Sukarno’s denouement — II

August 07, 2022

The cult and ideology of Sukarno were proscribed until the late 1970s

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ukarno’s personal and political positioning, epitomised by his neo-Marxist, crypto-communist ideology and his infamous cabinet of 100 corrupt and cynical ministers produced a permanent state of national crisis. He narrowly escaped several assassination attempts, the first of those in 1957.

Regional insurrections broke out in Sumatra and Sulawesi in 1958. Inflation escalated the cost-of-living index from 100 in 1958 to 18,000 in 1965 and to 600,000 in 1967. In 1963, after repeatedly shouting “To hell with your aid” (1950–65 total: $1 billion), Sukarno all but broke up with the United States.

Having secured aid to the tune of $1 billion in Soviet armaments and other items, Sukarno had put all his eggs in the Soviet basket. Despite all the challenges he faced at the home front, Sukarno’s eventual downfall was brought about by foreign policy problems.

Having secured domestic stability, Sukarno had begun paying more attention to the world stage. He embarked on a series of aggressive and assertive policies based on his anti-imperialist stance to raise Indonesia’s international prestige.

These anti-imperialist and anti-Western policies, often employing brinkmanship with other nations, were also designed to unite the diverse and fractious 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. He also started accepting increasing amounts of Soviet-bloc military aid. 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 equalled only by its aid to Cuba.

This substantial influx of communist aid prompted an increase in military aid from the Dwight D Eisenhower and John F Kennedy administrations. To make amends for the CIA involvement in the PRRI-Permesta rebellion, President Kennedy invited Sukarno to Washington, DC and provided Indonesia with billions of dollars in civilian and military aid.

Despite American attempts to woo Sukarno, geographical and cultural factors prevented the forging of a long lasting alliance with the US. Sukarno believed that closer relations with the Soviet Union and China will be of greater benefit to Indonesia. Nevertheless, he accepted the invitation for the US visit.

He was feted during his visit to 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. Soon after his first visit to America, Sukarno visited 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 with 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), as a counter to the Western superpowers, dubbed the Old Established Forces (OLDEFO). Sukarno accused the Western powers of spreading neo-colonialism and imperialism (NEKOLIM).

In 1961, Sukarno was quite vehement in the establishment of another political alliance, called the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM, known in Indonesia as Gerakan Non-Blok, GNB) with Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser, India’s Prime Minister Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru, Yugoslavia’s President Josip Broz Tito, and Ghana’s 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 independence from the American and Soviet superpower blocs, 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 have been named after him in Cairo, Rabat and Peshawar. In 1956, the University of Belgrade awarded him an honorary doctorate. With such posturing, Sukarno’s decline was as imminent as it was inevitable.

On January 20, 1965, Indonesia formally withdrew from the United Nations because the latter supported Malaysia, which Sukarno had vowed to “crush” as “an imperialist plot of encirclement.” Yet, until 1965, Sukarno was still able to stir the Indonesian masses to “near-hysterical belligerency”.

Millions of Indonesians sang and shouted his slogans and acclaimed Sukarno as Great Leader of the Revolution, Lifetime President (his official title), and oracle and warrior of the NEFO in violent conflict with the neo-colonialism, capitalism and imperialism of the “doomed” Western powers.

The Indonesian people were shocked and shaken out of this trance by an abortive coup on September 30, 1965. A clique of military conspirators calling itself the September 30th Movement kidnapped and killed six top army generals, seized a few key urban points, and proclaimed a new revolutionary regime. General Suharto, the commander of the Jakarta garrison, swiftly reversed the coup.

Suharto and the military generally believed the Indonesian Communist Party (Partai Komunis Indonesia, PKI)—which to some measure had been supported and protected by Sukarno — to be behind the attempted coup. The PKI said the plot was entirely a military matter.

There ensued an oblique contest for power between Suharto and Sukarno, during which thousands of communists and alleged communists were slaughtered by the military; estimates of the number of people killed during the purge range from 80,000 to more than a million.

As the country recoiled in horror, youth activists demanded the political demise of Sukarno, the Sukarnoists and Sukarnoism and total reform and re-organisation of the state. It is widely believed now that the anti-Sukarno movement was orchestrated by the US. The policies he pursued on assuming power make Suharto look like an American stooge.

On March 11, 1966, Sukarno was obliged to delegate wide powers to Suharto, who subsequently became acting president (March 1967) and then president (March 1968), as Sukarno sank into disgrace and dotage. Sukarno lived under virtual house arrest until his death in 1970.

Sukarno died at the age of 69 of a chronic kidney ailment and numerous complications. Suharto decreed a quick and quiet funeral. Nevertheless, at least 500,000 people, including virtually all of Jakarta’s important personages, turned out to pay their last ambivalent respects.

The next day another 200,000 assembled in Blitar, near Surabaya, for the official service followed by burial in a simple grave alongside that of his mother. The cult and ideology of Sukarno were proscribed until the late 1970s, when the government undertook a rehabilitation of Sukarno’s name. The publication of his autobiography, Sukarno, was a step in that direction.


The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore.He can be reached at

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