Born June 6, 1901 in Surabaya
1927 Founds movement for independence from the Dutch
1945 After Japanese surrender, declares independence and is elected President
1963 Names himself President for Life
1965 Overthrown by military takeover and later replaced by Suharto
1970 Dies June 21 in Jakarta after two years of house arrest
He gave unity to Indonesia, dignity to the downtrodden and anxiety to the powerful, who finally brought him down
By PRAMOEDYA ANANTA TOER
He united his country and set it free. He liberated his people from a sense of inferiority and made them feel proud to be Indonesian--no small achievement, coming after 350 years of Dutch colonial rule and three-and-a-half years of Japanese occupation. What Sukarno did on Aug. 17, 1945 was no different from what Thomas Jefferson had done for Americans on July 4, 1776. Perhaps even more: Sukarno was the only Asian leader of the modern era able to unify people of such differing ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds without shedding a drop of blood. Compare his record with that of Suharto, his successor, who killed or imprisoned hundreds of thousands of people to establish his New Order regime.
Equally stunning is that some people seem not to appreciate Sukarno's story. Bung (Brother) Karno, as Indonesians liked to call him, was born in the first year of the new century, on June 6, 1901, the son of a minor Javanese aristocrat and his Balinese wife. Talented in both athletics and academics, he became one of the few Indonesians admitted to Dutch-language schools; it was when his father sent him to Surabaya to attend one such secondary school that he met and boarded with the country's preeminent nationalist, Tjokroaminoto. Through him Sukarno would be inducted into the freedom struggle. With his captivating oratorical skills, however, the younger man would go on to outshine his mentor.
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In 1929, two years after helping found the organization that would become the Partai Nasional Indonesia, Sukarno was put on trial by the Dutch. His self-defense, which lasted two days, was a rhetorical masterpiece, and when he was released in 1931 huge crowds turned out to greet their new hero. In years to come Sukarno would use that gift to instill in Indonesians a sense of themselves as a unified people--not Javanese and Balinese and Acehnese and Sumatrans. He put his career, even his life, on the line for the unity and peace of his nation. This is his great heritage, even if today the country is threatened with disintegration as a result of Suharto's policies.
But history has not been kind to Sukarno. These days many in the West remember the glamorous revolutionary as a debauch and a demagogue--the man who told Western countries to go to hell with their aid and pulled Indonesia out of the United Nations. Yet when he and Mohammad Hatta proclaimed independence in 1945, many Western politicians and intellectuals saw Sukarno as a new light shining among the backward countries. Their admiration faded only after a new Satan was found roaming the world: communism.
Sukarno called this the "century of the awakening of the colored peoples," as they threw off the shackles of Western colonialism. He played a leading role in the process, initiating the historic Asia-Africa Conference at Bandung in 1955, after which the Non-Aligned Movement spread to Latin America. Sukarno also called this the "century of intervention," a time when the great powers could interfere at will in the affairs of smaller countries. Often, this intervention was the work of the intelligence community--a power within a power, a state within a state, entrusted with the task of eliminating communism from the face of the earth. In Asia, Africa and Latin America, the strategy was to back military governments as bulwarks against the Red Menace. Repressive regimes like Mobutu's in Africa or Suharto's in Asia received the West's blessing as long as the repression was carried out in the name of democracy and the suppression of communism.
In this climate, Sukarno was no longer seen as another Thomas Jefferson, but instead as someone who might allow communism to expand its influence. The campaign against him began from the slander that he had been a Japanese collaborator during the war. This was followed by the accusation that, in his final years in power, he had become a dictator.
Are these accusations true? Was Sukarno a Japanese collaborator? Even when he was in a Dutch jail in the 1930s, Sukarno wrote to the colonial administration suggesting, in vain, that the Dutch cooperate with Indonesian nationalists to guard against Japanese fascism. Instead, when Japan invaded Indonesia, the Dutch surrendered the country and its people, including Sukarno in his prison.
That he then cooperated with the occupiers is undisputed. But he did so with the backing of fellow nationalist leader Hatta, and he used his influence to the advantage of his country. As he himself admitted, Sukarno did recruit thousands of manual laborers for the Japanese Army, most of whom perished during the war. Yet he also used the Japanese radio network to nurture a sense of nationalism throughout the archipelago. What honest observer can fault Sukarno for taking the opportunity to awaken the consciousness of the people to the struggle for freedom? Under the noses of the occupiers, he used his oratorical skills to arouse people who had been asleep for centuries and to prepare them to fight for independence when the moment arrived. It was thus that the world witnessed the heroism of Indonesian youth when they fought the Allied armies that landed in Surabaya to retake Indonesia for the Dutch on Nov. 10, 1945.
Was Sukarno a dictator? He did not have the character of a dictator. He was motivated and inspired by the ideas of the West, especially democracy, the French Revolution and the Enlightenment.
And what about Guided Democracy, the executive-dominated electoral system he instituted in 1959? Sukarno was President for two decades, but he wielded real power only in the last six years of his rule--the period of Guided Democracy. Why did he create such a system? Perhaps because of his commitment to democracy. By this point, Indonesia had no fewer than 60 political parties and faced the prospect of a new government every few months. Sukarno reorganized the 60 parties into 11--all of which retained their independence. It was a political necessity, he said.
Sukarno's critics called it a dictatorship. Yet six years later, when he was removed following a shadowy coup (allegedly a communist uprising gone wrong), he was replaced by a true dictatorship--that of Suharto. Sukarno died in 1970, a man whose dreams of a free and peaceful Indonesia had been hijacked by a violent and stifling military rule.
Lately, Sukarno's reputation has begun to be re-examined. Suharto was ousted in 1998, after three decades in power; earlier this year, Sukarno's daughter Megawati triumphed in the first truly free general election in 44 years. It was, in a way, Bung Karno's triumphant political comeback.
Yet the next months will be crucial for Indonesia. It is time to realize that continuing to rely on military power to "stabilize" the country will only be counter-productive. The solutions to almost all of Indonesia's current ethnic and separatist conflicts--in Aceh, Ambon, Irian Jaya, East Timor--as well as its economic crisis and general political instability all depend on soldiers being just that: soldiers. Indonesia needs no more soldier-politicians. It needs someone who can unite the people, as a charismatic young independence leader did a half-century ago.
Pramoedya Ananta Toer is the author of the Buru Quartet