution maintained he and the others went to see Prabowo because Wiranto was unavailable. They demanded to know if Prabowo had orchestrated the Trisakti shootings and the riots. Prabowo resolutely denied involvement in the riots or (clearly lying) knowledge about the kidnappings. He rebuffed suggestions about a rivalry between himself and Wiranto. TGPF team members undoubtedly realized the impromptu gathering was innocent enough, especially considering team member Bambang Widjojanto and Fahmi Idris, Manpower Minister in the Habibie cabinet, were present.[29] Ironically, despite his central role as ABRI Commander, the TGPF report mentioned Wiranto by name only once – in his role as co-signer for the decree establishing the Joint Fact-finding Team.

Wiranto’s order to release the abducted dissidents is also controversial. It is unclear if it was a compassionate reaction (as he depicted it) or a deliberate act to destroy Prabowo and undermine Soeharto’s legitimacy. Prabowo later claimed Wiranto and Feisal Tanjung both knew about the operation.[30] They were the President’s closest security advisors. Jakarta Commander Sjafrie, who allegedly assisted with the kidnappings, was Wiranto’s subordinate. Even if he did not know about the operation in advance, Wiranto must have realized Prabowo had acted on the President’s wishes, that the releases would create a controversy and further harm Soeharto. “By late April, Wiranto’s military had a number of good reasons to betray Soeharto. They knew as well as anyone that Soeharto was not ruling effectively. The economic crisis was savaging the country, and it had become abundantly clear that only with Soeharto removed would there be an opportunity to restore order and set about repairing the economy. Indonesia’s senior generals had extensive business interests at stake and they, like everyone else, were suffering from the collapse.”[31]

O’Rourke concludes Prabowo was not the mastermind, although “because he was ruthless, power-hungry and bigoted—and because he had confessed to kidnapping activists who were tortured—the public was perfectly ready to accept him as the sole scapegoat.”[32] Key military leaders in the period before Soeharto resigned disagree. Then ABRI Chief of General Staff Fachrul Razi maintained Prabowo and his allies were wholly responsible for the kidnappings and disappearances. Their actions were taken outside the chain-of-command. Yes, there was concern about protecting the institution but Wiranto did not know about Team Rose and did not believe Soeharto had directed the kidnappings when he ordered Prabowo to release those still held, even though it became a major liability for the President. It was another example of Wiranto’s naivety. “If the kidnappings continued after Wiranto’s order, it had nothing to do with ABRI. In truth, Wiranto was too nice and not tough enough in forcing his decisions during the May riots and several months later in East Timor.” Fachrul Razi also maintained that, if Feisal Tanjung had still been ABRI Commander and Hartono Army Chief, many civilians surely would have died. And, despite the turmoil in East Timor, it would have been far worse if Feisal and Hartono had been in charge. Feisal always said, “Libas saja” (just wipe them out).[33]

Then Presidential Security Guard Commander Endriartono Sutarto (later Armed Forces Commander) also pointed to the contrast between Wiranto and his predecessor, Feisal Tanjung. He suggested Feisal Tanjung and Army Chief Hartono would not have had any qualms about shooting protestors. During his final meeting with Soeharto on the night of May 20, Wiranto told the President “We support you but will not shoot people.” Wiranto’s determination (backed by his ABRI staff) allowed Indonesia to avoid a Tiananmen-style massacre. Both Coordinating Minister Feisal Tanjung and Home Affairs Minister Hartono ridiculed Wiranto’s attempts to establish dialogue with the students.[34]

While Prabowo has done his best to paint a picture of Wiranto as a schemer, manipulator and liar, he seemed to agree with Fachrul Razi and Sutarto’s judgment about Feisal and Hartono. He suggested the May 1998 riots and Soeharto’s resignation would probably never have taken place if Feisal was still the ABRI Commander and Hartono the Army Chief.[35] Only Lieutenant General Agus Widjojo, Wiranto’s Assistant for General Planning and Budget during the riots, doubted whether Feisal Tanjung or Hartono actually had the guts to carry through a bloody Tienanmen-style crackdown. After three decades under Soeharto there was no “spirit of rebellion” left. The Army had become a domesticated cat, he suggested.[36]

So, did Wiranto play Ali Moertopo to Prabowo’s Soemitro in a Malari replay? Probably not; Wiranto was an insecure and indecisive leader used to following Soeharto’s orders and, in his absence, dependent on advice from his staff, mostly pro-reform officers like Fachrul Razi, Bambang Yudhoyono, Agus Widjojo and ABRI Operations Assistant Major General Johny Lumintang, who by then were sick of Soeharto’s desperate and destructive efforts to cling to power. Wiranto’s values and loyalties were weak. In the end, he saw his mentor, Soeharto, drowning but refused to throw him a life line by ordering an inevitably bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators – or even taking decisive action to halt the riots.

