Sukarno (1901-1970), dominant figure of Indonesia’s nationalist movement against the Dutch and the country’s first president (1945-1968). He was toppled following an attempted coup and held under house arrest until his death.
Sukarno was born in the city of Surabaya in eastern Java. At the time, Java and the rest of Indonesia were under Dutch colonial control. Although brought up in the traditional Javanese cultural world, Sukarno was educated in modern Dutch colonial schools.
In 1921 he entered the Bandung Institute of Technology to study architecture, graduating in 1926. Sukarno had been increasingly involved in nationalist politics since his teens, when he had boarded in the house of H. O. S. Tjokroaminoto, a leading nationalist politician. It was in Bandung that he decided his future lay in politics, not architecture.
By 1926 Sukarno had been married twice, first to Sitti Utari, daughter of Tjokroaminoto, and then, after divorcing her, to Inggit Garnasih. He subsequently married at least four more times, having as many as four wives simultaneously. Though permitted under Islamic law, polygamy was not a common practice in Indonesia, and in the 1950s and 1960s attracted considerable criticism, particularly from women’s organizations.
In 1927 Sukarno co-founded the Indonesian Nationalist Party (Partai Nasional Indonesia, or PNI) and became its first leader. The goal of the party was to achieve independence for Indonesia through popular struggle against the Dutch. A skilled public speaker, Sukarno quickly drew a mass following for the PNI. In 1929 the Dutch jailed him for being a threat to public order, and the PNI collapsed in his absence. Released in 1931, Sukarno resumed his political activity, but he was arrested again in 1933 and exiled, first to the island of Flores and then to Sumatra. By the time of his exile, he was Indonesia’s leading nationalist politician.
When Japan invaded and occupied Indonesia in 1942, during World War II, Sukarno returned to Jakarta and worked with the Japanese regime. He argued later that his collaboration with the Japanese enabled him to advance the cause of Indonesian independence and protect the Indonesian people from the worst excesses of the occupation.
In 1944 a committee was established to prepare for Indonesian independence, and Sukarno was a leading member of the committee. On July 1, 1945, Sukarno delivered an important speech to the committee urging the adoption of the Panca Sila (Five Principles) as the ideological basis of the new state. The five principles were nationalism, internationalism (or humanitarianism), democracy, social justice, and belief in God.
Rise to Presidency
On August 17, 1945, immediately following Japan’s surrender to the Allies, Sukarno and fellow nationalist Muhammad Hatta declared Indonesia’s independence. The next day the provisional parliament adopted a constitution and elected Sukarno president. The constitution included the Panca Sila in its preamble and gave the president a great deal of authority. The Dutch refused to accept the independence proclamation. For the next five years Indonesia and The Netherlands negotiated and fought with one another. Finally, in December 1949 the Dutch acknowledged Indonesia’s independence, but the status of the western half of New Guinea (now the province of Papua) remained in dispute.
Although Sukarno was an important symbol of the national struggle against the Dutch, he soon lost political ground to domestic rivals. By 1949 he was little more than a figurehead, while real political power lay with the prime minister. This arrangement was made official in new constitutions adopted in 1949 and 1950, which established a parliamentary, rather than presidential, political system for Indonesia.
In the early and mid-1950s Sukarno remained a figurehead president. However, beginning in 1957, as Indonesia’s political system began to disintegrate and military rebellions broke out in Sumatra and Sulawesi, he asserted a more powerful political role. In 1959 Sukarno decreed the reintroduction of Indonesia’s 1945 constitution, which gave the president wider authority. Arguing that Western-style parliamentary democracy was unsuited to Indonesian needs, he introduced in its place a system called “Guided Democracy,” that emphasized traditional Indonesian values, such as decision making by deliberation and consensus rather than majority vote. Sukarno promoted national unity through NASAKOM, an acronym for the three major ideological streams in Indonesian politics: nasionalisme (nationalism), agama (religion), and komunisme (communism).
