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As he lays dying

Is the mysticism rooted in Java keeping Suharto alive?

January 17, 2008|Jeremy Wagstaff | Jeremy Wagstaff, a former reporter for Reuters and the Wall Street Journal in Asia, is writing a book on the fall of Suharto.

The island of Java holds a peculiar spiritual power among Indonesians, and the man who wielded it best is now holding the country in his thrall, even as he slips in and out of consciousness.

Suharto rose to power as a general, on the back of a murky attempted coup in 1965 that he may have had prior knowledge of. That night, he visited his hospitalized son and spent the rest of the dark hours either at home or at a nearby river as his fellow generals were murdered. His disposal of the president, Sukarno, on the night of March 11, 1966, was also conducted at arm's length, a trio of officers dispatched to force the president into ceding control as Suharto nursed a rare cold at home.

Suharto took power as a general, but his authority, his right to rule, had its roots in kebatinan -- the mysticism of Java. It's that mysticism, many Javanese believe, that is now prolonging his passing. "Medically, he should be dead," one Javanese told me. "Spiritually, he is still alive."

His battle against death, or his efforts to embrace it -- it's far from clear which -- holds national attention in a way that Suharto hasn't since he stepped down in disgrace nine years ago. Though he was careful to bury his beliefs beneath a layer of self-deprecating humor and, later, one of Islamic devotion, Suharto believed that he had been given the mandate to rule via his wife, Siti Hartinah, popularly known as Ibu Tien. As minor Javanese royalty, it was she who carried the wahyu -- divine mandate -- and she, at least in the early years, who had been assiduous in fostering it. After all, she had decided to marry him only after having a dream in which she was told he was on a mission from God.

Suharto, his wife and his mystical advisors, or dukun, had done all they could to buff his credentials as a man worthy of the wahyu. When he could, Suharto would slip away from Jakarta to spots around Java where two rivers merged, points considered holy for their twin sources of energy. There he would pray, bathe himself in incense, dress in clean clothes and then inch into the water toward the point at which he could feel the different temperatures as the two rivers met. When he was in central Java, he would visit Mangadeg, the foothill where his wife's ancestors were buried and where his final resting place now awaits.

His two dukun, meanwhile, would scour the country for pusaka -- sacred heirlooms -- that they believed would give Suharto the power to overcome Sukarno. A room in Suharto's modest Menteng home was filled with these artifacts, including Javanese knives, shields and sacred flowers. One of the most important was a wooden mask depicting the face of Gadjah Mada, the 14th century prime minister who was effectively more powerful than the Majapahit kings he served. Suharto's advisors retrieved the mask after much searching, praying and the cajoling of its guardian in a Bali temple. A special plane secretly carried the mask to Jakarta; a few months later, fortified by the possession of his pusaka, Suharto removed Sukarno as president and took the title for himself.

It is these pusaka that many Javanese believe are keeping Suharto alive. The pusaka, they say, have been absorbed into his body and must now be removed; any still in the family's possession must be returned. In a land where the insertion of charm needles, or susuk, under the skin to enhance beauty, health or charisma is still commonplace, this is not a surprising belief. One paranormal practitioner was quoted by the news website as saying that spiritually, Suharto must undertake a cleansing ritual to revoke all the power and mystical skills he has.

Still, a dilemma remains. The dukun who helped Suharto to power in the 1960s are long since dead, leaving no one with the skill and knowledge required to perform this ritual. And Suharto's wife, one as well-versed in mysticism as they, died in 1996.

So Suharto lives on, perhaps a few more days. Not all Indonesians, including those close to Suharto, believe in kebatinan. Not all believe that it is keeping him alive. But when I asked one Javanese whether he did, he said: "I believe that if half of the Javanese people believe it, then it's true." It's a fitting end for a man who was as adept at marshaling the power of the gun as he was of the power of the spirits.

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