While Wiranto’s account is defensive and revisionist, the case against him seems more one of ineptitude than conspiracy. With his limited command experience – much of his career spent in the territorial hinterland and his subservient Javanese tenure as an aide to the President – Wiranto could hardly be considered an expert in the type of covert operations needed to orchestrate the nationwide riots. He had undoubtedly learned some Machiavellian techniques while working for Soeharto, but he was mostly an escort, the President’s “bag holder” as it were; the tricks he learned at the Palace were more political than operational. Black operations were compartmented and done via perintah halus. Wiranto was not privy to such things as Soeharto’s aide-de-camp.

It was Prabowo who was known as a man of action. He was physically brave, at times exhibited an uncontrollable temper, and had acted recklessly on other occasions. Wiranto was tentative and cautious, perhaps overly cautious, much like Soeharto. It seems unlikely he conceived and executed a bold plan to bring down the government. More likely, Prabowo was the active force while Wiranto responded defensively as the cataclysmic events unfolded. The ABRI Commander and his secular-nationalist allies did not necessarily desire to see the destructive riots but recognized they would result in Soeharto’s downfall. Wiranto excelled in backroom bargaining. While he played the subservient son to the Javanese sultan, Wiranto’s staff conferred with student leaders, opposition politicians and modernist Muslim figures who resolutely opposed Soeharto’s continued rule.

Wiranto, Chief of General Staff Fachrul Razi and others at ABRI Headquarters suspected (but could not prove) Prabowo had engineered the Trisakti shootings; they were convinced he orchestrated the riots. Under instructions from Fachrul Razi and intelligence chief Zacky Anwar, undercover men had monitored Prabowo and his accomplices for weeks before the riots. It was known that they had imported gang members and common criminals days before the Trisakti killings and riots. TGPF investigators found that Kopassus commandos had helped incite the riots in Medan and Surakarta. More specifically, they reported that red berets in Surakarta had recruited locals several days in advance to participate in a planned May 14 demonstration. Such indicators suggest the riots were preplanned – and imply the Trisakti shootings might have been staged as the triggering event.

If Trisakti was not engineered, it provided a convenient opportunity to set the conspiracy into motion. Intended to create an impression the pro-democracy, anti-Soeharto movement was violent and dangerous, the riots constituted the set-up for another big crackdown to silence Soeharto’s critics and restore unchallenged control over the country – to declare martial law and restore extra-constitutional powers to a Kopkamtib-type security organization in line with special powers the March 1998 MPR had generously granted the President.

Already on difficult terms with his father-in-law by the time he left for Cairo, it seems Prabowo boldly moved forward. Attacks on the Chinese community were a diversionary tactic to deflect blame for the nation’s economic woes. It continued the trend of provocation toward the minority community, in which Prabowo and his Islamist allies had played a leading role. In the process, Prabowo sought to discredit Wiranto and set himself up for armed forces command, possibly as Soeharto’s successor.

It appears the October 1, 1965 events inspired Prabowo’s May 1998 plot. Like Soeharto, he was Kostrad Commander, a bold leader with ties to society’s elite and backing from various Islamic groups. With his own 27,000-man Kostrad, and backing from Muchdi’s Kopassus command and Sjafrie’s critically important Jakarta Command, Prabowo planned to trump Wiranto’s position as ABRI Commander. He would step in to save the day with elite Kostrad and Kopassus troops in a replay of October 1965 actions against the Communist Party, only this time it would be the more benign democracy movement. He expected to benefit through continued New Order rule under his father-in-law or a new Habibie presidency. “Prabowo planned to pull off a coup,” charged a fellow general.[37]

General Wiranto and his secular-nationalist allies controlled the Armed Forces and had collectively decided it was time for Soeharto to go. Even though the ABRI Commander and his men bungled the response to the riots, they refused to support Soeharto’s martial law scenario. The staid and stolid Wiranto refused to play the game and was able to marshal support from erstwhile Prabowo allies, including Army Chief Subagyo and Jakarta Commander Sjafrie. In truth, Subagyo developed cold feet early and Sjafrie had cooperated in abducting political dissidents because the order came from Cendana but was never happy about it. Sjafrie was angry at Prabowo for his poor judgment in promoting the black operation and not talking his father-in-law out of the poorly conceived caper.[38] Without their support, Prabowo was unable to finish what he had started. Like Soeharto, Prabowo was increasingly isolated and deluded. As had been the case earlier in his career, he had shown poor judgment and recklessness in pursuing power. Already implicated in the kidnappings and disappearance of dissidents, his position was perilous. He took an all-or-nothing gamble and lost.