In practice, such unity was never achieved. Under Sukarno Indonesian politics became more divided than ever before. Parties refusing to accept Guided Democracy were banned, and Sukarno’s political opponents were jailed. The system was accepted most enthusiastically by the Indonesian Communist Party (Partai Komunis Indonesia, or PKI), with which Sukarno was increasingly aligned by the early 1960s. The army also increased its power under Sukarno, and became the only meaningful rival of the Communists.
Sukarno had little interest in conventional economic management, and as a result the economy declined rapidly under Guided Democracy. This decline was due to the burdens of mounting overseas debt (much of it resulting from the purchase of Soviet-bloc armaments), an overstaffed government bureaucracy, and the grossly inefficient state-owned companies in the agriculture, mining, transportation, and banking sectors. By 1965 inflation in Indonesia was more than 650 percent a year, and the economy was on the verge of total collapse.Despite this, Sukarno retained enormous popularity among ordinary Indonesians, awakening in them a great sense of pride in being Indonesian. He received particular support from poor farmers and factory workers, a class he termed the Marhaen, named after a poor peasant farmer Sukarno met in West Java. Sukarno also supported the right of equal citizenship for Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese residents.
The Dutch had retained possession of the western half of New Guinea (then known as Dutch New Guinea) following their acknowledgment of Indonesian independence in 1949. Although Indonesia continued to claim sovereignty over the territory, the Indonesian governments that held power in the early and mid-1950s did not press the issue very hard. Sukarno, however, saw The Netherlands’ possession of the territory as an unacceptable reminder of colonialism, and by the late 1950s he was mounting an increasingly strident campaign to have the territory returned to Indonesia. In the early 1960s Indonesia launched military raids on Dutch New Guinea, but it was chiefly American diplomatic pressure that finally persuaded the Dutch to hand the territory over to Indonesia in 1963, when it was renamed West Irian (later renamed Irian Jaya; now Papua).
American support for the Indonesian position on West Irian had been, in part, an attempt to prevent Indonesia from moving closer to the Communist bloc of nations. The United States was unsuccessful in this goal. In the later years of Guided Democracy, Sukarno’s foreign policy took on an increasingly anti-Western and pro-Communist orientation. He vigorously opposed the formation of Malaysia in 1963, arguing that the British-supported state would function as a base from which “neocolonial” forces could exert influence in the region. He criticized the United Nations for being under Western control, and withdrew Indonesia from the organization in January 1965. Later that year he announced the formation of an alliance between Indonesia and the Communist and pro-Communist governments of Cambodia, North Vietnam, China, and North Korea.
Political tensions within Indonesia boiled over on the night of September 30, 1965, when army troops and left-wing civilians staged a coup attempt, murdering six army generals and announcing the formation of a new revolutionary government. General Suharto, head of the army’s strategic command, rallied loyalist troops to suppress the coup. Although the identity and motives of the coup’s instigators remains controversial, the army alleged that the Communist PKI was responsible. Thus, in late 1965 army units and Muslim groups began to purge Communists (both real and suspected) from national life. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed or imprisoned in the crackdown.
Sukarno’s role in these events remains in dispute. He never publicly supported the coup attempt, but neither did he criticize it. This ambiguity, along with the elimination of the Communists, substantially weakened his political standing. By 1966 General Suharto had eased Sukarno out of effective power, and the following year Suharto became acting president. Sukarno was formally deposed in favor of Suharto in 1968. Wary of the implications of either putting him on trial for involvement in the attempted coup or allowing him complete freedom of action, Suharto kept Sukarno under house arrest in Jakarta until his death.
Despite government attempts to downplay his role in Indonesian politics, Sukarno’s image underwent a revival beginning in the 1980s among young people and others critical of the Suharto regime. Sukarno’s eldest daughter Megawati Sukarnoputri became a symbol of popular resistance in the pro-democracy movement that ultimately led to Suharto’s resignation in 1998. Megawati became vice president of Indonesia in 1999 and president in 2001.