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Sukarno (1901–1970)

Indonesian nationalist leader and first president of the Republic of Indonesia (1945–1967). Born Ahmed Sukarno in Surabaya, East Java, on 6 June 1901, like many Javanese Sukarno used only his last name. He studied in modern Dutch colonial schools and received a college degree in architecture from the Bandung Institute of Technology in 1926. Pursuing his passion for politics, he cofounded the Partai Nasional Indonesia (PNI, Indonesian Nationalist Party) in 1927 and became a leader of the independence movement.

Arrested by Dutch colonial officials for subversive activities, Sukarno utilized his trial to highlight the nature of imperialism and the importance of the PNI. Found guilty, he was imprisoned during 1929–1931. In July 1932, he was elected chairman of the Partai Indonesia, successor to the PNI. Arrested again on 1 August 1933 and exiled to Flores and then Bengkulu (in southern Sumatra), Sukarno's exile ended with the Japanese of invasion of Indonesia in 1942.

Sukarno embarked on active collaboration with the Japanese as a means to win Indonesian independence and used his considerable oratory skills to unify the people through radio broadcasts and personal appearances. He also secured significant concessions from the Japanese, such as administrative positions for Indonesians and permission to organize Indonesian political parties and military forces.

On 17 August 1945, only days after the Japanese surrender, Sukarno and fellow nationalist Mohammad Hatta declared Indonesian independence. A day later, the provisional parliament adopted a constitution that had already been drafted. It also elected Sukarno president. The 1945 constitution, based heavily upon Sukarno's political philosophy, encompassed the Pancasilla (Five Pillars): national unity, internationalism, representative democracy, Marxist-style social justice, and belief in God. Sukarno's sterling negotiating skills and reputation ultimately steered Indonesia through the Battle of Surabaya, the Madiun Rebellion, and Dutch attempts to regain control over their colony.

Taken prisoner by Dutch forces in December 1948, Sukarno was released on 26 December 1949. The formal transfer of sovereignty from the Netherlands occurred on 27 December 1949. Indonesia's anticolonial battle was over.

Sukarno's powers as president were somewhat circumscribed by the 1950 provisional constitution that provided for a parliamentary system. However, the new constitution proved just as ineffectual as the first. The parliament gridlocked, while social, political, religious, and ethnic tensions grew in scope and severity. Political instability ultimately prompted Sukarno in 1959 to introduce what he termed "guided democracy" by dissolving parliament, exiling political rivals, and reinstating the 1945 constitution that conferred upon him vast executive powers. As he became more autocratic, his reliance on the army and the Communist Party of Indonesia increased dramatically.

Sukarno also moved boldly in foreign policy. He hosted the Pan-Asian-African Bandung Conference in April 1955, established formal ties with the People's Republic of China (PRC), and requested financial and military aid from the Soviet Union. His pursuit of the West Irian claim against the Dutch ended successfully in 1963, although his confrontation with Malaysia culminated in Indonesia's withdrawal from the United Nations (UN) in 1964.

After several attempts on his life in the late 1950s, Sukarno tightened control by establishing strict publishing laws, bringing more communists into the government, and increasing state-sponsored discrimination toward the Chinese minority. In July 1961, he was made president for life. On 30 September 1965, when an abortive coup led by communists and junior army officers resulted in the brutal killing of six senior right-wing generals, Sukarno reacted hesitantly. General Suharto, commander of the Kostrad (Strategic Reserve), took the initiative and gradually pushed Sukarno from power. On 21 March 1967, Sukarno was forced to cede control to Suharto, who then ordered Sukarno held under house arrest. Sukarno died on 21 June 1970 in Jakarta.

Paul G. Pierpaoli Jr.


Further Reading
Hering, B. B. Soekarno: Founding Father of Indonesia, 1901–1945. Leiden, Netherlands: KITLV Press, 2002.; Legge, J. D. Sukarno: A Political Biography. 3rd ed. Singapore: Archipelago Press, 2003.; Sukarno. Sukarno: An Autobiography. New York: Bobbs Merrill, 1965.
 

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