Opinion

What ever happened in Kraras,
Timor Leste, ‘Pak’
Prabowo?

One of the most interesting — and most controversial — presidential hopefuls is, no doubt, Lt. Gen. (ret.) Prabowo Subianto. He is among the few who have both attracted public attention and offered new ideas and policy initiatives. But he also was once closely connected with president Soeharto’s family and allegedly involved in a number of human rights violations.

Yet one would be left wondering why we know little about his role in Indonesia’s former 27th province, now Timor Leste, where his later military career was shaped. In the late 1970s he was proud to have eliminated Fretilin’s first president Nicolau do Reis Lobato.

Prabowo’s name has often been associated with a village called Kraras — the place where recently Timor Leste commemorated both the 38th anniversary of its declaration of independence and the 30th anniversary of the worst massacre in the nation’s history.

Kraras, some 300 km from the capital Dili, in the district of Viqueque, is beautifully couched in a wide valley with a river near the forest. When I visited in April last year, I found it almost an empty field with a few dispersed houses containing fewer than 100 inhabitants. Friendly villagers welcomed us as we asked about the locality, its people and its history.    

Nothing — except the memorial monuments — suggests it was once the locus of a bloody massacre. But in neighboring areas called Bibileo and Klalerek Mutin, one will find houses and various relics of the recent past that indicate militarization. One building, now a school, must have been a center of command with signs for the platoons once stationed there.

Some villagers even decorated their houses with wanted posters of 19 generals seen as being responsible for the country’s bloody past. Among them are photographs of generals Soeharto, Benny Moerdani, Wiranto, Kiki Syahnakri and Prabowo.

With the tragedy still fresh in the area’s memory, the depth of the trauma caused by the atrocities
can be seen in villagers’ narratives and resentments.

Unlike East Timorese elsewhere, most people here never learned Indonesian or if they have they are reluctant to use it.

The years 1983-1985 were critical. In March 1983, then Indonesian military chief Gen. M. Jusuf sent Col. Gatot Purwanto to meet with then Falintil guerilla leader Xanana Kay Rala Gusmao. In a place near Kraras the two agreed to hold a cease-fire and celebrated it with a dinner party for soldiers and guerillas.

However, the euphoria was soon dashed. The circumstances that led to renewed violence remain largely unclear.

For one thing, the expectation that the United Nations’ condemnation of Indonesia’s invasion would result in a negotiation toward self-determination had been frustrated all along. The diplomatic status-quo remained and tension arose despite the truce, with reportedly some shootings. The Falintil planned levatamento, a national uprising.

At the same time, the special Kopasandha military units (later named Kopassus or special forces) seemed to have been consolidated in Falintil’s most important command area, the Region II (Eastern), in Viqueque, and started to recruit a greater number of Timorese.

In an oppressive conflict situation — as in later-day Aceh — it’s only common that locals recruited to assist the Army covertly developed empathy with their compatriots in the resistance.

Indeed, following the invasion war (1975-1978), some guerilla units changed tactics by surrendering only to rebuild forces from within the Army. The Falintil may have planned an uprising throughout the country, but when mass desertions and guerilla attacks occurred only in Viqueque district on Aug. 8, 1983, it was not clear whether these were part of the plan, or provoked by violence against Timorese women, or both.

On that day, a deserted unit of hansip (local civil defense) led by Commandante Ular Ruhik, launched an attack and killed 16 Indonesian soldiers. One survivor — a medical officer — hiding on the top of a tree, escaped days later and reported the event.     

A month later, in mid-September, an unspeakable tragedy occurred. An Army unit with hansip went to Kraras in search of the killers, burned the houses and persecuted the
families and others who ran into the forest. There were several massacres at different times; at one point some 180 men were executed near Wetuku River.

A priest’s note listed 287 people among the dead — young and old, mostly male, and a baby. An uncounted dozens more disappeared.

It was a massacre of targeted groups of unarmed civilians — an Indonesian variant of US army reprisal killings in My Lai, Vietnam, in 1968.

The Kraras massacre, then, is only second to the most disastrous and infamous clash at Mount Matebian in the late 1970s, and, for Indonesia, the worst atrocity since independence — second only to the 1965 killings.  

Strangely, however, it’s not clear who the commander(s) of unit(s) involved in the massacre around Sept. 17 were, even though Prabowo’s Chandraka 8 unit was seen in the region around that period.
As early as April, Col. Purwanto had warned governor Mario Carrascalao that “the peace process is already being sabotaged by Capt. Prabowo” who went in and out of Timor.

The villagers I met three decades later, mostly 1983 survivors, all had heard of Prabowo, but none said to have seen him in the area during the horrific events. But earlier witnesses, including those interviewed by UN police in the early 2000s, claimed he did command the operation.

Curiously, though, the villagers claimed two Timorese hansip leaders, generally known to have been Prabowo’s loyal bodyguards, had directed the killings that turned Kraras into a village of widows.

In short, sources and researchers suspect Prabowo was directly involved, although his whereabouts and exact role remain unclear.

With an international tribunal seeming unlikely in the foreseeable future, no one should wish for any hope — such as one raised by the 2008 Truth and Friendship Commission (CTF) — that the people of Timor Leste will bury and forget those painful events. Never.

It’s of great importance, then, for Indonesia and its future generation to be absolutely clear about what sort of president they would have if Prabowo, given his past controversies, was elected.   

Time has come to resolve the legacy of human wrongs. As exceptional the dignity of the nation may be at stake, it’s important to learn and scrutinize any response he would give to the principal question that must be asked yet again.

That is: What happened in Kraras, and where were you then, Pak Prabowo?

The writer is a journalist.

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