After years of waiting in the political wilderness, Megawati Sukarnoputri has finally taken over Indonesia’s top job. Now the real test of her staying power begins.
IT was in late 1996, a few months after hundreds of thugs, soldiers, and policemen had violently taken over the headquarters of an Indonesian opposition party. Its chairwoman, Megawati Sukarnoputri, was having a quiet evening in her spacious garden house in the remote Kebagusan area in southern Jakarta.
She finished her dinner when her brother, Guruh Sukarnoputra, called to say that he was feeling a bit unwell. Saying a few words in a big-sister-knows-best voice, Megawati told her youngest brother, "You’d better drink tea and mix it with honey. I found it effective. Make it dark."
"And please don’t go out too much," she added.
Then she hung up and returned to her guest.
Her dining room is located in the middle of the house. More than six big glass windowpanes, from one of which the guest could see a swimming pool, surrounded it. A lush, tropical backyard dominates the room. In the garden is a fishpond filled with Japanese koi carp, swimming with their bright red, white, yellow, golden, and silver skins.
"How was your trip to Burma?" Megawati asked her visitor.
"I read your letter that mentioned your meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi," she continued. "How do you like her? Is the big bamboo house located in her compound still there?"
This matronly figure, a woman made famous by her father’s name, was living in a political wilderness. It was not a surprise that she showed a great deal of interest in Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi. Perhaps it grew out of their similar fates. Suu Kyi’s party won a landslide election but was brutally repressed by the Burmese military. Megawati’s party was sidelined by the military-backed regime of President Suharto. Suharto did not want to see a Sukarno kid challenge his rule. Both Suu Kyi and Megawati are also the daughters of their countries’ founding fathers: General Aung San and Sukarno, respectively.
The talk lasted for more than an hour. It was pretty late when Megawati walked her guest to the front gate. The compound was empty. Some guards, who usually man a small hut, were taking their evening prayer.
"Why are there so few men here?" asked the visitor.
"We face pressure everywhere," sighed Megawati.
"How strong is your stamina to fight this political battle?" asked the visitor.
"Hmm," she began thoughtfully. "That’s not the question. I have been trained to be involved in politics since I was inside my mother’s womb."
"I wonder whether Soerjadi has the stamina," she continued, referring to her rival, who was installed by Suharto as a puppet leader of her Indonesian Democratic Party.
Less than one year after that evening conversation, the Asian economic crisis struck Indonesia. The rupiah exchange rate to the American dollar dropped from 2,300 in July 1997 to more than 15,000 in May 1998. Riots broke out everywhere. Student protests were aimed directly at President Suharto, whose corrupt family had allegedly accumulated more than US$15 billion since he rose to power in 1965. Suharto consolidated the military, installing his key men, including his son-in-law Prabowo Subianto, in strategic positions. His daughter Siti Hardiyanti Rukmana tightened the family’s control over the media. Suharto also invited the International Monetary Fund to help fend off the rupiah attack. Suharto’s inner circle even provoked anti-Chinese sentiment to deflect public anger away from his corrupt administration to this relatively well-off minority. But he failed. He was tired.
In May 1998 Suharto stepped down in disgrace. A huge social movement swept the world’s forth most populous country. No one associated with his regime was immune to the anti-Suharto campaign. People were looking for alternative leaders.
Pramoedya Ananta Toer, a former political prisoner and the author of The Buru Quartet and The Mute’s Soliloquy, wrote that Indonesia was entering a period of social revolution. Farmers who had had their land stolen from them during the Suharto period were now taking it back by force. "It can be seen in the protests by farmers outside regional parliament buildings. It can be seen in the attacks on hundreds of police and military posts. In the past, these very same people would have let themselves be robbed of their voices, but now they are fighting back. Whether they realize it or not, they are the vanguard of a social revolution. Now the nation needs a leader."
But neither student leaders nor human rights activists had the power base to fill the vacuum. And so Megawati was immediately catapulted into this crisis. Her party won the largest number of votes in the 1999 election organized by Suharto’s successor, then-President B. J. Habibie. Two other politicians thrown into this vacuum were Abdurrahman Wahid and Amien Rais, the chairmen, respectively, of the Nahdlatul Ulama and the Muhammadiyah—the two largest Muslim groups in Indonesia.
Wahid was also known as a human rights activist. In 1991, he established a loosely organized "Forum Demokrasi", whose members are mostly leading intellectuals and student leaders. Wahid is also known as a campaigner for religious tolerance. He is a Muslim leader, in fact the leader of the biggest Muslim organization in Indonesia, and thus in the world, but he embraces leaders from other religious groups: from Christians to Buddhists, from Hindus to small sects.
Wahid’s archrival is none other than Amien Rais, a U.S-trained university professor who is known to be a Muslim modernist. Their rivalry is to some extent related to the decades-old competition between the more rural-based Nahdlatul Ulama and the mainly urban-based Muhammadiyah. Both Wahid and Amien jumped into the parliamentarian race. Wahid’s party got ten percent of the final vote, while Amien’s claimed less than seven percent.
Some more conservative Muslim groups, however, sniffed at the possibility of Megawati becoming president. They immediately launched a campaign claiming that "a woman president is against Islam." Amien and Wahid did not join the campaign, but they benefited from its momentum. Amien built a coalition with Wahid.
In October 1999, the Indonesian national assembly opened the race for the presidential seat. Megawati was dramatically sidelined and Wahid became Indonesia’s first democratically elected president. In a bid to sooth her radical supporters, the national assembly elected Megawati as vice president.
