Column: Aquino and the “mouthpiece”

A conclusion. Published on September 28, 2010.

The photographs from last week’s seven-minute meeting between President Benigno Aquino III and US President Barack Obama are rich in nuance. Allow me to add another possible layer of meaning: the Indonesian connection. First, both presidents have suddenly cancelled state visits to Jakarta, because of domestic politics (Obama cancelled twice). And second, Obama has a statue in the Indonesian capital, showing him as a little boy, to mark the years he spent in the city; because of a backlash, the statue (built with private funds) was moved from a public park to the grounds of the government school he attended. In contrast, Aquino doesn’t have a statue in Jakarta, but should. I don’t mean a monument or a marker of himself, but of a Filipino whose cause the President can advocate and make his own when he meets, finally, with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

“You know the history of the famous leaders of the Philippines,” Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president, once said in an epic series of lectures that began in 1958 and concluded in 1959. “They were all leaders who opposed Spain. The name of Dr. Rizal, for instance, who was executed by the Spaniards without due process of law, his name is sweet in our memory. He was the great leader of the Philippines, who fought against the orthodox Spanish imperialism. You’ve also heard about the name of Apolinario Mabini, Aguinaldo—they all fought against the orthodox Spanish imperialism.”

Sukarno’s oratory—examples of which can be seen today, in that parallel universe called YouTube—reminds me of the speeches of Ferdinand Marcos we used to endure in the 1970s, or the even longer spontaneous holding-forth by Fidel Castro we used to read about, well into his old age. They were not only proof of a leader’s intellectual heft and rhetorical dexterity; they were also tests of the leader’s stamina. In expanding on the concept of the Panca Sila as the foundation of the state—the five principles Sukarno himself proposed in 1945, as Japan braced for defeat and Indonesian nationalists anticipated independence—Sukarno in 1958 and 1959 was reclaiming the mantle of leader of the revolution.

As a study of his most important speeches since 1928 will show, Sukarno as the “mouthpiece of the Indonesian people” depended on the same set of rhetorical devices; one of these was the almost incantatory evocation of the names of other nationalist leaders, which he used to situate either Indonesia or himself in nationalism’s relentless march through history. For instance, he had many uses for the precepts of the fiery French legislator Jean Jaures (who wrote a preface to Turot’s life of Aguinaldo). And yet, as it turns out, it was always to one specific speech of Jaures’ that Sukarno repaired, again and again, whether in the 1920s or in the 1960s. The same thing with his other favorites; my impression is, once a thinker or a leader had made an impact or an impression on him, Sukarno never forgot it. But except perhaps for Karl Marx and Mahatma Gandhi, Sukarno did not seem to need to study these formative influences at greater length. Rizal was another kind of historical personality for Sukarno: he never quoted any of the hero’s writings. It was Rizal’s life and martyrdom that he found useful, for rhetorical purposes.

I do not mean to suggest that Sukarno was insincere in his use of Rizal; indeed, his use of Rizal (and of Emilio Aguinaldo, in a crucial juncture in his autobiography as told to Cindy Adams) may be said to constitute proof of sincerity.

At any rate, Sukarno was not alone in holding Rizal as an example. The journalist Rosihan Anwar translated portions of Rizal’s farewell poem in the Dec. 30, 1944 issue of Asia Raya. His translation was later quoted, first during the Battle of Surabaya, and then in July 1946, in a small and short-lived magazine called Bakti, published in Mojokerto, in East Java. Indeed, during the initially hopeful then increasingly grim years of the Japanese occupation, the handful of newspapers and magazines that were allowed to publish ran almost 50 stories on Rizal—many of them were what are called calendar stories, filed from the Philippines: stories that mark anniversaries. But quite a number were extended treatments, Indonesian portrayals of Rizal as merdeka’s avatar.

The middle years of the nationalist awakening in Indonesia also found Rizal a source of inspiration. But the historical research conducted by Indonesia’s greatest novelist, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, convinced him that Rizal’s influence in Indonesia reached all the way back to the turn of the 20th century. In his magnificent “Buru Quartet,” in particular in the second and fourth novels, Pramoedya privileges Rizal several times, as an example of the raised consciousness that nationalism requires. (These novels, incidentally, are a thinly disguised narrative of the life of the pioneer journalist Tirto Adisuryo; indeed, as the Quarter’s translator Max Lane told me, the manuscripts of the third and fourth novels referred to the main character not as Minke, his name in the novels, but by the journalist’s initials: TAS.)

All told, Sukarno may have been the most visible user of Rizal, but Indonesian history is replete with other appropriators. A marker to honor this fact of history, in time for Rizal’s 150th birthday, is only appropriate.

* * *

An analogue announcement in a digital age. After almost 10 years, I’ve decided to switch networks. If you have my old number: kindly change the prefix to 0917, change the middle three numbers to 571, and retain the last four digits.

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Notes on Readings, Readings in Rizal

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