Sukarno memorabilia boosts Blitar

The Jakarta Post, June 18, 2007

To glean some understanding of Javanese mysticism and a sense of this nation's complex history, be in Blitar on June 20. This is the eve of the death of Indonesia's first president, Sukarno, and a major date in the calendar of those who revere his name. The Jakarta Post contributor Duncan Graham reports from the East Java town.
Once a month on Legi Jumat (Friday in the Javanese calendar), Misril dons her best sarong and lacy, white kebaya (traditional blouse). She pins back her hair in a chignon and adds two small flower-shaped gold earrings. Leaning on the arm of her nephew Karyadi, the 70-year-old shuffles up the polished marble steps and into the sanctuary.
She enters the pendopo, a pillared, open-walled traditional Javanese structure with a richly carved timber ceiling, within which are three graves. The smaller one in the center is strewn with leaves and flowers, adorned by a headstone of a huge black boulder.
Misril carries a tiny plastic bag of pink and yellow petals that she squeezes into the carpet of flowers as she prays. Then she moves away and others take her place. Most are also in formal dress.
"I ask for safety for my family and four grandchildren, and I've always received that," she said in Kromo, or high Javanese. Misril does not understand Bahasa Indonesia.
"Bung (brother) Karno struggled for Indonesia. He saw no difference between the rich and poor. His soul comes to me in my dreams and tells me to go to his grave.
"I wanted to meet him when he was alive, but that was difficult. Now I can visit him any day," she said.
Indonesia's first president died aged 69 under virtual house arrest on June 21, 1970. This was five years after he was deposed by Gen. Soeharto following a bloody coup allegedly engineered by communists, though this remains a matter of dispute.
Sukarno was buried in an austere cemetery in his hometown of Blitar, about five hours south of Surabaya by car. The story goes that Soeharto feared his predecessor's grave could become a focal point for fomenting opposition to his New Order government if it was located in Jakarta.
At first, Sukarno was remembered officially only as the Proklamator, the man who happened to proclaim the Declaration of Independence on August 17, 1945 -- as though he was a bit player in the struggle for the Republic, not its main architect.
Later, when Soeharto was well entrenched, it was deemed politically safe to rehabilitate the nation's first president. In 1979, the present grand pendopo was built to house the body of Sukarno and his parents.
As expected, the grave has become a shrine. In the arid Saudi Arabian version of Islam, Muslims are not supposed to pray at tombs, but in Indonesia that rule is widely ignored.
For Blitar, the grave has become a major earner with the Bung Karno industry showing no sign of collapsing, despite the passing of the generation that lived during Sukarno's turbulent times.
The local authorities have done a good job at crowd control, having built a huge bus and car lot away from the tomb and museum, and setting up a park-and-drive system using becak (pedicabs) at a fixed fee.
For Rp 15,000 (US$1.70), visitors can be wheeled to all locations of interest and back to their vehicle, then have a meal at the scores of stalls there while fending off trinket sellers.
Karno kitsch is everywhere, from key rings to T-shirts, clocks and other down-market memorabilia. There are photos and busts aplenty, though the artists who duplicate Sukarno's image show little respect for reality.
Visitors can choose from among many versions of the great man -- leonine, saturnine, lean, plump, feisty or thoughtful -- but always dapper.
Official presentations of the past gloss over Sukarno's sexual adventures, and the badly arranged museum has masses of historical documents and happy family photos: Sukarno with wife Fatmawati and five children, including Megawati who was to become the nation's fifth president.
But outside, roadside vendors offer the unauthorized versions that list the founding father's nine wives and 11 offspring in a smudged, photocopied document titled Don Juan, the Skilled Lover. According to this literature, his preference tended toward younger women, with an age gap ranging from 39 to 46 years for his last five wives.
Here is but one paradox that confuses the outsider who might have expected Sukarno to have been condemned for such affairs; instead they added to his stature.
Sukarno was a master orator and possibly the only person of the time who could have rallied the masses to fight for Independence. But history shows he fumbled the economy and botched foreign affairs.
All this has been forgotten in Blitar, where the worshipers speak only in respectful terms of the "good old days". Any Westerner wanting to know more should just sit quietly in the shade at the site and wait awhile.
It won't take long before they are given history lessons never written and anecdotes that turn Sukarno into a demi-god, a man of mystery and magic who can still influence the present.
"Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono visited the grave before he became President," said retired military man Susilo Adji, who was on a pilgrimage from Jakarta. "He should return again to receive more wisdom on how to run Indonesia."

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