Nkrumah Sukarno (1901–70) was the leader of the independence movement, the father of modern Indonesia and Indonesia's first president. Known as "Bung Karno” (Brother Karno) as well as the Great Leader of the Revolution, Mouthpiece of the Indonesian People and Father of the Farmers, he founded the national ideology “pancasila” and was the driving force behind Indonesia for the first 17 years of its existence.

Unlike most earlier nationalist leaders, Sukarno had a talent for bringing together Javanese tradition (especially the lore of wayang theater with its depictions of the battle between good and evil), Islam, and his own version of Marxism to gain a huge mass following. An important theme was what he called "Marhaenism." Marhaen (meaning farmer in Sundanese) was the name given by Sukarno to a man he claimed to have met in 1930 while cycling through the countryside near Bandung. The mythical Marhaen was made to embody the predicament of the Indonesian masses: not proletarians in the Marxist sense, they suffered from poverty as the result of colonial exploitation and the islands' dependence on European and American markets.

Sukarno aimed to make Javanese, Balinese, Acehese, Sumatrans and other groups to look beyond their own ethnicity as see themselves as Indonesians. Sukarno believed — -it seemed when nobody else did—that the far flung islands of the former Dutch empire could be unified into a nation. He was told it "is not going to work. They are totally different people, totally different cultures...We should have nothing to do with them." But in the end he achieved his goal with a minimum of bloodshed.

The late 1920s witnessed the rise of Sukarno to a position of prominence among political leaders. He became the country's first truly national figure and served as president from independence until his forced retirement from political life in 1966. Sukarno was a charismatic but he could also be an unpredictable demagogue who nearly bankrupted the country. In his autobiography he wrote, "He loves his country, he loves his people, he loves women, he loves art and, best of all, he loves himself." Even so Sukarno was adored by Indonesians. The Indonesia novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer wrote in Time: "He united his country and set it free. He liberated his people from a sense of inferiority and made them feel proud to be Indonesian."

Sukarno's Early Life

The son of a lower priyayi (Javanese aristocrat) schoolteacher and a a middle-class Balinese woman, Sukarno was born in Blitar, a village near Surabaya, Java, about 400 miles east of Jakarta, on June 6, 1901. He was good in sports and academics and was one of the few Indonesians to be let into a Dutch-language school. While at a Dutch-language secondary school in Surabaya met and boarded with the country's most well known nationalists,Cokroaminoto (Tjokroamino), who introduced the young Sukarno to separatist politics.

Sukarno was educated in East Java and Europe before studying at the new Technical College Bandung Institute of Technology), one of the best and most expensive schools in the colony, where he graduated as an architect from. He associated with leaders of the Indies Party and Sarekat Islam in his youth and was especially close to Cokroaminoto until his divorce from Cokroaminoto's daughter in 1922. A graduate of the technical college at Bandung in July 1927, he, along with members of the General Study Club (Algemene Studieclub) established the Indonesian Nationalist Union (PNI) the following year. Known after May 1928 as the Indonesian Nationalist Party (PNI), the party stressed mass organization, noncooperation with the colonial authorities, and the ultimate goal of independence. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Sukarno's Character and Charisma

It has been said that Sukarno was found of mistresses, uniforms and bombast. He lived in a grand presidential palace and may have had as many as nine wives. His second wife was a Balinese Hindu. His glamorous third wife, Dewi, was a former Japanese hostess at Tokyo's Copabacana nightclub and is now a big celebrity in Japan. He named his son after the Indonesian words for "Lighting," "Thunder," and "Typhoon."

Sukarno was a dashing impulsive soldier who liked to flash a winning smile behind dark sunglasses. The Indonesian called him “bung” (older brother) and felt he was one of them as well as a charismatic leader. He practiced both Islam and Javanese mysticism. Sukarno once called himself a "God-King." He and Suharto both reportedly believed in “wahyu”, the Javanese belief that some people have a divine mandate to rule. Sukarno was also inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution and the Enlightenment.

Sukarno counted John F. Kennedy among his friends. He was inspired by the proto-fascist Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio who in turn was a devotee of Nietzche. The term “live dangerously” was first used b D’Annunzio. Sukarno used the term the “year of living dangerously” to exhort Indonesians to prepare for hard times ahead.

Sukarno had a mellifluous voice and a fondness for “loopy, inventive acronyms.” He had the power to arouse people with his oratory. He "garnered support from the poor by whipping up nationalism and colorful rhetoric and brash diplomatic loves. His rallying cry was, “Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!”

Sukarno held crowds spellbound with his speeches and fired them up with his rhetoric. Recalling when he was a student, a political science professor told the Washington Post, "I had goose pimples whenever I heard President Sukarno make speeches. But after the speeches, we went back to the grueling life of standing in line for soap, for rice, for basic necessities." Life was hard "but we felt like we were traveling on top of the world. There was a great sense of unity."

Sukarno's Early Political Activity

While at Bandung Institute of Technology, regarded in his time as a focal point for political activity, radical Islam and Communism. He founded the Bandung Study Club on the model begun in Surabaya by the early Budi Utomo leader Dr. Sutomo (1888–1938), an ophthalmologist.

In 1927, Sukarno helped found the Partai National Indonesia (PNI), the Indonesian Nationalist Party, a pro-independence organization that blended Javanese, Western and socialist philosophies. Sukarno declared, “Give me 10 youths who are fired with zeal and with love for our native land, and with them I shall shake the earth.” It became the most significant nationalist organisation and was the first secular party devoted primarily to independence but the movement remained politically weak until World War II.

The fundamental idea that Sukarno invested in the PNI was that achieving the nation—acquiring independence from Dutch rule—came before and above everything else, which meant in turn that unity was necessary. Quarrels about the role of Islam or Marxist ideas or even democracy in an eventual Indonesia were at the moment beside the point. Social class was beside the point. All differences dissolved before the need for unity in reaching the goal of “merdeka”.

