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When Indonesia’s Sultan Hamengkubuwono X, governor of Yogyakarta, made an announcement paving the way for his eldest daughter, Gusti Kanjeng Ratu Pembayun, to succeed him on the throne, he dismantled a 400-year-old gender barrier in the nation’s only kingdom that still retains political power. For hundreds of years, Mataram kings governed central Java, Indonesia’s main island, under a patriarchal code that passed power from father to son. This was a problem for Hamengkubuwono X, who has five daughters and no sons.
To address the problem, he made the title of the monarch gender-neutral. On April 30, he cast away the moniker of Khalifah (“God’s Steward”), a title that can be bestowed only upon men because of local interpretations of Muslim law. Five days later, he changed his daughter Pembayun’s name to Mangkubumi, a name historically given to the sultan’s heir, while she sat in a chair traditionally reserved for the crown prince. Within a few days, in other words, Hamengkubuwono X had made it possible for a woman to become the symbol of Javanese Muslim culture for the first time in history.
This change is as significant as it is contentious. The Yogyakarta sultanate is Indonesia’s most powerful, having survived as the sole kingdom left underneath the nation’s democratic system. In 1950, the current sultan’s father, Hamengkubuwono IX, had been rewarded for his support of the Republican forces against Dutch rule by having Yogyakarta retained as a daerah istimewa (“special region”) within Indonesia. The special status allowed the region to keep its monarchical structure, with the sultan serving as governor. Hamengkubuwono X is 69 years old, and if his plans are carried out, his eldest daughter, Mangkubumi, will become Yogyakarta’s first ruling queen, presiding over one of Indonesia’s culturally richest and more influential provinces. Additionally, she will become the spiritual leader for tens of millions of Javanese Muslims.
There is no guarantee, however, that this will happen. Facing pressure from Yogyakarta’s royal family, the sultan has stopped short of officially confirming that his daughter will succeed him. Hamengkubuwono X has numerous half brothers who are now building alliances with conservative Muslim leaders to actively resist Mangkubumi’s promotion to queen. The debate over the sabda raja, as the sultan’s proclamations are known, has exposed fault lines within an otherwise sleepy university town and has led to citywide soul-searching about what the future holds for fast-developing Yogyakarta.
A STUDY IN CONTRASTS
Few progressive activists in Yogyakarta support the sultan’s decision, because they see it as a transparent play to keep his family in control of the palace, rather than actually being about promoting a woman to head the sultanate.Yogyakarta has always faced a cultural contradiction: it is a progressive bastion of Indonesian higher education as well as the spiritual seat of deeply traditional, patriarchal Java. Hamengkubuwono X has deftly balanced both aspects of the city’s culture. The sultan has spoken to graduates of Universitas Gadjah Mada, one of Indonesia’s most elite universities, about the importance of embracing technology and start-up culture. At the same time, he leads Muslim prayers every Friday and observes sacred rituals such as the Upacara Labuhan, an annual ceremony that celebrates the sultan’s mystical romantic union with the goddess of the South Sea.
And even as Hamengkubuwono X pursues a modern succession plan, he does so with language and ceremonies that are deeply rooted within Javanese Muslim tradition, upgrading his daughter’s title after Allah ordered him to by way of his ancestors. For example, instead of announcing his daughter outright as heir, he has conveyed his succession plan symbolically, through a dhawuh raja (“royal order”) that altered his daughter’s name to resemble that of previous heirs and by inviting the princess to sit on the sacred Chair of Watu Gilang, a royal privilege traditionally given only to the heir to the throne.
The sultan’s divine pronouncements are deeply contested in parts of Yogyakarta. Kauman, a leafy district in central Yogyakarta, is the birthplace of Muhammadiyah, the modernist movement of Indonesian Islam that respects the religious authority of scholars over that of sultans. Muslim modernists seek to eliminate syncretic Javanese Muslim mystical notions, such as the idea that Allah speaks through intermediaries, which remain widespread throughout Java. Kauman was the scene of a rally against Hamengkubuwono X’s succession plans that drew dozens of protesters who placed as many as 200 banners throughout the city calling on the sultan to restore old palace laws. Further, H. Aburrada Farouk, a senior imam of the prominent Gedhe Kauman Mosque, strongly disagrees with the sultan’s recent decisions. “It’s a problem of values, a problem of tradition, a problem of the palace laws of succession, a problem of religion,” he said. If the next ruler of the palace was a woman, an important link between the palace and the city’s Muslim community would be lost, as she could not lead Friday prayers, a responsibility that the sultan has fulfilled throughout his family’s reign.
