Published: Sep 29, 2007

Golkar's executive council once more nominated Suharto as president. In response, Suharto gave a long speech on 19 October 1997, without notes and using a lot of Javanese. In the first part, he spoke of 'giving thanks to the One God, being introspective,' etc. Then he asked: 'Do the people still have confidence in me?'. How do you interpret all this?

These are just political niceties, just cliches. If you want to know the real Suharto look at what happened on 27 July 1996. How he overthrew Megawati and shattered PDI solidarity. He clearly wanted Mega and her supporters crushed before the election. 'Being introspective' doesn't come into it at all.

Some people interpreted Suharto's question about 'the people's confidence' in modern ways. Holding a referendum, polls, and so on. But is the people's confidence really important in the thought world of Javanese kings? What does a king mean by the people's confidence?

The kings of old obviously didn't think much about the opinion of the people, who were mostly illiterate, lived in isolated villages, and died soon after 30. Javanese kings never consciously considered the public interest. But if we look at the Mataram Dynasty, the people's confidence did become important at certain moments. Not the confidence that the king was good, because that was very rarely the case. But whether the people believed the king still had the divine light.

Once the people believed the king's divine light had moved on, it would be difficult to restore. And then the people's loyalty could evaporate very quickly. Then aspirants to the throne could find all kinds of support coming their way. It was a problem of popular psychology. But to what extent all that will apply in the coming months, I can't say for sure.

In another part of his speech Suharto said that if the people no longer believed in him then he would 'place himself within the succession philosophy of the Javanese shadow puppet theatre'. He said that philosophy was lengser keprabon, madeg pandito, meaning to step down as king and become a priest. How do you understand this 'philosophy of succession' of Suharto's?

But is there really a philosophy of the shadow puppet theatre? Let alone about succession? Don't forget, suksesi is a western word. I'm not aware of an equivalent in Javanese. If we look at the shadow puppet theatre or at the Javanese chronicles, the concept of succession as a constitutional process under the law is completely absent. Whenever a new king appears it is on the basis of blood relation or by violence.

Fascinating that Suharto should talk about the philosophy of the theatre and not of the court chronicles. For the chronicles represent the real history of the Javanese dynasties throughout time. The atmosphere and morality of the two are quite different. In the theatre, up to a point, we find the noble morality of the knights. But the chronicles are filled with betrayal, with coup- d'etats, with deceit, magic and all kinds of filthiness and horrible cruelty.

As far as I know, no king ever voluntarily does lengser keprabon in the Javanese chronicles (Babad Tanah Jawi). Kings forced to do lengser keprabon yes, often. In the theatre, for instance in the Mahabharata story, I know of only one instance. That was Abiyoso. And Abiyoso failed completely in the second part, namely becoming a priest (madeg pandito). Because he had favourites among his children - who were all defective in one way or another - in the end his grandchildren massacred one another in the gruesome Brotoyudo wars. So Abiyoso can hardly be held up as a fine example.

And that was the only time. So to say that lengser keprabon is the philosophy of succession in the theatre is completely wrong! I'm not even sure whether the cliche lengser keprabon madeg pandito is really an ancient expression or something that was made up towards the end of the Dutch colonial period.

Do you think Suharto's way of thinking reflects what you wrote in 'The idea of power in Javanese culture' in 1972?

Suharto's speech can certainly be read as the words of a king in serious trouble, looking for a way to retain power. In olden times people believed that if there was an earthquake, or a volcanic eruption or an epidemic, these things signified that the divine light had moved from the king. Certainly a lot of people still believe that. As they see bad things happening these last two years the idea easily arises that Suharto's time of glory is ending. And indeed many think that the sun is now setting on the New Order. So in that regard, yes, it fits with 'The idea of power in Javanese culture'.

From Suharto's words we can see that he really has no idea of a presidency. The concept 'president' is hollow, illusory. Whereas the concept 'king' seems to him to fit with Javanese culture and tradition.

Whenever Suharto gives a formal speech it is full of western expressions: sustainable development, constitution, economic growth, etc. These speeches are of course written for him by his staff in the State Secretariat. But when he speaks off the cuff his language changes 100%. Then his Javaneseness dominates. He comes out with concepts that have no connection with modernity - for instance the mystical importance of the Javanese alphabet.

Suharto is a complicated man. He was born and raised in the transition between the old world and the modern. And remember that in the time of the kings there were no elections, no political parties, no non-government organisations, and no press. The situation today simply cannot be compared with those times.

After explaining his philosophy of succession, Suharto explained the job of a priest: 'First, to grow close to God Almighty; second, to raise offspring who are useful to the nation. And then to give advice to society, and to advise the powerful to lead from behind'. What do you think about this?

It's rather funny. In the world of the theatre people are respected for their experience and wisdom. But if the priest only feels it necessary to grow close to God Almighty after he has stepped down as king, it looks as if throughout his life he has been far away. It looks like someone about to die, who has to repent a little! Is that a good example? And then look at the words in detail. Which God does this priest want to grow close to? Aha, God Almighty. Wouldn't it be better and indeed more necessary to always grow closer to the All-Merciful and the All- Forgiving?

And then about raising offspring. This Suharto has been doing diligently for a long time. But to say they were raised to become useful to the nation, that's still some time off. Please note too that in former times the concept 'useful to the nation' didn't exist. So Suharto's 'traditional' thoughts about madeg pandito in fact have no connection with the real traditions.

The idea of leading from behind (tut wuri handayani) comes from Ki Hajar Dewantoro at the end of the colonial era. It was the philosophy of an aristocratic bureaucrat under the Dutch, the idea of the 'gentle command'. It has nothing to do with the theatre, and even less with the chronicles.

His thoughts on madeg pandito show that Suharto has a multicoloured mentality. There is the element of the little colonial aristocrat, there is the element of shadow puppet theatre, there is the Machiavellian element from the Javanese chronicles, there is a little bit of Ki Hajar Dewantoro, there are the remnants of nationalism from the revolutionary era, there is the influence of a military system first created by the Prussian army, and so on. It's like a mixed salad. That's what makes the man so interesting.

When Suharto speaks off the cuff it is as if he is standing before the public in his drawers. As if his presidential mask has been taken off, and we can see him as he is. I suspect that behind the mask he is an extraordinarily cold Javanese man. Exceptionally cold.

What do you mean?

Cold in the sense that everything is calculated. When he is cruel it is not because he is angry but because it is part of his strategy. He is very cautious, suspicious, rarely acts spontaneously. When he tries to be friendly we feel no warmth. We look right and left to see what he is hiding.

In order to retain their power, kings in olden times often sacrificed their own parents, their children, in-laws, friends. Is the same thing visible in the history of this king Suharto?

Well, Suharto's story is not yet over. Over the last thirty years he has in fact always tried to protect his extended family. Only now, in rather desperate straits, are we seeing things like the actions against the banks of his son Bambang or his half- brother Probosutedjo.

As for his friends, friendship should be a relation of equality. But because the king - who has absolute power - regards himself as the representative or even the child of the gods, he cannot think of anyone as an equal to him. And of course, since there is no law, constitution, and so on, the king is afraid that at any time someone might force him to do lengser keprabon. So he is always full of suspicion. The European kings also had no friends. Does Suharto have friends? I've never heard it.

Ben Anderson is professor of politics at Cornell University, USA, and has written numerous books and articles on Indonesia. Ben Abel also works at Cornell University. This is an extract of an interview in Indonesian that appeared on Indonesia-L in November 1997.

Inside Indonesia 54: Apr-Jun 1998