Friday, March 24, 2023

The smiling ex-general who became Indonesia’s “ Mr Fixit ”

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When Donald Trump furiously challenged his electoral defeat in court, the then US president still found time for at least one foreign visitor to the Oval Office.

Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, Indonesia’s Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investment, received the Trump family’s red carpet late last year, pulling what he claimed was a pledge of $ 2 billion in funding for Indonesia’s first sovereign wealth fund.

Apparent financial support may be moot, following Mr. Trump’s departure from office last week. But for Indonesians, the episode underscored the remarkable networking ability of one of Southeast Asia’s top political negotiators, who became Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s “minister of everything”.

Fundraising for sovereign fund to coordinate one of the largest immunization programs in the world, the former mustached general has become the government’s Mr. Fixit.

“President Jokowi remains the main political figure in terms of palace politics and daily cabinet activities,” said Philips Vermonte, executive director of CSIS Indonesia, a think tank. “But Pak [Mr] Luhut is a fixer, a doer. Whatever task he is given, he seems to be able to accomplish it.

Mr. Pandjaitan, center, after the annual IMF and World Bank meetings in Bali in October 2018 © Goh Chai Hin / AFP / Getty

A Christian born on the island of Sumatra, he experienced combat as a young officer during the 1975 invasion of the former Portuguese colony of East Timor by the late Indonesian dictator Suharto. Now 73, he once described how some of his men got their pants dirty as they prepared to parachute into the capital, Dili, starting a war that cost a estimated 100,000 lives.

Mr. Pandjaitan became a general and became a minister after Indonesia began its transition to democracy in 1998, before leaving politics to start his own business. His interests include timber, property, palm oil, coal mining, and energy.

In 2008, he met Mr. Widodo, then mayor of the city, and participated in the financing of his victorious presidential election campaign in 2014. Two years later, while he was briefly Minister of Mines and Energy, he sold a controlling stake in its coal unit, Toba Bara, for an undisclosed amount to a Singapore-based company whose ultimate buyers are not identified.

The lack of details on the sale “left unanswered questions which are an important question of public interest,” said Global Witness, a campaign group. The Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Investment said the buyers were “a party unrelated to Mr. Pandjaitan and / or Toba”.

Mr. Widodo, who came to power promising to tackle the endemic corruption in Indonesia, continued to load Mr. Pandjaitan with new responsibilities throughout. Not only is the ex-general involved in vaccine collection and the sovereign wealth fund, he is also courting investors for a projected $ 31 billion. new capital.

Speaking with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, right, in Beijing in April 2018 © Naohiko Hatta / Kyodo News / Getty

Internationally, Mr. Pandjaitan was pictured in October patting elbows with Wang Yi, Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs, as Jakarta searched for Chinese vaccines. A year earlier, he had led Indonesia’s response to the incursion of Chinese fishing boats into the waters claimed by Jakarta near the South China Sea.

Speaking fluent English after studying in the United States, the former general’s connection to the Trump administration goes through Mr. Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, whom he met in the White House last year. at least two years. “We have maintained this [relationship] so we can talk on the phone or maybe [on] WhatsApp, ”Pandjaitan told the Financial Times last year.

The dialogue between the two has become “the main bilateral relationship between DC and Jakarta,” said Aaron Connelly, a researcher at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a think tank.

Mr. Trump’s family also have business interests in Indonesia. Donald Trump Jr, son of former president and executive vice president of the Trump organization, last year launched two Trump-branded resorts in this Southeast Asian country.

It remains to be seen, however, whether Mr. Pandjaitan will be able to replicate those close ties to the White House under Joe Biden, the new President of the United States.

And despite Mr. Pandjaitan’s growing status, analysts say he will likely never be President of Indonesia. The predominantly Muslim country is unlikely to vote for a Christian leader.

But as long as Mr Widodo is in power, he should be the president’s de facto prime minister, with cameo roles in defense, foreign affairs and international investment.

“I think for him it’s just a question of power,” said an Indonesian politician who knows Mr. Pandjaitan. “Right now he can have a lot of power without really playing politics. . . This is where he wants to be.


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