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Sukarno, Indonesia's First President

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Sukarno declaring Indonesia's independence from the Netherlands in 1947.

Sukarno, or Soekarno, shown in 1947 as he declared Indonesia's independence.

Underwood Archives / Getty Images

In the early morning hours of October 1, 1965, a handful of presidential guards and junior military officers roused six army generals from their beds, hustled them away, and murdered them. It was the beginning of a coup called the September 30th Movement, a coup that would bring down Indonesia's first president, Sukarno.

Early Life:

Sukarno was born on June 6, 1901, in Surabaya, and was given the name Kusno Sosrodihardjo. His parents renamed him Sukarno later, after he survived a serious illness. Sukarno's father was Raden Soekemi Sosrodihardjo, a Muslim aristocrat and school teacher from Java. His mother, Ida Ayu Nyoman Rai, was a Hindu of the Brahmin caste from Bali.

Young Sukarno went to a local elementary school until 1912. He then attended a Dutch middle school in Mojokerto, followed in 1916 by a Dutch high school in Surabaya. The young man was gifted with a photographic memory and a talent for languages, including Javanese, Balinese, Sundanese, Dutch, English, French, Arabic, Bahasa Indonesia, German, and Japanese.

Marriages and Divorces:

While in Surabaya for high school, Sukarno lived with the Indonesian nationalist leader Tjokroaminoto. He fell in love with his landlord's daughter, Siti Oetari, and they married in 1920.

The following year, however, Sukarno went to study civil engineering at the Technical Institute in Bandung, and fell in love again. This time, his partner was the boarding-house owner's wife, Inggit, who was 13 years older than Sukarno. They each divorced their spouses, and the two married in 1923.

Inggit and Sukarno remained married for twenty years, but never had children, so Sukarno divorced her in 1943 and married a teenager named Fatmawati. Fatmawati would bear Sukarno five children, including Indonesia's first female president, Megawati Sukarnoputri.

In 1953, President Sukarno decided to become polygamous in accordance with Muslim law. When he married a Javanese lady named Hartini in 1954, First Lady Fatmawati was so angry that she moved out of the presidential palace. Over the next 16 years, Sukarno would take five additional wives: a Japanese teen named Naoko Nemoto (Indonesian name, Ratna Dewi Sukarno), Kartini Manoppo, Yurike Sanger, Heldy Djafar, and Amelia do la Rama.

Independence Movement:

Sukarno began to think about independence for the Dutch East Indies while he was in high school. During college, he read deeply on different political philosophies, including communism, capitalist democracy, and Islamism, developing his own syncretic ideology of Indonesian socialist self-sufficiency. He also established the Algameene Studieclub for like-minded Indonesian students.

In 1927, Sukarno and the other members of the Algameene Studieclub reorganized themselves as the Partai Nasional Indonesia (PNI), an anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist independence party. Sukarno became the first leader of the PNI. Sukarno hoped to enlist Japanese help in overcoming Dutch colonialism, and also to unite the different peoples of the Dutch East Indies into a single nation.

The Dutch colonial secret police soon learned of the PNI, and in late December of 1929, arrested Sukarno and the other members. At his trial, which lasted for the last five months of 1930, Sukarno made a series of impassioned political speeches against imperialism that attracted wide-spread attention.

He was sentenced to four years in prison, and went to the Sukamiskin Prison in Bandung to begin serving his sentence. However, press coverage of his speeches so impressed liberal factions in the Netherlands and in the Dutch East Indies that Sukarno was released from prison after just one year. He had become very popular with the Indonesian people, naturally, as well.

While he was in prison, the PNI split into two opposing factions. One party, the Partai Indonesia, favored a militant approach to revolution, while the Pendidikan Nasional Indonesia (PNI Baroe) advocated slow revolution through education and peaceful resistance. Sukarno agreed with the Partai Indonesia approach more than the PNI's, so he became the head of that party in 1932, after his release from prison. On August 1, 1933, the Dutch police arrested Sukarno once again while he was visiting Jakarta.

Japanese Occupation:

In February 1942, the Imperial Japanese Army invaded the Dutch East Indies. Cut off from help by the German occupation of the Netherlands, the colonial Dutch quickly surrendered to the Japanese. The Dutch forced-marched Sukarno to Padang, Sumatra, intending to send him to Australia as a prisoner, but had to leave him in order to save themselves as Japanese forces approached.

The Japanese commander, General Hitoshi Imamura, recruited Sukarno to lead the Indonesians under Japan's rule. Sukarno was happy to collaborate with them at first, in hopes of keeping the Dutch out of the East Indies.

