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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
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From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
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Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story


The sultan of Jogjakarta is a modern reformer

By Jose Manuel Tesoro/Jogjakarta

IF JAVANESE PROPHECY WERE the basis for choosing Indonesia's next president, Jogjakarta's sultan would have the inside track. Some in the country's largest ethnic group believe the names of national leaders will have at least one syllable from the word "notonagoro" (manage a country). Hence Sukarno, Suharto and, perhaps, Sultan Hamengkubuwono X, 52.

In fact, the next president will be chosen by representatives of the People's Consultative Assembly, about three quarters of whom will be elected this June in Indonesia's first free parliamentary polls in four decades. Even so, the sultan remains the leading dark-horse candidate, and his name is mentioned alongside top oppositionist Megawati Sukarnoputri and Muslim preacher Abdurrahman Wahid. The reasons highlight both the idiosyncrasies of the country's politics and how its experience under Suharto will affect its next choice of leader.

The Javanese number about 70 million, or more than a third of Indonesians. The sultan is "still a perfumed name" on Java, says Jogjakarta mystic Gus Sofyan Amri. But cultural allegiance is not the only reason for the appeal. Seeing how corrupt leaders became under the rule of Suharto, says political scientist Riswandha Imawan of Gadjah Mada University (UGM), ordinary people have concluded that "those who can be trusted are those farthest from Suharto's influence."

Since Suharto bound so many in allegiance, that list is a short one. Heading it are Megawati, Wahid and Hamengkubuwono X. (Though the sultan headed the Jogjakarta chapter of ruling grouping Golkar for nearly two decades, he is rarely associated by locals with the excesses of Suharto's political vehicle.) Since the ex-strongman also prevented competition from developing political track records, parentage remains a key indication of a person's pro-people credentials. Megawati's father was Indonesia's first president and Wahid's its first minister of religion. Hamengkubuwono's father was a revolutionary monarch who adopted the idea of the republic. As a reward, Jakarta passed a law in 1950 making his sultanate a special province.

The ruler, who holds a law degree from UGM, says he is extending his father's tradition. "I may be a sultan," he says, "but is it not possible for me to also be a democrat?" Though his coronation a decade ago celebrated arcane feudal traditions, the promises he made to his people were very different. The sultan pledged "to protect the people even if they did not like me, to uphold the law, to tell the truth and to have no ambition except the desire that my people prosper." As a reminder, he is required in his own palace to carry a wooden kris, though his relatives may own jewel-encrusted blades.

Javanese leadership, the sultan explains, requires a king to control his own desires to serve the people. That, he says, is where Suharto, who is often considered to have derived his own ideas of power from Javanese culture, went wrong. "His human desires spoke," says the sultan. "He became outdated." Which leads to another irony, according to local historian P.J. Suwarno. While Jogjakarta was undergoing "defeudalization," he says, Jakarta itself was being "refeudalized." Sultan Hamengkubuwono IX and his son granted more power to local village chiefs and modernized the management of the court, while Suharto was dispensing patronage to make the elite dependent on his power. "In Jogja," says the sultan, "every ruler must change so that he is still relevant to the development of society." So far, Hamengkubuwono has vouchsafed Jogjakarta peace and protection - significant gifts in this troubled archipelago.

He is also a symbol of provincial power, which could bolster his image nationwide. After his father died, the sultan was not made Jogjakarta governor, a post guaranteed to his family by the 1950 law. After Suharto's fall, local streets filled with protesters demanding his appointment, which was initially resisted by both Jakarta and the military, as provincial governorships usually went to retired generals. But Hamengkubuwono became governor last October, and remains the only one on Java without a military background.

The sultan is image-conscious and media-savvy. Does he want to become president? His answer is non-committal: only if the people want him, and if he does well as Jogjakarta's governor. Not affiliated with any political party, he could be the best compromise candidate if no grouping gains enough votes to install its leader as president. Rumors are circulating of a possible alliance between Hamengkubuwono X and armed forces chief Gen. Wiranto, but the ruler publicly is trying to stay above the fray. "What we are now witnessing is a tendency toward disintegration because everyone speaks only of themselves," he says.

To even associates and supporters in Jogjakarta, the time is not yet ripe for the sultan to become president. His fledgling governorship runs until 2005, and some in Jogja admit he has neither the experience nor the knowledge of his father. But the sultan knows enough to do what his dynasty has always done - rise to the challenge of the times. Says Ichlasul Amal, rector of UGM: "The sultan wants to lose his image as a feudal leader and become a national one." Some portents, at least, are promising.

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home



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TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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