YOGYAKARTA: Without warning, Indonesia’s most volatile volcano, Mt Merapi in Yogyakarta spewed a towering cloud of ash up to 3km into the air on Oct 14 after months of relatively low volcanic activities.
The eruption was preceded by a series of smaller eruptions which began last year and two 5.8 and 5.1 magnitude earthquakes in August in the coastal region south of the volcano.
Although the volcano has been erupting since the 16th century, with major eruptions occurring between every four to 10 years, many people in the province of Yogyakarta - sandwiched between the volcano and the quake-prone Indian Ocean - took it as the latest sign that the spirits are angry.
The cause of the divine wrath, some locals believed, was a series of decisions made by Sri Sultan Hamengku Buwono X, who is both the governor of the province and the ruler of the Ngayogyakarta Hadiningrat Sultanate.
On Apr 30, 2015, the sultan decreed that his own royal title be tweaked to make it gender-neutral.
Five days later, the sultan, who has five daughters and no son, bestowed upon his eldest daughter Pembayun a new title - "Mangkabumi" - which had been traditionally reserved for male princes groomed for the throne.
During the announcement, the 47-year-old princess was seated next to the sultan on a sacred chair made out of stone called “Watu Gilang”, which in the past was reserved for crown princes.
Although the sultan never formally announced the princess to be his successor, the royal family spent the next two years petitioning the Constitutional Court to repeal a clause within the Law on the Special Region of Yogyakarta which would make it impossible for a woman to become governor of the province.
The court granted the royal family’s petition in August 2017 on the grounds that the law has been discriminative.
The series of moves by the sultan’s family, which break away from centuries of tradition, has caused a stir and divided the people of Yogyakarta.
While some lauded the decisions as progressive, the sultan’s decisions do not sit well with those who feel that a woman should never ascend to the throne.
The controversy has been so severe that analysts fear a bitter power struggle between the sultan’s family and his siblings when the 73-year-old Yogyakarta ruler eventually dies.
Some even questioned whether the moves could spell the end of the Ngayogyakarta Sultanate or Yogyakarta’s special status as the only province in Indonesia where the ruler automatically becomes a governor for life.
A MAN’S JOB?
The special status of the Yogyakarta sultanate dates back to Indonesia’s independence when Sukarno, the country’s first president, allowed the royal family to retain their power over Yogyakarta out of gratitude for the family’s role in fighting the colonial Dutch rulers.
Mr Sukarno also allowed the family to keep control over the so-called sultan’s grounds - a large swath of lands spread across the province which is deemed to be the property of the sultanate - covering a total of 1.2 per cent of the 3,186 sq km province.
But a sultan’s role goes beyond bureaucratic, said Mr Heru Wahyu Kismoyo, an expert on Javanese culture at the Widya Mataram University.
“As the ruler of an Islamic sultanate, a sultan must preside over major religious festivals and events and act as the caretaker of the four grand mosques in the kingdom,” he told CNA.
There are also more mystical and spiritual roles a sultan has to shoulder in Yogyakarta, a place where Islamic values coexist and intertwine with traditions rooted in Hinduism and animism.
For example, the sultan has to woo the Queen of the South Sea, a deity which dwells in the Indian Ocean, and keep her happy so she will grant fishermen a bountiful catch and a safe passage along the treacherous sea.
A sultan must also display magical prowess to keep the ogre Sapu Jagat, which dwells in the belly of Mt Merapi, in check.
“Many people in Yogyakarta are asking, ‘How can a woman woo the Queen of the Sea? How can a woman exert her power over Sapu Jagat?’” Mr Kismoyo said.
“This why is the sultan’s decree is shocking and controversial to many people. They believe that if a sultan cannot perform these mystical duties well, disaster would strike.”
Mr Muhammad Jadul Maula, a Yogyakarta cleric who teaches his students a blend of Islam and Javanese tradition, said the most crucial role a sultan must play is to be the custodian of the Paugeran, the sacred law which a king and his subject must abide by.
“All previous sultans have been male because they need to perform religious rituals only men can perform, bring balance in the world of the spirits and if required, lead their people in a time of war,” Mr Maula told CNA.
“The need for a sultan to be male is in the Paugeran which serves as the law of the land. The current sultan understands this and he should know that the divine spirits and the people would not approve such deviance from the Paugeran.
“If the sultan continues with his succession plan, the kingdom would not be the same kingdom as founded by the first sultan because the foundation and philosophy of this kingdom would have been destroyed.”
A FAMILY DIVIDED
When approached by CNA, Sri Sultan Hamengku Buwono X declined to be interviewed. The other princesses as well as the sultan’s royal advisers and aides were also tight-lipped about the sultan’s decrees.
On the rare occasions when he has spoken to the media, the sultan has been vague about the reasons behind his decision, saying that he had a spiritual revelation.
“I have been instructed by God through the spirits of my father and my ancestor,” the Sultan told reporters, three days after bestowing his daughter with a title reserved for a crown prince.
“The instruction was to rename Pembayun with the title. What will happen next, I still have no idea.”
