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Encyclopedia > Soekarno

Sukarno (June 6, 1901 - June 21, 1970) was the first President of Indonesia. He helped the country win its independence from the Netherlands and was President from 1945-1967, presiding over mixed success in the country's turbulent transition to independence. Sukarno was forced from power by one of his Generals, Suharto, who was granted the formal title of President in March 1967.

Sukarno's name was sometimes spelled Soekarno, and Indonesians also remember him as Bung Karno. Like many Javanese people, he had just one name.



The son of a Javanese nobleman and his Balinese wife from Buleleng regency, Sukarno was born in Surabaya (although several sources said he was born in Blitar, East Java) in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). He was admitted into a Dutch-run school as a child. When his father sent him to Surabaya in 1916 to attend a secondary school, he met Tjokroaminoto, a future nationalist. 1921 he begun to study at the Technische Hoogeschool in Bandung.

Sukarno was fluent in several languages, especially Dutch. He once remarked that when he was studying in Surabaya, he often sat behind the screen in movie theaters reading the Dutch subtitles in reverse, because he could not afford the regular front seating's price.

Independence Struggle

Sukarno became a leader of a Indonesian independence movement party, Partai Nasional Indonesia when it was founded in 1927. He also promoted his belief that Japan would commence a war against the imperialist Western powers and that Java could then gain its independence with Japan's aid. He was arrested in 1929 by Dutch colonial authorities and sentenced for two years in prison. By the time he was released, he had become a popular hero. In the 1930s he was again arrested several times and was serving a Island sentence when Japan assumed power in Jakarta in 1942.

WWII - Japanese Occupation

Forces across both Sumatra and Java aided the Japanese against the Dutch, but would not cooperate in the supply of the aviation fuel which was essential for the Japanese war effort. Desperate for local support in supplying the volitile cargo, Japan now brought Sukarno back to Jakarta.

Though Sukarno refused to ever talk about his actions during the war, it should be noted that upon his return and use of the Japanese radio and loud speaker networks across Java; that Japan received its aviation fuel as well as Romusha (volunteer work units) and Peta and Heiho (Javanese volunteer army troops) which by mid-1945 numbered around two million, and were preparing to defeat any Allied forces sent to re-take Java.

On November 10, 1943 Sukarno was decorated by the Emperor of Japan in Tokyo. He also became head of Badan Penyelidik Usaha Persiapan Kemerdekaan Indonesia (BPUPKI), the Japanese-organized committee through which Indonesian independence was later gained.

Early Independence, the Panca Sila

After the Japanese defeat, Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta declared the Republic of Indonesia in August 17, 1945.

Sukarno's vision for the 1945 Indonesian constitution comprised the Panca Sila. (Sanskrit - five pillars). Sukarno's political philosophy was guided by (in no particular order) elements of Marxism, Nationalism and Islam. This is reflected in the Panca Sila, in the order in which he originally espoused them in a speech on June 1, 19451:

  1. Nationalism (as in national unity)
  2. Internationalism (one nation sovereign amongst equals)
  3. Representative Democracy (all significant groups represented)
  4. Social Justice (Marxist influenced)
  5. Belief in God (with a secular)

The Indonesian parliament, founded on the basis of this original (and subsequent revised) constitutions, proved all but ungovernable. This was due to irreconcilable differences between various social, political, religious and ethnic factions2.

In the ensuing chaos between various factions and Dutch attempts to re-establish colonial control, Dutch troops captured Sukarno in December 1948, but were forced to release him after the ceasefire. He returned to Jakarta in December 28, 1949.

There were further attempts of military coups against Sukarno in 1956.

In an effort to restore order, Sukarno established what he called guided democracy, in which he wielded progressively more executive powers, whilst maintaining a multiparty parliament.

'Guided Democracy' and Increasing Autocracy

During this later part of his presidency, Sukarno came to increasingly rely on the army and the support of the PKI - the Communist Party of Indonesia.

On November 30, 1957, there was a grenade attack against Sukarno when he was visiting a school in Jakarta. Six children were killed but Sukarno did not suffer any serious wounds. In December he ordered nationalization of 246 Dutch businesses. In February he began a breakdown of PRRI (Pemerintah Revolusioner Republik Indonesia) rebels at Bukittingi.

Over the following years he established government control over media and book publishing and purge against Ethnic Chinese residents. In July 5 1959 he reestablished 1945 constitution, dissolved the parliament, molded it to his liking and assumed full personal power as a prime minister. He called the system as government-by-decree Manifesto Politik or Manipol. He sent his opponents to internal exile.

