Apr 24, 2024 Last Updated 1:12 AM, Apr 19, 2024

Megawati: 'Why not a woman President?'

Published: Sep 30, 2007


The day was 16 August. The previous day police interrogated her, for the second time. On the next, Indonesians were to celebrate 51 years of independence. It was impossible not to be conscious of the life size painting of the young Sukarno and former first lady Fatmawati looking down on their daughter. Comparisons between Aung San Suu Kyi and Megawati in the international press have been less than favourable to her: Mega is not as outspoken, not as strong, altogether not as impressive. I was therefore stunned by her determination, her quiet strength and her clarity of purpose.

What do you see as the central problems for Indonesia today? How is 'democratisation' a solution for these?

In one sense we already have a democratic history. Tomorrow we are going to celebrate 51 years of the Republic. The struggle for independence is a struggle for democracy - a universal dream of all nations.

Our problem today stems from the need to face up to the 21st century. The nation has to open itself up to a further wave of democratisation. If it does not, Indonesia is in trouble. We need to understand the dynamic global issues of our time, including human rights and the environment. The New Order has not been able to resolve problems to do with land, labour, unemployment, corruption. These heighten the level of dissatisfaction in society. The gap between rich and poor is increasingly obvious. We cannot look just at Jakarta or the large cities of Java alone. We are after all the largest island nation in the world. We find the reality of inequality in Indonesia throughout these myriads of islands.

How do you solve these problems?

We have a constitution framed by the founders of the nation. In it there is a commitment to equality. There is also a commitment to free speech. PDI is fighting to ensure that these are properly re- instituted once again. The lack of transparency in our system leads to corruption. See for instance how much productive land is put to unproductive uses such as golf courses.

We live on one earth. We need to remind foreign investors too that they may cut down our trees for one decade, but in the end we all suffer from such thoughtless foreign investment.

Some observers are saying there is a political stalemate that will last perhaps until the next election. The government cannot arrest Megawati. But also you have no room for political manoeuvre. So, will things be quiet until the next election?

No. No. I am sure I am still the chairman of PDI even if the government does not give its blessing to me. The members of the PDI still regard me as their leader because I was elected by the grassroots. I am the only party leader in the history of the New Order who has been elected from the grass roots. This is what the government does not like. Thus far all other leaders have attained their position mainly through the blessing of the government... like Soerjadi. It is an engineering by the government that has truly antagonised our members.

The earlier elections were calculated on the computer, not in the ballot box. In 1992 we got 56 of the 400 contested seats. But I am convinced that if that election had been truly honest, we would have got more than 80 seats. And that would have been even more obvious in 1997. For this I have been toppled!

Yesterday you were angry at the comment by the Armed Forces Chief of Social and Political Affairs, Lt-Gen Syarwan Hamid, that you wanted to be Cory Aquino. Why were you angry about that?

I have a lot of respect for Cory Aquino. But I am Megawati Sukarnoputri. And I live in Indonesia. Our social and cultural context is different. There might be some similarities at the personal level - at least we are both housewives! What I don't agree with is the easy equation that can be engineered: that I equate with Cory, and I have a supporter amongst the religious groups, so Gus Dur [Abdurrahman Wahid] is Cardinal Sin. If so, who is the 'Ramos'?

Do you see the comparison as an attempt to define you as a rebel?

Quite possibly. It is an attempt to label me as a revolutionary. But where would I get the funds for such a revolution? Doesn't government intelligence keep track of money flows in this country? PDI does not have the capacity to fund a revolution. If I could get to the stage where I could organise a revolution that would suggest that the intelligence system is very weak indeed.

Who are the politicians you admire? Your father?

(With a laugh) Naturally he did influence me as a person, as I lived with him for many years. But I also learnt a lot from his nationalist friends. I was surrounded in my early years not just by politicians but by nationalists.

Are there any women amongst your political idols?

