Tue, 25 Aug 1998

Lt. Gen. Prabowo's downfall faster than his ascent

JAKARTA (JP): Lt. Gen. Prabowo Subianto, who was discharged from the Armed Forces (ABRI) yesterday, was once considered one of the military's most promising stars destined for the very top job. Some even suggested he had a chance of becoming president of Indonesia.

Having risen through the ranks faster than his peers -- even bypassing some of his more immediate seniors -- his fall from grace was even swifter. Less than six months to be precise.

In March, when Prabowo was appointed chief of the Army's Strategic Reserves Command (Kostrad), many people said he was one step -- or a few months -- away from becoming the next Army chief of staff.

From then on, he would have become the number one candidate for ABRI commander-in-chief, which would put him in charge not only of the 400,000-strong force, but also effectively of the country's most powerful political force.

The scenario at the time was that by 2003, Prabowo would have been ready to step into the shoes of the aging president Soeharto -- who had just been reelected to a seventh five-year term in March.

The turn of political events in Indonesia after March changed the picture completely, and Soeharto's downfall in May also marked the beginning of Prabowo's rapid decline.

His marriage to Siti Hediyati, Soeharto's second daughter, undoubtedly contributed to his ascent in the military, and his sudden decline. But it is wrong to assume that his family connection was the only factor, or even the biggest factor.

Even without his family connections, one would have still found a highly ambitious, tough and intelligent officer -- qualities that would surely take any officer to the top rung of the military.

He had an impressive track record by military standards that would have qualified him for top-brass positions.

He was born -- in Jakarta on Oct. 17, 1951 -- to a family of one of Indonesia's most respected intellectuals -- economic guru Soemitro Djojohadikusumo. And he speaks fluent English, French, German and Dutch, a result of childhood years spent abroad following his father's life in exile.

A 1974 graduate of the ABRI Academy (AKABRI), Prabowo spent almost his entire military career in field operations, and with the Special Force (Kopassus), the Army's most fearsome crack force.

Many of the awards he collected were for military operations to put down armed insurgences in East Timor.

In 1978 he led his unit to ambush Nicolao Lobato, president of Fretilin, the East Timor's armed separatist movement. That same year, he arrested Fretilin's armed forces chief Guido Soares and Fretilin's central committee executive Somotxo.

For his achievements, he earned extraordinary promotions twice, from first lieutenant to captain, and later from mayor to lieutenant colonel.

In 1985, he was promoted as battalion commander in Kostrad and for the next eight years he spent his military career in the Army's elite force.

Prabowo came top of the class in many military education and training programs he took part in Indonesia, the United States and Germany. He graduated from the Army's Staff and Command College in 1987.

In 1993, he returned to Kopassus to head its Group 3. In 1994, he was promoted to deputy commander of the force and later that same year he became the number one officer of the corps.

He did not waste time in introducing new ideas in Kopassus. He expanded the force from three to five groups, and quickly raised the prestige of his office to a commandant-general, which would be held by an officer holding the rank of major general.

Having revamped Kopassus' organization, he positioned himself for the top job, and sure enough, he was promoted to major general and filled the job that he set up himself.

Among his well-known achievements as Kopassus commandant- general was when he personally led the operation to free European scientists abducted by separatist rebels in Irian Jaya in 1996. He even won personal commendations from European leaders.

Many former subordinates regarded Prabowo as the ideal leader because he took care of their needs, including their welfare. This instilled strong loyalty among his Kopassus subordinates, even when he no was no longer in command.

When Prabowo was promoted to Kostrad chief in March, some people regarded his promotion as abnormal, saying the position was traditionally given to an officer with territorial experience, something missing from Prabowo's resum.

Prabowo was known to be temperamental and at times rebellious.

As a cadet, he was demoted and lost one entire year in AKABRI for disobeying an order.

It is also public knowledge now that he threatened President B.J. Habibie a day after Soeharto's resignation in May, upon news that he was to be shifted to a less strategic position as commandant of ABRI's Staff and Command College in Bandung.

From then on, his military career headed south.

Time will tell whether Prabowo's rise to stardom has been shot down before he reached the top, or whether he will be able to make a comeback. (emb)