History of Indonesia #9 – Independence: The First Phases, 1950-65

Although Indonesia was finally independent and (with the exceptions of Dutch-ruled West New Guinea and Portuguese-ruled East Timor) formally unified, the society remained deeply divided by ethnic, regional, class, and religious differences. Its unitary political system, as defined by a provisional constitution adopted by the legislature on August 14, 1950, was a parliamentary democracy: governments were responsible to a unicameral House of Representatives elected directly by the people.

A photo of Soekarno praying during the Proclamation of Indonesian Independence.
A photo of Soekarno praying during the Proclamation of Indonesian Independence.
Sukarno and U.S. President Kennedy. Sukarno made friendly advances to the USA, the Soviet Union and later, China. He tried to play one against another, but by the mid-1960s, seemed to be closest to the China of Mao
Sukarno and U.S. President Kennedy. Sukarno made friendly advances to the USA, the Soviet Union and later, China. He tried to play one against another, but by the mid-1960s, seemed to be closest to the China of Mao

Sukarno became president under the new system. His powers, however, were drastically reduced compared with those prescribed in the 1945 constitution. Elections were postponed for five years. They were postponed primarily because a substantial number of Dutch-appointed legislators from the RUSI system remained in the House of Representatives, a compromise made with the Dutch-created federal states to induce them to join a unitary political system. The legislators knew a general election would most likely turn them out of office and tried to postpone one for as long as possible.

There was little in the diverse cultures of Indonesia or their historical experience to prepare Indonesians for democracy. The Dutch had done practically nothing to prepare the colony for selfgovernment . The Japanese had espoused an authoritarian state, based on collectivist and ethnic nationalist ideas, and these ideas found a ready reception in leaders like Sukarno. Sukarno also was an advocate of adopting Bahasa Indonesia as the national language. Outside of a small number of urban areas, the people still lived in a cultural milieu that stressed status hierarchies and obedience to authority, a pattern that was most widespread in Java but not limited to it. Powerful Islamic and leftist currents were also far from democratic. Conditions were exacerbated by economic disruption, the wartime and postwar devastation of vital industries, unabated population growth, and resultant food shortages. By the mid-1950s, the country’s prospects for democratization were indeed grim.

Gen. A. H. Nasution
Gen. A. H. Nasution. Nasution had a long career in and out of leadership in Indonesia. He was a major military leader during the struggle for independence, commanding the Siliwangi division in West Java.

Given its central role in the National Revolution, the military became deeply involved in politics. This emphasis was, after all, in line with what was later enunciated as its dwifungsi, or dual function, role of national defense and national development. The military was not, however, a unified force, reflecting instead the fractures of the society as a whole and its own historical experiences. In the early 1950s, the highest-ranking military officers, the so-called “technocratic” faction, planned to demobilize many of the military’s 200,000 men in order to promote better discipline and modernization. Most affected were less-educated veteran officers of Peta and other military units organized during the Japanese and revolutionary periods. The veterans sought, and gained, the support of parliamentary politicians. This support prompted senior military officers to organize demonstrations in Jakarta and to pressure Sukarno to dissolve parliament on October 17, 1952. Sukarno refused. Instead, he began encouraging war veterans to oppose their military superiors; and the army chief of staff, Sumatran Colonel Abdul Haris Nasution (born 1918), was obliged to resign in a Sukarno-induced shake-up of military commands.

Independent Indonesia’s first general election took place on September 29, 1955. It involved a universal adult franchise, and almost 38 million people participated. Sukarno’s PNI won a slim plurality with the largest number of votes, 22.3 percent, and fifty-seven seats in the House of Representatives. Masyumi, which operated as a political party during the parliamentary era, won 20.9 percent of the vote and fifty-seven seats; the Nahdatul Ulama, which had split off from Masyumi in 1952, won 18.4 percent of the vote and forty-five seats. The PKI made an impressive showing, obtaining 16.4 percent of the vote and thirty-nine seats, a result that apparently reflected its appeal among the poorest people; the Indonesian Socialist Party (PSI) won 2 percent of the vote and five seats. The following December, the long-awaited Constituent Assembly was elected to draft a constitution to replace the provisional constitution of 1950. The membership was largely the same as the DPR. The assembly convened in November 1956 but became deadlocked over issues such as the Pancasila as the state ideology and was dissolved in 1959.

