Ukarno’s personal and political positioning, embodied in his neo-Marxist and crypto-communist ideology and his infamous cabinet of 100 corrupt and cynical ministers, has produced a permanent state of national crisis. He narrowly escaped several assassination attempts, including the first in 1957.
Regional insurgencies broke out in Sumatra and Sulawesi in 1958. Inflation caused the cost of living index to soar from 100 in 1958 to 18,000 in 1965 and 600,000 in 1967. In 1963, after shouting at several times “To hell with your help” (1950-65 total: 1 billion dollars), Sukarno practically broke with the United States.
Having obtained aid amounting to a billion dollars in armaments and other Soviet items, Sukarno had put all his eggs in the Soviet basket. Despite all the challenges he faced on the home front, Sukarno’s eventual downfall was brought about by foreign policy issues.
Having secured internal stability, Sukarno had begun to pay more attention to the world stage. He embarked on a series of aggressive and assertive policies based on his anti-imperialist stance to increase Indonesia’s international prestige.
These anti-imperialist and anti-Western policies, often employing tightrope politics with other nations, were also designed to unite the diverse and surly Indonesian people. In this he was aided by his foreign minister, Subandrio.
After his first visit to Beijing in 1956, Sukarno began to strengthen his ties with the People’s Republic of China in particular, and the communist bloc in general. It also began to accept increasing amounts of military aid from the Soviet bloc. As already mentioned, by the early 1960s the Soviet bloc had provided more aid to Indonesia than any other non-Communist country. Soviet military aid to Indonesia was matched only by its aid to Cuba.
This substantial influx of communist aid led to increased military aid from the Dwight D Eisenhower and John F Kennedy administrations. To repair the CIA’s involvement in the PRRI-Permesta rebellion, President Kennedy invited Sukarno to Washington, D.C. and provided Indonesia with billions of dollars in civilian and military aid.
Despite American attempts to woo Sukarno, geographic and cultural factors prevented the formation of a lasting alliance with the United States. Sukarno believed that closer relations with the Soviet Union and China would be more beneficial for Indonesia. Nevertheless, he accepted the invitation for the visit to the United States.
He was celebrated when he visited the United States in 1956 and addressed a joint session of the United States Congress. To date, it is the only time an Indonesian president has addressed a joint session of the US Congress. Shortly after his first visit to America, Sukarno traveled to the Soviet Union, where he received a more lavish welcome. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev paid a return visit to Jakarta and Bali in 1960, where he awarded Sukarno the Lenin Peace Prize.
The success of the Bandung conference, held in 1955, persuaded Sukarno to forge a new alliance called the New Emerging Forces (NEFO), to counter the Western superpowers, dubbed the Old Established Forces (OLDEFO). Sukarno accused Western powers of spreading neo-colonialism and imperialism (NEKOLIM).
In 1961, Sukarno was quite vocal in establishing another political alliance, called the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM, known in Indonesia as Gerakan Non-Blok, GNB) with Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, Indian Prime Minister Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru, Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito and Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah, in an action called the Initiative of Five (Sukarno, Nkrumah, Nasser, Tito and Nehru).
The NAM was intended to provide political unity and influence for nations that wished to maintain their independence from the American and Soviet superpowers, which were engaged in the Cold War. Sukarno is still fondly remembered for his role in promoting the influence of newly independent countries. Streets and squares bear his name in Cairo, Rabat and Peshawar. In 1956, the University of Belgrade awarded him an honorary doctorate. With such a posture, Sukarno’s decline was as imminent as it was inevitable.
On January 20, 1965, Indonesia officially withdrew from the United Nations because the latter supported Malaysia, which Sukarno had vowed to “crush” as “an imperialist encirclement plot”. Yet, until 1965, Sukarno was still able to incite the Indonesian masses to “near-hysterical belligerence”.
Millions of Indonesians sang and shouted his slogans and hailed Sukarno as the Great Leader of the Revolution, President for Life (his official title), and oracle and warrior of NEFO in violent conflict with neo-colonialism, capitalism and the imperialism of the “convicts”. western powers.
The people of Indonesia were shocked and snapped out of their trance by an aborted coup on September 30, 1965. A clique of military conspirators calling themselves the September 30 Movement kidnapped and killed six army generals, seized seized some key urban points and proclaimed a new revolutionary regime. General Suharto, the Jakarta garrison commander, quickly quashed the coup.
Suharto and the military generally believed that the Communist Party of Indonesia (Partai Komunis Indonesia, PKI) – which to some extent had been supported and protected by Sukarno – was behind the coup attempt. The PKI said the plot was entirely a military matter.
There followed an oblique power struggle between Suharto and Sukarno, in which thousands of communists and would-be communists were massacred by the military; estimates of the number of people killed during the purge range from 80,000 to over a million.
As the country recoiled in horror, young activists demanded the political demise of Sukarno, the Sukarnoists and Sukarnoism, and a total reform and reorganization of the state. It is widely believed now that the anti-Sukarno movement was orchestrated by the United States. The policy he pursued on taking power makes Suharto look like an American stooge.
On March 11, 1966, Sukarno was forced to delegate broad powers to Suharto, who later became interim president (March 1967) and then president (March 1968), as Sukarno sank into disgrace and brutality. Sukarno lived under virtual house arrest until his death in 1970.
Sukarno died at the age of 69 from chronic kidney disease and numerous complications. Suharto decreed a quick and quiet burial. Nevertheless, at least 500,000 people, including virtually all of Jakarta’s prominent figures, turned out to pay an ambivalent final tribute.
The next day another 200,000 gathered in Blitar, near Surabaya, for the official service followed by burial in a simple grave next to that of his mother. Sukarno’s cult and ideology were outlawed until the late 1970s when the government undertook a rehabilitation of Sukarno’s name. The publication of his autobiography, Soukarno, was a step in that direction.
The author is a professor at the Faculty of Liberal Arts in Beacon House National University, Lahore. He can be reached at [email protected]