In the 1950s he increased his ties to China and admitted more communists to his government. He also began to accept increasing amounts of Soviet military aid.

In March 1960 Sukarno dissolved the elected Assembly and replaced it with an appointed Assembly, and in August he broke off diplomatic relations with the Netherlands over Dutch New Guinea (West Papua.) After West Papua decalred itself independent in December of 1961, Sukarno ordered raids to West Irian (Dutch New Guinea). There were more assassination attempts when he visited Sulawesi in 1962. West Irian was brought under Indonesian authority in May 1963 under the Bunker Plan. In July of the same year Sukarno had himself proclaimed President for Life.

Sukarno also opposed the British-supported Federation of Malaysia, claiming that it was a neocolonial plot to advance British interests. In spite of his political overtures, Malaysia was proclaimed in September 1963. This led to the Indonesia-Malaysia confrontation (Konfrontasi) and the end of remaining US military aid to Indonesia. Sukarno withdrew Indonesia from the UN Security Council in 1965 and Malaysia took the seat. Sukarno also became increasingly ill and collapsed in public in August 9, 1965. He was secretly diagnosed with kidney disease.

Removal from Power

On the morning of October 1, 1965, some of Sukarno's closest guards kidnapped and murdered six anti-Communist generals. One survivor, who was not targeted in the suspected coup attempt, was Lieutenant-General Suharto. Sukarno's guards claimed that they were trying to stop a CIA backed military coup which was planned to remove Sukarno from power on "Army Day", the 5th of October.

This brought an immediate relalitation from Suharto and the rest of the military, sparking a crackdown on the Communist Party (The PKI) and a nation-wide killing of some 500,000 suspected Communists, most of whom were peasants. The army encouraged anti-communist organizations and individuals to join in killing anyone suspected of being a communist sympathizer. The murders were concentrated in Sumatra, East Java and Bali. By the time they petered out in 1966, an estimated half a million Indonesians have been slaughtered by soldiers, police and pro-Suharto vigilantes. Ethnic Chinese were also targeted, primarily for economic and racial reasons. An official CIA report called the purge "one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century."2 American diplomats 25 years later revealed that they had compiled lists of Indonesian "communist operatives" and had turned over as many as 5,000 names to the Indonesian miliary. Robert Martens, former member of the US political embassy in Jakarta said in 1990: "It really was a big help to the army. They probably killed a lot of people, and I probably have a lot of blood on my hands, but that's not all bad. There's a time when you have to strike hard at a decisive moment." Howard Fenderspiel, the Indonesia expert at the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research in 1965: "No one cared, as long as they were communists, that they were being butchered. No one was getting very worked up about it"3

Sukarno's grip on power was weakened in the crisis, and eventually, pro-Western Lieutenant-General Suharto forced Sukarno to hand over executive powers on March 11, 1966.

There is much speculation about who triggered the crisis that led to Sukarno's removal from power. While the semi-official version claims that the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) ordered the murders of the six generals, others blame Sukarno, and some believe Suharto orchestrated the assassinations to remove potential rivals for the presidency4.

There are also the strong evidence for the possibility that Sukarno was toppled by the United States because of his perceived Communism and ties to China and the Soviet Union. The PKI was the largest communist party at the time outside the Soviet Bloc and China, and was growing in influence. The Americans did not want the PKI to come to power in Indonesia, so in any case, they were happy with the outcome of the coup.

Sukarno was stripped of his presidential title by Indonesia's provisional parliament on March 12, 1967 and he remained under house arrest until his death at age 69 in Jakarta in 1970.

Megawati Sukarnoputri, the former Indonesian president, is his daughter.

Presidents of Indonesia

Preceded by:

(1945 - 1967)

Followed by:
(1967 - 1998)

Politics of Indonesia


To the US ambassador: "Go to hell with your aid!"

See also

  • History of Indonesia


  1. Smith, Roger M (ed). Southeast Asia. Documents of Political Development and Change, Ithaca and London, 1974, pp. 174-183.
  2. Blum, William. Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II, Black Rose, 1998, pp. 193-198
  3. U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, Research Study: Indonesia -- The Coup that Backfired, 1968, p. 71n.
  4. Robert Cribb, ‘Nation: Making Indonesia’, in Donald K. Emmerson (ed.), Indonesia Beyond Suharto: Polity, Economy, Society, Transition. Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1999, pp.3-38

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