Reflections on Suharto

Benedict Anderson in the New Left Review:

I visited Surakarta in the spring of 1972, after the Suharto government had discovered that I had entered the country by roundabout methods and had informed me that I would be deported. After some negotiations, I was allowed two weeks to wind up my affairs and say farewell to friends. I took to the road with my Vespa and stopped briefly in Surakarta for a meal in the city’s pleasant amusement park. In those days, young ‘white’ men on Vespas who could also speak Indonesian fluently were a real curiosity, so my table was quickly surrounded by locals. When the topic of the mausoleum came up, I asked my new acquaintances what they thought of it. After an awkward silence, a skinny, intelligent old man replied, in Javanese: ‘It’s like a Chinese tomb.’ Everyone tittered. He had two things in mind: first, that in contrast to Muslim tombs, even those of grandees, which are very simple, Chinese tombs are or were as elaborate and expensive as the socially competitive bereaved could afford. Second, in the post-colony, many Chinese cemeteries had been flattened by bulldozers to make way for ‘high-end’ construction projects by the state and by private realtors, speculators and developers.

During the long noontide of the Suharto dictatorship, from the 1970s to the early 90s, three things happened to the mausoleum. It was gradually filled, almost to bursting, with the remains of Tientje’s para-aristocratic relations, but none of Suharto’s; it was heavily guarded by a unit of the Red Beret paratroopers who had organized the vast massacres of the Left in 1965–66; and it became a tourist attraction, especially for busloads of schoolchildren, so that it was always crowded with village women selling T-shirts, baseball caps, snacks, drinks and plaited bamboo fans. One thing did not happen: even after Tientje joined her relations not long before the Crash of 1997, the mausoleum never became sacred or magically powerful. After I was finally allowed back into the country in 1999, I often went to observe the site. No paratroopers, no busloads of children, only a desperate handful of vendors, a melancholy caretaker and the smell of a decaying building that had already endured a quarter of a century of annual monsoons. It remains to be seen what will happen to the place now that Suharto has finally joined his wife. To paraphrase Walter Abish: how Chinese is it?