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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.

     In Java, described by Marco Polo in 1290 as an island where "the treasure ... is so great as to be past telling," the ceremony was predictably even greater. From the great city-courts of Java, perfumed princelings were carried out on palanquins under golden umbrellas in ever more elaborate processions, each lord asserting his power by outdoing some neighboring lord in pomp and display.

     If this prince paraded on jeweled elephants, that prince sent to India for camels, hoping to impress the peasantry with a beast they had never seen. The Balinese kings took things even further; tooth-filing rites and funeral ceremonies became the very substance of government, a way of rallying followers and tying them into networks of ritual service that swelled the court of one ruler at the expense of another. In short, pomp was power.

POWER DRAMAS   Clifford Geertz, an American anthropologist who made his name studying culture and religion in Java and Bali in the 1950s and 1960s, coined the phrase "theater state" to describe the obsessive use of ceremony as a display of political power. The last great player in that theater at the national level in Indonesia was probably Sukarno, the country's first president, who loved nothing more than to dress up and exercise his considerable oratorical skills before a vast and adoring crowd.

     Although it has been more or less scrubbed out of existence on the national stage by the current president, the frugal Joko Widodo, smaller versions of the theater state have recently been springing up throughout Indonesia, as locally elected district heads try to re-create the auras of the sultans of old. They're not quite up to jeweled elephants, but in the most remote corners of Indonesia, local elites are dusting off their gold turbans, and sometimes long-moribund regal titles, and starring in their own increasingly elaborate power plays. 

     In 1995, when Indonesia held its first national festival of royal palaces, two lonely sultanates attended. Two decades later, this past November, delegates from 155 sultanates and principalities strutted their stuff at the same festival, this one swathed in gold-embroidered velvet, that one with a dead bird of paradise on her head.

     The goal of these dramas stands little changed since Drake's time: to project power. Now, however, the players in the theater state need to persuade spectators to buy tickets or, more precisely, attract their votes. You can wear all the gold you want, but it's only by becoming an elected district head that you will get your hands on some of the $25 billion to $30 billion in untied funds that Jakarta now hands out to districts each year.

     On the whole, ordinary Indonesians don't actually take much notice of these displays; one observer refers to them as "games rich people play." But recently, some have begun to see an opportunity. In November, a group of farmers from Kendeng walked 122km to the Central Java capital Semarang to attend a court case, aiming to stop the construction of an environmentally unsound cement factory.

     Their "long march" came complete with a socialist-realist logo and matching branded backpacks. Many of the women wore Friday-best sarongs and painted conical hats, some of the men donned black pajamas redolent of the peasant movements of the 1960s. So costumed, they thronged the courtroom, and won their case. In Southeast Asia's largest and truest democracy, the spectators may be taking over the Theater State.

Elizabeth Pisani is author of "Indonesia Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation."

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