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The Sukarno Era of Indonesian History


The Independence Movement

The Independence Movement is almost synonomous with the political leader Sukarno. The Su in his name and many other Indonesian names is an honorific. More properly his name should have been written Su Karno. When he or others chose to use other honorifics such as Bung (brother) or Batak (father) his name became Bung Karno or Batak Karno. During his time his picture became one of the most familiar in the world.

Su Karno
He devoted himself fulltime to the independence of Indonesia from the 1920s until independence in 1945 and thereafter.

Sukarno was born June 6, 1901 in Surabaja, Java of Javanese and Balinese parents. His father was a Javanese school teacher and his mother Balinese. He thus represented a mixture of the Islamic Javanese and Hindu Balinese Malay subcultures. He went to a secondary school in which most of the students were Dutch. He thus not only got a good education but became imbued with a fierce desire for Indonesian independence. In 1927 he received a degree in civil engineering from the Bandung Technical Institute and became an architect. But by this time he found his true calling was as an orator and politician. He found he could profoundly move crowds with his oratory.

In 1928 he helped found the Partei Nasional Indonesia (PNI), the Indonesian Nationalist Party. It had previously been known as the Perserikatan Nasional Indonesia, the Union of Indonesian Nationalists. There were a number of other nationalistic parties formed at that time and later, but PNI was the most effective in promoting a mass following.

Soon Sukarno came to the attention of the Dutch authorities and he was arrested in 1931 and sent into exile to the island of Flores. He remainded under the control of the Dutch authorities until he was released by the Japanese after they invaded Indonesia in 1942.

There were other political organizations formed even earlier than the PNI, most notably the Perserikatan Komunis Indonesia (PKI), the United Indonesian Communists. This organization had formed in 1920 from moderate socialist and and revolutionary Marxists. Later the moderate socialists withdrew from the PKI. In 1926 and 1927 the PKI sponsored some sporatic revolts in a few places but they were all put down in a few days time. The effect of these revolts was to establish the PKI as a radical party willing to take direct action.

The Japanese Invasion

The Japanese occupation forces gave Sukarno a role in maintaining their local acceptance. The Japanese invasion was looked upon as a fulfillment of a remarkable ancient prophesy.

Sukarno cooperated with the Japanese trying to get what assistance he could for the future independence of Indonesia. He even promoted the formation of voluntary work brigades, called romusha, to help the Japanese war effort. When it much later became known that the Japanese military treated these Indonesian volunteers as slaves Sukarno suffered a loss of face.

As World War II neared its end Sukarno secured from the Japanese Army arms and training for Indonesians. The Japanese saw this as a source of military aid in repelling the expected Allied invasion. Sukarno saw it as the arming and training of an Indonesian army to resist the return of the Dutch to Indonesia.

After the surrender of the Japanese Government on August 15, 1945 Sukarno and Muhammad Hatta declared the independence of Indonesia on August 17th. It is notable that Sukarno and the other nationalists insisted that the new nation would include all the territories conquered by the Dutch, even those that had no cultural affiliation with the Javanese or other Malay peoples. This meant that Sukarno was not opposed to imperialism per se but only opposed to the Javanese being the victim of it.

The Battles for Independence

British troops came to Indonesia to take the surrender of the Japanese military. The British released the Dutch troops that had been imprisoned by the Japanese and those Dutch troops and other Dutch troops which arrived fought the Indonesian army. With air support the Dutch quickly gained control of the major cities and their environs but the Indonesian guerilla troops maintained control of the countryside under leaders such a Nasution.


There was a notable incident in the war. In Madium a People's Republic of Indonesia was declared by the left-wing socialists and communists. It had Soviet support but was not well organized. This uprising was crushed by the Siliwangi Division under Nasution. This crushing of a communist movement was taken by Americans to be evidence that Sukarno and his supporters were not communists.

The independence movement could not retake the cities from the Dutch forces and the Dutch forces could not control the countryside. The stalemate ended when the American Government under Harry Truman threatened to cut off Marshall Plan aid to the Netherlands if the Dutch did not get out of Indonesia. In 1949 the Dutch withdrew and the Indonesian Republic was free to function.

The Reign of Sukarno 1949-1965

Although Sukarno was adept at language and rhetoric he was a miserable failure at economic policy. He had complete disdain for economics as ignoble "bean counting." Even worse he did not find or allow anyone else to properly treat economic and financial matters. While it was probably true that he was not literally a communist this is not because he saw anything wrong with communism. For him any systematic ideology would interfer with his governing by whim. He spent the limited funds Indonesia had for public monuments and buildings and for private luxuries for himself and his four wives. The problem was that Indonesia needed to repair its infrastructure devastated by a decade of war and rebellion. There was a great need for spare parts for equipment. Indonesia was not meeting its food needs and shortages were becoming serious. The Government was printing money and inflation began to surge into the hyperinflation range.

Sukarno did not concern himself with these economic problems. He instead devoted his time to political posturing. He played games in international politics flirting in turn with the Soviets, the Chinese and West. He verbally abused the West because he found this brought responses, not only from the West but also from the Soviets and Chinese. This balancing of opposition forces extended to internal politics. His avowed movement was called Nasakom, which stood for nationalism, religion and communism. He maintained close relations with the PKI, the Indonesian Communist Party which was under the leadership of D.N. Aidit.

Sukarno and D.N. Aidit,
Head of PKI

It is a cliche that Indonesian leaders are like the dalang (the puppetmaster) of the Indonesian shadow puppets, but in fact Indonesia culture strongly encourages this role for leaders. Sukarno played outrageous games in international politics. Marshall Green, the U.S. ambassador to Indonesia from 1965 to 1968 says that Sukarno wanted U.S. Information Service libraries in Indonesia as targets for mobs who would burn the books. The pictures of these burning would gain worldwide attention, particularly of Western and Socialist bloc leaders. Sukarno wanted Indonesia to appear to be at the center of world events. But these games of manipulation ultimately would bring his downfall. Sukarno remained President of Indonesia until 1967 but his power was progressively diminished after the 1965 events.

Su Bandrio

In addition to the relationship Sukarno maintained with the PKI there were others in cabinet that strongly leaned to the left. One notable figure was Subandrio who was considered intellectually brilliant. He was found guilty of involvement in the coup attempt of October 1, 1965 and sentenced to death.

(To be continued.)

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