The Minangkabau Sutan Syahrir (1909-66) and Mohammad Hatta became Sukarno's most important political rivals. Graduates of Dutch universities, they were social democrats in outlook and more rational in their political style than Sukarno, whom they criticized for his romanticism and preoccupation with rousing the masses. In December 1931 they established a group officially called Indonesian National Education (PNI-Baru) but often taken to mean New PNI. The use of the term "education" reflected Hatta's gradualist, cadre-driven education process to expand political consciousness. *

Sukarno was arrested by the Dutch colonial government in 1929 and placed on trial for sedition in 1930, where he defended himself with an eloquent castigation of colonialism that lasted for two days and became known as Indonesia Menggoegat (“Indonesia Accuses!”). Sukarno served two years in prison. When he was released in 1931 he was regarded as hero by ordinary Indonesians. Taken into custody again in 1933, he was held under house arrest, first in remote Ende, Flores, then in Bengkulu, western Sumatra, until the Japanese occupation. While Sukarno was exiled on Flores, home of large number of Christians, he wrote movingly about the common values of Catholics and Muslims. The PNI for all intents and purposes was banned. Sukarno was freed from confinement when the Japanese arrived in 1942 during World War II.

Sukarno collaborated with the occupying Japanese during World War II. The Japanese allowed him to establish a nationalist umbrella group. In Jakarta he helped recruit Indonesian laborers for the Japanese war effort, many of who died working under slave-like conditions in Malaysia and Burma. Later admitted, “I shipped them to their deaths. Yes, yes, yes, I am the one.” But at the same time Sukarno used Japanese “singing trees” (loudspeakers) to get his nationalist message out to the masses. After the defeat of the Japanese he declared independence from colonial rule.

Sukarno Ideology

Beyond the goal of independence, Sukarno envisioned a future Indonesian society freed from dependence on foreign capital: a community of classless but happy Marhaens, rather than greedy (Western-style) individualists, that would reflect the idealized values of the traditional village, the notion of gotong-royong or mutual self-help. Marhaenism, despite its convenient vagueness, was developed enough that by 1933 nine theses on Marhaenism were developed in which the concept was synonymous with socio-nationalism and the struggle for independence. Mutual self-help in diverse contexts became a centerpiece of Sukarno's ideology after independence and was not abandoned by his successor, Suharto, when the latter established his New Order regime in 1966. Considering himself a Muslim of modernist persuasion, like Ataturk in Turkey, Sukarno advocated the establishment of a secular rather than Islamic state. This understandably diminished his appeal among Islamic conservatives in Java and elsewhere. *

In 1921 Sukarno had fashioned the idea of “marhaen”, the “ordinary person” representing all Indonesians, as a substitute for the Marxist concept of proletariat, which he found too divisive, and argued that developing a mass following among ordinary folk was the key to defeating colonial rule. And in 1926 he published a long essay entitled “Nationalism, Islam, and Marxism,” in which he laid the foundation for a new nationalism, one that was neither Muslim nor Marxist but comprised its own—national—ideology, largely by suggesting that significant differences could not exist among those who were serious about struggling for freedom. This extravagant inclusiveness did not, however, extend to race. Sukarno pitched the struggle as between us (Indonesians) and others, “sini “or “sana “(literally, here or there), a “brown front” against a “white front.” With respect to the colonial state, one was either “ko “or non-“ko “(cooperative or not). Sukarno specified in the PNI statutes that non-Indonesians— Eurasians, Chinese, whites—could aspire only to associate membership at best. In his 1930 defense oration when on trial by the colonial authorities, entitled “Indonesia Menggugat!” (Indonesia Accuses!), Sukarno also depicted the Indonesian nation as not merely an invention of the present but rather a reality of the historical past now being revived. It was a glorious (racial) past leading through a dark present to a bright and shining future. *

These ideas, delivered in Sukarno’s famously charismatic style, were both radical and seductive. Part of their attraction was that they stirred deep emotions; in part, too, they permitted, even encouraged, the denial of genuine differences among Indonesians, and the highlighting of those between Indonesians and others. Not everyone agreed with the PNI program, even among those who joined. Mohammad Hatta and Sutan Syahrir, Sumatrans who were among Sukarno’s closest associates and later served him as vice president and prime minister, respectively, both had misgivings about the “mass action” approach and warned as early as 1929 against demagoguery and the growth of an intellectually shallow nationalism. Syahrir also was scathing about the “sini “or “sana “concept, especially for the way it implied an unbridgeable gap between East and West, a concept Syahrir thought both mythical and dangerous. Hatta was perhaps more equivocal, for in the Netherlands in 1926, as president of the Perhimpunan Indonesia (Indonesian Association), which had succeeded the Indonesische Vereniging, he had specifically prohibited Eurasians from membership.

The encompassing, driving sense of national unity and the defiant stand against colonial rule were, nevertheless, widely appealing and influenced Indonesians everywhere. They were clearly an inspiration behind the decisions of the Second Youth Congress in 1928, which adopted the red-and-white flag and the anthem “Indonesia Raya” (Great Indonesia) as official national icons, and on October 28, 1928, passed the resolution known as the Youth Pledge (Sumpah Pemuda), which proclaimed loyalty to “one birthplace/fatherland “(bertumpah darah satu, tanah air”): Indonesia; one people/nation (“satu bangsa”): Indonesia; and one unifying language “(bahasa persatuan”): Indonesian.” Little matter that, for example, the Malay language on which this new “Indonesian” was to be based was at the time little spoken among the Dutch-educated students who proclaimed it the national language; they would learn and develop it as they developed the nation itself.

Sukarno as President

Sukarno declared himself Indonesia’s president’s after the Japanese left in 1945 and officially became the president of Indonesia when Indonesia became independent in 1949. He preached religious and racial tolerance, and the ideology which became the cornerstone of Indonesia's identity. His greatest achievement was to unify Indonesia and make Javanese, Timorese, Sumatrans and Balinese proud to call themselves Indonesians. He founded the national ideology (“Pancasila”), which he said was the “highest common factor and the lowest common multiple of Indonesian thought” and promoted the national language Bahasa Indonesian. He remained president until 1967.

