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Monday, January 19, 1998 Published at 18:43 GMT


Suharto to be a hero with strings

Reports from Indonesia say that the government is urging traditional puppet-theatre performers to put on shows which portray President Suharto in a heroic light. The Tourism Minister, Joop Ave, is quoted as saying that small amounts of money would be paid to puppeteers to adapt stories from a Hindu epic , Ramayana, so that President Suharto is cast as a brave, victorious leader. Henry Tang reports.

The "wayang" shadow-puppet theatre is a widely popular tradition in Indonesia which originated from the times when Hinduism was the country's main religion before the rise to dominance of Islam in the 16th-century.

Performers manipulate leather or wooden puppets behind an illuminated cotton screen with the stories usually based on the Hindu epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

The theatre has been an important means of preserving Indonesia's Hindu heritage and the stories provide entertainment and moral teaching. And now according to the Kompas newspaper, the Indonesian government is hoping the puppet theatre will also give President Suharto a much-needed boost to his popularity.

The Tourism Minister, Joop Ave, is said to be encouraging performers to play a particular episode from the Ramayana to emphasise the victorious bravery of the leading character. It's hoped that Indonesians will identify this character with President Suharto who has led the country for the past 32 years and is seeking re-election for a seventh term in March.

While it's almost certain that President Suharto will be re-elected by an assembly controlled by the ruling Golkar party, the use of puppet-theatre to convey political messages emphasises how worried his regime is. Many Indonesians say he has mishandled the country's current economic crisis and has put the interests of his own, powerful family before that of the nation.

Presumably President Suharto's advisors believe that the traditional puppeteers can manipulate public opinion in his favour. But unless the root causes of the country's difficulties are tackled, the population may be very unresponsive.

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