In Indonesia, A Sultan's Power Is Challenged

Sultan Hamengkubowono X and Prince Charles watch a traditional dance in Indonesia's former royal capital, Yogyakarta, in 2008. The sultan has also served as the unelected governor of Yogyakarta, an arrangement that is now being challenged. i i

Sultan Hamengkubowono X and Prince Charles watch a traditional dance in Indonesia's former royal capital, Yogyakarta, in 2008. The sultan has also served as the unelected governor of Yogyakarta, an arrangement that is now being challenged. John Stillwell/PA Photos/Landov hide caption

itoggle caption John Stillwell/PA Photos/Landov
Sultan Hamengkubowono X and Prince Charles watch a traditional dance in Indonesia's former royal capital, Yogyakarta, in 2008. The sultan has also served as the unelected governor of Yogyakarta, an arrangement that is now being challenged.

Sultan Hamengkubowono X and Prince Charles watch a traditional dance in Indonesia's former royal capital, Yogyakarta, in 2008. The sultan has also served as the unelected governor of Yogyakarta, an arrangement that is now being challenged.

John Stillwell/PA Photos/Landov

Indonesia is one of the world's largest democracies and it also has a long history of kings. The country's royal traditions and modern politics are now at odds over the Sultan of Yogyakarta, who has maintained his privileged status while doubling as an unelected provincial governor.

The political tussle began a year ago when Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhono proposed that the governor of Yogyakarta be elected by the people.

Not surprisingly, Sultan Hamengkubowono X, along with his supporters, are resisting the move.

Widodo, who uses just one name, is a 73-year-old court retainer and one of more than 2,000 guards, cooks and artisans who serve the court. Dressed in a batik sarong and cap, he says that folks in Yogyakarta object to the president's proposed change.

"I disagree with the idea of electing our governor," he says, puffing on a myrrh-scented cigarette. "Most Jogjakartans can't accept it either. This place is special. The sultanate existed before the Republic of Indonesia was created."

"So our president knows nothing," he adds dismissively.

Court retainer Widodo says the people of Yogyakarta do not agree with Indonesia's president, who wants to hold elections for the post of provincial governor. The job has been held by the unelected Sultan of Yogyakarta. i i

Court retainer Widodo says the people of Yogyakarta do not agree with Indonesia's president, who wants to hold elections for the post of provincial governor. The job has been held by the unelected Sultan of Yogyakarta. Yosef Riadi /For NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Yosef Riadi /For NPR
Court retainer Widodo says the people of Yogyakarta do not agree with Indonesia's president, who wants to hold elections for the post of provincial governor. The job has been held by the unelected Sultan of Yogyakarta.

Court retainer Widodo says the people of Yogyakarta do not agree with Indonesia's president, who wants to hold elections for the post of provincial governor. The job has been held by the unelected Sultan of Yogyakarta.

Yosef Riadi /For NPR

Source Of High Culture

Yogyakartans care about the sultanate because it's known as the wellspring of Javanese high culture. That includes the rich batik cloth, the epic Hindu Ramayana ballet and the gamelan music ensembles that draw visitors here from around the world.

The sultans themselves were once seen as semi-divine beings, descended from the 16th to 18th-century Mataram Kingdom, and before that, the rulers of the Majapahit Empire, who held sway over much of Southeast Asia from the 13th to 16th centuries.

Prince Prabukusumo is the current sultan's younger brother. Speaking in his ornate home within the royal walled city, he says that Javanese are also proud of the sultan's role as a guardian of tolerance towards their diverse Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist religious heritage. He points out that this role is embodied in the pendopo, a characteristic building in Javanese palace architecture.

"In other countries, presidents or kings sit with their backs to the wall, for security," he explains. "But the sultan of Java sits in the middle of a wall-less hall. The philosophy is that all winds can touch his body. The wind symbolizes the voice of the people."

A Symbolic Position?

Many Indonesians admire the current sultan's father, Hamengkubowono IX, as a shrewd political player who has consistently picked the winning side in times of conflict.

For example in 1945, he staked his money and legitimacy on the fledgling republic of Indonesia in its war against its former Dutch colonial masters. In 1998, he sided with reformers who ousted the dictator Suharto.

Prince Prabukusumo emphasizes that his father sacrificed his very own sovereignty to help establish the nation.

 Prince Prabukusumo, younger brother of the Sultan of Yogyakarta, in his home inside the Sultanate's walled city. He says the Sultan's two abortive bids for the presidency are the real reason Indonesia's president has challenged the Sultan's role as unelected provincial governor. i i

Prince Prabukusumo, younger brother of the Sultan of Yogyakarta, in his home inside the Sultanate's walled city. He says the Sultan's two abortive bids for the presidency are the real reason Indonesia's president has challenged the Sultan's role as unelected provincial governor. Yosef Riadi /For NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Yosef Riadi /For NPR
 Prince Prabukusumo, younger brother of the Sultan of Yogyakarta, in his home inside the Sultanate's walled city. He says the Sultan's two abortive bids for the presidency are the real reason Indonesia's president has challenged the Sultan's role as unelected provincial governor.

Prince Prabukusumo, younger brother of the Sultan of Yogyakarta, in his home inside the Sultanate's walled city. He says the Sultan's two abortive bids for the presidency are the real reason Indonesia's president has challenged the Sultan's role as unelected provincial governor.

Yosef Riadi /For NPR

"This was a tremendous sacrifice of dignity," he says emphatically, "because the sultanate erased its own national name to become a mere part of the republic. Can you imagine that?"

The sultan's gamble paid off, and Indonesia's constitution was written so that he could serve as both monarch and governor. Indonesia's House of Representatives is now debating how to resolve the current dispute.

Political scientist Purwo Santoso of Yogyakarta's Gadjah Mada University advocates preserving the sultanate as a symbolic position, above the fray of partisan politics.

"We came up with the idea of establishing new institution," he says, "which allows the sultan [to be] the most respected person in the province, but he's not subject to election, and then someone else serves as governor, and he's the one elected in accordance with the constitution."

In pre-colonial times, many Southeast Asian nations were ruled by sultans. Some still are, for example, the tiny Sultanate of Brunei. What professor Santoso is suggesting is basically a constitutional monarchy at the local level, within a modern republic.

"It's like a mixture between traditional legacy, on one hand, and the modern structure we inherit from colonial rule," he explains. "And we're now in confusion, so to speak, on how to plan them together in one coherent system."

But Prince Prabukusumo suggests that his brother may not settle for being a mere figurehead.

The sultan has made two abortive electoral bids for Indonesia's presidency, and that, his brother claims, is the real reason President Yudhoyono has challenged him.

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