There are. And I do try to learn about women political heroes, not just in Indonesia. I find it a little unfortunate that, in the way Indonesian history is recorded, the lives of our women heroes are not adequately documented. These women mostly remain names. Very little of their life and work is known to us. Fortunately Raden Ajeng Kartini's thoughts have been preserved - only because she had foreign friends.

If you get enough support from the grass-roots will you stand for the Presidency in 1998?

(Long silence) There's still two years. (Another pause) And these will be interesting times for the democratisation process in Indonesia. At this moment, we are, as a nation, going through a period of transition. This will be reflected in our political stances and actions.

Will Indonesia be ready for a female President then?

I don't know. But if we look at traditional stories there are plenty of women heroes. Perhaps, as I said, their stories have not been told very well - who they were, what they achieved. Our traditions have a very significant place for the mother. In some parts of our country, like West Sumatra, we have matri-focal communities. There were Ruling Queens in the ancient kingdoms of Sriwijaya and Majapahit. So why not a woman President?

If you become President what will be your first act?

Please don't ask that. I don't like the question. (Laugh. Pause) I am an optimist. I just do not like 'if'!

I should have said when you become President.... I recently heard a senior Indonesian observer say PDI under Megawati is the first real political party, in the Western democratic sense, that the New Order has seen. This is the first time a party does not deny its desire to capture government, with a leader willing and able to be thought of as an alternative national leader. Do you agree?

I will not say whether I agree or not. But if we look at history we can see that Indonesian political life is stilted. In 51 years of independence, the nation has only had two Presidents. The first was President Sukarno, who was declared President for Life by the MPR (Upper House). And this is not entirely in accordance with our constitution. But the MPR as the highest state institution has the right to determine the mandate of the President. So that's how it happened the first time. Now for five successive elections, and a sixth one to come, we have had the same incumbent President, President Suharto.

But as I said earlier, Indonesia's political life is in the throes of transition. I am confident that despite all the changes Indonesia will continue to exist as a cohesive nation-state. And for that we need a President for the future. We need a third and a fourth and a fifth president, and so on.

You seem critical of your father acquiring the Presidency for life. So if... when... his daughter becomes President will she make sure that no one can again become President for life?

It isn't a question of whether it is I or someone else who ensures that. We are yet to enact laws that relate to the office of the President. PDI has recognised for some time that we need to work at this. It was on our agenda even before I became party leader. But we face difficulties in parliament. No legislation can be initiated without the support of at least two of the four factions. I am pessimistic about the prospect of the Abri or Golkar factions supporting such a legislation. Even PPP is doubtful.

You are frequently compared to Aung San Suu Kyi by Western observers. How do you fee about that?

As I feel about comparisons with Cory. I admire Aung San Suu Kyi. But my national political context is different. Burma is much smaller. This is not to belittle the nation or its struggle. But to point out that our situations are very different.

What do you see as the main differences between the New Order government and its predecessor?

I do not think that such a demarcation between the Old and New Orders is viable. What is the point? Isn't President Suharto also an Old Order man? He was my father's officer. Aagh! I don't agree. In fact it is a continuum. The unfolding of Indonesian people's history. How can we claim 51 years of independence, and then suddenly draw a line through it? Where is that line?Where? And what about now? Is this Order still new? Look at the age of our rulers. Will the new generation look for another new term? New New Order? The Newest Order?

As I see it the judgement has been much too subjective. The tendency has been to say all that was in the Old Order was bad and all that the New Order has done is good. This kind of picture has become embedded in our psychologies. But we should be able to respond to that by saying that when my father was President we achieved some difficult territorial unity - the return of West Irian to Indonesia. And in the New Order (which I must refer to as such, though I do not approve of that name) we have a similar struggle to unite East Timor. Though there are problems with that integration, I do not think we can move backwards....

So in the case of East Timor you agree with the current government?

I believe it is an inseparable part of Indonesia.

Sailendri is the pseudonym of an Asian academic teaching in an Australian university.

Inside Indonesia 48: Oct-Dec 1996

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