In a broad square not far from the center of Jakarta, a large obelisk of concrete soars into the sky. But for the Javanese-style eaves at ground level, it looks not a little like our very own Washington Monument–and bears something of the same status. This is Indonesia’s Monumen Nasional–“Monas” in the local parlance. Schoolchildren clamber up its steps, busloads of Japanese tourists disembark to take photographs and pay a small sum–accident insurance costs a little extra–to ride up its elevator (if it happens to be operating). Built by Sukarno, the nation’s founding president, it is known among foreigners and locals of a certain cynicism as his last erection.
It is unfashionable to say so, but there is something powerfully evocative about this block of stone. The scale of it summons back a little of that larger-than-life quality Sukarno possessed in such abundance. It projects a kind of assertive oneness that suggests as clearly as anything you will find in Indonesia the vision of unity that obsessed the great “Bung,” the brother of all Indonesians, during the frenetic years of his presidency, which came to a sudden end after a bloody, CIA-supported coup in 1965. Linger under the eaves at Monas and gaze out at the capital’s incessant cacophony, and you feel enveloped by the mind of its maker.
Sukarno understood his moment well. How could he not, having given his life to the cause of independence from Dutch colonial rule since he was a Javanese villager in his 20s? The task before him was not merely holding in place the imagined community suddenly known as Indonesia: It was assembling and stitching together 17,506 islands to make a nation where there hadn’t ever been one–across the separating seas and in the minds of people who had no notion of nationhood. It is hardly a wonder that he inscribed the importance of national oneness in Stalin-scale stone–stone planted in Java, from which oneness would perforce have to emanate, center to periphery.
It would be easy enough to look at Indonesia today and conclude that Bung K’arno was a complete failure. Aceh, the long-troubled province in northern Sumatra, is once again the scene of confrontation between government soldiers and separatists. Papua, the former Irian Jaya, could easily go the same route, as could any number of other provinces. Beyond this, Indonesia now seems beset with a small but radical and increasingly violent Islamist movement, which some suspect of ties to Al Qaeda and to two recent bombings of Western targets. Indonesia is nothing if not porous–and its population a potpourri of persuasions. But to attribute all this to Sukarno’s shortcomings would be wrong–upside-down thinking. Better to read all the contending forces in Indonesia today as testimony to Sukarno’s village-level understanding of the nation over which he presided: Yes, unity is the goal; no, it is not to be achieved easily, and not by obliterating difference in a nation that speaks more than 350 languages.
Sukarno gave Indonesians a sense of themselves they never had before. This was more than mere identity: The Bung showed people a way of standing in the world without, in the classic pose of Javanese humility, stooping awkwardly and cupping their hands over their groins. Indonesians remember this because pride–individual and national–is precisely what the Suharto dictatorship took away in the name of “developmentalism.” Having started out as a nation with a grandiose vision of its place in the world, Indonesia under Suharto sank into a swamp of venality, protofascistic control and hypercorruption from which everyone, as an Indonesian friend once told me, emerged with mud between his toes. We soared like eagles at the beginning, a prominent Jakarta journalist once wrote, and then we scratched the earth like chickens.