JAKARTA(AP): As a young soldier, former Indonesian president Suharto was visited by powerful Javanese shamen who bequeathed him mystical charms to shield him from bullets and make him invisible during battle.
Suharto is now 86 and has been languishing in a Jakarta hospital for weeks. But magical pins and metal – some said to be embedded in his body – are keeping the one-time strongman from passing to another world, according to popular Indonesian legend.
Doctors said Thursday his condition was improving after briefly deteriorating the day before. Fluid and infection in his lungs were reduced overnight and Suharto was able to whisper and take a few bites of food.
The 40-member presidential medical team struggling to stem Suharto’s sepsis, pneumonia, failing kidneys, lungs and heart ascribe his resilience to tough army training and physical strength.
On the streets, however, theories about his spiritual powers prevail.
Indonesia’s 235 million people are predominantly Muslim, but their faith is a complex mix of Hinduism, Buddhism and local animist traditions. The old Javanese ways touch on many aspects of daily life and Suharto, though he performed the pilgrimage to Mecca, was said to be a strong believer in local mojo.
“There are many strange objects in his body. They are making it difficult for Suharto to die,” said Permadi, a member of parliament and well-known mystic. “The doctors know about this. They can see them in the X-rays. Inside the body of Suharto there are many strange objects.”
Like Suharto and many Indonesians, Permadi only goes by one name.
Dr. Christian Johannes, who is treating Suharto at the Pertamina Hospital, scoffs at such suggestions. “We are dealing with Suharto’s through medical science,” she said.
Suharto, vilified by critics as one of the most brutal and corrupt autocrats of the 20th century, has been in critical condition for nearly three weeks after suffering multiple organ failure. His heart briefly stopped beating last week and doctors said he had been close to death.
The smallest twists and turns of his health have been followed by the national media, with specialists claiming one day he was in grave danger, then saying he was staging a “remarkable recovery” the next.
Psychics appear on television broadcasts with insights into when the self-appointed five-star general will die. Their predictions range from a few months to four years.
Ki Joko Bodo, a physic with his own show on Indonesian TV, said, “Suharto’s spirit will live until he is 90 years old, but physically he has been broken by his illness.”
Suharto is rumored to keep a collection of talisman and other enchanted artifacts in a special chamber of his downtown Jakarta villa, but it remains a mystery how actively he practiced mysticism.
Indonesian spiritual philosophy, or Kejawen, stems back more than 1,000 years to before the arrival of Islam. It is not an official religion with scriptures or prophets, but a belief that life is a metaphysical journey guided by supernatural powers.
Historians say Suharto oversaw the extermination of up to 800,000 communists in his rise to power from 1965-1968 and led military operations that killed another 300,000 Indonesians during his 32 years in office.
Yet he has been visited by a steady stream of political leaders who have called on the Indonesian people – and the attorneys suing him for allegedly bilking the state of hundreds of millions of dollars – to forgive him, another Javanese tradition of helping the sick pass more easily to death.
Before Suharto’s soul can be released, his six children, who became fabulously wealthy during his reign, must get an apology from the victims of his reign, said Permadi. “But they are too arrogant to ask for an apology and say they have done nothing wrong,” he added.
Many Indonesians believe Suharto was able to rule for so long because he drew power from sacred daggers and masks, known in the Javanese language as “pusaka.” His inspiration is said to have come from consultations with spirits during meditation sessions at holy sites and his family’s hilltop mausoleum, where he will be buried.
“I went there to the slope of Mount Lawu with Suharto,” said Kasiman, a 74-year-old soup vendor who lives near the cemetery outside the city of Solo on the main island of Java. Long before he became president, Kasiman said, Suharto would “sit silently for days at the same spot” awaiting divine guidance.
Permadi, the mystic politician, believes the former leader’s soul will be released when he has been forgiven for his sins on earth, or when doctors decide to unplug “the machines that cling to Suharto’s body.” (***)