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

Sunday, December 18, 2011

ROESLAN ABDULGANI: 'Supersemar exists'

(Above: Dr Abdulgani's daughter, Retnawati Abdulgani-Knapp and fellow historian Dr Frank Palmos in November 2011)


First published in Inside Indonesia Edition 77 Jan-March 2004, but now curiously absent from the magazine’s archives. Republished here to make it more accessible following the publishing of Frank Palmos' thesis on the Battle of Surabaya (see stories below). Dr Abdulgani died in 2005.

Reflections from former Foreign Affairs Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, Dr. H. Roeslan Abdulgani.

Duncan Graham

Supersemar does exist. I have seen it. It is still in the hands of

Harto. [Suharto, Indonesia’s second president.] But it was

misinterpreted by him to remove Sukarno”.

Supersemar (Surat Perintah Sebelas Maret), or Letter of 11 March) was a

letter allegedly written by Sukarno requesting that Suharto impose order

following the 1965 coup. It was used as the legal authority transferring

power to Suharto — but a copy has never surfaced.

There are probably as many anecdotes about the mysterious document and

the events surrounding it as there are Indonesians. Very few who were

close to the action are still alive and remember with clarity their

experiences first hand.

The anecdote quoted above is by former Foreign Affairs Minister and

Deputy Prime Minister Dr Roeslan (also known as Ruslan) Abdulgani, whose revolutionary and

founding father credentials are stainless. They include a badly damaged

right hand, the result of being strafed in 1948 by a Dutch plane. At the

time he was riding a bike through Yogyakarta trying to save the young

republic’s critical documents. He was treated by a Dutch doctor, and

then imprisoned in hospital.

Now almost 90 and frail, he still has a sharp mind (“age is

opportunity”), a powerful command of English, and some certainties not

eroded by time. These include his belief that the American Central

Intelligence Agency was also involved in the 1965 coup in which six

Indonesian generals were killed, precipitating the fall of Sukarno.

According to official Indonesian history, the killings were the result

of a communist putsch.

Dr Roeslan claimed Sukarno had no foreknowledge of the coup. “He was

very naive though not with women. He was a politician, not a military

man. He thought he could make communism in Indonesia nationalistic and

this infuriated Russia and China”.

Although 14 years younger, Dr Roeslan was closely aligned with Sukarno

personally and politically, calling him ‘Indonesia’s George Washington’.

Despite this, Dr Roeslan survived the change of government and was sent

to New York by Suharto’s New Order government to negotiate Indonesia’s

re-entry into the United Nations.

He also grew to admire Suharto’s early reforms, but despised the later

excesses of the president’s family and friends: “He [Suharto] said there

could be no prosperity without security and stability — and in this he

was right”. Through his daughter’s biography Dr Roeslan is quoted as

describing Suharto as ‘a responsive and decent human being when free of

family greed’.


Dr Roeslan retains an intellect nimble enough to dance around awkward

questions. So when asked about the qualities of current president

Megawati, daughter of his former colleague, he replied: “What is good,

what is bad?” Later his criticisms were hard but circumspect, preferring

the general to the specific.

“This present generation does not know what we fought for, and that is

the tragedy. There is so much waste. We are rich, but so many people

have been stealing from the nation — it is a sickness, like kleptomania.

We have become klepto-crazies. There are two and a half million

super-rich in Indonesia. They go to Singapore for their health and

shopping, not to their own country”.

Like most former politicians who have struggled with nation building, he

despises the indulgences of modern bureaucrats and their reluctance to

forego the plunder of power for the sake of the nation. He is also

miffed that his good relations with President Megawati have not led to

her following his advice on communicating more and spending less.

And for those less interested in moralising, Dr Roeslan has enough

personal anecdotes of the founding president to entertain kampong

gossips for a decade:

“He used to like to say there were two Sukarnos, but in reality there

were three. And I told him so. The first was the ideologist. He knew the

strength and weakness of the colonialists and our strengths and

weaknesses. That was good.

“The second was the politician, forming and using power, sometimes cooperating with the Japanese or the Islamists or the Nationalists. Then he would hit them. That was dangerous.

“The third was Sukarno as an individual. That was not so dangerous. He

used to say: ‘I can hate, I can love, I can be soft, I can be strong’.

“But you are making a mistake if you think his love was erotic. His love

was for beauty, in women, in the beach, in mountains and trees, in the

colours of the waves, the beauty of nature. He saw God in the smile of a

young girl, and in the suffering of people’”.

Apart from his status as a revolutionary hero who also survived a 1956

coup attempt, Dr Roeslan is a historian. His books include Seratus Hari

di Surabaya (One Hundred Days in Surabaya) a history of the 1945 battle

in the East Java capital in which he played a major role negotiating

with the invaders. The bloody clash was between nationalists and British

troops trying to liberate Allied prisoners of the Japanese and help

reinstall Dutch rule. /The Bandung Connection/ is an account of the 1955

Asia Africa Conference where 24 so-called non-aligned nations came

together in a bid to counter Western power. A collection of Dr Roeslan’s

essays was published in 1994 to commemorate his 80th birthday.

Dr Roeslan was born in a Surabayan kampong on 24 November 1914, the

son of a wealthy shopkeeper. Academically bright and an avid reader,

Roeslan married up into a priyayi (upper-class Javanese) family. He

was expelled from a teachers’ training college for political activities,

studied law, became an active nationalist and a skilled administrator.


An infrequent visitor to Australia, he retains good impressions, though

corroded by recent events. Highlights include sitting alongside cab

drivers (‘I was flabbergasted!’), calling people by their forenames,

preserving the heart of a racehorse — these and other small incidents

are revived with glee. But not enough to mask his disquiet about

Australia’s perceived political shift in international alliances.

“I used to have great admiration for Australia because you are already

competing with Leiden (in Holland) in Indonesian studies”, he said.

“But this talk of pre-emptive strikes [against terrorists] is nonsense.

The lesson for Australia is not to look back to Europe and the United

States. Australia should not be a part of Europe — you should be part of

Southeast Asia.

“I should keep my mouth shut, but I tell you the most dangerous man is a

Javanese who is silent. So here’s one last message for Australia: Keep

preserving Phar Lap’s heart. I like that”.


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