Episode 97: Indonesia Under Sukarno




Today’s episode begins a series of episodes on the recent history of Southeast Asia.  We will start by looking at Indonesia from 1950 to 1967, when Sukarno was the country’s first president.





This episode is dedicated to Jonathan M., and Louis E., for the donations they made to the podcast.  Jonathan, you said in your email that you are currently in Albania.  I remember the bad old days when Enver Hoxha ran Albania, and was amazed that a real-life version of the dictatorship from the novel “1984" could exist.  Nowadays I hear that the country is friendly to tourists, and it doesn’t cost much to visit, so a future trip there is on my bucket list.  And Louis, you have donated twice before, but it is always good to see you again!  May both of you continue to go against the flow of the world, and continue to prosper in these crazy times.  All right, let’s get today’s show started.  Play the opening music!

Episode 97:  Indonesia Under Sukarno

Greetings, dear listeners!  Unless you just discovered this podcast and are listening to it for the first time, you will notice a change with this episode.  For most of the past thirty-three episodes, those numbered 64 through 96, the topic has been the two Indochina wars fought in the mid-twentieth century, in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.  And before that, I spent most of Episodes 36 through 58 telling World War II stories.  Therefore I said this podcast will attract three kinds of history buffs:  those interested in Asian history, those interested in military history, and those interested in American history.  I said “American history,” because the United States was heavily involved in both World War II and Indochina.  Now that we’re done with the big wars, this podcast will go back to just being an Asian history podcast.  Let’s see if any of the military and American history buffs stick around to hear the end of the Southeast Asian story.

This episode marks the beginning of the final era in our narrative, what I am calling “Recent History.”  For each of the eleven countries in the region, we will be looking at events that have occurred in them over the past few decades; there’s a good chance you were alive when they took place.

Now where were we with each country, the last time we talked about them?  With Burma, nowadays called Myanmar, we broke off when independence came, in 1948.  For Indonesia, we got as far as 1950.  In the case of Malaya, the Philippines and Thailand, we reached 1957.  With the three countries that used to be French colonies – Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam – we made it to 1975.  And finally, we need to talk about how Singapore, Brunei, and East Timor became independent, how Sarawak and Sabah merged with Malaya to create Malaysia, and how Indonesia acquired western New Guinea.  Yes, all that will fill several episodes to come.  Are you ready to get started on it?

For this phase of the narrative, I have decided to start with Indonesia.  One reason for that is because it has been a long time since we last talked about the Indonesian islands.  The last time was in Episode 60, more than a year and a half ago in real time.  The other reason is because Indonesia and Burma were important players in the Nonaligned Movement, and here I will be telling Indonesia’s role in getting the movement started.

If you are looking for previous episodes on Indonesian history, to refresh your memory on how the archipelago got to where it is now, I introduced the ancestors of today’s Indonesians in Episode 2, covered the kingdoms of medieval Indonesia in Episode 6, and explained how Islam became established as the main religion in Episode 11.  Then we covered the period of Dutch rule in Episodes 17, 22, and 33.  In Episode 33 I also introduced the Indonesian nationalists, especially Sukarno.  For World War II battles, go to Episodes 39 and 58.  And finally, we took care of the Indonesian struggle for independence in Episode 60.  Pause this episode here if you need to listen to any of those, or if you want to move on now, let’s go!

To refresh your memory, during World War II the Indonesian islands, which the Netherlands called “the Dutch East Indies,” were occupied by Japan, and the Japanese still controlled most of the archipelago when the war ended.  Then came the Indonesian War of Independence, which was an on-and-off conflict between 1945 and 1949, where three rounds of fighting were interrupted by periods of negotiations.  During the battles, the returning Dutch usually prevailed over the Indonesian nationalists, but it was the negotiations that mattered the most, because foreign powers like the United States put strong diplomatic pressure on the Dutch to negotiate in good faith.  As a result, the Dutch granted independence to most of the colony in December 1949, only keeping the western half of New Guinea.  At first, independence followed the Dutch plan, where instead of having just one government, the Indonesians were organized into a confederation of sixteen states, called the United States of Indonesia.  Sukarno, the leading nationalist, found himself in charge of just the largest state, on Java and Sumatra.  This arrangement led to more conflict, this time between Indonesians, so eight months later, in August 1950, Sukarno got rid of the confederation, and replaced it with a unitary government, based on Java and called the Republic of Indonesia.  The new system has lasted for the seventy years since then, with just minor changes.