When elections were finally held in Indonesia in 1955, Sukarno’s party, PNI, won the most votes but did not win a majority. The Communists and the PKI also did well. Sukarno was unable to form a government and unstable coalitions continued. In 1956, Sukarno criticized parliamentary democracy, saying it was based on “inherent confect.” His attempt to create a unifying government based on nationalism religion and communism—chosen in part because they represented the three main political factions, the military, Islamic parties and the communists—was largely a failure.

Sukarno was barely able to keep the lid on a country divided by numerous factions including ethnic groups, the Indonesian Communist Party, various Muslim groups and trade unions. The relationship between Sukarno and the military was tenuous at times, but both needed each other. Even though he was adored by millions, Sukarno would have had a hard time surviving as long as he did without backing of the military.

Faced with economic problems and separatist movements, Sukarno assumed greater authority in 1959 by establishing what he called a "guided democracy" with himself as the guide and cabinet filled with representatives of various parties that answered to him. Without offering any good reason why, he dissolved the national assembly established by the constitution of 1945 and appointed advisory councils and consolidated the 60 existing political parties into 11.

In 1960, Sukarno suspended parliament and established a new one with only advisory powers. After the last rebellions against him were put down in 1962 he declared himself "president for life" in 1963. To pull all this off Sukarno needed the support of the military and to do that he played the military and the powerful Communists off one another in a way that earned him comparisons to a traditional Indonesian puppet master.

The result was deep dissatisfaction with Sukarno and the Indonesian government in general. By this time Indonesia was increasingly becoming a big mess. The government was rife with corruption and undermined by mismanagement. Rebellions broke out anew; there was great resentment against the Javanese. Sukarno’s “late reputation would rest on active self-aggrandizement.” His presidential convoy was once targeted in a a grenade attack. He survived by many were injured.

See Separate Article on the Struggle for Independence, Economic History, Education, See Constitution, History of Islam, Religion.

Sukarno’s Increasing Authoritarianism

Sukarno had long been impatient with party politics and suggested in a speech on October 28, 1956, that they be discarded. On March 14, 1957, the liberal phase of Indonesian history was brought to an end with Sukarno's proclamation of martial law. In an unstable and ultimately catastrophic coalition with the army and the PKI, he sought to rescue the fragile unity of the archipelago. [Source: Library of Congress *]

According to Lonely Planet: “By 1956 President Sukarno was openly criticizing parliamentary democracy, stating that it was ‘based upon inherent conflict’. He sought a system based on the traditional Indonesian village system of discussion and consensus, which occurred under the guidance of village elders. He proposed the threefold division – nasionalisme (nationalism), agama (religion) and komunisme (communism) – be blended into a cooperative Nas-A-Kom government, thereby appeasing the main factions of Indo―nesian politics: the army, Islamic groups and the communists. In February 1957, with military support, Sukarno proclaimed ‘guided democracy’ and proposed a cabinet representing all the political parties of importance (including the PKI). For the next 40 years, Western-style, party-based democracy was finished in Indonesia, though the parties were not abolished. [Source: Lonely Planet]

The year 1957 witnessed the move of the PKI to the center of the political stage. In provincial elections held in July 1957 in Jawa Barat and Jawa Tengah provinces, the PKI won 34 percent of the vote, ahead of the other major parties — the PNI, Nahdatul Ulama, and Masyumi — although Masyumi defeated the PKI narrowly in Jawa Timur Province. The PKI's success was attributable to superior grass-roots organization, the popular appeal of its demand for land reform, and its support for Sukarno's Guided Democracy idea. *

As tensions between the republic and the Netherlands over West New Guinea grew, PKI-controlled unions led a movement to nationalize Dutch-owned firms: on December 3, 1957, the Royal Packetship Company (KPM), which controlled most of the archipelago's shipping, was seized and, two days later, Royal Dutch Shell. Some 46,000 Dutch nationals were expelled from Indonesia, and Nasution ordered officers of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Indonesia (ABRI), which had been involved in economic affairs since the late 1940s, to take a role in managing nationalized firms. This action marked the beginning of the armed forces' role in the economy, a role which grew substantially in later years. Control of the oil industry was seized by ABRI, and Colonel Ibnu Sutowo, Nasution's deputy, was placed in charge of a new national oil company, Permina. *

Reaction to Sukarno’s Increasing Authoritarianism

On December 1, 1956, Mohammad Hatta had resigned as vice president in protest against Sukarno's growing authoritarianism. Hatta's exit from the political scene did not improve the relations among the central government, Sumatra, and the eastern archipelago, where Hatta was very popular. [Source: Library of Congress *]

According to Lonely Planet: In 1958, rebellions backed by the CIA, with support from the UK and Australian governments, broke out in Sumatra and Sulawesi. These were a reaction against Sukarno’s usurpation of power, the growing influence of the PKI and the corruption and mismanagement of the central government. They were also a reaction against Java, whose leaders and interests dominated Indonesia despite the fact that other islands provided most of the country’s export income. The rebellions were put down by mid-1958, though guerrilla activity continued for three years. Rebel leaders were granted amnesty but their political parties were banned. Some of the early nationalist leaders, such as former prime minister Syahrir, were discredited or arrested. [Source: Lonely Planet]

On February 10, 1958, when Sukarno was out of the country, a group of Sumatran military officers, Masyumi politicians, and others sent an ultimatum to Jakarta demanding Sukarno's return to a figurehead role as president and the formation of a new government under Hatta and Yogyakarta sultan Hamengkubuwona IX. Five days later, the group proclaimed the Revolutionary Government of the Indonesian Republic (PRRI). [Source: Library of Congress *]

On February 17, Permesta rebels in Sulawesi made common cause with them. Although the rebellion was not completely suppressed until 1961, decisive action by the military had neutralized it by mid1958 . There were several important consequences: the forced retirement of many officers from Sumatra and the eastern archipelago, making the officer corps proportionately more Javanese (and presumably more loyal to Sukarno); the firm implantation of central authority in the Outer Islands; and the emergence of Nasution, promoted to lieutenant general, as the most powerful military leader. But the army's victory in suppressing regional rebellion caused Sukarno dismay. To offset the military's power, Sukarno's ties with the PKI grew closer. *

