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The Suharto Museum

Published: Jul 30, 2007

What gifts did Aussie prime ministers bestow on President Suharto?

Pam Allen

Near the entrance gates to Taman Mini in Jakarta stands an impressive complex of conical towers that resemble tumpeng, the cone-shaped Javanese ceremonial yellow rice dish. Opened in 1993, this is the Museum Purna Bhakti Pertiwi. Most people simply refer to it as the Suharto Museum.

It was built by Yayasan Purna Bhakti Pertiwi. As is now well documented, Suharto has misappropriated funds from numerous foundations (or yayasan) of which he is head. He began establishing these yayasan in the early days of his regime, ostensibly to help the poor and disadvantaged, but they soon became a convenient means of money laundering. Yayasan Purna Bhakti Pertiwi is relatively new, and it officially owns only the museum. But its profits have skyrocketed because it in fact also has a twenty-two percent share in the company Citra Marga Nusaphala Persada (CMNP). Suharto's daughter Tutut is the major shareholder in this company, which manages a lucrative toll-road in the capital that some call 'Tutut's highway'.

The building is a stunning piece of architecture, but its collections are even more breathtaking. Meticulously curated, the museum contains all the gifts of state presented to Suharto and Ibu Tien during his 32 years as president of Indonesia.

This may sound somewhat dry. I must admit my initial interest in visiting the museum was curiosity about what sort of gifts Suharto may have received from successive Australian prime ministers, especially Gough Whitlam.

But this is no motley collection of tacky souvenirs. Covering three massive floors, and requiring at least half a day to view properly, the titles of the collections give a hint of the sheer volume of exhibits, and their opulence. As well as displays of paintings and collections of bone carving, silver and crystal that occupy entire walls, there is a precious stone necklace collection, a lacquer collection, glass cases full of exotic perfume, a marble collection, and a collection of tin soldiers. And this is a mere fraction of what is on display.

Then there is the Chinese jade bed, a gift from the (Suharto-related) Probosutedjo family. Along with businessman Sudwikatmono (also related), they were the prime financial backers of the museum, contributing Rp 300 million to its construction. The full size four-poster bed, a replica of one from the Ch'ing Dynasty, takes pride of place on the ground floor of the museum. Made entirely of jade, it is intricately carved and decorated and simply exquisite - though presumably somewhat uncomfortable to sleep on.

Empire in decline?

The most tantalising question as one gapes in awe at this ostentatious display of affluence and beauty is of course: 'What does it mean?' Is it a symptom of an empire in decline, building monuments to itself? Or was it an attempt by Suharto to accumulate sakti, the cosmic energy central to Javanese notions of power?

Benedict Anderson once (in a 1973 paper) wrote about the many extravagant monuments Sukarno built in the last years of his presidency. They can certainly all be interpreted as signalling a link to the past. But it is also possible to read them differently. In particular the phallic National Monument in Merdeka Square, in the heart of the city, is the symptom of a regime in decline. The regime is trying to secure some sort of permanency for itself in the form of dramatic, highly visible concrete structures. It is impossible to drive around Jakarta without being constantly reminded of the man who ordered the construction of these monuments. Sukarno thus immortalised himself in concrete, steel and gold.

When the Museum Puma Bhakti Pertiwi was built in 1993, Suharto had no inkling yet of the economic and political crises which were to cause his downfall. But he must have known that his remaining years as president were numbered. Like Sukarno before him, he may have viewed the construction of the museum (like the establishment of Taman Mini itself) as a way of making a dramatic mark on the Jakarta landscape, an extravagant structure which would long outlast him.

The Taman Mini site is in itself richly symbolic. The cultures of all twenty-seven provinces are on display at this massive government-funded theme park. (When I visited Taman Mini in August 2000, the 'East Timor' pavilion was still standing proud, with no mention of its newly independent status.) It introduced domestic and foreign visitors to the most visually exciting aspects of those cultures. Taman Mini was designed to symbolise the New Order's support for regional diversity (at least at the visual and decorative level), as well as its success in maintaining harmony among such diverse cultures.

One of the ways in which a Javanese leader traditionally ensured his continued rule was to accumulate sakti, the cosmic energy which manifests itself as political power. Because the amount of sakti in the universe is finite, a ruler should be constantly accumulating as much of it as he can. A ruler traditionally does this through ascetic practices such as meditation, fasting and making pilgrimages to holy sites. Sakti can also be accumulated by collecting objects that have supernatural qualities (pusaka), such as the revered Javanese sword, the keris.

In postcolonial Indonesia, some scholars have identified new methods of accumulating sakti. One that Suharto used a lot was to turn historical figures with presumably a great deal of sakti into National Heroes. The seventeenth century Javanese ruler Sultan Agung, the seventeenth century warrior Untung Suropati, the nineteenth century warrior prince Diponegoro, and Sukarno were all examples. The Russian scholar Victor Pogadaev thinks the logic may be that a leader who praises such great figures of the past will receive, through sympathetic magic, some of their power.

Immortalising oneself in concrete and steel may be interpreted as another contemporary method of accumulating sakti. The physical forms of both Sukarno's and Suharto's final monuments - the much-alluded-to phallic style of the National Monument, and the significance to Javanese ritualism of the tumpeng style of the Suharto Museum - can be read as highly visible and extravagant attempts to accumulate the supernatural power needed for continued rule.

Queensland premier

So, to return to the original motivation for my visit to the museum, what gifts did the Australians give Suharto? It is hard to avoid the conclusion that, when compared to the sumptuous fabrics, the ornate silver, the priceless china - and of course the jade bed - the gifts successive Australian leaders made seem rather paltry. There is a bronze statue of an Australian soldier on a horse in a symbolic encounter with a water buffalo. It was obviously seen as a highly appropriate theme, because slightly different versions of the same statue were presented on two separate occasions.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer once presented a rather nice modernist leather wall hanging made by a prominent Canberra artist. But, juxtaposed against luxurious Middle-Eastern fabrics and African textiles, it looks rather tacky and - well, small. The prize for kitsch, however, goes to a copper clock in the shape of Australia, presented by a certain Queensland premier. Not only is Tasmania missing (an unforgivable omission of course), and not only is it hanging askew on the wall (below a very tasteful clock made of mosaics of jade - not a gift from Australia), the total effect of shiny Copperart copper overlaid with cute silhouettes of native animals severely tests the limits of good taste.

I searched in vain for the gifts Gough Whitlam must have made to President Suharto. Until my companion suggested to me that perhaps East Timor was too big to be contained even in a museum of these dimensions.

Pam Allen (Pam.Allen@utas.edu.au) is senior lecturer in Indonesian at the University of Tasmania, Hobart.

Inside Indonesia 68: Oct - Dec 2001

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