Okay, now that we’re caught up, let’s continue the narrative!



The Indonesians were not quite used to the idea of being one nation when independence came. Before the Dutch arrived, the only king who ruled the whole archipelago was Hayam Wuruk of Majapahit, in the fourteenth century.  Then the Dutch colonial adventure lumped together dozens of tribes, with diverse languages, religions, and political opinions.  The limited amount of unity that was shown while they were fighting the Dutch disappeared with independence, to be replaced by petty bickering between the political factions.  Divisions were caused by regional differences in language, customs, morals, religion, the influence of Christianity and Marxism, and fears on the Outer Islands of political domination by the Javanese.

Another problem was the sorry state of the war-ravaged economy.  The population was growing but food production was low and the export economy was damaged, because many plantations had been destroyed during the war.  There was still the oil industry – we saw in previous episodes how important Indonesian oil is – but one of the terms of independence was that the Indonesians restore the concessions the Royal Dutch Shell Corporation had before the war.  This meant that most of the profits from Indonesian oil went to foreigners.  Inflation was running wild, and smuggling was costing the new government badly needed foreign currency.  Adding to the economic troubles were the facts that the literacy rate was low, and there was a shortage of skilled workers; this made an economic recovery more difficult.

The good news was that by now, there were some native-run oil companies.  In 1947, former nationalist freedom fighters had created more than one oil company on Sumatra, of which the most important were Permiri and PTMN.
Between December 1949 and March 1957 there were seven coalition governments, each trying (not very successfully) to maintain internal security and develop the economy.  During these years Sukarno sat above it all as a figurehead leader.  The political chaos forced the postponing of the first elections until 1955.  When the elections took place, there were two rounds of voting, on September 29 and December 15, and twenty-nine political parties participated.  The first round created a new legislature, the 257-member People’s Representative Council, to replace the provisional legislature that had existed since independence.  The second round created the 514-member Constitutional Assembly, to write a permanent constitution.  In both rounds, Sukarno’s party, the Indonesian Nationalist Party, the PNI, did best; the other parties that got more than 10% of the vote were the Indonesian Communist Party, or PKI, and two Islamic parties, the mainstream Masyumi, and the more fundamentalist Nahdatul Ulama.  However, no party won even 25 percent of the seats in either race, and that was a good sign that more trouble was on the way.  For example, the talks over the new constitution deadlocked over the issue of whether the constitution would include Islamic law.


Into this confusion Sukarno stepped in, bringing order and increasing his personal power at the same time.  He started with reforms in the economy, and with foreign policy ventures.  With the economy, Sukarno directed it in a socialist direction, away from Western capitalists.  To give the people a sense of national identity, he built grand buildings and monuments.  The most impressive of these monuments are the National Monument, and the Masjid Istiqlal.  The National Monument is a 433-ft. tower in the middle of Jakarta, which looks like a cross between the Washington Monument in Washington, DC, and the Space Needle in Seattle.  The Masjid Istiqlal, which means “Independence Mosque,” is the largest mosque in Southeast Asia, and the sixth largest mosque in the world.  Before the COVID-19 pandemic started, the mosque could hold 200,000 worshipers, when all the rooms and open spaces were used; I don’t know how many it can hold now, when social distancing is practiced.  Construction on both monuments started in 1961, and they weren’t finished until the mid-1970s, long after Sukarno’s presidency ended.  Unfortunately, Sukarno could not create a viable economic system to lift Indonesia out of poverty; the monuments did not give the people the things they needed the most, like food or spare parts.  Because he never changed his political gears from revolution to rebuilding, his monuments became substitutes for real development.

