Tuesday, July 24, 2001

Megawati: Father's Little Girl

Andreas Harsono

In his memoirs, Sukarno: An Autobiography, Indonesia's founding president wrote that he never forgot the night of January 23, 1947, when his wife gave birth to their eldest daughter.

"It was thundering. My wife lay in the bedroom, which had been outfitted specially as a hospital. Suddenly the lights went out, the roof caved in, the dark, swollen clouds opened and water rained in like a river. "My wife was soaked, as were the [medical] instruments, bedclothes, everything. In the darkness, by the light of a candle, our daughter was born. We named her Megawati."

Megawati in Bahasa Indonesia literally means the daughter of the storm clouds. And this daughter of the clouds, more than 50 years later, stands at the very place her father used to stand: as chief executive of Indonesia.

The election of Megawati as Indonesia's fifth president will indeed bring back to life the memories of her father. It is also expected that many people will compare Megawati, widely known to be a shy, matronly personality - critics even say a "not-so-intelligent" figure - to the brilliant Sukarno, who mastered seven languages and was widely known to read Greek philosophers, Karl Marx's Das Capital, and other works when still a teenager.

Megawati was 21 years old and still a university student when then-Major-Gen Suharto put her father under military house arrest following a failed coup d'etat blamed on communists. More than 500,000 leftist activists were slaughtered in 1965 and 1966 and Sukarno died a bitter man in 1971. Megawati did not finish her undergraduate studies in those tumultuous years, and later married her first husband, an air force pilot, who died in 1970.

She was married again, to an Egyptian, for a short period before divorcing, and in 1973 married her current husband, Taufik Kiemas, a businessman who owns middle-scale businesses in Jakarta. For years, she was relatively unknown to the public compared with her siblings, who were involved mostly in social activities, and Kiemas, who was involved in a nationalist political party.

But in the late 1980s Kiemas managed to persuade his wife to join his party. She was widely seen as just a simple housewife with a simple mind until she won the party's top seat in 1993. The idea that she was only her father's little daughter prompted the military-backed Suharto regime to pressure Indonesian journalists to use the name Megawati Kiemas --after her husband-- rather than the name she is commonly known by -Megawati Sukarnoputri-- after her revolutionary father, who helped Indonesia win freedom from the colonial rule of the Dutch.

The gambit failed. Megawati became the most important opposition leader along with the Muslim intellectual Abdurrahman Wahid of the Nahdlatul Ulama Muslim group. Despite tight media censorship, thousands of her supporters ignored military warnings and vowed to continue supporting her against the military.

Columnist Goenawan Mohamad of Tempo magazine said that in a sense her critics were right but "the magic of a Sukarno does not come from the name itself. It comes from the psyche of a period which looks for a missing character: a politician who is also a public figure."

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