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Who's on stage in Indonesia's 'Theater State'?

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Pomp and pageantry are alive and well: Traditional festivities mark the wedding of a sultan's daughter in Indonesia's old city of Yogyakarta on Oct. 23, 2013.   © Reuters

Aesthetically, democracies don't compare well with their historical antecedents; most political events these days are dreary affairs compared with centuries past. Bureaucrats and businessmen, whether batiked or besuited, seem virtually indistinguishable from one another as they beg for our votes on hoardings and TV chat shows. Even when they've secured our support and assumed office, the most glamor we get from our leaders is a red carpet here, a convoy of black limos there.

     It was not always thus. Reading through accounts of early European travelers to Southeast Asia, one finds projections of power far more colorful. Sir Francis Drake, pirate-by-appointment to Queen Elizabeth I, described his reception by the Sultan of Ternate in 1579. Even in this tiny island in the far east of the Malay Archipelago, "the king came in guarded with 12 lances, covered over with a rich canopy, with embossed gold ... . From the waist down to the ground was all cloth of gold, very rich ... ." This is just the start of a lengthy account of the pomp of that microstate.

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