However, the Japanese soon began to impress millions of Indonesian workers, particularly Javanese, as forced labor. These romusha workers had to build airfields and railways, and to grow crops for the Japanese. They worked very hard with little food or water, and were regularly abused by the Japanese overseers, which quickly soured relations between the Indonesians and Japan. Sukarno would never live down his collaboration with the Japanese.

Declaration of Independence:

In June of 1945, Sukarno introduced his five-point Pancasila, or principles of an independent Indonesia. They included a belief in God but tolerance of all religions, internationalism and just humanity, the unity of all Indonesia, democracy through consensus, and social justice for all.

On August 15, 1945, Japan surrendered to the Allied Powers. Sukarno's young supporters urged him to immediately declare independence, but he feared retribution from the Japanese troops still present. On August 16, the impatient youth leaders kidnapped Sukarno, and then convinced him to declare independence the following day.

On August 18, at 10 am, Sukarno spoke to a crowd of 500 in front of his home, declaring the Republic of Indonesia independent, with himself as President and his friend Mohammad Hatta as Vice President. He also promulgated the 1945 Indonesian Constitution, which included the Pancasila.

Although the Japanese troops still in the country tried to suppress news of the declaration, word spread quickly through the grapevine. One month later, on September 19, 1945, Sukarno spoke to a crowd of more than one million at Merdeka Square in Jakarta. The new independence government controlled Java and Sumatra, while the Japanese maintained their hold on the other islands; the Dutch and other Allied Powers had yet to show up.

Negotiated Settlement with the Netherlands:

Toward the end of September, 1945, the British finally made an appearance in Indonesia, occupying the major cities by the end of October. The Allies repatriated 70,000 Japanese, and formally returned the country to its status as a Dutch colony. Due to his status as a collaborator with the Japanese, Sukarno had to appoint an untainted Prime Minister, Sutan Sjahrir, and allow the election of a parliament as he pushed for international recognition of the Republic of Indonesia.

Under the British occupation, Dutch colonial troops and officials began to return, arming the Dutch POWs formerly held captive by the Japanese, and going on shooting sprees against Indonesians. In November, the city of Surabaya broke out into an all out battle, in which thousands of Indonesians and 300 British troops died.

This incident encouraged the British to hurry their withdrawal from Indonesia, and by November of 1946, all British troops were gone. In their place, 150,000 Dutch soldiers returned. Faced with this show of force, and the prospect of a long and bloody independence struggle, Sukarno decided to negotiate a settlement with the Dutch.

Despite vociferous opposition from other Indonesian nationalist parties, Sukarno agreed to the November 1946 Linggadjati Agreement, which gave his government control of Java, Sumatra and Madura only. However, in July of 1947, the Dutch violated the agreement and launched Operatie Product, an all-out invasion of the Republican-held islands. International condemnation forced them to halt the invasion the following month, and former Prime Minister Sjahrir flew to New York to appeal to the United Nations for intervention.

The Dutch refused to withdraw from the areas already seized in Operatie Product, and the Indonesian nationalist government had to sign the Renville Agreement in January 1948, which recognized Dutch control of Java and of the best agricultural land in Sumatra. All over the islands, guerrilla groups not aligned with Sukarno's government sprang up to fight the Dutch.

In December of 1948, the Dutch launched another major invasion of Indonesia called Operatie Kraai. They arrested Sukarno, then-Prime Minister Mohammad Hatta, former PM-Sjahrir, and other Nationalist leaders.

The backlash to this invasion from the international community was even stronger; the United States threatened to halt Marshall Aid to the Netherlands if it did not desist. Under the dual threat of a strong Indonesian guerrilla effort and international pressure, the Dutch yielded. On May 7, 1949, they signed the Roem-van Roijen Agreement, turning over Yogyakarta to the Nationalists, and releasing Sukarno and the other leadership from prison. On December 27, 1949, the Netherlands formally agreed to relinquish its claims to Indonesia.

Sukarno Takes Power:

In August of 1950, the last part of Indonesia became independent from the Dutch. Sukarno's role as president was mostly ceremonial, but as the "Father of the Nation" he wielded a lot of influence. The new country faced a number of challenges; Muslims, Hindus and Christians clashed, ethnic Chinese clashed with Indonesians, and Islamists fought with pro-atheist communists. In addition, the military was divided between Japanese-trained troops and former guerrilla fighters.

In October of 1952, the former guerrillas surrounded Sukarno's palace with tanks, demanding that the parliament be dissolved. Sukarno went out alone and gave a speech, which convinced the military to back down. New elections in 1955 did nothing to improve stability in the country, however; the parliament was divided among all the various squabbling factions, and Sukarno feared that the entire edifice would collapse.

