In 1927 Soekarno established and became leader of a political vehicle called the Indonesian Nationalist Party (Partai Nasional Indonesia, abbreviated PNI) which aimed for the full independence of Indonesia. However, these subversive political activities resulted in his arrest and imprisonment by the repressive Dutch colonial regime in 1929. For Indonesians at that time Soekarno's imprisonment only strengthened his image as a national hero and freedom fighter. After his release Soekarno was in continuous conflict with the colonial authorities during the 1930s, resulting in multiple imprisonments.

When the Japanese invaded the Dutch Indies in March 1942, Soekarno considered collaboration with the Japanese as the only means to reach independence successfully. A tactic which proved to be effective.

Today, the people of Indonesia highly respect and admire Soekarno, exponent of Indonesian nationalism, for devoting his life to Indonesian independence and for bringing a new political identity to the country.

The Difficult Birth of the Indonesian Nation

When Soekarno (the first president of Indonesia) and Mohammed Hatta (first vice president), two of the country's most prominent nationalists, pronounced the proclamation of Indonesian independence on 17 August 1945, together with the publication of a short and provisional constitution, troubles were far from over. In fact, it would take four more years of Revolution against the Dutch who - after being freed from the Germans in Europe - returned to reclaim their colony.

The Dutch were stubborn to relinquish their lucrative Southeast Asian colony but eventually had to face reality. Under international pressure they acknowledged Indonesian independence in 1949 (except for the western half of the island of New Guinea). However, negotiations with the Dutch resulted in the 'Republic of the United States of Indonesia' containing a Federal Constitution that was considered to be too much influenced by the Dutch. Therefore, it was quickly replaced by a new constitution in 1950 which stipulated that a parliamentary system of government needs to be put in place, one that provides guarantees for individual freedoms and makes the military subordinate to the nation's civilian leadership. The president mainly had a ceremonial role only in this system.

Debates among several influential sides regarding the ideological basis of Indonesia and the organization of relations between organs of the state had begun even before the proclamation in August 1945. These influential groups are (1) the Indonesian army, (2) Muslims, (3) communists, and (4) nationalists.

The army, heroes of the Revolution, had always harboured political aspirations of their own. The 1950 Constitution, however, provided no political role for the army. This was a major disappointment for the army and the source of resentment toward those who received power through the new constitution.

Muslim representatives at the constitutional discussions - although on other subjects not representing a homogeneous group - wanted Indonesia to become an Islamic state ruled by shariah law. But other sides felt that the establishment of an Islamic state would endanger the unity of Indonesia and might trigger revolts or calls for separatism as the country contains millions of non-Muslims.

Much to the dismay of Muslim groups as well as the army, the communist party PKI (Partai Komunis Indonesia) made an impressive comeback. Being outlawed by the Dutch colonial authorities in 1927 for the organizing of revolts in West Java and West Sumatra, it gained much support in Central and East Java, becoming one of the most popular parties on a national scale and therefore a political force.

Lastly, there were the nationalists who stressed the need for individual rights against the state. Their party was the PNI (the political party version of the previously mentioned PNI movement, set up by Soekarno in 1927 that targeted for independence). This PNI party gained much popularity in the country.

Soekarno therefore had to find a way to unite these diverse viewpoints. In June 1945 he revealed his view on Indonesian nationhood by proclaiming his Pancasila philosophy. Pancasila are the five principles that would become the foundation of the Indonesian state.

Pancasila Indonesia:

1. Belief in one supreme God
2. Justice and civility among peoples
3. Unity of Indonesia
4. Democracy through deliberation and consensus among representatives
5. Social justice for all the people of Indonesia

One lasting problem with uniting a highly pluralistic Indonesian society through the Pancasila, however, was the demand for an Islamic state by the Muslim parties. Initially a constitutional committee agreed to add a short addition to the first principle: 'Belief in one supreme God, with the obligation for adherents of Islam to implement the Islamic shariah law.' However, just before publishing the 1945 Constitution this addition (known as the Jakarta Charter) was dropped due to fears that it might provoke resentment in nominal and non-Muslim circles. Its omission would cause deep distrust towards the secular nationalists in stricter parts of the Islamic community.

Parliamentary Democracy

Indonesia's parliamentary democracy of the 1950s was characterized by instability. The underlying reason being the differences in viewpoints on the ideological basis of the country. This situation was to be reflected in Indonesia's first general elections. These elections took place in 1955 and are considered to be free and fair (and it would take more than 40 years before Indonesia witnessed another example of fair and free elections). The two big Muslim parties Masyumi and Nahdlatul Ulama (of which the latter had split off from the Masyumi in 1952) received 20.9 and 18.4 percent respectively. The nationalist PNI received 20.3 percent of the votes, while the communist PKI obtained 16.4 percent. This meant there was no workable majority for any party but instead governments had to be created by forming coalitions between the various ideological streams. From 1950 to 1959 seven cabinets would take turns in rapid succession, each failing to make significant progress for the country.