Under Sukarno, Indonesia followed a course of stormy nationalism.  He regularly gave captivating speeches, the type you would expect to hear from a romantic revolutionary.  In these speeches, he declared that Asia had been humiliated by the West, and that Indonesia was still threatened by the remnants of Western imperialism.  The three greatest threats he saw came from the British, because they created a new nation, Malaysia, from their nearest colonies; the Dutch because they continued to occupy western New Guinea; and the Americans because of their military bases in the Philippines.

During a 1945 speech, Sukarno announced five moral guidelines for governing Indonesia, which he called the Pancasila.  Those guidelines were nationalism, internationalism, consent, social justice, and belief in God.  Now he simplified his ideology to a cluster of slogans and abbreviations that anyone could remember:  continuing revolution, Manipol (Political Manifesto), Ampera (the Message of the People’s Suffering), Nasakom (the unity of nationalism, religion, and communism), and others.  Western music, dancing, and institutions like the Boy Scouts were replaced with Indonesian substitutes.  At the same time Sukarno was one of the world’s more visible leaders, traveling around the world on costly junkets, and living like a rajah, one of the monarchs from the times before the Dutch came to Indonesia.  In the rest of the world at this time, the main conflict was the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, and Sukarno gave a voice to the new nations that did not want to take sides in the Cold War.  In 1955 he hosted the leaders of 29 African and Asian nations at a conference in the city of Bandung on Java, and this event, which promoted the doctrine of neutralism, started the Nonaligned or Third World Movement.  Seven years later he sponsored a series of Asian sporting events as an alternative to the "imperialist-controlled" Olympics.  But all this was done with no concern over whether the country could afford these expenses.  To pay his bills Sukarno printed new money constantly, and abolished many subsidies, leading to massive increases in the cost of public transportation, electricity, water and postage. Economic plans failed miserably and inflation ran at an annual rate as high as 600%.

Because Western-style democracy was not working well for Indonesia, Sukarno declared that it would only lead to anarchy.  In its place he offered what he called "Guided Democracy," where a president with considerable power would be balanced by a national council of advisors that represented not only political parties but various professions:  workers, peasants, the intelligentsia, businessmen, religious organizations, the armed forces, youth and women’s groups, and so forth.  What Sukarno imagined here was a national version of the government by consensus that had always been practiced on the village level.  Although the political parties were not abolished, democracy as we know it would not return to Indonesia until 1998.

To make his “Guided Democracy” work, Sukarno had to please as many people as possible.  This included the communists; by the early 1960s, the PKI had more than one million members, making it the third largest Communist Party in the world, after those of the Soviet Union and China.  However, the army was fiercely anti-communist, because many of its commanding officers had been trained in the United States; they even called themselves “the sons of Eisenhower.”  When it was suggested that the PKI be excluded from the government, Sukarno declared, quote, "I can’t and won’t ride a three-legged horse."  Unquote.  Therefore he juggled three political balls constantly:  the military, his own party, the PNI, and the communists; his talents allowed him to do this for years, but disaster struck when those three factions finally became unbalanced.

Not everyone approved of Sukarno’s policies.  The export-producing Outer Islands felt the Jakarta government discriminated in favor of densely-populated Java.  In December 1956 the vice president, Muhammed Hatta, announced his retirement, largely because he saw Sukarno’s shift to “Guided Democracy” as a blatant power grab.  His retirement came as a shock, because he came from the west coast of Sumatra, and the people of the Outer Islands saw Hatta as their main representative in a Javanese-dominated government.  December 1956 also saw several local army commanders on Sumatra and Sulawesi launch revolts, their goal being to establish a government that cared for them, not the communists.  The rebels on Sulawesi called themselves Permesta, meaning Universal Struggle Charter, while the rebels on Sumatra set up a government called the PRRI, or Revolutionary Government of the Republic of Indonesia.  The US Central Intelligence Agency sent airplanes to assist the rebels, until one of their pilots, Allan Pope, was shot down and held prisoner for four years; that blew the CIA’s cover!  Finally, there was more than one unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Sukarno.