The PRRI revolt also soured Sukarno's relations with the United States. He accused Washington of supplying the rebels with arms and angrily rejected a United States proposal that marines be landed in the Sumatra oil-producing region to protect American lives and property. The United States was providing clandestine aid to the rebels and Allen Pope, an American B-25 pilot, was shot down over Ambon on May 18, 1958, creating an international incident. Deteriorating relations prompted Sukarno to develop closer relations with the Soviet Union and, especially, the People's Republic of China. *

In July 1958, Nasution suggested that the best way to achieve Guided Democracy was through reinstatement of the 1945 constitution with its strong "middle way," presidential system. On July 5, 1959, Sukarno issued a decree to this effect, dissolving the old House of Representatives. This marked the formal establishment of the period of Guided Democracy which lasted six years. In March 1960, a new legislature, the House of People's Representatives-Mutual Self-help (DPR-GR; later, simply DPR) was established. One hundred fifty-four of its 238 seats were given to representatives of "functional groups," including the military, which became known as Golkar. All were appointed rather than elected. As many as 25 percent of the seats were allocated for the PKI. Another body, the 616-member Provisional People's Consultative Assembly (MPRS; later, simply MPR), was established with communist leader Dipa Nusantara Aidit as deputy chairman. In August 1960, Masyumi and the PSI were declared illegal, a reflection of their role in the PRRI insurrection, the MPRS's enmity toward Sukarno, and its refusal to recognize Guided Democracy. *

Sukarno’s Dictatorial “Guided Democracy’

Indonesia’s unstable political environment meant the planned 1960 election never took place. Sukarno issued a decree on July 5, 1959 to dismiss the parliament and Konstituante. He also formed new bicameral legislative agencies: Gotong Royong House of Representative (DPR GR) and a Provisional People’s Consultative Assembly (MPRS) — whose members were chosen by the president himself. The dismissal of the parliament and Konstituante in 1959 marked the end of Indonesia’s parliamentary democracy and the start of the era of guided democracy which had no election until 1971, after Suharto took office.

In 1956, Sukarno introduced the concept of Guided Democracy. Although the concept was new in name, its various themes had been part of the president's thinking since before the war. In the first years of independence, his freedom of action had been limited by parliamentary institutions. During the Guided Democracy years in the 1960s, Sukarno played a delicate balancing act, drawing the armed forces and PKI into an uneasy coalition and playing them off against each other while largely excluding Islamic forces (especially modernists as represented by the prohibited Masyumi) from the central political arena. Two other features of his political strategy were an aggressive foreign policy, first against the Dutch over West New Guinea (Irian Barat, or later Irian Jaya Province) and then against the newly created state of Malaysia; and demagogic appeals to the masses. [Source: Library of Congress *]

According to Lonely Planet: Sukarno reorganized the political system to give himself real power. In 1960 the elected parliament was dissolved and replaced by a parliament appointed by, and subject to the will of, the president. The Supreme Advisory Council, another non-elected body, became the chief policy-making body. A national front, set up to ‘mobilise the revolutionary forces of the people’, was presided over by the president and became a useful adjunct to government in organising ‘demonstrations’. Sukarno had set Indonesia on a course of stormy nationalism. His speeches were those of a romantic revolutionary, which held his people spellbound. He united them against a common external threat, and konfrontasi became the buzz word as Indonesia confronted Malaysia (and its imperialist backer, the UK), the USA and, indeed, the whole Western world. [Source: Lonely Planet]

A flamboyant speaker, Sukarno spun out slogans and catchwords that became the nebulous basis of a national ideology. One of the most important formulas was Manipol-USDEK, introduced in 1960. Manipol was the Political Manifesto set forth in Sukarno's August 17, 1959, independence day speech, and USDEK was an acronym for a collection of symbols: the 1945 constitution, Indonesian Socialism, Guided Democracy, Guided Economy, and Indonesian Identity. Another important slogan was Nasakom, the synthesis of nationalism, religion, and communism — symbolizing Sukarno's attempt to secure a coalition of the PNI, the Nahdatul Ulama (but not Masyumi), and the PKI. In a manner that often bewildered foreign observers, Sukarno claimed to resolve the contradiction between religion and communism by pointing out that a commitment to "historical materialism" did not necessarily entail belief in atheistic "philosophical materialism." *

Deterioration of the Indonesian Economy Under Sukarno’s “Guided Democracy’

Despite achieving national unity, Sukarno could not create a viable economic system to lift Indonesia out of poverty. What’s more, great funds were spent on symbols designed to celebrate Indonesia’s identity, including Jakarta’s National Monument and the massive Mesjid Istiqlal. Unable to advance from revolution to rebuilding, Sukarno’s monuments became substitutes for real development.

Indonesia's ailing economy grew worse as Sukarno ignored the recommendations of technocrats and foreign aid donors, eyed overseas expansion, and built expensive public monuments and government buildings at home. In late 1960, an eight-year economic plan was published, but with its eight volumes, seventeen parts, and 1,945 clauses (representing the date independence was proclaimed: August 17, 1945), the plan seems to have been more an exercise in numerology than economic planning. Ordinary people suffered from hyperinflation and food shortages. Motivated by rivalry with the pro-Beijing PKI and popular resentment of ethnic Chinese, the army backed a decree in November 1959 that prohibited Chinese from trading in rural areas. Some 119,000 Chinese were subsequently repatriated, a policy that caused considerable economic disruption. Although Washington and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) sought to encourage rational economic policies, Sukarno resisted. A major reason was that IMF recommendations would have alienated his millions of popular supporters, especially those in the PKI. [Source: Library of Congress *]