Abdurrahman Wahid is a good man. As president he disbanded the notorious ministry of information. He also sacked a hawkish general who was allegedly involved in the mass killing in East Timor. He outmaneuvered many Suhartoist politicians and generals. He also offered peace talks with the rebels in Aceh in northern Sumatra and the Papuans in eastern Indonesia. But Wahid was not a good manager. It seemed that he could do everything but govern. His mistakes steadily accumulated. He sacked ministers for no clear reason. He created controversies by issuing misleading statements. He relied more on his inner circle than on his official assistants.
Ade Komarudin, a parliament member from the Golkar Party, described Wahid as a man of ambivalence: "Today he talks about regulations; but on another day he doesn’t care about the law and breaches a lot of them."
The parliament also questioned Wahid for his alleged role in two financial scandals involving figures of up to US$6 million. Wahid said he was not guilty and the attorney general’s office also declared his innocence. But this did not stop the parliament from censuring Wahid for making too many controversial policies.
The move to unseat Wahid began in the wee hours of Monday, July 23, 2001 at 1:10 a.m., when Wahid declared a state of emergency from the presidential palace in Jakarta. Wahid ordered the security forces to break up both the parliament and the assembly, freeze former president Suharto’s Golkar Party, and prepare a snap election within the next year. "My pledge is to preserve the integrity of this country. Twin governments will create a tremendous turmoil in our country," said Wahid, claiming that many opposition leaders, including Amien Rais, had prepared to install Megawati as a new president during a meeting held on the previous Saturday morning.
Amien Rais, however, managed to consolidate opposition parties and held a meeting just an hour after the issuance of the decree. Amien immediately talked to the press, saying that the top assembly would convene at 8 a.m. that very day. The deciding factor in this conflict was the support of both the military and the police.
Hours prior to the issuance of the decree, more than 80 tanks and armored cars were deployed in front of the Merdeka Palace. More than 2,000 soldiers also took part in a roll call at the park. The show of force was apparently meant to pressure Wahid not to dismiss armed forces commander Admiral S. Widodo.
In a bid to impose the state of emergency, Wahid had sacked Widodo, who opposed the emergency plan, and attempted to install Lt-Gen Johny Lumintang. But Lumintang, a senior army officer, refused the appointment, making Wahid’s situation more difficult. Wahid went ahead with his plan, anyway, issuing the decree and asking military commanders to obey his instructions as "the sitting president and the military supreme commander." Only the national assembly, a nearly 700-member body largely made up of 500 legislators, has the power to appoint or dismiss Indonesian presidents. Indonesia’s Supreme Court also issued a statement Monday morning, annulling Wahid’s decision and saying that the move to disband the assembly was illegal.
Indonesians were glued to live television and radio broadcasts of the nation’s first ever impeachment process as Wahid’s supporters began arriving in front of the palace in an obvious bid to protect their leader. Otherwise, however, life in Jakarta was normal. Many shops opened, although many Jakartans preferred to skip their working day to watch the impeachment process.
Monday afternoon, after learning that Wahid was not going to attend his impeachment, the assembly fired him and installed Megawati as the chief executive. "The People’s Consultative Assembly hereby dismisses Mr. Abdurrahman Wahid as the president of the Republic of Indonesia prior to the end of his term as he has been proven breaching the guidelines of the state," said Amien Rais, the speaker of the assembly.
Megawati made a short speech after the swearing-in ceremony, "To start this job, I am calling on all parties to accept this decision with an open heart. It is my belief that there is no single big group that can lead the country out of the crisis. So I expect cooperation from all parties."
A FEW days after her swearing-in ceremony, the victorious Megawati Sukarnoputri gave an exclusive interview to Time magazine. She stressed that her main priority was "to maintain the integrity of the country." Knowing that Aceh and Papua, in addition to religious and ethnic violence elsewhere in the country, would be among her biggest tests, she said, "Many of the problems and conflicts are violent in nature but we have learned that it will be impossible to settle them with more violence. The fact that the special session concluded without violence is a sign that our democracy is maturing."
Time’s Jason Tedjasukmana pressed her on this point: "There is an impression that you will be more inclined to use the military and more repressive means to settle conflicts in restive regions such as Aceh and Irian Jaya. Is this your plan?"
Megawati laughed. "The media may say this but as PDIP chairman I have had a bitter experience with violence. My whole family experienced it. We first need to follow the rules of the game. We have laws and the 1945 Constitution which makes it obligatory for me to preserve the unity of this country."
Critics doubted whether Megawati could achieve this goal without resorting to repressive measures. Some also noted that the military played a key role in bringing her to power. Dita Indah Sari, a young Indonesian woman leader who was awarded the 2001 Magsaysay Award for Emerging Leadership, said Indonesia as well as other countries in Asia such as the Philippines, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Burma, still have traditional leadership based on family names or traditional organizations. "Megawati is a traditional leader. She rose to power because of her father’s aura," said Dita Sari. She added, however, that in the near future, Asia would very likely have more modern and rational leadership.
Author Pramoedya Ananta Toer pointed out that Megawati had served in parliament during Suharto’s regime. As a member of parliament, she received a house and salary from Suharto’s New Order government. "But did she ever say anything about the way her father was treated? Did she ever protest when her fellow countrymen were imprisoned? Never!"
But Megawati is not alone. Even after Suharto resigned, no one would take him to task; no one dared to bring him to trial. Silently, through his New Order prot้eg้es, Suharto still holds power in Indonesia. "Megawati came to power on the crest of a wave of youth rebellion. Those kids didn’t really think about it; they didn’t have any other figurehead, so they adopted her because she was Sukarno’s daughter. That’s all she is," said Pramoedya.
But never make this claim to Megawati. "Do not look at me as the daughter of Bung Karno. Let us position Bung Karno as the founder of the country," she told Time. Ironically, however, she always mentions her family blood when people ask her about her stamina. It was her father and mother, she said, who gave her the strength she spoke of during that late evening conversation in 1996.
Andreas Harsono is the editor of Pantau magazine.