Meanwhile, few progressive activists in Yogyakarta support the sultan’s decision, because they see it as a transparent play to keep his family in control of the palace, rather than actually being about promoting a woman to head the sultanate. Mita, a dreadlocked artist and activist living among rice fields at the Needle and Bitch Anarcha Feminist Collective some 15 minutes from Kauman, discussed whether a woman could rule Yogyakarta while sipping tea from a mug with text that read, “Queen of Fucking Everything.” Mita dismissed the importance of the sultan designating his daughter as heir. “It’s just a strategy for burnishing the sultan’s image and reputation,” she said. Kus, a fellow member of the collective, agreed. “This is simply internal palace politics,” he said. The palace’s assets are considerable, including roughly ten percent of the land in Yogyakarta, according to independent estimates—and Kus said that the dispute over succession was simply about which elite family would have control over its wealth. “Discussing women’s rights in a sultanate is like talking about animal rights while eating a satay,” he said.
There remains a deep local respect for the sultan, however, even if it is not always captured in elite perspectives.
Members of the collective said that they did not care whether the next sultan would be a man or a woman and advocated splitting the role of sultan and governor so that the sultanate would be purely symbolic. Rather than concerning themselves with who will succeed the sultan, most members expressed great concern for farmers who were recently expelled from the sultan’s land in order to expand an airport. Their opinions are not unique, either. “It’s just power games in Yogyakarta. . . . It’s seen as difficult to struggle for feminism in this feudal system,” one activist wrote via text message.
There remains a deep local respect for the sultan, however, even if it is not always captured in elite perspectives. In a monarchical system where his will is always respected, demurring to provide an opinion—as many Yogyakartans do—is actually a form of royal support and respect. This holds true, even when it comes to his unconventional succession plans. Haratulma’ruf Satyalegawa, a local economics student, said his views on the succession question were simple: “He’s my king. That is enough. Of course I support his decision.”
Aditya Nandiwardhana, a student and nongovernmental organization worker who identified himself as a libertarian-anarchist, disagreed. “The ghost of feudalism is still here in Yogyakarta,” he said. Nandiwardhana argued that the debate was ultimately about which of the vying families would control the royal assets. “This whole drama is like Game of Thrones.”
The debate in Yogyakarta, even among students of the same generation, feels as if it is taking place in many different centuries all at once. It encompasses many questions, from whether a woman can become one of Java’s preeminent spiritual and political leaders to the role of a monarchy in twenty-first-century Indonesia. The sultanate has become an increasingly significant part of the fast-changing city’s identity.
Istimewa (literally “special” or “unique”) is used to describe both the region of Yogyakarta and the monarch who automatically becomes its governor. But istimewa also has a deeper meaning to the region’s residents. The slogan Tetap Jogja istimewa (“Keep Yogyakarta unique”) has been adopted by many different sides in the debate: it is the slogan of the conservative Muslims whose banners, calling for a return to the traditional laws of succession, are plastered throughout the city. It is also the slogan of many traditional Yogyakartans who, to the contrary, do not believe that the sultan’s decisions should be challenged. It is also a rallying cry for those who do not believe that the sultanate is powerful enough to keep Yogyakarta istimewa for much longer.
In 2011, the Jogja Hip Hop Foundation (JHF) wrote a rousing anthem, “Jogja Istimewa,” urging Yogyakarta to return to what made it unique in the first place. Delivered over gamelan ensembles and other traditional instrumentation, the song pleads for the city to return to its roots as a humble town without the new hotels, malls, and hectic traffic that now clog the city. JHF songs speak to a worry that the city’s culture is becoming commoditized; that Yogyakarta is turning into Bali, the tourist island a few hundred miles to the east.
Marzuki Mohamed, a founding member of the JHF and the writer of the song “Jogja Istimewa,” wrote a blog post about the succession crisis titled “Gegeran Istimewa” (“Special Mess”). In it, Mohamed says the gender of the next sultan is unimportant because no monarch—man or woman—seems capable of nurturing and protecting his or her subjects. To conclude the post, Mohamed recounts a conversation he had with the sultan before the current controversy over succession broke out:
At one point [Hamengkubuwono X] tried to clarify the Javanese philosophy of numbers to me, that the highest number [of successors] allowed in Java is nine, that ten is the same as zero. Thus, as the tenth sultan, he had to begin everything again, lay down new foundations for the future of Yogyakarta. But, who knows why, at that time it popped into my head that zero can also mean “empty” or “finished.” In my imagination, I pictured the palace disbanded. Five children, all girls, is a sign from nature.
Sitting at a café in the shade of Mount Merapi, Indonesia’s most active volcano that rests at Yogyakarta’s northern border, Wahyu Sasongko, a local journalist, gestured at the guesthouses and new developments that were springing up in the countryside. “The local environment is being destroyed,” he said. The money to develop the city was coming mainly from outside of Yogyakarta. “We’re spectators to our own development,” he said. Sasongko thought that Yogyakarta was still istimewa, “a country within a country.” But he said he couldn’t shake the feeling that regardless of who ruled Yogyakarta next, his little country was being swallowed up.