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Why Indonesia's problem with messianic movements is here to stay

South China Morning Post - February 6, 2020

Johannes Nugroho – For the past two months, Indonesia's press and social media have been abuzz with reports of pretender kingdoms on the island of Java. These "royal courts", complete with devout local followings, have made some sensational claims.

Take, for example, Keraton Agung Sejagat – the Universal Grand Royal Court – based in Purworejo, Central Java. Believing itself to be a successor to the Hindu-Buddhist Majapahit empire which ruled Java from the 13th to the early 16th century, it claims to control the Pentagon, the United Nations and the World Bank, as well as all governments on Earth.

No less fantastical is the Sunda Empire of West Java, which claims sovereignty over all the world's nation states and says they must "register" with it or face dissolution. Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Alibaba founder Jack Ma are listed among the members of its advisory council.

Then there is the "King of the King", run by the equally improbably named – for an Indonesian at least – Dony Pedro, who hails from Tangerang, West Java. Pedro claims to be a global overlord who is the superior of every other ruler in the world and says he has access to billions of dollars which he plans to redistribute to all the citizens of Indonesia.

Media coverage of these "kingdoms" spurred Indonesia's law enforcement agencies to take action. In mid January, Totok Santoso, the founder and "king" of Keraton Agung Sejagat and his consort, Dyah Gitarja, were taken into police custody on fraud charges. A few members of their "royal court" had supposedly filed charges for having to pay membership fees. Some also told the police they had been promised prominent positions in court in exchange for sizeable monetary tributes to the king.

Two weeks later, "potentates" of the Sunda Empire, including the self-styled empress, Ratna Ningrum, and "Grand Prime Minister" Nasri Bank were also arrested on charges of "public misinformation" and "creating public unrest".

It is easy to dismiss the followers of these pretender kingdoms as a bunch of self-deluded crackpots who like to dress up in costumes – but they represent an aspect of society that has deep roots in the nation's psyche and history.

To start with, all of them preach messianic visions for the Indonesian people by promising prosperity and peace, echoing an old Javanese prophecy concerning Ratu Adil, or the Just King, a future leader who is to bring about a new "golden age". This prophecy is still very much alive in Indonesia's collective imagination – especially in Java, where supporters of presidential candidates have even attempted to present their champions as the promised Just King in the past.

The prophecy is traditionally attributed to the legendary King Jayabaya who ruled Kediri, East Java, in the 12th century. However, the earliest written account dates to the 19th century and Ranggawarsita, a mystical poet in the royal court of Solo, Central Java, whose writings still hold sway in Javanese esoteric belief systems such as Kejawen.

Ranggawarsita lived during the colonial period when all the Javanese royal courts, including the one he served in Surakarta, were subservient to the Dutch crown. Thus, is it possible that the "prophecy" about a future Just King who would rule Java with dignity, prosperity and justice was simply an expression of an oppressed people's longing for a messiah who would deliver them from bondage.

Post-independence nationalism may also be to blame for inspiring Indonesia's messianic movements. Loath to concede that the modern-day Republic of Indonesia was the political successor to the Dutch East Indies, the country's founding fathers – most notably the first president, Sukarno – were eager to promote the notion that Indonesia was a distinct political entity preceded by ancient kingdoms like Majapahit and Sriwijaya.

Indonesian schoolchildren are still taught to this day that they are part of a bangsa besar (great nation) with an ancient pedigree, inhabiting a "fertile" country which has been the "envy" of all the world.

Yet this world view clashes with the reality that even after 75 years of independence, Indonesia is still a middle-ranking power, at best, with serious economic inequality. A 2015 World Bank report found that only 20 per cent of Indonesia's population had enjoyed the fruits of economic growth over the previous two decades.

This disparity produces in many Indonesians what a psychologist would call cognitive dissonance. Their inculcated perception of Indonesia's place in history is often in conflict with the realities of the world, making them susceptible to movements and figures that promise the realisation of their own long-held beliefs.

As the world's largest archipelago and its fourth most populous country, Indonesia – in many ways – punches far below its weight. US News & World Report's 2020 ranking of the most powerful countries, for instance, places Indonesia 40th, behind Southeast Asian neighbours Singapore and Vietnam.

As for the pretender kingdoms, questions should be asked about the authorities' current method of confronting this phenomenon.

From the viewpoint of national security, it would make more sense to monitor these movements and only act against them if they endangered public safety, rather than criminalising them. Psychological therapy may also be helpful, since the followers of these "kingdoms" could have underlying mental health issues.

At the moment, the punitive action chosen by the Indonesian authorities can only exacerbate matters. Clearly, at least for the adherents of Indonesia's pretender kingdoms, shamed and ridiculed en masse, the Just King has not arrived – and their longing for the promised golden age continues.

[Johannes Nugroho is a writer and political analyst from Surabaya, Indonesia.]

Source: https://www.scmp.com/print/week-asia/opinion/article/3049334/why-indonesias-problem-messianic-movements-here-stay