PKI power in Java's villages expanded through the early 1960s. In late 1963, following Sukarno's call for implementation of land reform measures that had been made law in 1960, the PKI announced a policy of direct action (aksi sepihak) and began dispossessing landlords and distributing the land to poor Javanese, northern Sumatrans, and Balinese peasants. Reforms were not accomplished without violence. Old rivalries between nominal Muslims, the abangan, many of whom were PKI supporters, and orthodox Muslims, or santri, were exacerbated. The PKI membership rolls totaled 2 million, making it the world's largest communist party in a noncommunist country. Affiliated union and peasant organizations had together as many as 9 million members. PKI leader Aidit pursued his own foreign policy, aligning Indonesia with Beijing in the post-1960 Sino-Soviet conflict and gaining Chinese support for PKI domestic policies, such as unilateral and reform actions. Some observers concluded that by 1964 it appeared that a total communist takeover was imminent. *

Sukarno's Foreign Policy

Sukarno applied his nationalist policies to foreign policy. He believed that Asia had been humiliated by the West and that Indonesia remained threatened by the remnants of Western imperialism, namely British-controlled Malaysia, Dutch-controlled Irian Jaya (now West Papua) and the Philippines, with its American military bases. “Knofrontasi” became a policy position. He failed in his effort to win northen Borneo from Malaysia in a disastrous confrontation that provoked international condemnation but succeeded in obtaining Irian Jaya.

According to Lonely Planet: First on the agenda was Irian Jaya, which Indonesia had always claimed on the basis that it had been part of the Dutch East Indies. An arms agreement with the Soviet Union in 1960 enabled the Indonesians to begin a diplomatic and military confrontation with the Dutch over the disputed territory, though it was US pressure on the Dutch that finally led to the Indonesian takeover in 1963.” In 1965, Indonesia became the first nation ever to withdraw from the United Nations. It resigned soon after the Federation of Malaysia was given a set on United Nations Security Council.

The international scene was, for Sukarno, a gigantic stage upon which a dramatic confrontation between (as he termed them) the New Emerging Forces and Old Established Forces was played out in the manner of the wayang contest between the virtuous Pandawas and the evil Kurawas. With the assistance and support of the PKI, Sukarno attempted to forge a "Jakarta-Phnom Penh-Beijing-Hanoi- Py'ngyang axis" in order to combat Neocolonialism, Colonialism, and Imperialism (Nekolim). Although the Soviet Union was a major supplier of arms and economic aid, relations with China through official and PKI channels were growing close, particularly in 1964- 65. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The West became increasingly alarmed at Indonesia’s foreign policy. Foreign aid dried up after the USA withdrew its assistance because of konfrontasi. The cash-strapped government abolished many subsidies, leading to massive increases in public transport, electricity, water and postal charges. Economic plans had failed miserably and inflation was running at 500 percent. As konfrontasi alienated Western nations, Indonesia came to depend more on support from the Soviet Union, and, to a lesser extent, from communist China. Meanwhile, tensions grew between the Indonesian Army and the PKI.

See Malaysia, Papua and East Timor.

Indonesia Claims West New Guinea (West Papua)

Continued Dutch occupation of West New Guinea led to a break in diplomatic relations between Jakarta and The Hague in 1960. In December of that year, Sukarno established a special military unit, the Army Strategic Reserve Command (Kostrad), also known as the Mandala Command, based in Ujungpandang, to "recover" the territory. Full-scale war, however, was averted when a compromise was worked out under United States auspices in which West New Guinea was first turned over to UN and then to Indonesian administration. The UN replaced the Dutch on October 1, 1962, and in May 1963, Indonesian authority was established. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The so-called Act of Free Choice, a UN-sanctioned and -monitored referendum to discover whether the population, mostly Papuans living in tribal communities, wanted to join the republic, was held in 1969. Community leaders representing the various sectors of society were chosen by consensus at local level meetings and then met among themselves at the village, district, and provincial levels to discuss affiliation. Only these community leaders could vote and they approved incorporation unanimously. Criticism of the process by foreign observers and suspicions of pressure on the voting leaders threw its legitimacy into question. *

Sukarno's Hostility Towards Malaysia

Sukarno bitterly opposed the creation of Malaysia in 1963, which called a "neo-colonial plot" and perceived as a means of continuing British influence in the region and off shutting off Indonesia from the rest of the word. He saw Indonesia as the rightful leader of the Malay people and thought it was a British plot to surround Indonesia. British firms were seized by the government and mobs were allowed to attack and burn down the British embassy.

Sukarno provided training to the anti-Malaysian, Chinese guerillas of the Sarawak People’s Guerilla Force, which attacks on Malaysian forces in Borneo. The Dayaks the instability to begun hunting heads again. In 1965, some American interests were seized y the government and American government offices were attacked.

Hostility to Malaysia, which was established on September 16, 1963, as a union of states of the Malay Peninsula, Singapore, and the North Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak, sprang from Sukarno's belief that it would function as a base from which Nekolim forces could subvert the Indonesian revolution. Malaysia's conservative prime minister, Tengku Abdul Rahman, had agreed to the continued basing of British armed forces in the country, and Sukarno could not forget that the government of independent Malaya had given assistance to the PRRI rebels in 1958. In the wake of Malaysia's creation, a wave of anti-Malaysian and anti-British demonstrations broke out, resulting in the burning of the British embassy. PKI union workers seized British plantations and other enterprises, which were then turned over to the government. [Source: Library of Congress *]


Indonesia opposed the Federation of Malaysia. For a number of years it supported guerilla attacks against Sarawak, Sabah and Malaya. In 1960, the northern states of Borneo, , which bordered on Indonesian Kalimantan, were somewhat reluctant to join Malaysia. Indonesian President Sukarno saw himself as the true leader of the Malay people. Indonesia supported an attempted revolution in Brunei and railed against British imperialism. The Indonesian army increased its budget. British forces provided assistance to Malaysia in their fight against the Indonesians. A brief war—known as Confrontation (Konfrontasi) —soon involved Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union, and China and eventually settled rival claims in Borneo.

The Indonesian government led by Sukarno contended that the new federation of Malaysia was a neocolonialist plan to prevent Indonesia and Malaysia from combining into a Greater Malaysia, an entity that Malaysian leaders had previously supported. Soon after the Federation of Malaysia was established, Indonesia attempted to spark a popular revolt in the fledgling country by engaging in acts of terrorism and armed confrontation in various places. However, these actions strengthened popular support for Malaysia, and in 1964 Australia, Britain, and New Zealand sent troops and military aid to Malaysia.