The sultan’s half-brother Prince Yudhaningrat doubted the revelation story.
“I haven’t spoken to my brother since the decree. I’m dying to see him because I want to know just exactly how the spirits spoke to him. But he refused to see his siblings,” he told CNA.
Out of the sultan’s 20 siblings and half-siblings from his father’s five wives, 15 are still alive today. Eleven of the sultan’s siblings are male, including two who had passed away.
Prince Yudhaningrat said the throne should be passed to any one of his nine surviving brothers.
“This decree has ripped apart our family. It has completely deviated from the sacred law. There is no way that the spirits of my ancestors spoke to my brother, instructing him to break the Paugeran,” the prince said.
The sultan’s siblings have refused to acknowledge their brother’s decree and still refer to the heiress-apparent by her former name, Princess Pembayun, instead of her new title.
“We are not doing this because we seek power. We only care about keeping the kingdom the way it is. For all we care, Pembayun can keep my brother’s position as governor. Pembayun can keep the many businesses my brother owns.
“Just make sure whoever assumes the throne is in line with the sacred law,” Prince Yudhaningrat said.
With his brother insisting on the decree, the only hope is for the princess to decline the throne, he added.
“If Pembayun or any her sisters want to be sultan, she should build her own kingdom,” he said.
Mr Raden Mas Hertriasning, a royal court historian and a cousin of the sultan, said he was worried that things could turn ugly if the sultan does not resolve the succession issue in his living years.
“There might be conflicting claims to the throne, which could possibly lead to an uprising or show of force,” Mr Hertriasning told CNA.
“When that happens, the central government might have to step in and possibly suspend Yogyakarta’s special status. It might mean the end of the Ngayogyakarta Hadiningrat Sultanate’s reign over Yogyakarta.”
Mr Hertriasning said similar power struggle happened in the 19th century during the reign of Sultan Hamengku Buwono V.
The late sultan did not produce a male heir in his living years and thus decided to name his younger brother Gusti Raden Mas Mustojo as next in line. In a twist of fate, 13 days after Hamengku Buwono V died in 1855, his wife gave birth to a son.
Not wanting his nephew to one day lay claim to the throne, Gusti Raden Mas Mustojo, now Hamengku Buwono VI, banished his late brother’s family to the island of Sulawesi.
Mr Hertriasning said he does not mind having a female sultan ruling over Yogyakarta. The sacred law should keep up with the challenges and demands of modern times, he said.
“The problem is the princess has not shown herself as a worthy successor,” he said, explaining that the princess, who briefly attended secondary school in Singapore and later received her bachelor’s degree in Australia, had so far only held several ceremonial positions in charities and businesses linked to the sultanate.
“Will she be able to act as a just ruler, a custodian of centuries of tradition and governor of the province? We don’t know yet.”
The Sultan’s brothers fared no better than the princess, Mr Hertriasning claimed.
“Perhaps the sultan is trying to encourage his brothers to step up and show that they are worthy successors by issuing this decree. We can only guess,” he said.
SEPARATION OF ROLES
Sri Sultan Hamengku Buwono X has been a polarising figure during his 30-year reign.
He was lauded for refusing to practise polygamy like his predecessors and hailed as a modern leader, but he was also panned for being a man of great political and business ambitions.
Under his reign, he converted farmlands into mines and factories, displacing hundreds of poor farmers from their homes.
He also turned the city of Yogyakarta, a place steeped in tradition and known for its ancient temples and historical buildings, into one filled with shopping malls and high-rise buildings.
While few in Yogyakarta dare to openly criticise their sultan, a rising number of youths are calling for a separation of roles for the sultan and the governor postitions.
Ms Pitra Hutomo, a videographer and activist, said Yogyakarta is the only province where the governor is not elected.
“In today’s society, leaders must be held accountable for their actions. How do you hold a king accountable when his power is absolute?” the 34-year-old said.
“For me, whoever rules Yogyakarta must be elected by the people in a transparent and democratic manner, regardless of the ruler’s gender.”
Professor Purwo Nugroho of Gajah Mada University, who drafted the Law on the Special Region of Yogyakarta, said the idea of separating the monarchy and the bureaucracy is not new.
“There’s even a suggestion that the sultan can nominate the gubernatorial candidates and to nominate himself as a candidate, but the candidates will need to go through an election process just like any other province in Indonesia,” he told CNA.
However, the sultanate outright rejected the idea, saying that the governor position should be reserved for the throne, Prof Nugroho said.
Professor Ni’matul Huda of the Sunan Kalijaga State Islamic University said although there are people in Yogyakarta who disapprove of a female sultan, an overwhelming majority told a recent survey that they can get behind the idea of a female governor.
“The rejections towards a female sultan occur because the previous ten sultans have been male, but this perception may change.
“If the princess ascends the throne, people of Yogyakarta will support whoever is in the throne, be it a king or a queen," the professor, who specialises in Constitutional Law, told CNA.
"I believe that many people no longer care whether their leaders are male or female. Many see this as a power struggle within the royal palace and should be resolved internally. For many, what matters is whether the sultan can protect and serve them."