Indonesia’s likely new president haunts father of missing activist

By Thomson Reuters Feb 15, 2024 | 7:16 AM

By Kate Lamb

JAKARTA (Reuters) – Supporters of Indonesia’s Prabowo Subianto are celebrating his likely ascent to the presidency, but for Paian Siahaan it is a painful reminder of his missing son and the man he blames for his disappearance in 1998.

Paian’s 22-year-old son Ucok was one of the pro-democracy activists who disappeared during the chaotic riots of 1998 that precipitated the end of authoritarian leader Suharto’s decades-long rule, at a time when Prabowo was an influential military commander.

A report by Indonesia’s rights commission later indicated that Prabowo and several other soldiers were involved in kidnapping the activists, but Prabowo never went on trial, and has always denied any wrongdoing.

For nearly two decades, loved ones of alleged human rights abuse victims at that time have gathered every Thursday at the State Palace in Jakarta to join a silent protest to demand the government acknowledge and make amends for past atrocities.

The movement is known as ‘Kamisan’, derived from the Indonesian word for Thursday, its members say. Rights activists say it was inspired by mothers in Argentina, who staged silent protests every Thursday in memory of people who were killed or disappeared during the 1976-1983 military rule there.

Prabowo’s win has come as a shock to those who attend the Kamisan gatherings, said Paian, 76, a frail, balding man with a grey moustache.

“We’re stressed,” he said, speaking in his home in West Java before leaving for Jakarta for the protest this week. “Will the case just disappear just because he’s president? It’s impossible… We had to cool down last night. There were mothers who cried.”

Spokespersons for Prabowo did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

As Paian spoke, he held a framed photograph of his son, dressed in a jacket and tie. Other portraits of the young man were hanging on the wall of his drawing room.

Ucok’s name remains on the electoral roll, and his father said this year too he received a letter from authorities asking him to vote on Wednesday, like he has for every election.

Unofficial quick counts from the election point to a sweeping victory for 72-year-old Prabowo, the current defence minister.


Pre-election polls showed that more than 60% of Gen Z voters backed Prabowo, many of whom were likely too young to remember the events of 1998.

Prabowo was dismissed from the military that year amid the allegations of rights violations, including the kidnapping of 13 pro-democracy activists. He has always denied the claims and when pressed, has said all operations he conducted were legal.

Prabowo was banned from travelling to the U.S. for the alleged abuses, but the ban was lifted when he was named defence minister in 2019.

Ucok was in his early 20s, a budding economics student who joined the street protests over what he saw as then dictator Suharto’s decades-long mismanagement of the country, his father said.

In the wake of Suharto’s resignation, Paian said he and his family visited hospitals and police stations searching for his son.

After months they ended up at the Commission for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence where they met a dozen other parents also searching for their children.

Indonesia’s human rights commission completed its report on the incident in 2006, which was submitted to authorities. But no action has been taken on its recommendation to set up a special human rights court to try those suspected in the disappearances in 1997-98.

Paian said he is still looking for answers about what happened to his son and what action will be taken against those responsible.

Aside from the 13 still missing, 9 others kidnapped in 1998 were eventually released, some joining Prabowo’s party.

Figures like Budiman Sudjatmiko, one of the most vocal student critics of the Suharto regime, and who was kidnapped in 1996, has since joined the ex-commander.

Budiman now describes Prabowo as a “visionary” and says he supports him because “people change”.

For Paian though, little has changed.

“I’m more worried now that he’s won, but what else can we do, we keep each other strong,” he said, “We feel afraid, but I’m fighting for my son.”

(Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)