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The smiling ex-general who has develop into Indonesia’s ‘Mr Fixit’

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When Donald Trump was furiously contesting his election defeat within the courts, the then US president nonetheless discovered time for a minimum of one international customer to the Oval Workplace.

Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, Indonesia’s minister for maritime affairs and funding, was given the purple carpet remedy by the Trump household late final yr, extracting what he claimed was a promise of $2bn in funding for Indonesia’s first sovereign wealth fund.

The obvious monetary backing is likely to be moot, following Mr Trump’s departure from workplace final week. However for Indonesians, the episode underlined the exceptional networking capability of one in every of south-east Asia’s main political dealmakers, who has develop into Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s “minister of every little thing”.

From elevating funds for the sovereign wealth fund to coordinating one of many world’s greatest vaccination programmes, the mustachioed former normal has develop into the federal government’s Mr Fixit.

“President Jokowi stays the primary political determine when it comes to palace politics and cupboard day-to-day actions,” mentioned Philips Vermonte, govt director at CSIS Indonesia, a think-tank. “However Pak [Mr] Luhut is a fixer, a doer. No matter process is given to him, he appears to have the ability to ship.” 

Mr Pandjaitan, centre, on the shut of the IMF and World Financial institution annual conferences in Bali in October 2018 © Goh Chai Hin/AFP/Getty

A Christian born on the island of Sumatra, he noticed fight as a younger officer in the course of the 1975 invasion of the previous Portuguese colony of East Timor by the late Indonesian dictator Suharto. Now 73, he as soon as described how a few of his males had dirty their trousers as they ready to parachute into the capital, Dili, kicking off a struggle that value an estimated 100,000 lives.

Mr Pandjaitan rose to normal and have become a minister after Indonesia began its transition to democracy in 1998, earlier than leaving politics to arrange his personal enterprise. His pursuits embody timber, property, palm oil, coal mining and power.

In 2008, he met Mr Widodo, then a metropolis mayor, and helped finance his victorious presidential election marketing campaign in 2014. Two years later, whereas he was briefly minister of mines and power, he bought a controlling stake in his coal unit, Toba Bara, for an undisclosed quantity to a Singapore-based firm whose final patrons stay unidentified.

The shortage of particulars on the sale “has left unanswered questions that are an vital matter of public curiosity”, mentioned Global Witness, a campaign group. The ministry of maritime affairs and funding mentioned the patrons are “a non-related occasion to Mr Pandjaitan and/or Toba”.

Mr Widodo, who got here to energy promising to deal with Indonesia’s endemic corruption, has continued to load Mr Pandjaitan with new duties all through. Not solely is the ex-general concerned within the vaccine drive and the sovereign wealth fund, he’s additionally courting buyers for a deliberate $31bn new capital city.

Talking with China’s premier Li Keqiang, proper, in Beijing in April 2018 © Naohiko Hatta/Kyodo Information/Getty

On the worldwide stage, Mr Pandjaitan was pictured in October tapping elbows with Wang Yi, China’s international affairs minister, as Jakarta sought Chinese language vaccines. Solely a yr earlier, he had led Indonesia’s response to the incursion of Chinese language fishing boats in waters claimed by Jakarta close to the South China Sea.

Fluent in English after finding out within the US, the previous normal’s reference to the Trump administration is thru Jared Kushner, Mr Trump’s son-in-law, whom he met on the White Home a minimum of two years in the past. “We maintained this [relationship] so we are able to discuss over the telephone or perhaps [on] WhatsApp,” Mr Pandjaitan informed the Monetary Occasions final yr.

The dialogue between the pair grew to become “the primary bilateral relationship between DC and Jakarta”, mentioned Aaron Connelly, a analysis fellow on the Worldwide Institute for Strategic Research, a think-tank.

Mr Trump’s household additionally has enterprise pursuits in Indonesia. Donald Trump Jr, the previous president’s son and govt vice-president of the Trump Group, final yr launched two Trump-branded resorts within the south-east Asian nation.

It stays to be seen, nonetheless, whether or not Mr Pandjaitan will be capable of replicate these shut ties with the White Home beneath Joe Biden, the US’s new president.

And for all Mr Pandjaitan’s rising standing, analysts say he in all probability won’t ever be president of Indonesia. The Muslim majority nation could be unlikely to vote for a Christian chief.

However so long as Mr Widodo is in energy, he’s anticipated to be the president’s de facto prime minister, with cameo roles in defence, international affairs and worldwide funding.

“I feel for him it’s only a energy factor,” mentioned an Indonesian politician who’s conversant in Mr Pandjaitan. “Proper now he can have numerous energy with out actually taking part in the politics of it . . . That’s the place he needs to be.”