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Bandung. The 76-year-old grandmother led a grueling 20-hour plenary session last week with an iron fist, standing her ground and barking back at 560 recently inaugurated members of the House of Representatives who constantly shouted, disrupted and at times even went up to intimidate her.
It was her fearless performance chairing the House’s first plenary session, in addition to her heavy Sundanese accent and the occasional comical mishaps like the time she lost the gavel, that made lawmaker Popong Otje Djundjunan a household name.
The hashtag #SaveCeuPopong (“Ceu” is a Sundanese way to address an older lady) topped the Twitter trending topic list that evening, as millions of Indonesians were mesmerized by her fierceness and candid demeanor in controlling aggressive and at time infantile legislators.
In an interview with the Jakarta Globe at her home in Bandung, West Java, she says she does not think too much about her social media fame, and her performance as an ad hoc plenary chairwoman, an honor granted to Popong as the oldest member of the House, before a permanent speaker and four deputies were selected.
She also doesn’t think much about the challenging task at hand as an ad hoc chair, as Indonesian politics became polarized into two rivaling camps ever since the July 9 presidential election.
“My throat was sore from talking for 20 hours straight all the way until dawn,” Popong said of the only real concern she had after leading the plenary.
“People call [the plenary] brutal. For me, I never saw it as brutal. I just tried to stay polite but firm. If I hadn’t been firm, maybe [the plenary] would go on for days,” she said, sometimes breaking into her native tongue.
“When I was bombarded with interruptions, particularly when they stood up and stormed the podium ... I told them to behave and sit down. Maybe they were mad at me [for telling them to sit down]. I just don’t approve of such action.”
The fracas occurred when Popong tried to end a heated debate, which dragged on for a considerable time. She adjourned the session to keep lawmakers’ heads cool. But the lawmakers kept shouting nonetheless and amidst the tension some went up to the podium to protest directly.
“I was completely surrounded. It was others who worried about me. They feared for my safety. But I believed God would protect me. I did my best to carry out this huge responsibility and God will take care of the rest. Which is why I didn’t get nervous or let my emotion get the best of me,” she said.
Popong’s little brother Deddy Pandji, 60, said he didn’t worry about his sister’s safety during the plenary. “I stayed calm because I know my sister. She is tough. Although people were yelling at her, pointing their fingers, she stayed cool,” he said. “If it weren’t for Ceu Popong, the plenary would have been a mess.”
The first of 11 children, Popong was born on Dec. 30, 1938 into a family of teachers. Her political career came about entirely by chance, she said, because of her devotion for her husband, Otje Djundjunan, an Army colonel who went on to become Bandung mayor between 1971 and 1976.
“All military wives had to be members of Golongan Karya [Golkar Party],” Popong said of the time when she joined the party, which was the political vehicle of former dictator Suharto.
“I never dreamed of becoming a lawmaker. I didn’t know anything then. I joined Golkar because I loved my husband.”
As her husband’s political career grew, so did Popong’s prominence within the party’s ranks. She was offered the position of Golkar legislative candidate on several occasions since 1971, but it was only after her husband died in 1987 that she took the offer seriously.
Aside from a two-term hiatus between 1999 and 2009, Popong has been a lawmaker ever since.
“Very different,” she said when asked to compare the House of today to her early political career.
“The political conditions were different. So the mood was different. There would never be any fighting like this. At the very least, the rules were still respected,” Popong added.
“For me, tensions like [now] are unacceptable. If you want to cause a riot, better stay away from becoming a member of the House.
“House members must live by their oath as representatives of the people. Everyone from all 10 parties takes the same oath. So sentiments between parties must come second. If not, then this country will be destroyed.”