Growing Autocracy:

Sukarno felt that he needed more authority, and that Western-style democracy would never function well in volatile Indonesia. Over protests from Vice President Hatta, in 1956 he put forth his plan for "guided democracy," under which as president, Sukarno would lead the population to a consensus on national issues. In December of 1956, Hatta resigned in opposition to this blatant power-grab, to the shock of citizens around the country.

That month and on into March of 1957, military commanders in Sumatra and Sulawesi took power, ousting the Republican local governments. They demanded Hatta's reinstatement, and an end to communist influence over politics. Sukarno responded by installing as vice president Djuanda Kartawidjaja, who agreed with him on "guided democracy," and then declaring martial law on March 14, 1957.

Amidst growing tensions, Sukarno went to a school function in Central Jakarta on November 30, 1957. A member of the Darul Islam group tried to assassinate him there by throwing a grenade; Sukarno was unharmed, but six school-children died.

Sukarno tightened his grip on Indonesia, expelling 40,000 Dutch citizens and nationalizing all of their property, as well as that of Dutch-owned corporations such as the Royal Dutch Shell oil company. He also instituted rules against ethnic-Chinese ownership of rural land and businesses, forcing many thousands of Chinese to move to the cities, and 100,000 to return to China.

To put down military opposition in the outlying islands, Sukarno engaged in all-out air and sea invasions of Sumatra and Sulawesi. The rebel governments had all surrendered by the beginning of 1959, and the last guerrilla troops surrendered in August of 1961.

On July 5, 1959, Sukarno issued a presidential decree voiding the current constitution, and reinstating the 1945 constitution, which gave the president significantly broader powers. He dissolved parliament in March of 1960, and created a new parliament in which he directly appointed half of the members. The military arrested and jailed members of the opposition Islamist and socialist parties, and shut down newspaper that had criticized Sukarno. The president began to add more communists to the government, as well, so that he wouldn't be reliant solely on the military for support.

In response to these moves toward autocracy, Sukarno faced more than one assassination attempt. On March 9, 1960, an Indonesian air force officer strafed the presidential palace with his MiG-17, trying unsuccessfully to kill Sukarno. Islamists shot at the president during Eid al-Adha prayers in 1962, but again Sukarno was unhurt.

In 1963, Sukarno's hand-picked parliament appointed him president for life. In proper dictator fashion, he made his own speeches and writings mandatory subjects for all Indonesian students, and all mass media in the country were required to report only on his ideology and actions. To top off his cult of personality, Sukarno renamed the highest mountain in the country "Puntjak Sukarno," or Sukarno Peak, in his own honor.

Suharto's Coup:

Although Sukarno seemed to have Indonesia gripped in a mailed fist, his military/Communist support coalition was fragile. The military resented the rapid growth of Communism, and began to seek out an alliance with Islamist leaders who also disliked the pro-atheism communists. Sensing that the military was growing disillusioned, Sukarno rescinded martial law in 1963 to curb the army's power.

In April of 1965, conflict between the military and communists increased when Sukarno supported communist leader Aidit's call to arm the Indonesian peasantry. US and British intelligence may or may not have established contacts with the military in Indonesia to explore the possibility of bringing Sukarno down. Meanwhile, the ordinary people suffered enormously as hyperinflation spiked to 600%; Sukarno cared little about economics, and did nothing about the situation.

On October 1, 1965, at the break of day, the pro-communist "30 September Movement" captured and killed six senior army generals. The movement claimed that it acted to protect President Sukarno from an impending army coup. It announced the dissolution of parliament and the creation of a "Revolutionary Council."

Major General Suharto of the strategic reserve command took control of the army on October 2, having been promoted to the rank of Army Chief by a reluctant Sukarno, and quickly overcame the communist coup. Suharto and his Islamist allies then led a purge of communists and leftists in Indonesia, killing at least 500,000 people nation-wide, and imprisoning 1.5 million.

Sukarno sought to maintain his hold on power by appealing to the people over the radio in January of 1966. Massive student demonstrations broke out, and one student was shot dead and made a martyr by the army in February. On March 11, 1966, Sukarno signed a Presidential Order known as the Supersemar that effectively handed control of the country over to General Suharto. Some sources claim that he signed the order at gun-point.

Suharto immediately purged the government and army of Sukarno loyalists, and initiated impeachment proceedings against Sukarno on grounds of communism, economic negligence, and "moral degradation" - a reference to Sukarno's infamous womanizing.

Death of Sukarno:

On March 12, 1967, Sukarno was formally ousted from the presidency, and placed under house arrest at the Bogor Palace. The Suharto regime did not allow him proper medical care, so Sukarno died of kidney failure on June 21, 1970 in the Jakarta Army Hospital. He was 69 years old.

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