Adi Sasono and his ICMI-Kahmi allies provided fuel for the fire but could not have succeeded without at least passive military support. In the end, Wiranto and ABRI facilitated the uprising against Soeharto. Machiavellian politics and the pro-democracy “people power” movement were merely supporting factors in the ultimate power play. Wiranto harbored the ambition to succeed the President, but sought to do so in a constitutional manner, at least in appearance. A coup would be inconsistent with the Army’s vaunted image as the nation’s self-sacrificing savior. Over the years, military leaders repeatedly claimed they rejected an outright government takeover in the interests of national development and prosperity, even though they could have done so on many occasions.

In truth, the Army under Soeharto had utterly dominated the government and society for more than three decades, and the generals’ aversion to coup-making was probably more related to their fear of internal army divisions than any real sense of higher national interests. A coup would hopelessly divide the Armed Forces and risk a nationwide uprising that could quickly overwhelm military capabilities. A special MPR session would be constitutional but risky to military interests. Wiranto and his allies had no desire to see the ambitious DPR/MPR Speaker-Golkar Chairman Harmoko succeed Soeharto. Wiranto had hoped Soeharto would place him in charge of a “transitional council” rather than pass power to Vice President Habibie.[39] If that was not possible, he would play second fiddle to Habibie, with plans to succeed him in due course.

Both Wiranto and Prabowo believed in manifest destiny. Soeharto had granted Wiranto the authority to take power though he chose not to, ostensibly because he did not wish to cause further bloodshed. He wanted to be invited by the people to assume power. More pragmatically, Wiranto understood crack Kostrad and Kopassus troops loyal to Prabowo and Muchdi would have physically opposed any attempt to assume national power.[40] The New Order’s ending was indeed accompanied by violence, but, despite its long history of brutality, mercifully the Army did not gun down scores of demonstrators in the streets of Jakarta and other cities. While Soeharto maintained he did not wish to see further bloodshed, in truth, he tried every method to retain power and simply ran out of options. Benny Moerdani had suggested Soeharto was more a tactician than a strategist, reacting to events as they happened.[41] That description appears accurate during the final months after the crippling economic crisis as the old general became increasingly desperate for any prescription that might provide salvation.

Despite his intimate association with Soeharto, Wiranto survived his mentor’s downfall. He was initially hailed as a professional officer and progressive reformer because of his strategic retreat and self-preservational embrace of the reform movement. Many wishfully viewed the handsome general as a principled and enlightened leader, a “white knight” who could save Indonesia from chaos and lead the Army down the road to meaningful reforms. But Wiranto was a pragmatist and a survivor. He sought support where he could get it, employed whatever methods necessary for survival and soon displayed his own raw political ambitions. Results are what matter within Javanese culture. There is no proper or improper way to acquire or hold on to power. All methods are acceptable. To a great extent, Wiranto delegated his duties as Armed Forces Commander in favor of back-room political wheeling and dealing.

Throughout B.J. Habibie’s tenure as President, the two men were inseparable. Wiranto’s political ambition was clearly displayed by his eager maneuvering for the post of either president or vice president just seventeen months after Soeharto’s resigned. When it became apparent Habibie would not be elected in October 1999, Wiranto sought the vice presidential nomination on his own. He had ample money from partnerships with prominent entrepreneurs, including army-backed Sino-Indonesian businessman-cum-gangster Tommy Winata.

General Endriartono Sutarto characterized both Wiranto and Prabowo as opportunists. They were “sitting sweet” (duduk manis) during the riots, waiting until it was clear which way the game would play out. Wiranto was a weak commander who was too interested in politics. Prabowo was never religious. He aligned himself with Islamic hard-liners for purely opportunistic political reasons.[42] Wiranto failed to secure the legislative complex and failed to provide direction to Jakarta Commander Sjafrie and other subordinates during the crisis.[43] Wiranto was timid, a small and confused player thrown into the arena, unsure what to do.[44]

Wiranto’s weak leadership and ineptitude were on full display during the clumsily-executed military campaign of intimidation and terror in East Timor from late-1998 through the post-referendum chaos and destruction in September 1999. He admitted to foreign interlocutors he could not control subordinate commanders and was forced to negotiate with them. Later the United Nations indicted Wiranto and with a host of lesser officers for gross human rights violations associated with the East Timor violence.

