Sukarno (1901-1970)

The Encyclopedia of Asian History
the Asia Society 1988.

Sukarno (1901-1970), first president of the Republic of Indonesia, a position he held from 17 August 1945, the day on which he proclaimed Indonesia’s independence, until his formal deposition on 27 March 1968. Sukarno was one of the charismatic leaders of Afro-Asian nationalism. He could claim, with some justice, to be the founder of the Indonesian Republic, but his closing years were marked by controversy and, ultimately, rejection.

Born in Surabaya*) , the son of a Javanese school-teacher and a Balinese mother, Sukarno was educated in his father’s school in Mojokerto (East Java), the Dutch elementary school at Mojokerto, and the Dutch secondary school (HBS) in Surabaya. As a secondary student he boarded in the house of Umar Said Cokroaminoto, chairman of the mass Islamic organization Sarekat Islam, and he met many of the nationalist leaders of the time there. On graduation from HBS, Sukarno, unlike others of his generation who proceeded to tertiary education in the Netherlands, studied engineering and architecture at the Bandung Technical College.

In Bandung he became involved in nationalist activity. He was chairman of the local branch of Jong Java and one of the founders of the General Study Club in 1926. His article “Nationalism, Islam and Marxism,” in the Study Club’s journal, Indonesia Muda, urged the unity of the major streams of nationalist thought in the interests of the common goal of independence. He also developed the idea of the Marhaen, the “little people” of Indonesia who were poor but who were not a proletariat.

In 1927 he assisted in the formation of the Indonesian Nationalist Party (PNI) and became its first chairman, Following the decline of Sarekat Islam and the destruction of the Indies Communist Party after the revolts of 1926-1927, the PNI became the main voice of Indonesian secular nationalism, and Sukarno’s skills of oratory drew large crowds to its meetings. Its success led, in December 1929, to Sukarno’s arrest, trial, and conviction for behavior calculated to disturb public order. His defense speech became a classic of nationalist literature. After his release from prison in December 1931, Sukarno joined Partindo (the PNI’s successor) and was arrested again in 1933). In spite of his resignation from Partindo and his promise to the authorities to abstain from political activity in the future, he was exiled first to Flores and then to Bengkulu.

With the Japanese invasion of the Indies in 1942, Sukarno returned to Jakarta where, within the Occupation regime, he served as chairman of its mass organizations and of a Central Advisory Committee. In those positions he was able to soften some Japanese demands, and through access to the radio provided in all villages he became the most widely known Indonesian leader. He claimed that his speeches, though necessarily supporting the Japanese, kept alive the idea of nationalism. In June 1945 he expounded his Pancasila: nationalism, internationalism, democracy, social prosperity, and belief in God.

In August 1945, Sukarno was accepted as the only person who could proclaim Indonesia’s independence and assume office as president. During the independence struggle that followed, he agreed to demands for a parliamentary, rather than a presidential, convention in forming governments. Giving up executive authority strengthened his independence and enabled him to be a symbol of unity against the Dutch, a mediator between rival Indonesian factions and the focus of resistance to such internal challenges to the republic as the Communist-led Madiun Affair in 1948.

After the transfer of sovereignty, the provisional constitution of 1950 provided for a parliamentary system and encouraged the emergence of a large number of political parties. Sukarno, irked by the constitutional checks on his authority, did, on occasion, interfere in politics. Growing political instability and regional resistance to the central government eventually gave him an opportunity to intervene more directly. In 1957, after attacking the selfishness of political parties, he called for the replacement of “50 percent plus one” democracy by a system of Guided Democracy more suited to Indonesian methods of deliberation and consensus. In 1959, following the defeat of rebellion in Sumatra and Sulawesi, and with the support of the army, he reintroduced by decree the 1945, presidential-type constitution and assumed executive authority.

Guided Democracy depended initially on a delicate balance between Sukarno and the army but with the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) becoming more visible and powerful. Sukarno’s style had echoes of court politics, government by access, impulse, and display. Against a background of economic crisis and spiraling inflation, Sukarno, “President for Life,” expropriated Dutch property, embarked on grand building projects, played host to the Asian Games, and pursued an adventurist foreign policy. Dividing the world ideologically into “new emerging” and “old established” forces, he campaigned successfully for the recovery of West Irian; opposed, by “confrontation,” the formation of Malaysia; and withdrew from the United Nations. The frenetic character of his regime reflected, perhaps, an increasingly desperate attempt to balance opposing domestic forces, and it ended in October 1965 with an attempted coup involving PKI leaders. Swift military action under General Suharto suppressed the coup and led to the destruction of the PKI and of the balance on which Sukarno’s power had depended. In 1967 Suharto became acting president, and in 1968 Sukarno was formally deposed in his favor. He died two years later.

Sukarno was a complex figure, combining elements of Javanese tradition and modernity in his leadership. To some he was a catastrophic president, wasting resources on grandiose policies. To others he remained the father of the nation. Politically resourceful, he was skilled in balancing rival factions, but with his mercurial style and his external appearance of confidence went signs of an inner vulnerability. At times he could act decisively, as in forming the PNI in 1927, handling the Japanese in 1942-1945, and introducing Guided Democracy in 1957-1959. At other times he appeared hesitant and uncertain. He posed as a revolutionary but recognized the fragility of the republic, and it could be argued that his revolutionary rhetoric disguised a desire to preserve the social status quo. Perhaps his greatest achievement was his projection of a vision of a unified Indonesian nation in an archipelago of great ethnic, religious, and geograhical diversity

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Comment : I am not sure about the place of birth of Sukarno, because as far as i know he was born in Blitar


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