Michael Pohorly meets Kartika Soekarno, the daughter of Indonesia’s founding father. Photo: Lukas Vrtilek.
YOUR father was the first president of Indonesia, a position he held for 32 years, and your sister, Megawati, was Indonesia’s first woman president in 2001. Your bio reads as a true citizen of the world, what countries have you lived in?
Due to the political unrest in Indonesia, I was born in Tokyo as my mother is Japanese. We lived in Paris until I was 18. I attended college in Boston and after graduation I worked in Tokyo as a TV reporter, before moving to New York to work with an advertising agency. My husband and I were based in London before moving to Jakarta.
So you speak Japanese, French, English, and Indonesian?
Yes and I promised my husband when we got married I would learn Dutch, but that hasn’t happened yet.
The airport in Jakarta is named Soekarno, but the Wikipedia page says Sukarno? What’s the official spelling of your family name?
I get that all the time, it’s a simple answer. Sukarno is the Americanised spelling and Soekarno is the Dutch.
Your father comes from Javanese and Balinese heritage, what role has the island of Bali played in your life?
I feel very strongly about Bali. My father’s mother was Balinese and he worshipped her. I’ve been coming to Bali since I was a child and when we attended cremations it always had a strong impact of me. I’ve always had this amazing feeling whenever I’ve come to Bali. But I miss the old Bali. It has changed so much. The Legian that I knew was just empty white beaches and now it’s developed so much – yet I find the spirit of Bali is still very strong and the culture is very strong.
What inspired you to start working with the children of Indonesia and begin the Kartika Soekarno Foundation.
During the time of the Southeast Asian economic crisis in 1998, I was working in New York with an American NGO. I attended a presentation at the Indonesian embassy about the crisis of many children being forced to drop out of school and begin working as child labour to support their families. Our NGO decided to initiate a campaign working with UNICEF and CARE called “preventing a lost generation” to help the children stay in school, because of course, the children are the future of a country.
How did that experience change your perspective on Indonesia?
In Indonesia I met with Steve Woodhouse who was the representative for UNICEF. He took me to the Posyandu’s which are the community maternal health centres run by volunteers, and I was very moved to see these already low-income women volunteering their time to give back to the community and care for each other. When that campaign ended I decided to begin my own foundation and I was very lucky in that Steve was retiring from UNICEF and agreed to join me.
How did you transition from working with teachers and children to tackling the Indonesia-wide problem of trash?
Three years ago my husband had a wonderful opportunity to work in Jakarta and it was fate, as I had never lived in my country. I discovered my country through my five-year-old son’s eyes as we travelled everywhere. We saw beauty, but everywhere we went we also saw trash. I was shocked. Whether we climbed a volcano, went to a hot springs or to a beach. Even just a few days ago I went on a boat tour of Flores with friends and we saw trash. I was with visiting friends and I was embarrassed as this is my country, and it’s scary to see that the people don’t seem to care.
By inviting Jeremy Irons to Indonesia to show his film Trashed, you have inspired The Yak magazine to organise multiple screenings of the film in Bali. I also hear that President-elect Joko Widodo also attended your screening?
Yes, Bapak Jokowi was very moved by the scenes in Indonesia. We can see it is a global issue, but Joko will definitely review Indonesia’s strategies for trash solutions.
I was shocked by many things in the documentary, Trashed. What surprised you the most when you saw the film?
The segment on Jakarta . . . to see the rivers in Jakarta, was very worrisome. It’s so tragic and Indonesia needs an eye-opener, but the people of Indonesia must see that it’s also a global issue, because I think if we just point out fingers to them it’s not going to work. Everyone needs to understand that we have to slowly go back to some of the old ways again – because all of the old ways of handling food and have been replaced by an invasion of plastic, and this is one of the things that is destroying the islands.
In your op-ed piece in the Jakarta Post you wrote about your sadness to see the “magical island of Bali has rivers filled with garbage and beaches filled with plastic” . . .
It is tragic. It’s what I feel sad about in Bali – there’s no overall vision in Bali and they’re selling off the island. The infrastructure isn’t there to support all the tourism. I think the local government should do more. But I guess in the
Bali is such a special island in comparison to other islands because it’s not just about a beautiful beach, it’s the culture and the religion, and I hope it’s not going to change too much and the over-development slows down.
Your Japanese mother, Devi, announced not too long ago on an Indonesian talk show that she went sky diving for the first time at the age of 72 – how’s she been an inspiration in your life?
My mother overcame many difficulties in life. We weren’t allowed to visit my Father when he was under house arrest. When I was three, my mother, despite political threats, took the chance to fly to Jakarta from Paris. When we landed in Jakarta, my mother went straight to see my father. The next day she was bringing me to see him at last, but my father had passed. My father died without ever seeing me.
My mother started her life again in Paris and I have admiration for a woman who has singlehandedly brought up a child under such tragic circumstances. She is currently working in Tokyo and has a successful career as a TV commentator. Considering her age, she is still working and has an amazing amount of energy. I admire her beauty, strength, energy and intelligence but I cannot say she has always been a source
Your father is a big figure of history for Indonesia, what’s your sense of your family’s place in history and your own legacy?
My father was really loved and respected his country. He stood up for the independence of nations and his legacy will always remain. We must fulfill his legacy by implementing the Pancasila – harmony, humanity, peace, ethnicity, diversity . . . it says it all. My sister was the first Indonesian woman president and made ways for the first democratic elections in Indonesia. She is also the first politician to break away from the political and established elite to groom, and hand over, the torch to a new politician. With the election of Bapak Jokowi, a new exciting era will begin in Indonesia. They have both been a tremendous inspiration for the work of my foundation and to honour each child’s right for quality of education and basic health care. I hope one day, one of them will be a brilliant grassroots politician who will contribute to the future of Indonesia.
What’s up next?
We are currently looking for a sponsor who can provide a lorry so we can show the movie, Trashed, throughout the villages of Indonesia. Images are much more powerful than words.