Trump’s Indonesian Business Partner Is Knee-Deep in Dirty Politics

Hary Tanoesoedibjo is a sketchy billionaire with ties to pro-Islamist politicians — and the ear of the next U.S. president.

<> on September 6, 2013 in Jakarta, Indonesia.
<> on September 6, 2013 in Jakarta, Indonesia.

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Hary Tanoesoedibjo is a billionaire reality TV impresario with a rich dad, over a million Twitter followers, a love for Vladimir Putin, a trail of tax avoidance allegations, and outsized political ambitions. It’s no wonder he’s Donald Trump’s biggest business partner in Indonesia — and now it seems his closest political ally.

Tanoesoedibjo, whose name is commonly shortened to Tanoe, plans to join Trump in building two “six-star” luxury resorts in West Java and Bali. The former will include a theme park, Trump’s first golf course in Asia, and a brand-new toll road linking the resort to Jakarta. It would be a lofty revamp for the present Lido Lakes resort and conference center, a fusty old hotel amid rice fields.

Their partnership comes with some eyebrow-raising footnotes. The pair formally agreed to cooperate in a September 2015 memorandum of understanding (MOU), when Trump was among the bumper crop of Republican presidential candidates; for now, the U.S. president-elect is remaining coy about his exact plans to divest his holdings. Meanwhile, Tanoe created his own political party last year: the United Indonesia Party (Perindo). The party plans to field candidates for office, Tanoe among them, in the near future. And the existing Indonesian politicians who are closest to Trump and Tanoe, Setya Novanto and Fadli Zon — the speaker and vice speaker of the House  of Representatives, respectively — have warm relations with the Islamist radicals who have been organizing mass protests in Jakarta this fall against a Christian governor.

“Out of all Indonesians today, I would say that Hary Tanoe is probably the one who has the greatest access to Trump, and the only one who has dealt with him in a substantial way,” said Dino Djalal, a former Indonesian ambassador to the United States. “What I know is the present government does not have access to the Trump camp. Many Indonesians have access to the Hillary people,” such as Kurt Campbell, who served in Clinton’s State Department as the assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs. “But with Trump,” he continued, “we just have no idea. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone called Hary Tanoe and said, ‘Hey, help us out here.’”

Some praise the knowledge Trump has gleaned through this relationship. “Trump understands Indonesia through its products,” said Airlangga Hartarto, the Indonesian minister of industry, whose constituency includes the site of Tanoe’s Lido resort. “Indonesia’s resources have always had a close bearing on government policy. Since 1967,” when General Suharto seized power.

“In Indonesia, the business relationship between Tanoe and Trump is well-known, and it will most likely extend to politics,” said Arbi Sanit, a political analyst at the University of Indonesia. “Trump will use Tanoe as a tool in dealing with Indonesia, and because they are mixing politics with business, he may be used as an informal ambassador.” Like Trump, said Sanit, Tanoe has also tried to pivot to national politics — albeit with little success so far — but that could change soon. “The ‘Trump effect’ could fast-track his political fortunes if their investments work out, due to the general support for American business in this country,” he said.

Although Trump has gestured toward moving his holdings into a blind trust, he has been vague about the details. In Indonesia, members of Tanoe’s MNC Land group, which oversees real estate developments, say they haven’t been instructed to change anything since the American election.

“Nothing has changed for us since Trump’s election,” said Syafril Nasution, corporate secretary of the MNC Group. “MNC signed our MOU with Trump in 2015, so we’re still proceeding exactly as planned.” Both projects, said Nasution, will stretch until at least 2018, well over half of Trump’s first term. Trump’s press team could not be reached for comment.

Tanoe, who’s worth $1.09 billion according to Forbes, has a murky financial record. “Probably nobody, local or foreign, does business of this scale in Indonesia without paying bribes,” William Liddle, professor emeritus of political science at Ohio State University and a specialist in Indonesian politics told Reveal News. Earlier this year, Tanoe was implicated in a tax evasion scandal with a telecommunications company that he used to own.

Trump’s connection with Tanoe doesn’t only tie the president-elect to local corruption — it also implicates him in his local partner’s unsavory and potentially destabilizing politics.

Tanoe has flitted between three political parties in just five years, and ran for vice president on Suharto-era military general Wiranto’s presidential ticket in 2014. His brief tenure in Wiranto’s Hanura party coincided with a surge in the polls for the party, thanks to his high media profile. Tanoe runs the country’s third-largest television station as well as the Miss Indonesia pageant.

The “biggest risk” of the Trump-Tanoe relationship, Sanit argues, is that it could boost Tanoe’s upstart populist party. The United Indonesia Party’s platform runs counter to the moderate liberal consensus helmed by current President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, which “counterbalances the ideology of radical Islamism through robust nationalism.” Tanoe’s party doesn’t stand for anything specific, beyond Tanoe himself, said Sanit, so much as it stands against the current administration. In that, it matches Trump’s enthusiastic middle finger to the American establishment during his campaign.

“I’ve heard whisperings that Hary Tanoe is trying to position himself as a broker between Jokowi’s and Trump’s administrations,” said Wayne Forrest, president of the American Indonesian Chamber of Commerce, “although I’m doubtful that Jokowi would accept such an arrangement. It would be more classic Jokowi to watch and wait how things pan out.”

But unlike Trump, Tanoe can’t represent the resentful ethnic majority of his country. He is a Chinese Christian, a long-aggrieved minority that has become newly anxious with the racially charged campaign to unseat Jakarta’s Chinese Christian governor.

And yet, Tanoe is comfortable working even with people complicit in attacks on his own community. Tanoe is acting as a bridge between Trump and some of Indonesia’s sketchiest politicians, Setya Novanto and Fadli Zon, the speaker and vice speaker of the House. They are longtime Tanoe supporters who made a bizarre public appearance with Trump in New York in September 2015.

Zon is a tacit supporter of the Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI), the hardline Islamist group that organized massive rallies against Jakarta’s ethnic Chinese governor this fall, and which engages in various cultural offensives like banning Santa hats from Indonesian malls.

“Before each of their big rallies, FPI leadership met with Fadli Zon, who warmly embraced them,” said Indonesian journalist Made Supriatma. “Like many politicians, he’s more than happy to ally with reactionary groups that target officials from divergent parties.”

“Yes, I supported the rallies,” Zon told Foreign Policy, speaking at Parliament. “[Protest leader] Habib Rizieq came to Parliament before the rallies and we received him. I support his right to freedom of expression,” he said.

“There’s no doubt that Tanoe brokered that meeting,” said Djalal, referring to the 2015 meeting with Trump in New York. “That’s the only way Novanto and Zon could have met with Trump in New York.” The pair got into hot water when they returned to Jakarta and were summoned for questioning over the ethics of the Trump meeting, although they took a laissez-faire attitude to their hearings, and the allegations eventually just faded away. In December, Novanto was caught trying to extort $4 billion from a mining company and resigned his post. But then his replacement was also ousted for ethics violations, so last month, Novanto was reinstated as House speaker.

Given Trump’s frequent and bigoted attacks on Muslims and Islam, Zon, Novanto, Tanoe, and Trump seem like unlikely bedfellows. But Zon was unconcerned about Trump’s onetime promise of a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslim immigration to the U.S.

“Of course, if you scrutinize what he says word by word, it can’t realistically be done. I think it was just campaign rhetoric. I don’t think he’ll do what he said,” said Zon.

Photo Credit: ED WRAY/Stringer


Krithika Varagur is an American journalist in Indonesia. Twitter: @krithikavaragur