The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Thursday, June 21, 2007



To get some understanding of Javanese mysticism and a sense of this nation's complex history, be in Blitar on 20 June. This is the eve of the death of first President Soekarno, and a major date in the calendar of those who revere his name. Duncan Graham reports from the East Java town:

Once a month on Legi Jumat (Friday in the Javanese calendar), Misril dresses in her best sarong and lacy white kebaya (traditional blouse). She pins back her hair and adds two small daisy-shaped gold earrings. Then leaning on the arm of her nephew Karyadi, the 70 year old shuffles up the polished marble steps and into the sanctuary.

This is a pendopo, the Javanese four-pillared open-walled hall with a richly carved timber ceiling. Inside are three graves. The smaller one in the center is strewn with leaves and flowers. The headstone is a huge black boulder.

Misril carries a tiny plastic bag of pink and yellow petals that she squeezes into the carpet of flowers as she prays. Then she moves away and others take her place. Most are also formally dressed.

"I ask for safety for my family and four grand-children, and I've always received that," she said in kromo, the high level Javanese language. Misril does not understand Indonesian.

"Bung (brother) Karno struggled for Indonesia. He saw no difference between the rich and poor. His soul comes to me in my dreams and tells me to go to his grave.

"I wanted to meet him when he was alive, but that was difficult. Now I can visit him any day."

Indonesia's first president died aged 69 under virtual house arrest on 21 June in 1970. This was five years after being deposed by General Suharto following a bloody coup allegedly engineered by communists, though this is a matter of dispute.

Soekarno was buried in a simple cemetery in his hometown of Blitar, about five road-hours south of Surabaya. The story goes that Suharto feared his rival's grave could become a focal point for fomenting opposition to the New Order government if located in Jakarta.

At first Soekarno was officially remembered only as the Proklamator, the man who happened to proclaim the Declaration of Independence on 17 August 1945. It was as though he was just a bit player in the struggle for the Republic, not its main architect.

Later, when Suharto was well entrenched, it was deemed politically safe to rehabilitate the nation's first President. In 1979 the present grand structure was built to house the body of Soekarno and his parents.

As expected the grave has become a shrine. In the arid Saudi versions of Islam Muslims are not supposed to pray at tombs, but in Indonesia that rule is widely ignored.

For Blitar the grave has become a major earner, with the Bung Karno industry showing no sign of collapsing despite the passing of a generation that lived during Soekarno's turbulent times.

The local authorities have done a good job in crowd control. They've built a huge bus and car station away from the tomb and museum and set up a park-and-drive system – using becak (pedicabs) on a fixed and published tariff.

For Rp 15,000 (US $1.70) you can be wheeled to all locations and back to your vehicle, then have a feed at the scores of stalls while fending off trinket sellers.

Karno kitsch is everywhere, from key rings to T shirts, clocks and other down-market memorabilia. There are photos and busts aplenty, though the artists who duplicate Soekarno's image show little respect for reality.

So you can choose from any version that suits your view of the great man - leonine, saturnine, lean, plump, feisty or thoughtful – but always dapper.

Official presentations of the past gloss over Soekarno's sexual adventures. The badly arranged museum has masses of historical documents and happy family snaps – Karno with wife Fatmawati and five children, including Megawati who was to become the nation's fifth president.

But outside pavement sellers offer the unauthorized versions listing the founding father's nine wives and 11 kids in a smudged photocopied document titled Don Juan, the Skilled Lover. It seems he particularly liked younger women; the age gap was between 39 and 46 years for his last five wives.

Here's another paradox that confuses the outsider; a great statesman saturated in the conservative and rigid culture of Java was a playboy whose sexual exploits put world leaders like John Kennedy in the amateur class. You'd expect Karno to have been condemned for such affairs; instead they added to his stature.

Soekarno was a master orator and probably the only person who could have rallied the masses to fight for Independence. But history shows he fumbled the economy and botched foreign affairs.

All this has been forgotten in Blitar, where the worshipers speak only in respectful terms of the good old days. Any Westerner wanting to know more should just sit quietly in the shade at the tomb site and wait awhile.

It won't take long before you'll be given history lessons you never read, and anecdotes that make Soekarno into a demi-god, a man of mystery and magic who can still influence the present.

"Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono visited the grave before he became president," said retired military man Susilo Adji, on a pilgrimage from Jakarta. "He should return again to receive more wisdom on how to run Indonesia."



But what was Soekarno really like? East Java singer Kadam became a court favorite and has a clear memory.

Nicknamed 'Golden Voice' he first met Soekarno at the Presidential Palace in 1960. The 17-year old was a member of a ludruk (grassroots theatre) group from Surabaya invited to perform in Jakarta.

"He took a real liking to me and I returned to the palace and his home in Bogor 13 times," Kadam said at his home in Malang. "He even picked me up because I was very small, and always waited for us to change after our performances so he could chat to us.

"I was never frightened of him because he treated everyone as equal. He didn't discriminate between high and low. He felt he was in touch with the village people – and he was.

"He was a teacher. He hadn't come from a business background. Unlike other leaders he never forgot his roots. What he said was in his heart and people understood that.

"He was a most exceptional person. There has never been anyone like him. I feel that God has accepted his soul."

(First published in The Jakarta Post 18 June 07)


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