The defense minister, General Abdul Haris Nasution, put down the rebellions in early 1958, though guerrilla activity continued for three more years.  Next, Sukarno proposed bringing back the revolutionary constitution of 1945, because it gave the president special powers to deal with emergencies like this.  He urged this course in a speech to the Constitutional Assembly.  When the Assembly failed to produce the two-thirds majority needed to approve this change in constitutions, Sukarno introduced it by presidential decree on July 5, 1959, a move that probably wasn’t legal.  In 1960 the elected parliament, the People’s Representative Council, was dissolved and replaced by another parliamentary body that was appointed by, and subject to the will of, the president.  Incidentally, this move brought the military into the government for the first time.  The Supreme Advisory Council, another non-elected body, became the chief policy-making body.  Then in 1963 Sukarno proclaimed himself president-for-life.


Indonesia has shown a remarkable aggressive streak in a world that considers international cooperation better than international competition.  This was first displayed in 1957, when Sukarno got tired of waiting for the Dutch to get out of western New Guinea, and launched his own campaign to take it.  He ordered a 24-hour strike against Dutch-owned businesses in Indonesia, banned Dutch publications, prohibited the landing of planes from the Dutch airline, KLM, at Indonesian airports, and nationalized the holdings of 246 Dutch companies, including Royal Dutch Shell; this led to a mass exodus of 40,000 Dutch citizens, who had stayed in Indonesia after independence.  A military agreement with the Soviet Union in 1960 made warships and warplanes available, and he used them to land paratroopers on New Guinea.  To defuse the situation, the United Nations took control of the Dutch half of the huge island in 1961, and handed it over to Indonesia one year later.

The Indonesian government renamed western New Guinea, calling it West Irian or Irian Jaya, and it considers the matter settled permanently.  The natives, called West Papuans, disagree, and there has been an independence movement among them since the mid-1960s.  I am thinking of recording a special episode about western New Guinea in the new future; watch for it!

What’s more, it looks like giving western New Guinea to Indonesia wasn’t enough to satisfy Jakarta.  Maps were published that changed the name of the Indian Ocean to the "Indonesian Ocean," called Papua New Guinea "East Irian," and even renamed Australia "South Irian," to the dismay of the Australians.

When Britain created the nation of Malaysia, Indonesia refused to recognize it.  We have noted in previous episodes that ethnic Malays and Indonesians are related, and have cultures so similar that it can be difficult to tell them apart, so there was some talk about uniting Malaysia with Indonesia to form a “Greater Indonesia.”  Sukarno denounced Malaysia as a British puppet state, and called its existence an act of neo-colonialism.  This led to a three-year guerrilla war from 1963 to 1966, called the Indonesia–Malaysia confrontation, the Borneo confrontation, or to use the Indonesian/Malay name, Konfrontasi.  We will talk more about this conflict in the upcoming episode about Malaysia.  Then when Malaysia joined the United Nations Security Council in 1964, Indonesia became the first (and only) nation to resign from the UN.  The same expansionist tendency appeared once more after Sukarno left office, when Indonesia conquered Portuguese Timor in 1975.  That is also a subject for a future episode.


Podcast footnote: The United States didn’t like Sukarno very much.  Washington felt that Sukarno was too friendly to communists, and in the darkest years of the Cold War, the Americans did not believe that a neutral foreign policy was possible; the attitude was “You’re either with us or against us.”  The Bandung conference was denounced as a communist meeting, largely because the Chinese premier, Zhou Enlai, was one of the most visible guests attending it.  For the 1955 elections, the CIA gave $1 million to the Masyumi Party, hoping it would come out ahead of the PNI.  The money was wasted; both the PNI and PKI did better than Masyumi, and the CIA never found out how the money was spent.

Later on, Sukarno was seen more than once with an attractive blonde flight attendant who turned out to be a Russian spy.  There are reports that when Sukarno visited Moscow, he had an orgy with a group of Russian flight attendants, and the KGB filmed it.  According to Tim Lister, a CNN reporter, the Russians later tried to blackmail him with the movie, but Sukarno did not react the way they expected.  Quote:  “When the Russians later confronted him with a film of the lurid encounter, Sukarno was apparently delighted.  Legend has it he even asked for extra copies.”  End quote.

