Nervous Indonesians in search of a sign

Instability is giving rise to nostalgia for the Sukarno era, writes Richard Lloyd Parry
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IN SEPTEMBER 1996 visitors to the grave of Sukarno, Indonesia's founding president and the Proklamator of its independence, began to notice a bizarre phenomenon.

After praying at the marble mausoleum, and laying petals on the heaped tray of flowers in front of it, they would form up on either side of the gravestone, a rippling black boulder polished to a high shine. There, they would pose for photographs, pray again, and respectfully depart after buying a postcard or two from the grave's resident hawkers. The strangeness began a few days later, when the photographs came back from the developers. For there, clearly visible in the patterns of light on the great man's grave stone, was the face, eyes and mane of a singa - a great, male lion.

Prints of the photographs became a best seller among the hundreds of thousands of visitors who come to pay their respects at Sukarno's resting place in the East Javan town of Blitar. In any other rock, the spooky lion would be no more than another one of those quirky simulacra, like Mother Teresa's face in a bun or Christ in a patch of rising damp. But the shrine at Blitar, and the man entombed there, are important as much for their political as their spiritual meaning. Now, more than ever, Indonesians are waiting for a sign.

If, as more and more people are beginning to fear, the economic turmoil which is wracking Indonesia turns into political chaos, it is here that it is most likely to begin. A journey to Blitar, from the holiday island of Bali in the east, gives a hint of what is at stake. In a succession of East Javanese towns are the broken shutters or burned remains of Chinese- owned shops pillaged in food riots 10 days ago. Armed troops patrol. Throughout the region the ruling party is holding discount sales of subsidised food, in an attempt to head off looting caused by rising prices. The streets were calm last week, but on Friday there were fresh riots in the village of Kraksaan, 80 miles north-east of Blitar.

Historically, East Javans are the conscience of Indonesia: in the struggle for independence from Japanese and later Allied administration, they fought harder and suffered more than any other region. The East Javan nationalist, Sukarno, proclaimed the Independent Republic of Indonesia eight days after the atomic bombing of Nagasaki.

In the mid-1960s, after mounting political and economic chaos he was deposed in a creeping coup by the "New Order" of the then General Suharto. As president, Suharto restored order and created unprecedented prosperity; but since 1996, the reputations of the two men have been transformed. The living manifestation of this reversal is Sukarno's eldest daughter, Megawati Sukarnoputri, who has become a symbol of respectable opposition to the New Order. "Will we continue to let the nation be directed and guided by a small dynasty of greedy rulers who alone will benefit from the great assets of our country?" she asked a fortnight ago, in a speech announcing her willingness to challenge Suharto for the presidency. "Suharto's rule for 32 years is quite enough."

For all her popularity, Megawati has none of the intellectual authority of a Benazir Bhutto or an Aung San Suu Kyi - on specifics she is vague, preferring generalisations about democracy and "the will of the people". In any case, without the support of the country's military, she has little chance of succeeding to power. But in a country where "defaming" Suharto is a serious crime, father and daughter Sukarno are important chiefly as symbols - an elegant and indirect means of criticising the current regime.

Sukarno's old family house in Blitar, now a museum of memorabilia, is filled with photographs of him in his double- breasted cream suit, smiling his sexy grin. The paintings on the walls inevitably portray him in a finger-jabbing, epic pose. He was simultaneously a matinee idol and man of the people, referred to by the familiar prefix bung (friend), rather than the respectful pak (father) always applied to Suharto.

"Bung Karno is like the spirit of Indonesia," said Haji Sumitro, 73, at the grave. "He worked for all the people. When Sukarno stopped being president, his family had nothing. But the family of Suharto have everything. They own the whole country." Despite the modernity he has brought to Indonesia, Suharto is an archaic figure compared to Sukarno, an enigmatic, distant traditional Javanese king next to a crude, extravagant 1960s playboy.

Sukarno, as even his followers will grudgingly admit when pressed, was in plenty of ways a disaster as president - a crude demagogue and opportunist who compensated for his failures as a domestic statesman by pursuing a hysterical military "confrontation" with Malaysia. But in a country which has known only two presidents in its 52 years, unhappy Indonesians have few options for nostalgia. The lion in the rock is not, perhaps, a symbol of what Indonesians have lost, but what they have never known.