Indonesia's 1955 Elections:

Political Party % of
vote
Ideology
Masyumi 20.9 Islam
Partai Nasionalis Indonesia (PNI) 20.3 Nationalist
Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) 18.4 Islam
Partai Komunis Indonesia (PKI) 16.4 Communist

Source: M.C. Ricklefs, A History of Modern Indonesia since c.1200

Besides disagreement within the political elite in Jakarta, there were other problems that endangered the unity of Indonesia in the 1950s. The militant Darul Islam movement, which aimed to establish an Islamic state and used guerrilla-techniques to reach its goal, was winning territory in West Java, South Sulawesi and Aceh. This movement had already started during the colonial period but quickly redirected its focus towards the Soekarno government until it surrendered in 1962.

Other subversive movements that made impact were the Universal Struggle Charter (Permesta) in North Sulawesi and the Revolutionary Government of the Republic of Indonesia (PRRI) in West Sumatra. Both started in the late 1950s and confronted the central government with demands for political, economic and regional reform. These movements were led by regional military officers, supported by members of the Masyumi and the American Intelligence Agency (CIA) which regarded the popularity of the communist PKI party as a major threat.

By using military force the central government managed to silence these movements in the early 1960s. Lastly, former members of the Royal Dutch East Indies Army (KNIL) proclaimed the Republic of the South Moluccas in 1950. Although largely defeated by Indonesian forces in the same year, armed struggles continued until 1963.

Soekarno's Guided Democracy

Soekarno was aware that the period of liberal democracy was hampering Indonesia's development due to the ideological differences within the cabinets. The solution Soekarno proposed was called "Guided Democracy", meaning a return to the 1945 Constitution which stipulated a strong presidency with authoritarian tendencies. This way he had more power to realize his ideals. The army, which was unhappy with its insignificant influence in political matters up to that point, supported this reorientation. By 1958 Soekarno had already recognized the army as a 'functional group' meaning that they became agents in the political process but with the period of Guided Democracy its role in politics was about to increase.

In 1959 Soekarno ushered in the period of Guided Democracy. He disbanded parliament and replaced it with a new one in which half of the members were appointed by himself. Soekarno was also aware of the danger for his position if the army would become too strong. Therefore, he relied on the support of the communist PKI to counter-balance the army's power. Both the army and the PKI were members of his 'Nasakom' philosophy, an acronym referring to the union between the three most important ideological strands in Indonesian society in the 1950s and early 1960s to wit nationalism (nasionalisme), religion (agama), and communism (komunisme). These three components had little in common, in fact they harboured deep resentment towards each other. It was up to Soekarno's political skills, charisma and status to keep these components together.

Another feature of Soekarno's Guided Democracy was the anti-Western tone of his policies. He intensified efforts to take control over the western part of New Guinea. After some armed conflicts the Dutch gave the territory to the United Nations that subsequently gave it to Indonesia the following year.

From 1962 to 1966 Soekarno masterminded the confrontation policy against Malaysia. He considered the establishment of the Federation of Malaysia, including Malaya, Singapore, and former British Borneo (Sarawak and Sabah), as a continuation of colonial rule and launched an unsuccessful military campaign to crush Malaysia. Part of this confrontation policy was the withdrawal of Indonesia from the United Nations (UN) due to the UN's approval of Malaysia as a member state. In 1965 Soekarno continued cutting links with the capitalist Western world by withdrawing Indonesia from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Word Bank, meaning that much needed foreign aid would cease to flow to Indonesia. This worsened Indonesia's economic situation which had already reached extreme precarious levels by then.

The Mysterious Coup by the 30 September Movement

Tensions between the three components of Nasakom heightened. On 30 September 1965 it became clear just how dangerous the political cocktail was that Soekarno had made. On that evening six army generals and one lieutenant were kidnapped and killed by a group of leftist officers who called themselves the 30 September Movement. Allegedly, these murdered officers were planning a coup to topple Soekarno. However, there is no evidence that there would be a military coup against Soekarno.

There is also no evidence that the communist PKI party was behind the pre-emptive strike to prevent the military coup. Yet, Suharto, head of the Strategic Reserve Command (Kostrad) who seized control over the army being the highest army commander after the killings of his superiors, immediately put the blame on the PKI. Soon communists and suspected communists were slaughtered, especially in the provinces of Central Java, East Java, Bali and North Sumatra. Estimates of victims vary between 400,000 and one million people. It is suspected that the killers of these communists were army units, civilian gangs (who received weaponry from army units) and the militant Ansor youth wing of the Nahdlatul Ulama. These Indonesian killings continued through 1965 and 1966.

However, many issues surrounding the coup and subsequent anti-communist purges remain unclear until the present day and will probably never be known. After Suharto's New Order ended in 1998, Indonesians started to doubt the official explanation of the government which put the blame on the communists but this chapter in its history has not received profound attention in the public discourse of the country yet, except for a report made by the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) in 2012 that labeled the communist purges as a gross human rights violation.

The coup and its aftermath also entailed dramatic political consequences for Soekarno. Indonesia was in a state of martial law which had put effective authority in the hands of General Suharto. During the next two years Suharto would slowly but decisively extend his powers and put Soekarno on the sideline. This marked the beginning of Suharto's New Order. Soekarno was put under house arrest in Bogor (West Java) where his health deteriorated until his death in 1970. 

Click here to read an overview of Suharto's New Order