May 23, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

Star Wars

Published: Sep 12, 2007

Marshall Clark

The fact that Titanic was the most popular movie in Indonesia in the months around Suharto's fall seems to have escaped the attention of most Indonesia observers.

This is surprising because the sinking of the Titanic can easily be viewed as a microcosm of the Indonesia of 1998. Sinking ship? Crisis-ravaged Indonesian economy. Resolute yet flawed captain paralysed by the approaching doom? A smiling Suharto in the face of the Asian economic 'iceberg', the IMF and the students. The band playing on? Wiranto, Habibie and Harmoko, not to mention Gus Dur and even Megawati, singing the same old tunes, or looking askance, until the penultimate moments, despite the water lapping at their ankles. The ill-fated lower-class passengers locked below decks? The huge numbers of Indonesians, many of them recently unemployed, suffering in silence, cutting back on meals, movies and medicine.

The parallels between Titanic and Indonesia may still be going on, and on, and on. However in 1999 a slightly different 'Hollywood parallel' may provide a fresh insight. The movie of the year of course is Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace. The Suharto/ Habibie/ Golkar dynasty is easily representable as 'the dark side' of the Force, the Imperial Empire. The Sukarno/ Megawati/ anti-status quo dynasty keenly represents its antithesis, the Rebel Alliance, led by Princess Leia. In Star Wars, Imperial Stormtroopers oppose Jedi Knights; in Indonesia the armed forces are at odds with the students.

In each Star Wars blockbuster the ever-dependable droids R2D2 and C-3PO save the day; in Indonesia the impact of technology cannot be overestimated. The electronic media was crucial in maintaining the momentum of the student movement, particularly in the few days after the shooting of the Trisakti students in mid-May 1998, when commercial television news broadcasts were completely uncensored.

Sukarno Skywalker

The masses seem to be caught in a bind. They simultaneously desire and disavow a charismatic leader in the mould of, say, Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, or dare I say it, Sukarno. A larger-than-life cartoon superhero to lead the good guys, defeat the bad guys, and bring the survivors to the promised land.

All three Indonesian presidents have aligned themselves, either deliberately or inadvertently, with Indonesia's equivalent of the Star Wars mythology - the Javanese wayang shadow puppet theatre, based on the epic Indian tales of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Although the impact is hard to measure, the role this has played in the 'social imagining' of each leader, particularly in densely populated Java, cannot be discounted.

Sukarno, born in Java and exposed to wayang tales from an early age, often associated himself with Bima, one of the righteous Pandawa brothers, usually considered 'the good guys' of the Mahabharata. Bima is a headstrong warrior who refuses to speak the more honorific register of Javanese. He bravely helps his brothers, especially during their thirteen years in the wilderness.

However, destiny drew Sukarno much closer to his namesake Karno, the blood brother of the Pandawa brothers who was abandoned by his mother and adopted by the Kurawas, the 'bad guys' of the Mahabharata (who appear on the left-hand side of the wayang screen). Although Karno is respected for his unswerving loyalty to the Kurawa clan, he is also condemned for it, as he is fully aware of the Kurawa's shortcomings, not to mention the Pandawa's legitimate claim to the throne. Similarly, Sukarno was eventually perceived as being too closely aligned with 'the left' of the political stage, the Indonesian Communist Party. With the ferocious anticommunist massacres of the mid-1960s, Sukarno found himself on the wrong side of the fence and, like the Kurawa, unable to defy fate.

Bring on the clowns!

A similar pattern is perceivable with Suharto. Like Sukarno, he tried his absolute best to align himself with one of the more popular wayang characters. He came to power in 1966 through an enigmatic document entitled 'Supersemar', the 'written order' of 11th March 1966. Semar is a much-loved clown, often known as 'the people's god'. Grotesque and hopelessly obese, he is neither man nor woman. More importantly, he is the incarnation of the brother of the supreme deity in the Hindu-Javanese pantheon, and as such is more powerful than any other wayang superhero.

However, no matter how often Suharto encouraged Indonesia's top wayang puppeteers to present Semar in a positive light, numerous writers, artists and lesser-known puppeteers used Semar against his would-be benefactor. Putu Wijaya, Seno Gumira Ajidarma, Emha Ainun Nadjib, Danarto, Nano Riantiarno and Sindhunata, to name but a few, 'rescued' Semar in the 1990s and placed him back amongst his own kind, the Indonesian masses.