As a typical Javanese, Wiranto shielded his attitudes and beliefs from outsiders. Those who were close to him characterized Wiranto as a “nice guy” who was inclined to do the right thing, but not especially bright, tough or principled. He allowed fellow officers to push him into unwise positions, like the self-destructive East Timor campaign. Prabowo was the one who had the experience, skills, disposition, motivation, network of underground thugs and proven track record to orchestrate the riots. The truth is relative, especially to those who rewrite it. In his 2004 memoir, Witness in the Storm, released before his presidential election campaign, Wiranto declared, “What is true to one person may not be true to another. And what may be the truth may not be so if viewed from a different perspective.” “As believers in God and soldiers who are of the people, I and my colleagues from the security apparatus would never allow our fellow countrymen to die for nothing because it brings us no gain at all. We have in fact made every effort and succeeded in bringing the May 1998 riots under control.”[45]

Ultimately, Soeharto fell from grace because he lost support from the Army. Less than a week after the riots, Prabowo admitted abducting political dissidents. Wiranto sacked him from Kostrad on May 22, the day after Soeharto abdicated and a few months later had him unceremoniously drummed from the Army. Sjafrie Sjamsoeddin was spared even though he was criticized for his central role during the riots. Most observers assumed Sjafrie played a part in the violence, best case kept his troops on the sidelines while the riots raged out of control. Less than two months later, on July 13, Wiranto pulled Sjafrie from the harsh public spotlight and appointed him to his expert staff, ostensibly as point man for Aceh counterinsurgency operations. When Wiranto moved into President Wahid’s cabinet as Coordinating Minister for Political and Security Affairs in November 1999, he took Sjafrie with him in the same capacity, as an expert staff advisor.

Under somewhat less scrutiny, ABRI intelligence chief Zacky Anwar stayed on as head of BIA until January 4, 1999, when, without fanfare, he was given a similar low-profile staff position as Wiranto’s point man for East Timor. Soon thereafter, Zacky was busy orchestrating black operations in the tiny province, supervising the army-backed militia terror campaign during the months before the August 30, 1999 referendum.

Sjafrie’s cooperation with General Wiranto angered Prabowo; he later suggested Sjafrie should be held equally accountable for the kidnapping of dissidents that had ended his own military career. Sjafrie maintained a low profile and avoided contacts with western friends for more than three years, until February 2002 when Admiral Widodo made him Armed Forces Spokesman, a position he held for more than three years. As spokesman, Sjafrie diligently sought ways to repair the Army’s tarnished reputation and restore normal military ties with the United States, suspended after the September 1999 East Timor debacle. He was awarded a third star in April 2005 as Defense Ministry Secretary General under Juwono Sudarsono. He became Deputy Defense Minister under Purnomo Yusgiantoro in 2009. As Prabowo had said, Sjafrie was a survivor.

The protagonists in the May 1998 wayang drama remain active in politics. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was elected president in October 2004 and reelected for a second term in 2009. Wiranto and Prabowo unsuccessfully sought the Golkar nomination for president in 2004 and went on to form their own political parties. Prabowo established the Greater Indonesian Movement Party (Gerindra) and Wiranto became chairman of the People’s Conscience Party (Hanura). In late-2008, the two retired generals again declared their intention to compete in the 2009 elections and, in a surprising move, initiated discussions on uniting their parties and a possible run on the same ticket. Politics, especially Indonesian politics, certainly does make strange bedfellows. Funded with largesse from his businessman brother Hashim Djojohadikusumo, Prabowo reputedly spent two trillion rupiah ($200 million) to build his Gerindra Party and is sticking around because of the electoral uncertainty after President Yudhoyono’s second term.



[1] For a detailed account of Adi Sasono and his ICMI allies’ backroom plotting, see Singh, Succession Politics in Indonesia, pp. 116-137.

[2] David Bourchier, “Skeletons, Vigilantes and the Armed Forces’ Fall from Grace,” in Budiman, Hatley and Kingsbury, Reformasi – Crisis and Change in Indonesia, p. 165.

[3] Rinakit, The Indonesian Military, pp. 119-120.

[4] Hafidz, Fading Away?, p. 100.

[5] Cited in Schwarz, A Nation in Waiting, p. 347.

[6] Interview with Endriartono Sutarto in Jakarta, October 26, 2009.

[7] For example, Sidel, Riots, Pogroms, Jihad, p. 122.

[8] Hafidz, Fading Away?, pp. 89-90.

