Indonesian 'Housewife' Has Major Cleanup Job


Critics of Megawati Sukarnoputri like to say she is merely a housewife with a famous name who enjoys gardening, shopping and watching cartoons. When she served as vice president, then-President Abdurrahman Wahid publicly called her "stupid." Other detractors dubbed her "Miniwati."

But today her foes are calling her something else: president.

Megawati, 54, the quiet, matronly daughter of Indonesia's founding president, Sukarno, was sworn in Monday as the nation's fifth head of state. A child of privilege who grew up in the presidential palace, she survived political persecution under military dictator Suharto and defied the odds to become the first woman to lead this predominantly Muslim nation.

"It appears that I am considered to be a housewife," she said in a television interview last month. "I say to those people who belittle housewives: What's wrong with that? It doesn't mean a housewife doesn't understand politics."

With her low-key style and guarded silence, the enigmatic Megawati has managed to become the most popular politician in Indonesia today. And despite resistance to the idea of a woman president, she won the overwhelming support of the 700-member People's Consultative Assembly on Monday after it removed Wahid from office.

Now Megawati must find a way to address the intractable problems of the world's fourth-most-populous nation: huge government debt, massive unemployment, rampant lawlessness, widespread environmental destruction and brutal separatist and religious wars.

"We don't need somebody who is a genius," said Eros Djarot, Megawati's former political advisor and a friend from childhood. "We need somebody who is humble enough to be a good manager. We need a president who can work together in teamwork, who can listen to other people."

A Political Survivor

Among those who know her, Megawati has gained a reputation as a good listener and sharp questioner. Shrewd and secretive, supporters say, she is hesitant to trust people, a tendency reinforced during years of operating under the Suharto dictatorship.

She makes decisions slowly and carefully--too slowly, some say--but she does not reverse herself once she has made up her mind.

"I think she is not a dim bulb," said Jeffrey Winters, a professor at Northwestern University and an Indonesia expert who has known Megawati for a decade. "Indonesia's political scene is particularly treacherous. It is not easy to survive, much less thrive. She has shown herself to be a survivor. For the Indonesian context, she has a sophisticated political instinct."

The new president likes operating in an arena where rivals underrate her. "If your foes are constantly underestimating you, that's good," a friend quoted her as saying after her inauguration.

Sometimes, however, she seems to go out of her way to create the impression that she is a lightweight.

On Sunday night as Wahid prepared to issue an emergency decree "freezing" the People's Consultative Assembly, Megawati and family members went to the movies to see the animated film "Shrek." They took over an entire theater because of security concerns.

Friends say she is a great fan of Walt Disney's animated films, particularly "Beauty and the Beast," and that she likes to watch cartoons on television with her grandchildren.

Some Westerners are baffled that she could become president without ever stating what policies she would pursue and only rarely giving interviews or making speeches.

But that, analysts say, is the nature of Indonesian politics.

"In Indonesia, if you were to blow your own trumpet, nobody would vote for you," said Dewi Fortuna Anwar, a former top aide to Wahid's predecessor, B.J. Habibie. "American politicians would do very badly in Indonesia, and Indonesian politicians would do very badly in the United States."

She likes to be called ibu, or mother, and styles herself as the Mother of the Nation.

As president, Megawati may find that she will need to become more open. Even those close to her acknowledge that her greatest weakness is her lack of communication.

One effective, if byzantine, technique she has honed is to create as many as six separate advisory groups to perform the same function. She lets each group think it is her only source of information, then takes the best ideas from each one.

"This woman is extremely calculating," said one insider. "Her idea is to string a lot of people along, take what she can get and have them think they are at the absolute epicenter."

Megawati is one of eight children born to Sukarno and his many wives, who, according to different sources, numbered between five and nine. In his memoirs, Sukarno described her birth during a horrific tropical downpour.

"Suddenly the lights went out, the roof caved in, the dark, swollen clouds opened and water rained in like a river," he wrote. "My wife was soaked, as were the [medical] instruments, bedclothes, everything. In the darkness, by the light of a candle, our daughter was born."

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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