Sukarno was backed by the powerful Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI). Indonesia backed a Communist insurgency in Sarawak, mainly involving elements of the local Chinese community. The Indonesian army mounted offensives along the Kalimantan–Malaysia border and the PKI demonstrated in the streets in Jakarta. Indonesian irregular forces were infiltrated into Sarawak, where they were contained by Malaysian and Commonwealth of Nations forces.

On September 23, 1963, Sukarno, who had proclaimed himself President-for-Life, declared that Indonesia must "gobble Malaysia raw." Military units infiltrated Malaysian territory but were intercepted before they could establish contact with local dissidents. When the UN General Assembly elected Malaysia as a nonpermanent member of the Security Council in December 1964, Sukarno took Indonesia out of the world body and promised the establishment of a new international organization, the Conference of New Emerging Forces (Conefo), a fitting end, perhaps, for 1964, which Sukarno had called "A Year of Living Dangerously."

The period of Konfrontasi—an economic, political, and military confrontation—lasted until the downfall of Sukarno in 1966. An abortive coup attempt in 1965 forced Sukarno to step down, and on August 11, 1966, Indonesia and Malaysia signed a peace treaty.

Brunei Revolt in December 1962

In the 1960s, Indonesia supported an attempted revolution in Brunei and railed against British imperialism there. In 1962, an armed rebellion linked to Indonesia was put down in the Sultanate of Brunei. President Sukarno of Indonesia supported a left wing inspired rural insurrection against the Brunei government. Although flying in police units from British North Borneo and Gurkhas from Malaya swiftly put this down, a hidden jungle campaign continued throughout Borneo for several subsequent years. British troops led by a Gurkha contingent together with the Brunei police and the new Royal Brunei Malay Regiment, saw-off these erstwhile "liberators". Unfortunately, the experience proved a watershed for democratic reform. The experiment with democracy was ended and the legislature dissolved.

Prof. Michael Leigh wrote in the New Strait Times, “On the night of Dec 8, 1962, simultaneous attacks were launched against the government and police throughout Brunei, in Limbang and down as far as Sibuti in Sarawak. Why such violence? In the most recent elections, the Parti Rakyat Brunei (PRB) swept all but one of the elected seats in the Brunei legislature, and expected the win would lead to legislative and executive power. The sultan, his British advisers and the Malayan government were not happy with PRB exercising real power in Brunei. So, the sultan kept postponing any meeting of the legislature, and meanwhile, was actively discussing the terms under which Brunei would become part of the proposed Malaysian federation. PRB was opposed to that policy, and firmly committed to a Borneo Federation of Sarawak, Brunei and North Borneo, with Brunei’s sultan as the constitutional monarch of “Bornesia”. [Source: Professor Michael Leigh, New Strait Times, September 13, 2014 \~]

“Frustrated, a number of PRB members commenced military training in the jungles of Brunei and in the Lawas district of Sarawak. Their armed wing, Tentara Nasional Kalimantan Utara (TNKU), obtained a small supply of weapons from various sources. For the PRB, the constitutional path remained blocked, and they feared that security powers would shortly be handed to a new Malaysian government, as was the British intention in Singapore. Influential PRB members then planned to forcibly take over power in Brunei, and adjacent areas of Sarawak and North Borneo (Sabah), and to do so during celebrations on Christmas Eve — when it was assumed that the British would be least capable of responding! Arrests of TNKU leaders in Lawas precipitated the early action and the revolt did not go as planned. Capturing the sultan was key to success, as was his cooperation, but PRB failed to reach him. Instead, the sultan was surrounded by expatriates, and with their encouragement, he requested British military assistance to defeat the rebellion.\~\

“Greg Poulgrain, in his book, The Genesis Of Confrontation, sees that revolt in the context of broader British strategy to undermine President Sukarno. He accords a more manipulative and Machiavellian role to the UK in the abortive revolt, but I think he gives too much credit to British intelligence. However, there is still much to be discovered about the events of December 1962. After some significant casualties, especially in Seria and Limbang, the Brunei revolt was suppressed, but it sent shockwaves throughout Sarawak.” \~\

Impact of the 1962 Brunei Revolt

Prof. Michael Leigh wrote in the New Strait Times, “The government immediately gazetted a range of emergency powers and gave wide publicity to these new threats of violence. Newspapers were proscribed, political activists arrested and held without trial, and the participation in the revolt of many Malay and Kedayan Sarawak United Peoples PARTY (SUPP) members, especially those in the Sibuti area, was widely publicised. Following the crackdown, there was a steady flow of young Chinese communist cadres across to West Kalimantan, training in preparation for armed struggle. TNKU was headed by a highly influential Sarawak Malay leader. [Source: Professor Michael Leigh, New Strait Times, September 13, 2014 \~]

“This threat to public order had a decisive impact on public opinion in Sarawak and was crucial in swinging Dayak opinion in favour of Malaysia. No longer was it easy to argue that Sarawak should continue as it was, or seek independence just on its own — as SUPP had been arguing. With the welter of government publicity, there was a groundswell either toward active support for the idea of federation or the passive view that Malaysia was a better option than Indonesia.The Sarawak government made much of the links between PRB leader Azahari and Indonesia, even though it has since been shown that top Indonesian security officials had no confidence in Azahari’s ability to work strategically. \~\

“The government trumpeted clear that the simple choice for Sarawakians was a promising future in Malaysia. Radio Sarawak, beamed throughout the state, gave considerable publicity to resignations of native members of SUPP, and certain government officers pressured influential Dayaks to abandon their membership and support for SUPP, stressing the themes of communist influence and subversion. Just the month before statewide elections in Sarawak, credibility was given to government arguments when Indonesian “volunteers” attacked the Tebedu police station, seizing weapons and killing officers — including the brother of Sarawak’s future first chief minister.” \~\

Brunei Revolt and the Indonesian ‘Konfrontasi’

