Suharto finds the old magic losing its power

Indonesian leader hangs on grimly, writes Richard Lloyd Parry in Yogyakarta
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The Independent Online
NOGOROJO (the name means "dragon king") was forged in the Mataram period, and has mendak stones on the handle and a hilt of cendana wood. Its zig-zag blade is 12 inches long; the scabbard gold-covered. Nogorojo is a kris, or sacred dagger, and was handed down to Haji Hadisukismo by his grandfather who, like him, was a Javanese mystic.

"I was born a peasant," says the old man, "but now I am the chief of this village. My children are headmen as well, and people come to me for advice from all over Java. Nogorojo has the power of life. All my life I have been helped and supported by Nogorojo." The dagger is gently restored to its scabbard and, no, says Haji Hadisukismo, there can be no photographs.

A few years ago, he had a visitor from Jakarta who came with a purpose: to buy Nogorojo, and take it to the capital. Haji Hadisukismo was not tempted, although the offer was remarkable - not only was the man offering millions of rupiah, he was acting on behalf of President Suharto himself. "Suharto has many kris and other talismans," he says, "he knows how powerful Nogorojo is."

For all the modernity and bustle of its cities, Indonesia is a superstitious country in which ancient patterns of belief exist alongside modern religious practices. In Borneo, Dayak people combine traditional religion with the Catholic Mass. In Java, the most populated and politically dominant of the Indonesian islands, mystics like Haji Hadisukismo hear supernatural voices, heal and tell fortunes. Few Javanese take such practices more seriously, or are regarded with more awe, than President Suharto.

Mr Suharto is also known to consult dukun, or sorcerers. According to Haji Hadisukismo, who worked as a mystic adviser to his predecessor, Sukarno, the President bathes in water brought from a lake on the sacred Mt Lawu. He is a devotee of the wayang kulit, or shadow puppet theatre, with its suggestive and allegorical tales.

A story circulating in Jakarta tells of a meeting of ministers held by Mr Suharto to discuss a knotty matter of state. Instead of talking, they were treated to a puppet performance of great beauty and mystery. At the end, Mr Suharto said: "I trust my wishes are clear," and left the room, leaving the anxious ministers racking their brains to work out the play's message.

And Mr Suharto's use of tradition extends beyond magic. Compared to other long-lasting dictatorships like that of Mao Tse-Tung or the late god-president Kim Il Sung of North Korea, Mr Suharto's has been remarkable for the unobtrusivenss of his personal style and the complete absence of a personality cult. But personal modesty, inconspicuousness and the suppression of overt emotion were the characteristics of the ancient Javanese rulers: in his own impersonal and self-effacing way, the aura surrounding Mr Suharto is as strong as that of shriller and more declamatory leaders. "He is very, very clever at using culture to portray himself as a traditional Javanese ruler, literally a king," says Mohtar Masud, a sociology professor at Gajah Mada University in Yogyakarta, the ancient Javanese capital where Mr Suharto was educated. The President's cultivation of junior aides, many from the military, whom he strategically shuffles, demoting and banishing those who become too ambitious, is typically Javanese, as is his reluctance to step down. According to some academics, the elevation of Javanese virtues such as restraint, refinement and a distaste for direct criticism has helped Mr Suharto to maintain power. "There is such value placed on hierarchy and on hiding anger and emotions," says Daniel Sparringa of Airlingga University in Surabaya. "Ordinary people have lost the ability to protest."

To a traditional king, power is indivisible, and to compromise it by naming a successor is to risk losing everything. "I think it's quite simple: he's very superstitious," says a Western diplomat. "He's afraid that if he prepares for his succession and admits that he is mortal, then he will die." Wahyu is the name for the mystical quality, sometimes described as a divine light, which surrounds the Javanese leader. "Suharto's wahyu is still strong and it has to be Suharto for now," says Haj Hadisukismo. "But we are close to the point when the wahyu will pass to someone else."

To many that moment seems closer every day. One of the portents of imminent change is disasters and disruptions in nature - like the forest fires, drought, crop failures, food shortages, and plane crashes which Indonesia has suffered in the past few months. "Many Javanese feel as if some kind of doomsday is coming," says Prof Masud. "The natural disasters delegitimise him in people's eyes." In 1962, Haji Hadisukismo was working for Sukarno. Prompted by supernatural voices, he warned him that some advisers he was bringing into the palace meant him no good. In 1965, Indonesia's Year of Living Dangerously, Sukarno was deposed by Mr Suharto. "I told him: 'Father, you're the chauffeur of Indonesia, but if you're not careful you'll hit a tree'," says the old man. "But he didn't listen and three years late everything fell apart."