Ahmed Sukarno

(1901–1970) Indonesian leader

A charismatic leader, Ahmed Sukarno left an indelible imprint on the history and politics of Indonesia. Born on June 6, 1901, he was the most important leader of the nationalist movement and the first president of the Indonesian Republic. After graduating from Bandung Technische Hoogeschool in 1926, Sukarno joined the nationalist movement and was instrumental in establishing the Perserikatan Nasional Indonesia (PNI, Indonesian Nationalist Union) on July 4, 1927. The PNI voiced the indigenous sentiment against colonial rule. He was imprisoned and exiled, returning to Jakarta after the Japanese occupation in 1942. Sukarno had a flair for flamboyant oratory. Sukarno enumerated the Pancasila, or five moral postulates, on June 1, 1945, as guidelines for governing Indonesia: nationalism, internationalism, consent, social justice, and belief in God. Unable to suppress the independence movement, the Netherlands signed the Hague Agreement of December 27, 1949, ending its colonial rule. Sukarno and Muhammad Hatta became president and prime minister, respectively.

The new constitution provided for a parliamentary form of government in which president Sukarno was a mere figurehead, with his rivals dominating the political scene. There was political instability and the collapse of five successive cabinets in six years. There were revolts against the central authority in West Java, Kalimantan, south Sulawesi, and Sumatra. Sukarno criticized the ineffective government and began to assert his authority gradually from 1955, instituting a “guided democracy” in 1957 that replaced democratic with authoritarian rule. On July 5, 1959, Sukarno reinstituted the 1945 constitution, assuming executive authority, ruling by decree. In July 1963 Sukarno was made president for life by a compliant assembly.

From the early 1960s Sukarno directed his attention to grandiose plans of projecting Indonesia into the international arena and himself as leader of the nonaligned bloc.

Examples of his image building were his hosting of the 29-nation Afro-Asian conference at Bandung in 1955. He also hosted the Asian Games and the games of the Newly Emerging Forces (NEF). In

1957 he nationalized Dutch businesses. In 1963 he annexed the western half of Papua New Guinea, or Dutch New Guinea.

Sukarno broke off relations with the newly formed Malaysia in 1963 and attempted to destabilize it by guerrilla attacks. Indonesia withdrew from the United Nations after the admission of Malaysia. Sukarno then consulted communist nations with Moscow responding with foreign aid. Domestically, inflation, corruption, deficit spending, and victimization of the Chinese business community led to economic ruin. Inflation reached a staggering proportion, and the economy was on the brink of collapse.

The attempted coup in September 1965 sealed Sukarno’s fate. General Haji Mohammad Suharto took leadership in crushing the coup on September 30. As a result, the political authority of Sukarno was fatally weakened by Suharto, who became the president in March 1967. Sukarno, stripped of presidential powers, was banned from any political activity and remained under house arrest in Jakarta until his death on June 21, 1970.

There was a revival of the popularity of Sukarno in 1980s, because many people had become disenchanted with the dictatorial military regime of Suharto. They honored his struggle against colonialism. Megawati Sukarnoputri, his eldest daughter, became the symbol of the pro-democracy movement that opposed Suharto, and she was elected president of Indonesia from 2001 to 2004.

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