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THE WORLD

Indonesian 'Housewife' Has Major Cleanup Job

Politics: New President Megawati Sukarnoputri relies on low-key style.

July 25, 2001|RICHARD C. PADDOCK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They named her Megawati, which means "the lady of the cloud."

Megawati inherited her father's ardent nationalism but not his renowned gift of oratory. She grew up accustomed to a steady stream of Cabinet ministers, generals, ambassadors and other dignitaries visiting the palace. In the early 1960s, she went to Washington with her father and met President Kennedy, whom she recalls as "handsome" and "charming."

Today, much of her political philosophy is based on the concept of preserving the borders of the nation her father founded.

Sukarno was forced from power in 1966 when Gen. Suharto seized control to avert a purported Communist coup attempt. At least half a million people died--many of them Sukarno supporters--in a wave of bloodletting. Megawati was 18.

Suharto placed her father under house arrest and allowed only a few visits by family members before Sukarno died in 1970.

Forced to move from the palace, Megawati entered university but eventually dropped out in the face of political persecution, friends said.

She married a young air force officer who later died in an airplane crash. A second marriage to an Egyptian diplomat ended the same day and was annulled two weeks later because there had never been an official declaration of her first husband's death.

Recruited by Opposition

In 1973, she married Taufik Kiemas, a businessman who had spent three years in prison for his ardent support of Sukarno. Today, he is a lightning rod for her opponents who accuse him of shady dealings.

Megawati was indeed a housewife until 1986, when the Indonesian Democratic Party, one of the few opposition parties permitted under Suharto, invited her to join so it could benefit from the Sukarno name. She rose to head the party in 1993, in part on the strength of her nonconfrontational style.

"Silence does not mean not thinking," she said then.

In 1996, Suharto sought to put a stop to her rising influence by attacking her party headquarters, which led to the deaths of at least five people and helped trigger riots in Jakarta, the capital.

The collapse of the economy and massive street protests forced Suharto to step down in 1998 after 32 years in power. Megawati's party placed first in parliamentary elections in 1999, and she expected to be named president. But she did not control a majority in parliament, and she was outmaneuvered by Wahid, a childhood friend who quietly mustered support from Muslim leaders opposed to the idea of a female leader.

When her angry supporters began protesting her defeat, Wahid agreed to accept her as vice president.

Initially devastated by his betrayal, she put on the best public face she could. She called Wahid her "elder brother" and served him breakfast at her house nearly every Wednesday. She kept her silence when he called her "stupid" or demeaned her with sexist remarks.

When Wahid proved inept at running the government, parliamentary leaders forced the president to agree to a power-sharing arrangement with Megawati, but he soon went back on the deal.

On one occasion, according to her allies, she was supposed to appear before the media and announce changes in the Cabinet, but she left the palace after she and Wahid disagreed over the appointments. Wahid told reporters she wasn't there because she was taking a shower. "You know what women are like," he said.

Still, Megawati held her tongue. It was an effective strategy in a country where the public often sides with the person targeted by political charges, not the one making them.

"I think one should judge by the result," said Anwar, the former Habibie aide. "Not only is she president, but the whole assembly stood up and voted for her--the same assembly that rejected her 21 months ago. She must be doing something right."

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