How a Javanese Sultan Became a Hero of Democracy

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JOHN COLMEY YogyakartaHe is the 10th sultan in the tradition of the rulers of Mataram, the once-proud kingdom of Java. He has a law degree, looks great in a suit and loves dancing to pop music. In times of need, Hamengku Buwono X, Sultan of Yogyakarta, turns for counsel to his nine forefathers, whom he contacts through meditation in a small room forbidden to the 2,000 servants who inhabit the 5-sq-km perimeter of his palace in the center of the city-province. The Javanese believe he embodies the unseen forces at work in the world, and if other Indonesians can be convinced that he is a just ruler, the sultan has an outside chance of becoming his country's third president. That this self-proclaimed godfather of feudalism should become a hero of Indonesia's fledgling democracy is ironic. But the 51-year-old sultan joined anti-government protesters in the final days of the Suharto regime, believing he could use his status as a traditional monarch to empower the people further. On May 16, when Jakarta was still burning, the sultan drove into a sea of 500,000 people who had begun looting the normally serene college town. Standing before the crowd, with a booming voice, he persuaded the rioters to drop their stones and fight for reform without violence. Five days later, he invited hundreds of thousands of people to stage a peaceful protest in his palace in the center of Yogyakarta, calling on the military to side with the people against Suharto.PAGE 1  |    
For many, the sultan's actions carried with them the ultimate message to Suharto--one from a true king to a general who merely acted like one. In Javanese culture, the sultan says, a leader falters when his personal ambition overrides his duty to the people. What happened on that day was that we understood each other, he says. I understood what Suharto did, and he understood what I did. It wouldn't be the first time Indonesians looked to a sultan for leadership. In 1945 Sri Sultan Hamengku Buwono IX became a revolutionary hero (he would later serve as minister of defense and vice president) when he declared Yogyakarta a special province of the new Republic of Indonesia, while others were still hesitating or supporting the Dutch. The people didn't understand what a republic was, recalls Selo Sumarjan, an adviser to both the current sultan and his father. After his declaration, we all thought this republic must be all right. In the confusion accompanying the rough transition to democracy, the sultan is viewed as a rare source of courage. Last August, more than 100,000 people went into the streets of Yogyakarta to demand that the sultan become governor; faced with such an outpouring, a rival candidate proposed by the army withdrew. Can the sultan now ascend to the national stage? Many argue that he is either too nice, too honest or too unknown outside Java to be president. But two weeks ago Abdurraham Wahid, whose National Awakening Party wields the power of 40 million voters, told TIME he was considering supporting the Sultan--or else Megawati--for president. They are on the same level for me, Wahid said, but because many of our party members prefer to have a male candidate, I think he will win over Mega. The sultan is undecided on whether he would accept what he calls the job, in part, he says, because he once promised his late father that he wouldn't put personal ambition ahead of the people's welfare. Says the sultan: For me, it is difficult in terms of ethics. Now that's a word Indonesians don't hear in politics very often.With reporting by Zamira Loebis/Jakarta  |  2