The Jakarta Post
Despite concerns over his role in past alleged human rights violations, Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto began his official visit to the United States this week to discuss various forms of cooperation.
The former Army general arrived in the US on Thursday and is scheduled to meet with his American counterpart Mark Esper and other officials at the Pentagon on Friday, just a day before his 69th birthday.
His visit ends on Monday, which would still allow him time to meet with think tank figures and other interested parties.
Prior to his arrival, 12 civil society organizations raised concerns over the issuance of a visa for Prabowo, claiming that the move may have contradicted the law. The civil society groups voiced their objections in a joint letter to US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo. They urged the US government to revoke its invitation if it included immunity for the crimes allegedly committed by Prabowo.
From the US, Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy opposed the issuance of his visa, saying that by approving Prabowo’s visit, US President Donald Trump and State Secretary Pompeo “have shown once again that for them law and order is an empty slogan that ignores the imperative of justice”.
The concerns were brushed off by the Indonesian minister's personal spokesman, Dahnil Azhar Simanjuntak, who said on Thursday that Prabowo was used to receiving criticism. This time, he added, the visit would fulfill an official invitation from the US government.
Other Indonesian officials echoed the sentiment, saying that as a government representative, Prabowo could expect to be given proper treatment upon his arrival.
"Whoever is visiting in an official capacity […] is a representative of the country," Febrian Ruddyard, the Foreign Ministry’s director general for multilateral cooperation, told reporters in a briefing on Friday.
Prabowo was previously barred entry to the US due to a blanket ban on the Indonesian Army’s Special Forces (Kopassus) officers who allegedly carried out human rights violations in formerly occupied East Timor.
In the year 2000, he was prevented from attending the graduation of his son in Boston, Massachusetts. Reuters reported that in 2012, he was again denied a US visa.
According to reports citing US documents, Prabowo had sought out the services of American lobbyist James Frinzi a few months after he was named defense minister. The lobbyist was recruited to "arrange political and commercial meetings that are productive for the minister", according to the documents.
And while US diplomats have suggested privately that the embassy in Jakarta would be obliged to give him a visa if he was to visit in an official capacity, Prabowo had every reason to seek assurances so that his trip would not be disrupted.
Timeline of Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto's travel restriction to the US (JP/Swi Handono)
Two former generals, Sintong Panjaitan and Johny Lumintang, were served with summonses over their involvement in East Timor while visiting the US on separate occasions years ago.
In 2017, then-military commander Gen. Gatot Nurmantyo, was prevented from boarding a flight bound for the US, after the airline raised clearance issues about his visa. Despite being invited by his US counterpart, Gatot and his entourage eventually canceled the trip.
Unlike the other military generals, however, Prabowo's arrival in the US appears to serve a more meaningful purpose.
American affairs expert Suzie Sudarman from the University of Indonesia said that the US invitation was likely motivated by Washington’s decision to engage with Indonesia again through Prabowo, who had a long-standing and amicable relationship with the US before he was ousted from the military in 1998.
“The first thing that America always turns to is profit, and now with Prabowo as defense minister, he can buy out a primary weapons system, and for that, all his prior ‘mistakes’ can be set aside – and that is saying nothing about the possibility of him leading in the future,” Suzie told The Jakarta Post on Friday.
Washington has plenty of reasons to close ranks with Prabowo, especially since former US defense secretary James Mattis – a key link to Indonesia – departed from the Trump cabinet.
Since he was appointed defense minister last year, Prabowo has met with counterparts from China, Russia and other major world arms suppliers – all US adversaries – to discuss Indonesia’s defense needs, while also treading carefully on regional issues. The minister rarely talked about the nation’s stance on the Natuna Sea, which borders the South China Sea, the contentious body of water in which Washington has renewed its interests.
The US is once again turning to Southeast Asian allies in an effort to undermine the growing influence of superpower rival China in the Indo-Pacific region. Indonesia is one country of particular interest, observers have said.
Sources say that during Prabowo’s US visit, negotiations for weapons will be held behind closed doors. They also say that the US would publicly raise the issue of China’s increasing military power and presence in the South China Sea.
Additionally, Prabowo is arguably Indonesia's most intensively US-trained officer, having spent the bulk of his formal and military education in the US. He participated in the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program, and attended courses at Fort Bragg in North Carolina and Fort Benning in the state of Georgia.
Jakarta also recently sent another US-educated figure, M. Lutfi, to become Indonesia’s new ambassador to the US.
For the most part, Suzie argued, Indonesia remained “a mysterious creature” in Washington because it did not have a significant lobbying presence in the US capital to make itself more visible.
“So when Prabowo visits, not many people will notice that this is a person who was cut off by the United States, just because Indonesia is a blind spot [there],” she said.