Instead of learning from the Russian failure, the CIA also tried it, seeing character assassination as a legitimate trick.  They made a pornographic movie that supposedly showed Sukarno having sex with a blonde woman, and called it “Happy Days.”  However, the actor playing Sukarno did not look enough like the president to be convincing, and after they shot some footage of the actor wearing a Sukarno mask, the CIA dropped the whole idea.  “Happy Days” never appeared in cinemas, and it is not known if any copies of the film exist today.  And Ayyyy!, the movie had nothing to do with the TV show “Happy Days,” which starred Ron Howard and Henry Winkler.  End footnote.

Speaking of women in his life, Sukarno openly supported polygamy.  Because Islam allows a man to have up to four wives, Sukarno had four “official” wives, and maintained a “de facto” marriage with a fifth wife.  And Sukarno once bragged to a U.S. diplomat that he was, quote, “a very physical man who needed sex every day.”  Unquote.  According to Peter Arnett, in his book Live From the Battlefield, when Sukarno came to Washington to meet with another famous womanizer, US President John F. Kennedy, he shocked his hosts by demanding that they provide him with prostitutes.  Over the course of the 1960s, his playboy lifestyle gave him a collection of diseases, causing him to age rapidly.  In 1965 Sukarno faltered in the middle of a speech and had to be helped from the platform, before the eyes of shocked thousands.  Both the military and Western nations became concerned that the communists were preparing to seize power, should Sukarno die at this time.  There were violent clashes in 1964, between communists and the army in central and east Java, and on Bali.  The military began seeking an alliance with Islamist leaders, who also disliked the communists because communists are atheists on principle.  Tensions increased further in April 1965 when the Communist Party leader called for arming the peasants, and Sukarno agreed with him.  Thus, there was a feeling by everyone that time was running out.


On the night of September 30, 1965, a group of junior army officers kidnaped six generals, murdered them, and threw their bodies down a well.  Led by Colonel Untung Syamsuri of the palace guard and backed by elements of the armed forces, the insurgents took up positions around the presidential palace and seized the national radio station.  At dawn the coup leaders, who called themselves the 30th September Movement, announced they had seized power to prevent a military coup against the president.  Next, they announced the dissolution of parliament and the creation of a "Revolutionary Council."  Sukarno, significantly enough, had spent the predawn hours at a nearby air force base, making friendly small talk with the men who killed his generals.  The leader of the Communist Party, Dipa Nusantara Aidit, was also there.

Two top-ranked officers managed to escape death. Defense Minister Nasution fled a hail of bullets that killed his daughter, then he scaled a wall and took refuge in the Iraqi embassy.  The other was General Suharto, the commander of the army’s strategic reserves.  Like many Javans, Suharto used only one name.  Anyway, he either was lucky enough or smart enough to be away from his house when the killers assigned to him arrived.  Now he took command of the armed forces, launching a counter-coup against the conspirators.  Within 24 hours he had broken the 30th September Movement and gained control of Jakarta.  Although the 30th September Movement seized control of two other cities, Yogyakarta and Surakarta, on the same day, they had concentrated most of their efforts on Jakarta, so when Suharto took back the capital, it meant the coup had failed.  On October 3 the bodies of the murdered generals were found, and two days later they were buried in a public ceremony led by Suharto.

The communists insisted that the violence was an internal affair of the army, they were not involved in it, and they knew nothing about the coup before it happened.  Nobody else believed that, and the army and civilians launched a vendetta of unmatched proportions against the communists.  Estimates of the number killed in the slaughter range from 80,000 to more than a million, with half a million as the most likely figure.  The violence mainly took place on Sumatra, Java and Bali, where countless innocents were caught in the army or mob attacks; rivers in central and eastern Java were said to have been dammed by bloated corpses.  The innocent victims included ethnic Chinese Indonesians, whether they supported the Nationalist government on Taiwan, or the Communist government in Beijing.  Also, there may have been as many as 250,000 people arrested and sent without trial to prison camps, for alleged involvement in the coup.  In Episodes 33 and 60, I told you about the Indonesian Communist Party getting crushed, when it staged revolts in the 1920s and 1940s; now in the 1960s, it went down for the third and last time.