Prof. Michael Leigh wrote in the New Strait Times, “That was the start of the Indonesian armed konfrontasi against Malaysia. One might well argue that the title Bapa Malaysia should be held jointly by Tunku Abdul Rahman and President Sukarno, for without Indonesia’s support for the PRB and commencement of armed confrontation, it is quite unlikely that a majority of Sarawak’s Council Negri would have supported Sarawak making Malaysia. [Source: Professor Michael Leigh, New Strait Times, September 13, 2014 \~]

“The actual outcome from the 1963 District Council elections was much, much closer than many care to remember. The actual votes cast gave the SUPP/Parti Negara Sarawak (Panas) coalition 35.7 per cent, the Alliance 34.2 per cent and Independents 30.2 per cent. In 1963, the composition of the Council Negri was based on a three-tiered system, with each district council selecting members of the Divisional Advisory Councils (DAC). They would then chose who would represent them in the Council Negri. At each level it was “winner takes all”. Whether the Alliance would carry the day was actually in doubt until the last minute. That was because Panas and SUPP had formed a coalition, a link based upon pragmatism, not ideology. Panas and its leader, Datu Bandar, were savagely attacked for “selling out the Malays”. \~\

“Intervention of the Malayan Alliance added ferocity to that attack and the intense hostility between the top leaders of Barisan Rakyat Jati Sarawal (BARJASA) and Panas became both personal and political. After polling, the SUPP-Panas coalition controlled the 1st DAC and only needed to win a majority in the 3rd DAC in order to nominate 21 of the 36 elected members of Council Negri. In the 3rd DAC, the Alliance and the coalition had secured 10 votes. The outcome swung on the support of one independent member of the Binatang District Council, who held the pivotal swing vote. \~\

“Had the Panas/SUPP coalition then won the 3rd DAC, with the support of just one of four Mukah independents, they would have gained control of the Council Negri. The Panas/SUPP coalition agreement, signed by their respective leaders, stipulated that the United Nations conduct a referendum before the implementation of Malaysia. Had that agreement held, it is doubtful that the Tunku would have waited for a favourable outcome, given the international and domestic pressures bearing heavily upon his government, and his absolute refusal to merge with Singapore prior to the inclusion of the Borneo states.” \~\

Sukarno, the Nonaligned Movement and Bandung

Sukarno is also considered the father of the non-aligned movement of Third World nations whose initial aim was to find a nonaligned middle ground between the capitalist United States and the communist Soviet Union.

In 1955, Sukarno hosted the groundbreaking Afro-Asian Conference in Bandung— a former Dutch colonial hill station in Java— that later grew into the non-aligned nation's movement. Among the leaders in attendance were Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, China's Zhou Enlai, India's Jawharlal Nehru, Yugoslavia's Tito and Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah. The twenty-five countries that participated at the Bandung Conference represented nearly one-quarter of the Earth's land surface and a total population of 1.5 billion people more than half the world’s population at that time.

Third World countries that met in Bandung declared they were going to take a path differing from that of both the United States and the Soviet Union. The meeting was filled with anti-first-world theories and terms like "anti-imperialism" and "anti-colonialism." Sukarno said it was time to wipe away the legacy of Western colonialism and called for the 20th century to be "the century of the awakening of the colored people" and "the century of intervention."

Third World leaders stayed at the Savoy Homann Hotel and held meetings at Bandung's historical "freedom" building —Gedung Merdeka. The leaders gave their commitment to the 10 principles of Bandung in 1955 which inspired the struggle of the Asian and African nations for independence. At an event to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bandung, that welcomed leaders of nations from South Africa to North Korea, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said,"The Bandung spirit has been a guidance, and a rallying cry, for generations of Asian and African leaders.” [Source: Reuters, April 25, 2005]

The 10-point "declaration on promotion of world peace and cooperation," incorporating the principles of the United Nations Charter was adopted unanimously: 1) Respect for fundamental human rights and for the purposes and principles of the charter of the United Nations; 2) Respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all nations; 3) Recognition of the equality of all races and of the equality of all nations large and small; 4) Abstention from intervention or interference in the internal affairs of another country; 5) Respect for the right of each nation to defend itself, singly or collectively, in conformity with the charter of the United Nations; 6a) Abstention from the use of arrangements of collective defence to serve any particular interests of the big powers; 6b) Abstention by any country from exerting pressures on other countries; 7) Refraining from acts or threats of aggression or the use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any country; 8) Settlement of all international disputes by peaceful means, such as negotiation, conciliation, arbitration or judicial settlement as well as other peaceful means of the parties own choice, in conformity with the charter of the United Nations; 9) Promotion of mutual interests and cooperation; 10) Respect for justice and international obligations.

Sukarno, the United States and the West

Sukarno earned praise in Indonesia and in the Third World for standing up to the West, particularly the United States which he accused of being imperialist. He often aimed his “Konfrontasi” speeches at Washington and described Indonesia as a “coolie between nations,” moored between the continents of Asia and Australia. In the 1950s Sukarno condemned rock 'n roll as a symptom of Western decadence.

On the relation between the east and west, Sukarno said: "To me, both the Declaration of Independence and the Communist Manifesto contain undying truths, but the West doesn't permit a middle road. They manipulate you so you're no longer able to stay independent. To President Roosevelt's four freedoms I add a fifth: the freedom to be free. The West keeps threatening: 'Do you want to be dominated by the communist?' We answer, 'No...but neither do we want to be dominated by you!' At least Communist Russia and China don't call us names when we smile sweetly at America. A nation engaged in surviving must take help from all sides, accept whatever is useful and throw away the rest."

Sukarno told the West to “go to hell with their aid.” On American aid, he said, "Americans are under the impression they're saying to use, 'Here poor, dear, poverty stricken brother...have some poor little underdeveloped Indonesia, we are going to give you aid because we love Indonesia.' This is hypocrisy. America tolerates underdeveloped Asian countries for two reasons. One, we're a good market. We pay back with interest. And two, she worries we'll turn communist. She tries to buy our loyalties. She gives bounty and plenty only because she's afraid. Then if we don't act the way she wants, she yanks back her credit and warns, 'No more unless you behave yourself!' Manual Quezon of the Philippines once said, 'It is better to go to hell without America than to go to heaven with her!'"

