Put Dad’s ideas into action


DERWIN PEREIRA meets former Indonesian president Sukarno’s fourth child, Sukmawati Sukarnoputri, who believes she is
the true bearer of his legacy.

IT WAS 1984. An attractive, lithe woman sat smoking in the corner of a room in the Indonesian state palace.

She was Sukmawati Sukarnoputri. The fourth of former president Sukarno’s eight children was alone in a moment of private bitterness. Her brothers and sisters, who did not seem to share her grief, were reminiscing about growing up in the Istana.

Along with her bitterness, and the banter of her siblings, there was irony too.

They were there at the invitation of then President Suharto – the man who succeeded Mr Sukarno in 1965 – for a ceremony to bestow the title of “Fighter of Independence” on their father. It was the only day since Mr Sukarno’s ouster that the children of the country’s first leader since independence were allowed to visit and enjoy the grandeur of their one-time childhood home.

Among the children, Ms Sukmawati was perhaps the most affected by what many saw as the damage done to the Sukarno legacy by Mr Suharto’s New Order government.

And over the last 30 years, she has been the most vocal critic of Mr Suharto among her siblings.

Now 49, Ms Sukmawati is still carrying the torch of her father’s teachings and continues to be active in her opposition to the government.

Once upon a time, she was also a student leader. Although no longer in the forefront of that movement, she maintains her interest and indeed returned to the fight in May this year when she lent her weight to demonstrations that eventually led to Mr Suharto’s stepping-down.

As a vocal critic, she was, more recently, one of 17 signatories to a communique last month calling on President B. J. Habibie to step down and allow a transitional presidium to take over the reins of power.

As a result, she was among several signatories who were branded subversives by the government and banned from leavingthe country.

Despite this recent political activism, it remains unclear if she has the personal motivation or sufficient support to become a national leader.

That role has been taken over by her elder and better-known sister, Ms Megawati Sukarnoputri, who, using her father’s image, has become a major presence on the national political stage.

This must have been the cause of some disappointment to Ms Sukmawati, for it is she who believes that she is the true representative of Mr Sukarno’s legacy.

Her reverence for her father has survived many tribulations. Growing up was painful.

Recounting her childhood experience as she lit up cigarette after cigarette during a recent two-hour interview with Sunday Review in Jakarta, she talks with a tinge of sadness about living with parents who were separated.

“It affected me quite a bit,” she says. “It made me sad because, unlike normal families, I never had dinner with father and mother together.”

But there were also special moments.

She recalls an incident in the ’60s when she was returning from school with her sister Rachmawati and brother Guruh, when a presidential motorcade stopped before them.

“We were surprised and wondered why. Father then stepped out of the car to give each of us a kiss. So sweet, huh! It wasunforgettable. It showed how much he loved us and that he was not tied up with protocol,” she says.

To her, Mr Sukarno was also a teacher of political ideas. He would spend time talking to his children about issues affecting Indonesia at that time.

But it was mostly a one-way conversation and they were his private acolytes.

“If we gave comments, he disliked it. He would say that we were too young to make comments.”

Her father’s death in 1970 was the nadir of her life.

“Suharto killed my father slowly,” she claims, visibly moved, her face darkening as she tries to conceal her anger. “I was only 19 then. Can you imagine losing your father at that age? It was so hard for me. I needed his love so much then.”

Life was hard after that.

She and her siblings could not get a decent tertiary education. Schools and universities barred the Sukarno children. Her dreams of studying politics and international relations, or even becoming a fighter pilot, were squashed overnight.

Like most of the other Sukarno children, she sought refuge in the arts. She became a dancer at the Jakarta Arts Centre.

But politics was never far from her mind, and she soon emerged to lead the National Students Movement, a by-product of the Indonesian Nationalist Party (PNI) which her father had set up.

Her personal life – details of which she guards jealousy and does not want to talk much about – went downhill.

Her first marriage, a family alliance proposed by Mr Sukarno the day she was born in 1951, ended in divorce in the early ’80s. A mother of two children, she remarried. She refuses to provide any details about her husbands or children.

A long-time family friend suggests that Ms Sukmawati is very different from her brothers and sisters. She has a dark, intense and almost foreboding character, shaped by the ups and downs in her life.

“She is like Morticia Addams of the Addams family. She is beautiful and elegant compared to the mother-like figure of Megawati. But she has a black and dry personality that is sometimes very difficult to fathom,” the family friend says.

“All the other Sukarno children have moved on with the times. Not Sukmawati. She does not want to let go of the past.”

