Prabowo Casts a Shadow of Fear Over UN Peacekeepers
The Independent [UK] 16 February 2000
Suharto's brutal son casts a shadow of fear over UN peacekeepers
By Richard Lloyd Parry
It is only five months since the United Nations troops arrived, but in that time the people of East Timor have grown very well accustomed to the diverse world of international peace-keeping.
In the small city of Dili, where no foreigners were allowed for 23 years, the sight of Kenyan and Brazilian infantrymen has become commonplace. In Manatutu, little more than an extended village, the UN battalion is Filipino; a few miles east, it is Thai, and in the town of Los Palos, it is South Korean. Twenty-three countries have sent troops here, from Ireland and Portugal to Pakistan and Bangladesh. None has provoked a murmur of disapproval, except for one Jordan.
What is it about the Jordanians? In UN circles, they have a reputation as reliable professionals with a record of successful peace-keeping operations elsewhere. In East Timor, they have earned gratitude for taking on one of the territory's most difficult patches the isolated enclave of Oecussi, a stranded sliver of East Timor, surrounded by the sea and by Indonesian territory. So why do East Timorese leaders shake their heads when the Jordanians are mentioned? Why did the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Jose Ramos Horta, declare he had "no confidence in their ability or integrity"?
The answer lies with one man Lieutenant-General Prabowo Subianto, even now a name to inspire fear and hatred in East Timor. General Prabowo was one of the most notorious of the young officers associated with the later years of Suharto, the long-time Indonesian dictator and the man who ordered the invasion of East Timor. Apart from being a friend and protegé, General Prabowo was also the president's son-in-law, and he rose effortlessly through the ranks of the Special Forces, serving several tours of duty in East Timor.
In Dili, General Prabowo was known as an enthusiastic torturer who killed at least one independence leader. He gained his reputation for using "unorthodox" techniques which he is believed to have later exported to other parts of Indonesia torture, covert murder and the use of organised bands of civilian thugs, the forerunners of the "militias" which caused such devastation after the referendum on independence last year.
His ambitions did not end with the army, and this was his downfall after Suharto's fall in May 1998, General Prabowo made a grab for power, which was blocked by more cautious generals. Disgraced and charged with human-rights abuses, General Prabowo was first kicked sideways and finally out. He took refuge in a place where most Timorese trusted they would never hear from him again the Kingdom of Jordan.
The general, it turned out, was an old military classmate of Prince now King Abdullah, and he quickly took up a comfortable residence in Amman. In a special royal decree, the King granted his old friend Jordanian nationality; he is said to be looking after his brother's Middle East business interests. There is no evidence whatsoever that he wields any influence over the army, or that the Jordanian peace-keepers in the UN mission would ever compromise their international standing by indulging the ambitions of one man, however close his relationship with their king. But most Timorese know only one thing about Jordan that it is the home and base of their great tormentor and bogy man, Prabowo Subianto.
Matters are complicated by the sensitive status of Oecussi, the most difficult and dangerous area of East Timor. Pro-Indonesian militia men are still active over the border, and the outgoing Australian battalion there has been involved in several shooting incidents. The militias are by and large a busted flush but if they were going to make one last effort to hold on to part of East Timor, Oecussi would be the obvious target. "The Jordanians aren't going to let them do that, but on the other hand, from the Timorese point of view, you can appreciate how creepy it seems," says one Western diplomat. "It all just looks very, very bad."
Only time will ease Timorese suspicions of their Jordanian protectors for its part, the UN repeats that they are professional peace-keepers with a job to do under UN, rather than national, command. In the meantime, the evidence is that the Jordanians are aware of the public relations battle they face. On Saturday, three peace-keepers were in Darwin, en route to Dili, when they encountered an Australian female cadet.
The men "touched her in a manner she found offensive" and a complaint was made. By yesterday, the miscreants, their feet scarcely touching the ground, were flying back to Amman. For the time being, at least, the Jordanians know what they are up against, and nothing less than best behaviour is good enough.
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