Sukarno and Communism

The power of Sukarno's regime grew with support form the Communist Party (Partai Komunis Indonesia, PKI). Founded in 1920, the PKI reached its peak under Sukarno when it was the largest communist party in the non-communist world, with over 10 million members.

During an anti-Communist uprising in 1958, Sukarno said, "With God's mercy, with our own power, we can crush this whole rebellion." But in response to the Communist threat, Sukarno allowed a mob to attack and firebomb the British embassy and United States library in Jakarta; British companies and landholdings were nationalized; and Indonesia withdrew from the United Nations and broke off relations with Malaysia. Sukarno supported guerrillas attempting to bring down the government in Malaysia and launched a border war along the 700 mile border between Indonesia and Malaysia in Borneo.

During the Sukarno years, Indonesia received huge amounts of financial aid from the Soviet Union. As time went by Sukarno became more and more dependent on the Communists for support. He didn't make many friends in the West when he nationalized Western assets and a gave members of the PKI high profile positions.

Sukarno’s relation with the PKI was uneasy. The PKI pushed for more aggressive land reform than the Sukarno government was willing to commit to and encouraged the government to take the law into their own hands and seize land for themselves. In 1964, these tactics led to violent clashes in Java and Bali. Tensions were also high between the military and the PKI. Things reached a head when Chinese leader Zhou Enlai visited Indonesia and prosed establishing a revolutionary army in addition to the four established armed forced. When Sukarno said he supported the move rumors began circulating about an imminent coup.

According to Lonely Planet: “With the PKI and its affiliate organisations claiming membership of 20 million, Sukarno realised he had to give the communists recognition in his government. Increasingly, the PKI gained influence ahead of the army, which had been the main power base of Indonesian politics since independence. ‘Guided Democracy’ under Sukarno was marked by an effort to give peasants better social conditions, but attempts to give tenant farmers a fairer share of their rice crops and to redistribute land led to more class conflict. [Source: Lonely Planet]

Indonesia and the Domino Theory

By the early 1960s there was real a fear that Indonesia, under Sukarno, would go completely Communist and pave the way for way for other Southeast Asian countries, like Malaysia and the Philippines—which had strong communist resistance movements—to go communist, like a row of dominos. Defending the U.S. support of French colonial rule in Indochina, President Dwight D. Eisenhower said that American financial aid to French was the "cheapest get certain things we need from the riches of the Indonesian territory."

Marvin Ott, a professor of national security policy at the National War College, argued in 1994 that the U.S. had no choice but to get involved in Vietnam. "In those years of 1962-64, at the depths of the Cold War, Southeast Asia appeared to be extraordinarily vulnerable in terms of American national security." [Source: Marvin Ott, Washington Post, August 24, 1994]

"Indonesia," Ott wrote in the Washington Post, "the largest state in the region, was lurching toward economic chaos and political disintegration under the charismatic mismanagement of president Sukarno. To keep power, Sukarno began to collaborate even more closely with the Indonesian Communist Party, and to align Indonesia with China, North Korea and North Vietnam. In 1965 Sukarno initiated a war with neighboring Malaysia, largely on the grounds that Kuala Lumpur was unacceptably friendly toward the West. Late that year a communist-inspired coup in Indonesia very nearly succeeded."

Sukarno, the C.I.A. and the MI6

The U.S. and Western Europe didn't like Sukarno's cozy relations with Communists in his country and abroad. The C.I.A. and the British intelligence agency MI6 both worked to bring to Sukarno down. They supported anti-Sukarno rebellions in Sumatra and Sulawesi.

In 1958, the C.I.A. supported the anti-Sukarno coup in Indonesia with a fleet of B-26 bombers. It also spread rumors that he was a Japanese collaborator (which he was) and helped produce a pornographic films with some porn actors, including one in a Sukarno mask. The film intended to make it look like Sukarno was having sex with prostitutes and undermine him by making him look bad to Islamic conservatives. In the end, the film made Sukarno look macho, the CIA look foolish, and the United States look like a meddler in the affairs of other countries. Prominent Indonesians saw the film and laughed at how low the U.S. was willing to go.

In 1962, the British Prime Minister MacMillian sent U.S. President Kennedy a memo that said he agreed to "liquidate President Sukarno, depending on the situation and available opportunities.” In 1965, the Jakarta office for the MI6 was allocated 100,000 pound and told "to do get rid of Sukarno." Among other things the MI6 set in motion a propaganda campaign that blamed Indonesia's troubles on "Chinese communist," paving the way for the slaughter of tens of thousand of ethnic Chinese as Sukarno's government collapsed.

Sukarno's Last Years

By 1965, Sukarno's government was riddled with corruption, indecision and economic decline. After Suharto took over in October 1965, Sukarno stayed on as President and insisted that he was in charge of the country although it was Suharto that really was. In February 1967, five four-star generals—the heads of army, navy, air force and national police, plus the minister of defence—showed about the Medeka Palace, the official residence of the president. They had been sent by Suharto to persuade Sukarno to officially transfer power to Suharto.

By that time Sukarno had lost nearly all of his official powers. He had been censured by the legislature but he still had millions of loyal supporters. Emotions ran high at the Japanese 1967 meeting. Sukarno repeatedly said, “How could you do this to me” to which the others responded with tears. In the end Sukarno agreed to leave, reportedly to spare Indonesia civil war. Suharto became the head of the Indonesian government and Sukarno lived the last years of his life under house arrest in Bogor Palace.

Sukarno died in 1970. On his deathbed he told his daughter Megawati, "Don't speak of my suffering and illness to the people. Let me be sacrificed, if unity in Indonesia is achieved. Let my suffering become a witness that even the power of the President has its limitations. Lasting power must be led by the people, and only God Almighty is omnipotent."

Sukarno was buried in his hometown of Biltar under a simple grave site with the inscription: "I hand over the nation and the country to you." In 1978, the simple grave was replaced by an orate monument with the same inscription on Suharto's orders. It is visited by thousands every year.


Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.