Megawati: Indonesia’s Lady of Stamina
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Monday, September 23, 2019
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Megawati: Indonesia’s Lady of Stamina


By Andreas Harsono JULY, 2001 - VOLUME 9 NO.6


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After years of waiting in the political wilderness, Megawati Sukarnoputri has finally taken over Indonesia’s top job. Now the real test of her staying power begins. It was in late 1996, a few months after hundreds of thugs, soldiers, and policemen had violently taken over the headquarters of an Indonesian opposition party. Its chairwoman, Megawati Sukarnoputri, was having a quiet evening in her spacious garden house in the remote Kebagusan area in southern Jakarta. She finished her dinner when her brother, Guruh Sukarnoputra, called to say that he was feeling a bit unwell. Saying a few words in a big-sister-knows-best voice, Megawati told her youngest brother, "You’d better drink tea and mix it with honey. I found it effective. Make it dark." "And please don’t go out too much," she added. Then she hung up and returned to her guest. Her dining room is located in the middle of the house. More than six big glass windowpanes, from one of which the guest could see a swimming pool, surrounded it. A lush, tropical backyard dominates the room. In the garden is a fishpond filled with Japanese koi carp, swimming with their bright red, white, yellow, golden, and silver skins. "How was your trip to Burma?" Megawati asked her visitor. "I read your letter that mentioned your meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi," she continued. "How do you like her? Is the big bamboo house located in her compound still there?" This matronly figure, a woman made famous by her father’s name, was living in a political wilderness. It was not a surprise that she showed a great deal of interest in Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi. Perhaps it grew out of their similar fates. Suu Kyi’s party won a landslide election but was brutally repressed by the Burmese military. Megawati’s party was sidelined by the military-backed regime of President Suharto. Suharto did not want to see a Sukarno kid challenge his rule. Both Suu Kyi and Megawati are also the daughters of their countries’ founding fathers: General Aung San and Sukarno, respectively. The talk lasted for more than an hour. It was pretty late when Megawati walked her guest to the front gate. The compound was empty. Some guards, who usually man a small hut, were taking their evening prayer. "Why are there so few men here?" asked the visitor. "We face pressure everywhere," sighed Megawati. "How strong is your stamina to fight this political battle?" asked the visitor. "Hmm," she began thoughtfully. "That’s not the question. I have been trained to be involved in politics since I was inside my mother’s womb." "I wonder whether Soerjadi has the stamina," she continued, referring to her rival, who was installed by Suharto as a puppet leader of her Indonesian Democratic Party. Less than one year after that evening conversation, the Asian economic crisis struck Indonesia. The rupiah exchange rate to the American dollar dropped from 2,300 in July 1997 to more than 15,000 in May 1998. Riots broke out everywhere. Student protests were aimed directly at President Suharto, whose corrupt family had allegedly accumulated more than $40 billion since he rose to power in 1965. Suharto consolidated the military, installing his key men, including his son-in-law Prabowo Subianto, in strategic positions. His daughter Siti Hardiyanti Rukmana tightened the family’s control over the media. Suharto also invited the International Monetary Fund to help fend off the rupiah attack. Suharto’s inner circle even provoked anti-Chinese sentiment to deflect public anger away from his corrupt administration to this relatively well-off minority. But he failed. He was tired. In May 1998 Suharto stepped down in disgrace. A huge social movement swept the world’s forth most populous country. No one associated with his regime was immune to the anti-Suharto campaign. People were looking for alternative leaders. Pramoedya Ananta Toer, a former political prisoner and the author of The Buru Quartet and The Mute’s Soliloquy, wrote that Indonesia was entering a period of social revolution. Farmers who had had their land stolen from them during the Suharto period were now taking it back by force. "It can be seen in the protests by farmers outside regional parliament buildings. It can be seen in the attacks on hundreds of police and military posts. In the past, these very same people would have let themselves be robbed of their voices, but now they are fighting back. Whether they realize it or not, they are the vanguard of a social revolution. Now the nation needs a leader." But neither student leaders nor human rights activists had the power base to fill the vacuum. And so Megawati was immediately catapulted into this crisis. Her party won the largest number of votes in the 1999 election organized by Suharto’s successor, then-President B. J.


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