By the time Suharto was shunted off the political stage, younger puppeteers such as Ki Purba Asmara and Ki Sujiwo Tedjo, and writers such as Martin Suhartono and Whani Darmawan, roundly associated Suharto with one of the most unlikable wayang characters in existence. I'm speaking here of Rahwana, the evil ten-headed ogre-king of the Kingdom of Alengka, who in the Ramayana cycle lusts after and kidnaps Princess Sinta, wife of Prince Rama.

King for a day

The key to understanding Habibie's intriguing position in the wayang pantheon can be found in Butet Kertaredjasa's epic monologue, Lidah masih pingsan ('The paralysed tongue is still paralysed'), which was performed and recorded before huge audiences in Yogyakarta and Jakarta in August 1998.

The highlight of this performance was Butet's ability to mimic the vocal style of both Suharto and Habibie. Equally memorable was an extended conversation between one of the protagonists and Gareng, a wayang puppet. Gareng is yet another wayang clown, the adopted son of Semar no less. Gareng is short and hotheaded with beady eyes. He is, of course, physically and mentally a spitting image of Habibie.

By placing Gareng centre-stage and providing him with an idiosyncratic vocal delivery not unlike Habibie's, the wayang plot Petruk dadi ratu ('Petruk becomes king') comes to mind. For various reasons Petruk, Gareng's clown brother, becomes a caretaker king. Naturally he quite enjoys sitting on the throne, and makes the most of the situation, with hilarious results. The parallel with Habibie's year in power, distinguished by an at times dangerously over-zealous desire for reform, is self-explanatory.

Obi-Wan Wiranto?

So, where does all this lead us? As I hinted earlier, Indonesian political culture contains an undue emphasis on symbolism, charisma, aura and semi-mythical legitimisation. For centuries the long-suffering people, in particular the Javanese, have been dreaming of the arrival of the prophesied 'just ruler' (ratu adil), who will bring in a period of peace and prosperity. No presidential candidate, or incumbent president for that matter, has even a glimmer of hope unless they can capture the collective imagination. Perhaps this explains why Habibie, Amien Rais and Gus Dur have had it against them from the beginning of the post-Suharto era, despite their undoubted political acumen and earnest commitment to reform.

Megawati meanwhile has a perfect pedigree with which to assume mythological proportions. Her father was Sukarno need I say more? Then again, a charisma-challenged Megawati is but a pale imitation of Sukarno. But image is everything, and in the aftermath of the June 7 election, Megawati appeared to be the only leader who had captured the popular magination.

However, this counts for little in the presidential elections, where public support is theoretically irrelevant. Then again, unless a black horse candidate makes a late run, Megawati's only serious contenders for the presidential title - General Wiranto and Sultan Hamengkubuwono X - also depend to a certain extent on their own semi-mythical aura.

Wiranto of course is a dark horse himself. Paradoxically, he was relatively well respected by the students in 1998, despite the unpopular actions of various 'rogue elements' in the armed forces. However, due to unchecked military brutality in the past year, Wiranto seems to have lost this earlier respect.

Wiranto is in effect the Obi-Wan Kenobi of the political scene: a diplomat, an enforcer of peace, ambitious and authoritative. However, if he doesn't choose his friends and advisors wisely, or mentor his proteges carefully, he could well set Indonesia further along the path to 'the dark side'.

Meanwhile, the Sultan of Yogyakarta is the embodiment of mystical power for millions of Javanese. Yoda, one of the greatest yet most unassuming Jedi Masters, very powerful with the Force, comes to mind here. Seriously though, if any potential political leader in Indonesia appears to be uncorrupted by taint or self-interest of any sort, it seems to be the Sultan.

Then again Yoda, like Obi-Wan Kenobi, was never meant to be a leader in his own right, but rather a go-between who uses his wisdom, deep insight and profound abilities to train young would-be Jedi Knights, 'the galaxy's last hope'. When the next Indonesian president is chosen we might pause to remember Yoda's enigmatic words: 'No, there is another'.

Marshall Clark ( is an associate lecturer at the University of Tasmania. He is writing a PhD on modern Indonesian literature at the Australian National University.

Inside Indonesia 60: Oct-Dec 1999

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