We will probably never know who organized the coup, or what it sought to achieve.  After it was over, the army put forth the official story, which was that the Communist Party plotted the coup, and used disgruntled army officers to carry it out.  Then there was the theory we heard from the Communists, that it was an internal army affair, led by younger officers against the older leadership.  Still other theories suggest that the CIA planned the coup, because of what happened to the Communists in the aftermath, or that British intelligence did it to stop the war with Malaysia.


Sukarno tried to save himself with his old act of balancing leftist and rightist factions.  After the coup he formed a new cabinet, dismissing Nasution and hiring a number of communist sympathizers.  That made Sukarno look pro-communist to many.  Nasution refused to step down, and student protests increased.  On March 11, 1966, while Sukarno was meeting with his cabinet in one of Jakarta’s presidential palaces, troops surrounded the building.  Sukarno and two of his ministers tried to escape by taking a helicopter to another presidential palace, but three pro-Suharto generals went to this palace as well, and they got Sukarno to sign a document that transferred his powers to Suharto.  We do not know who wrote the document, or whether Sukarno had been forced to sign it at gunpoint; anyway, it meant that Suharto was the acting president now.  The first things Suharto did in that position were to purge the government and the army of Sukarno loyalists and to begin impeachment proceedings against Sukarno on the grounds of communism, economic negligence, and "moral degradation"; the latter was a reference to all the women Sukarno kept around.  During the next few months, the PKI was officially banned, the Konfrontasi with Malaysia was ended with a treaty, Sukarno’s political prisoners were released, and Indonesia quietly rejoined the organizations Sukarno had pulled out of: the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the United Nations.

Sukarno was stripped of his president-for-life title on March 12, 1967, and one year later, in March 1968, Suharto was elected to take his place.  Suharto would run the country for more than thirty years.  As for Sukarno, he was kept under house arrest in the palace where he had signed over his powers.  Two of my sources claim that he was not allowed to have proper medical care, and that led to his death from kidney failure, on June 21, 1970.

During Ramadan, the Islamic holy month, many Moslems go on pilgrimages to places associated with Mohammed, his family and descendants, and other Moslem saints.  This custom is called ziyarat.  In recent years, Sukarno’s grave on east Java has become one of the holy places they visit.  What’s more, some Indonesians think the grave is just as important as the graves of the Wali Songo, the nine saints who spread Islam in Indonesia.  I don’t know how this happened, inasmuch as Sukarno’s career was completely political; there was nothing religious about it.  I will finish by saying that many of the problems Sukarno faced are still afflicting Indonesia today, and his oldest daughter, Megawati Sukarnoputri, was the country’s fifth president, serving from 2001 until 2004.


Well, I trust you found that interesting!  Now we are out of time, so we will continue Indonesia’s recent history in another episode.  It won’t be the next episode, though; we need to catch up on the other countries of Southeast Asia first, and I have chosen Burma for our next stop.  Join me next time, as we look at the wild and weird things that have happened in Burma, even before its name was changed to Myanmar!

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Permit Me To Introduce Myself

This is Charles Kimball officially entering the blogosphere. For years I didn’t think I was going to do this, inasmuch as I don’t think of something interesting to write every day. However, it looks like the time as come. In fact, I may be a little late; 2006 was the busiest year I have seen since the twenty-first century began, and some of you probably would have been interested in reading about my adventures, especially after I pulled up some very deep roots to move from Orlando, FL to Lexington, KY.

Anyway, the purpose of this blog will be threefold. First, it will promote my world history website, The Xenophile Historian, and anything related to it, like the textbook I plan to publish this year. Second, I occasionally come up with something witty enough that it’s worth repeating. In the past I would add it to a page on the website called “Random Thoughts” (a poor imitation of Thomas Sowell’s regular column by the same name). However, it would probably be more appropriate to post it here, especially if it concerns current events. Third, for my family and friends who may be reading this, I’ll be posting some of my real-world experiences, though hopefully that won’t overshadow #1 and #2 above.

Finally, in the near future, I plan to have this blog replace the page on The Xenophile Historian listing what’s new. In the meantime, until I think of something else to say, welcome!

Babylonian Crescent