[9] Interview with Lieutenant General Sofian Effendi, advisor to Defense Minister Juwono Sudarsono, at the Defense Ministry in Jakarta, October 21, 2009.

[10] Interview with Sjafrie Sjamsoeddin at his Defense Ministry office in Jakarta, October 26, 2009.

[11] “Wiranto Tak Mau Memberlakukan Jam Malam Meredam Kerusuhan Mei 1998,” Antara, March 14, 2004.

[12] Schwarz, A Nation in Waiting, pp. 357-358.

[13]Both quotes cited in Mann, Plots & Schemes that Brought Down Soeharto, pp. 208-209.

[14] Sjafrie maintained, as the newly assigned Jakarta Garrison Chief of Staff, he was not involved in the operation. Interview with Sjafrie Sjamsoeddin at his Defense Ministry office in Jakarta, October 26, 2009.

[15] Interview with Kiki Syahnakri in Jakarta, October 21, 2009.

[16] Confidential interview, November 4, 2009.

[17] Interview with Prabowo Subianto at his Bojong Koneng ranch near Bogor, West Java, November 11, 2009.

[18] Hafidz, Fading Away?, p. 97.

[19] O’Rourke, Reformasi, pp. 108-109.

[20] Wiranto, Witness in the Storm, p. 24.

[21] Ibid, p. 40.

[22] Wiranto.com, “The Shocking Kidnapping of Activists,”April 18, 2004.

[23] Interview with Fachrul Razi in Jakarta, November 10, 2009.

[24] Interview with Agus Widjojo at Lemhannas, October 22, 2009.

[25] Wiranto, Witness in the Storm, p. 42.

[26] Tesoro, “I Never Betrayed My Country.”

[27] Hendardji was later promoted to Deputy Military Police Commander, advancing to Military Police Commander and Army Security Assistant in December 2007. After retiring, he ran for Jakarta Governor in 2012. In conjunction with the election, Hendardji declared his net worth as 36 billion rupiah (about $3.8 million), a substantial amount to accumulate during a military career. Ulma Haryanto, “Ex-General Turned Candidate Hendardji Promises to Bring Order Back to Jakarta,” The Jakarta Globe, June 29, 2012.

[28] O’Rourke, Reformasi, pp. 110-111.

[29] Singh, Succession Politics in Indonesia, p. 217.

[30] Tesoro, “The Scapegoat?”

[31] O’Rourke, Reformasi, p. 113.

[32] Ibid, p. 111.

[33] Interview with Fachrul Razi in Jakarta, November 10, 2009. Razi described Wiranto as the most enlightened officer from his 1970 Military Academy class.

[34] Interview with Endriartono Sutarto in Jakarta, October 26, 2009.

[35] Interview with Prabowo Subianto at his Bojong Koneng ranch near Bogor, West Java, November 11, 2009.

[36] Interview with Agus Widjojo at Lemhannas, October 22, 2009.

[37] Ibid. Prabowo later insisted he remained loyal to Soeharto as Supreme Commander and, at a personal level, as his son’s grandfather. Interview with Prabowo Subianto at his Bojong Koneng ranch near Bogor, West Java, November 11, 2009.

[38] Confidential interview, November 2004.

[39] Samad, General Wiranto, p. 72.

[40] Zon, The Politics of the May 1998 Riots, p. 142.

[41] R. William Liddle, “Regime: The New Order,” in Donald K. Emmerson (editor), Indonesia Beyond Suharto: Polity, Economy, Society, Transition (Armonk, New York: East Gate Books, 1999), p. 47.

[42] Interview with Endriartono Sutarto in Jakarta, October 26, 2009.

[43] Interview with Luhut Panjaitan at his Jakarta residence, October 28, 2009.

[44] Interview with Harry Tjan Silalahi at his Jakarta CSIS office, November 4, 2009.

[45] Both quotes from Wiranto, Witness in the Storm, pp. ix and 43.


  1. 12-7-2016

    The may 1998 riot, the ‘anti Chinese’ riot was planned by high military officers in the eve of Soeharto resignation. It can be said that this criminal mind cannot be humanized by any means. Rapping Chinese girls, killing Chinese girls and children (even the eight year old girl) cannot be forgiven by any civilization society. If this ‘persist’ in Indonesia, this country is doomed to downward spiraling perils. One may therefore see that this country doesn’t pave with the neighboring countries to develop.

    • 12-7-2016

      Thank you Pak Soeharno for the comment, which I generally agree with. You can read more about Prabowo, the May 1998 riots and anti-Chinese violence in Volumes 2 and 3 of my books. Best Wishes, Joe Daves

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