Jakarta. American investigative journalist Allan Nairn, who made a name for himself covering the Indonesian military's killing of civilians in East Timor during Suharto's rule, released on his personal blog on Sunday an interview he conducted in 2001, off the record, with Prabowo Subianto saying that a 1991 massacre was a mistake and that Indonesia was “not ready for democracy.”
Nairn set up the interview as part of an investigation into murders involving the Indonesian Army, on the condition that it would not be attached to Prabowo’s name. There was no recording of the discussion — which had been conducted at a low point in the trajectory of Prabowo’s political influence — and Nairn relied on his notes. No other person was present during the interview.
Nairn said he reached out to the former general for permission to publish the interview and received no response. Since publication, the Prabowo campaign has denied the validity of the material.
Tantowi Yahya, team spokesman for Prabowo’s campaign, on Tuesday declined to comment about of the interview, released with less than three weeks remaining before the presidential election.
“I don’t know who Allan is. Secondly, did the interview really happen?” he said.
“If he is a journalist, it should be clear where he works,” said Tantowi, who is also a deputy chairman of House of Representatives Commission I, which oversees foreign affairs.
Budi Purnomo Karjodihardjo, the coordinator of the Prabowo media center, told kompas.com that Nairn's statement was "part of a coordinated black campaign by foreign journalists who don't want Prabowo to be president."
The release of the interview also constitutes a breach of a fundamental principle of journalism: anonymous sources remain anonymous.
At the time of the interview, Nairn did not attach much importance to the material, he said, because it did not yield the information he was looking for.
“I think the harm of breaking my anonymity promise to the general is outweighed by what would be the greater harm of Indonesians going to the polls having been denied access to facts they might find pertinent,” Nairn wrote on his blog.
Thirteen years later, in the run-up to the July 9 presidential election, he said that the content took on a whole new meaning with Prabowo poised for a possible victory at the polls and a chance to wield state power. Latest polls suggest that Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo’s lead over Prabowo is narrowing. A poll conducted on June 1-10 by the Indonesia Survey Institute (LSI) showed Joko in the lead with 42 percent, followed by Prabowo at 39 percent. Just six months ago, most pollsters including the LSI put that gap on average at about 20 percent.
“I did hesitate to release the interview; it is a serious matter, even when the promise is made to someone like Prabowo, who has been implicated in mass murder, those kinds of promises are necessary for journalists,” Nairn told the Jakarta Globe on Wednesday. “But in the end, I felt like I really didn’t have much choice, because it’s a big choice before the people in Indonesia right now.”
In the interview, the former general said that the Santa Cruz massacre of 1991, in which at least 271 civilian were killed by the Indonesian armed forces in Dili, East Timor — an event that Nairn witnessed at great risk to his own life and brought to the attention of the world — had been a mistake, but not for the killing of innocents.
“Santa Cruz killed us politically,” Prabowo said, according to Nairn. “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!” he added.
A soldier hit Nairn in the head with a gun during the events of the massacre, fracturing his skull.
He documented the event and other atrocities in a radio report that won him and collaborator Amy Goodman the Peabody award — the most prestigious accolade in American radio journalism. Goodman would go on to host Democracy Now!, a progressive radio show in the United States.
The story was considered instrumental in the US Congress’s 1993 decision to withdraw military support from the Indonesian government.
Nairn said that Prabowo did not seem optimistic about the prospects for Indonesian democracy at the time of the interview.
“Indonesia is not ready for democracy,” he said, according to Nairn. “We still have cannibals, there are violent mobs.”
Prabowo said that “a benign authoritarian regime” would serve better.
Prabowo has been implicated in the military’s crackdown on pro-democracy protestors in the final months of the Suharto regime in 1997 and 1998. Thirteen who were kidnapped remain missing. Wiranto, Prabowo’s longtime rival and the commander of the Army at the time, said recently that Prabowo was discharged from his position as special forces commander for kidnapping activists of his own initiative.
Nairn said that Prabowo expressed admiration for Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who seized control of Pakistan in 1991.
“Do I have the guts?” Prabowo asked himself, according to Nairn. “Am I ready to be called a fascist dictator?
“Musharraf had the guts,” he added.
Nairn told the Globe that he had a “fair amount” of material from the interview that he had not yet released but planned to in the coming days.
“I want to be careful to present it very well, with a lot of context, so people will see the significance of it,” he said. “I am trying to work carefully on it so the ideas get across.”
Nairn said that he was in Indonesia and would soon make his way to Jakarta, where he would be able to defend his claims against Prabowo, in court if need be.
“They have threatened me with [legal action] a number of times, but they’ve never gone through with it,” he said. “If they want to go through with it, I would welcome it. I would welcome the opportunity to testify before an Indonesian court about the Indonesian army’s killing of civilians and the role of the United States.”
Nairn, who was working as a freelance journalist, was imprisoned in Indonesia multiple times during the Suharto years. Suharto stepped down from power in 1998 after a 32-year rule, amid a financial crisis that sent the economy reeling and caused riots across the country. In 2010, the military said Nairn could face charges after he published articles accusing the army of assassinating activists.
The next piece of the interview to be released, Nairn said, would include information about Prabowo’s relationship to the US during his time in East Timor — a potentially damaging issue given the candidate’s emphasis on standing up to the influence of foreign powers.
“He is the single Indonesian officer who was closest to the United States, he was the most heavily trained by the United States and he was Washington’s man,” Nairn said.
Additional reporting by Markus Junianto Sihaloho