Sukarno: doomed to failure — I | Political economics

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SUkarno was an Indonesian statesman, orator, revolutionary and nationalist. He served as Indonesia’s first president from 1945 to 1967. Among post-colonial Muslim leaders, Sukarno was the most vocal dissenter from colonial/imperial control.

Before becoming president, he was a prominent leader of the Indonesian nationalist movement during the colonial period. He spent over a decade in Dutch custody until he was freed by invading Japanese forces during World War II.

Sukarno has been described by one of his biographers, CLM Penders, as “the father of the fatherland, the symbol of Indonesia, the Moses who brought his people out of captivity”. He was indeed part of a select group of people during the century, including Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk), Gamal Abd al-Nasser, Kwame Nkrumah, Jawaharlal Nehru, Ho Chi Minh and Ayatollah Khomeini among others, who, according to journalists, possessed what was described by Max Weber as “charisma”.

Indonesia’s mosaic of cultures provided an environment well suited to a man with Sukarno’s attributes.

Some 87.5% of the 188 million Indonesians are at least nominally Muslim, representing almost one-fifth of the world’s Islamic population. At the same time, Indonesia has a great mix of ethnically distinct societies scattered across 13,667 islands, spanning a 3,000 mile chain. Despite these differences, Sukarno managed to give Indonesians a sense of common identity.

Sukarno’s ideology united nationalism, religion and communism. It became known as Nasakom – an acronym based on the Indonesian words NASionalism (nationalism), Agama (religion) and KOMunisme (communism). It is significant that the ideational synthesis of Sukarno (Nasakom) goes against the situation punctuated by colonial structures. The system of thought and action proposed by Sukarno became the main cause of his ousting from power during the coup led by Suharto.

Bernhard Dahm, another of Sukarno’s biographers, says: “His guided democracy, based on charisma and persuasion, depended heavily on the loyalty of the PKI [the Communist Party] and the army as the two best organized power blocs in the country. This loyalty, however, was doubtful from the outset, for as political heirs in contention, the two groups watched each other’s activities with growing distrust. Neither the bitter struggle against imperialism nor the Nasakom could bridge the gap between these two sources of power and the mass organizations that had gathered around them. These chances were natural obstacles to the forging of unity between the various political regimes of Indonesia. Sukarno did not succeed in his mission but his fight deserves to be appreciated. Obviously, struggle determines a leader’s stature more than success.

Before going any further, it seems relevant to reflect on Sukarno’s beginnings to provide the context for his anti-colonialist policy.

Sukarno was born in East Java in 1901 to a Javanese Muslim father and a Balinese Hindu mother. His name comes, according to Sukarno in his autobiography, from Karna, a warrior hero from the Mahabharata. In 1916, his father, who was a schoolteacher, arranged for him to attend Dutch secondary school and stay with Haji Omar Said Tjokroaminoto, president of Sarekat Islam (Islamic Association). Tjokroaminoto’s organization, established in 1912, was Indonesia’s first nationalist mass movement. In 1921, when Sukarno left for Bandung Technical College, his left wing had joined the Communist Party (PKI). Sukarno remained, for the time being, with Sarekat Islam expressing his views that year as follows: “Once the proper conditions are created and our own parliament … is reached, Sarekat Islam still must not put an end to its activities, but must continue to act for the strengthening of democracy and Islam in Indonesia, and for the destruction of capitalism.

For him, the unity of the nationalist cause was most important. As for Sukarno’s reference to Islam, his autobiography reveals that he considered it representative of a belief in God: “I thought and talked a lot about God. Although our country is predominantly Muslim, my concepts were not rooted solely in the Islamic God…I did not see the Almighty as a personal god. In my way of thinking, freedom for humanity included freedom of religion.

During Sukarno’s studies in Bandung, he was greatly influenced by Dr. Tjipto Mangunkusumo and others who campaigned for complete independence from the Netherlands. Shortly after graduating in 1928, Sukarno published a three-part essay in Indonesia Muda (Young Indonesia), the organ of his Bandung study group, titled “Nationalism, Islam and Marxism” in which he called for close cooperation between the defenders of these political currents in the struggle against colonial oppression.

The thought pattern circumscribes the chances of its success. Before coming to its sad ending, I will turn my gaze to its relationship with Pakistan and the unequivocal support that Sukarno gave to Pakistan during the 1965 war.

Pakistan’s relations with Indonesia have grown considerably under Ayub Khan. During the Indo-Pakistani War in 1965, Indonesia offered to intervene militarily in the conflict by attacking and seizing the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to open a second front and relieve pressure on Pakistan in Kashmir and Punjab , which India attempted to crush following Operation Gibraltar. There had been a backdrop to Indonesia’s passionate feeling of friendship with Pakistan.

During the Indonesian National Revolution, the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, encouraged Muslim soldiers serving in the British Indian Army to join Indonesian freedom fighters in their fight against Dutch colonization of Indonesia. As a result, around 600 Muslim soldiers from the British Indian Army had deserted, putting their fate on the line, and went to fight in Indonesia. Of these 600 soldiers, 500 died in combat. The survivors returned to Pakistan or continued to live in Indonesia.

Jinnah also ordered the detention of the Dutch planes at the Karachi air terminal. They had landed there after obtaining permission from Great Britain. These planes transported weapons to Jakarta to reinforce the Dutch fortification and the stockpile of weapons in the fight against the Indonesian Republic. Jinnah also sent another 100 Pakistan Armed Forces infantrymen to Indonesia to support the guerrillas against the Dutch.

In recognition of the assistance of Pakistani Muslim soldiers, Indonesia presented the Independence War Awards for Volunteer Fighters and Adipura’s highest honor to Muhammad Ali Jinnah posthumously during the Jubilee celebrations of Indonesian gold of August 17, 1995.

(To be continued)


The author is a professor at the Faculty of Liberal Arts in
Beaconhouse National University, Lahore


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