Monday, April 28, 2014

Lessons From Sukarno’s Days in Power

Senior politician Maruar Sirait of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle recently said that Joko Widodo, if elected as president, will base his policies on three principles: Indonesian political sovereignty, economic independence and a positive cultural image worldwide. The party known as PDI-P has also affirmed its presidential candidate’s commitment to Indonesia’s first President Sukarno’s vision for the country. While Sukarno’s vision may be relevant today, his methods of governance are at best doubtful.

Sukarno’s rule was effectively over by 1966, almost half a century ago, and Indonesians who grew up in his era would be over 60 years old these days. According to data by the BPS, Indonesians in this age group make up less than 10 percent of the population. When dealing with the nostalgia for the Sukarno era, when Indonesia had the gumption to say “Go to hell with your aid!” to the US, the lack of eyewitnesses and the distance in time has become a major problem.

This problem in historical perspective becomes even befuddled when the unofficial taboo on the discourse of Sukarno’s period was stringently put into place during the 32-year-old rule of his successor Suharto. During Suharto’s New Order, books and discussions about the “Old Order” were thoroughly discouraged, so much so that the Indonesian language had to go through a spelling overhaul under the EYD or the Perfected Spelling initiative in the 1970s.

Thus, somehow, amid the iron-fisted style of Suharto’s rule, the suppression of dissidents and the lost accounts of the previous regime, the Sukarno era has become a nostalgic sanctuary for Suharto’s opposition. Due to its opening the country to foreign investment, Suharto’s regime is often contrasted to his predecessor’s alleged more patriotic and pro-people approach to foreign policy and economics.

Sukarno’s anti-Western “Neocolonialism” towards the end of his rule is incontestable. He did walk out of the UN, in protest against Western domination of the international body. Yet was he always against foreign influence and help?

If the US had not threatened to withhold the Marshall Aid from the Netherlands in 1948, following the latter’s invasion of Indonesia, it is doubtful whether the 1949 Dutch recognition of Indonesian sovereignty would have taken place at all. The Dutch military operation in 1948 ended with the capture of Sukarno and the rest of his government. So, without the US intervention, the Republic of Indonesia would have terminated then.

Even in the early 1960s, Sukarno saw the US as an ally, as evident in his bid to claim West Papua from the Dutch. The 1949 Round Table Conference in the Hague recognized Dutch sovereignty over West Papua but Sukarno sought to contest this later on. Indeed, he authorized a military operation to “recover” West Papua but the Indonesian Navy was swiftly defeated by the Dutch. In the end, it was US pressure which guaranteed Indonesia’s prevalence in the 1962 New York agreement, which granted the territory to Indonesia.

Perhaps emboldened by his success in West Papua, Sukarno launched another expansionist initiative against British Malaya which was due to become independent. In his unofficial war of Konfrontasi, Sukarno alleged the formation of Malaysia was a neocolonialist plot to subjugate Indonesia, something that he was never able to prove.

His intention, however, was clear cut: he wanted to incorporate British Malaya into Indonesia, hoping that the US might also pressure Britain into relenting as it had the Netherlands. When it became evident that neither the US nor Britain would satisfy his territorial ambitions, Sukarno discarded his alliance with the West and opted for communist Russia and China.

Seen through today’s perspective, Sukarno’s antics are bewildering, but they were no doubt necessary to prop up his popular support at home. With the economy performing badly in the uncertain times of his rule, the president certainly needed diversions to take the people’s minds off the economic difficulties they faced. In the last year of his regime, Indonesia experienced a hyperinflation of 600 percent, a culmination of his policy of putting rhetorical jingoism above economics.

Sukarno’s diehard supporters today also point to the fact that Suharto, a former army general, “militarized” Indonesia’s government when he took to power. It is true that much of Suharto’s rule was backed up by the military but it was in fact Sukarno who opened the political door for the military in the 1950s.

The 1950s saw a string of militia rebellions against Sukarno in the non-Javanese provinces, prompting him to rely heavily on the military to put down the separatist movements. Having delivered their side of the bargain, the military wanted political and economic power, which Sukarno granted by putting them in strategic posts and even handing over many of the nationalized Dutch companies to the military in the late 1950s.

To be fair to his legacy, Sukarno was indeed popular and well-loved by Indonesians at large. He certainly was not busy feathering his own nest while in power, a complete contrast to his successor. Nevertheless, Sukarno never successfully achieved the three principles of political sovereignty, economic independence and a positive cultural image internationally.

Sukarno’s foreign policy alternated from playing the major players in the Cold War against each other while not being completely free of their respective influences. Economically, the Sukarno years were disastrous, so much so that the relative economic stability under Suharto came as such a relief while his thuggish antics towards the neighboring countries did not exactly paint a benevolent picture of Indonesia abroad.

The three principles outlined by PDI-P are worthy of being pursued for the future of Indonesia, as Sukarno tried to pursue them. Yet, in a world where gung-ho nations are patriae non grata and soft power diplomacy is preferred, Sukarno’s methodology is far from being relevant.

Johannes Nugroho is a writer and businessman from Surabaya


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