Ms Sukmawati is not regarded as a political thinker – only someone who wants to breathe life into her father’s ideology of Marhaenism, without any modifications to suit Indonesia’s modern circumstance. Marhaenism is a Sukarnoist blend of socialism and populism.

She does it with a missionary zeal, believing she is the one to whom the ideas had been committed to for safekeeping.

“It is my duty to continue his teachings and give people a better understanding of his political views,” she says unabashedly.

Her hold of the past and lack of political sophistication comes through in her analysis of, and prescriptions for, Indonesia’s contemporary problems.

Like her father, she believes that the “common man” or “small people” must not be oppressed. But she is also of the view that full-fledged Western-style liberal democracy is not viable in Indonesia.

Guided democracy, introduced by Mr Sukarno in the late ’50s, is the answer to the country’s ills, she maintains.

“Our culture is different from the West. Indonesia cannot have a liberal democracy. We need guided democracy. By this, I mean we go back to Pancasila, a philosophy based on ‘gotong royong’ or mutual cooperation.”

She retorts agitatedly when it is put to her that this is no different from New Order thinking: “Suharto only paid lip service. We need to implement the idea.”

She says that the Habibie administration is tainted by its links to the past and this needs to be replaced by an interim presidium until the polls next year.

She foresees the election throwing up a coalition government, comprising Ms Megawati’s Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI), the National Awakening Party set up by the Nadhlatul Ulama Muslim organisation and the National Mandate Party led by political activist Amien Rais.

“It will be more democratic, like the kind of government we had in the Old Order. It included all the socio-political forces. Even the minority had a seat.”

She argues that the military’s role in politics ought to be reduced gradually: “We cannot get rid of it in one go. It takes time. The important thing is that the army should not behave like those in fascist Germany and Japan during World War II. The army should return to the teachings of its founders Sudirman and Sukarno.”

Her grasp of foreign policy is limited to Indonesia’s experience in the ’60s. She maintains that there was nothing wrong with Mr Sukarno’s Konfrontasi against Malaysia and Singapore.

“As a freedom fighter, he was right. What we did to help the North Borneo movement to be free from the yoke of British colonialism was right. What is wrong to help our neighbours to be free?”

Her views on some issues mirror somewhat those of Ms Megawati’s. But while many might think she has a close and influential relationship with her sister, this is not necessarily the case.

Says the family friend: “She has a fiery character but she is not among the brains who influence Megawati. People in the PDI see Sukmawati more as a kind of inspiration.”

He says Ms Sukmawati has still not forgotten the fact that Ms Megawati broke a long-standing family pact not to get involved in politics.

“I think there is some resentment because a promise was not kept. There might also be some frustration now because she feels Megawati is too constrained in expressing her political views,” he adds.

Surprisingly though, Ms Sukmawati is not a PDI cadre. She has joined the re-born PNI instead and maintains that it was a conscious decision not to team up with her sister “because people will later accuse us of nepotism”.

She says she gives advice to Ms Megawati – whom she meets at least once a month. But she does not appear to be in her sister’s inner policy circle.

Indeed, respected Islamic scholar Abdurrahman Wahid, who is close to the PDI leader, confirms this when he observes that Ms Sukmawati does not have any kind of formal advisory role. Their contact, if anything, was what one would find between politically-active siblings.

Suggesting that their political coordination is not that close, he notes that Ms Megawati was caught off-guard by Ms Sukmawati, who did not warn her that she was going to sign the joint communique last month.

“Sukmawati listened to her own heart. It was her fighting spirit at work,” he says.

But Ms Sukmawati is hopeful that her sister will make it as president and believes that this is something many Indonesians want. “I tell her to prepare herself. Being president is not easy. It is hard work. But I think she will do her best.”

She herself has no dreams to be president, and would prefer to stand in the background as a moral force. “The most important thing is not to be president but to spread Sukarno’s teachings.”

SUKMAWATI: Fighting spirit

SUKMAWATI SUKARNOPUTRI, a Muslim, was born on Oct 26, 1951 in Jakarta. She was the late President Sukarno’s fourth child from his marriage to his first wife Fatmawati.

A mother of two children, Ms Sukmawati married in 1974. She was divorced and later remarried in the ’80s.

Education * Studied up to high school in Jakarta in the ’60s, majoring in history. Like the other Sukarno children, she was denied a place in university after their father’s death in 1970.

Career * 1971-75: Worked as a dancer at the Jakarta Arts Council. * 1970s-’80s: Active in the Indonesian National Students Movement, which she went on to head. * 1995: Helped set up the Marhaen People’s Movement. * 1995: Publisheda series of poetry books in memory of her father. * 1998: One of 17 signatories to a joint communique calling on President B. J. Habibie to step down.

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