The PNI, PKI, and Nahdatul Ulama were strongest among Javanese voters, whereas Masyumi gained its major support from voters outside Java. No single group, or stable coalition of groups, was strong enough to provide national leadership, however. The result was chronic instability, reflected in six cabinet changes between 1950 and 1957, that eroded the foundations of the parliamentary system.

S. M. Kartosuwirjo
S. M. Kartosuwirjo was the head of the Darul Islam rebellion, and at one point was the focus of several Islamic movements to overthrow the central government under Sukarno. He was captured and executed in 1962

In the eastern archipelago and Sumatra, military officers established their own satrapies, often reaping large profits from smuggling. Nasution, reappointed and working in cooperation with Sukarno, issued an order in 1955 transferring these officers out of their localities. The result was an attempted coup d’état launched during October-November 1956. Although the coup failed, the instigators went underground, and military officers in some parts of Sumatra seized control of civilian governments in defiance of Jakarta. In March 1957, Lieutenant Colonel H.N.V. Sumual, commander of the East Indonesia Military Region based in Ujungpandang, issued a Universal Struggle Charter (Permesta) calling for “completion of the Indonesian revolution.” Moreover, the Darul Islam movement, originally based in West Java, had spread to Aceh and southern Sulawesi. The Republic of Indonesia was falling apart, testimony in the eyes of Sukarno and Nasution that the parliamentary system was unworkable.

Guided Democracy

Sukarno had long been impatient with party politics and suggested in a speech on October 28, 1956, that they be discarded. Soon after, he introduced the concept of Guided Democracy. Although the concept was new in name, its various themes had been part of the president’s thinking since before the war. In the first years of independence, his freedom of action had been limited by parliamentary institutions. But on March 14, 1957, the liberal phase of Indonesian history was brought to an end with Sukarno’s proclamation of martial law. In an unstable and ultimately catastrophic coalition with the army and the PKI, he sought to rescue the fragile unity of the archipelago.

Sukarno was an activist for independenc
Sukarno was an activist for independence under the Dutch in the 1930s, and under the Japanese in the 1940s. He was the first President of Indonesia, he described the national ideology of Pancasila and is still a popular historical figure today. However, his presidency ended in economic and political disorder

The year witnessed the move of the PKI to the center of the political stage. In provincial elections held in July 1957 in Jawa Barat and Jawa Tengah provinces, the PKI won 34 percent of the vote, ahead of the other major parties–the PNI, Nahdatul Ulama, and Masyumi–although Masyumi defeated the PKI narrowly in Jawa Timur Province. The PKI’s success was attributable to superior grass-roots organization, the popular appeal of its demand for land reform, and its support for Sukarno’s Guided Democracy idea. As tensions between the republic and the Netherlands over West New Guinea grew, PKI-controlled unions led a movement to nationalize Dutch-owned firms: on December 3, 1957, the Royal Packetship Company (KPM), which controlled most of the archipelago’s shipping, was seized and, two days later, Royal Dutch Shell. Some 46,000 Dutch nationals were expelled from Indonesia, and Nasution ordered officers of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Indonesia (ABRI), which had been involved in economic affairs since the late 1940s, to take a role in managing nationalized firms. This action marked the beginning of the armed forces’ role in the economy, a role which grew substantially in later years. Control of the oil industry was seized by ABRI, and Colonel Ibnu Sutowo, Nasution’s deputy, was placed in charge of a new national oil company, Permina.

Mohammed Hatta
Mohammed Hatta.

On December 1, 1956, Mohammad Hatta had resigned as vice president in protest against Sukarno’s growing authoritarianism. Hatta’s exit from the political scene did not improve the relations among the central government, Sumatra, and the eastern archipelago, where Hatta was very popular. On February 10, 1958, when Sukarno was out of the country, a group of Sumatran military officers, Masyumi politicians, and others sent an ultimatum to Jakarta demanding Sukarno’s return to a figurehead role as president and the formation of a new government under Hatta and Yogyakarta sultan Hamengkubuwona IX. Five days later, the group proclaimed the Revolutionary Government of the Indonesian Republic (PRRI). On February 17, Permesta rebels in Sulawesi made common cause with them. Although the rebellion was not completely suppressed until 1961, decisive action by the military had neutralized it by mid1958 . There were several important consequences: the forced retirement of many officers from Sumatra and the eastern archipelago, making the officer corps proportionately more Javanese (and presumably more loyal to Sukarno); the firm implantation of central authority in the Outer Islands; and the emergence of Nasution, promoted to lieutenant general, as the most powerful military leader. But the army’s victory in suppressing regional rebellion caused Sukarno dismay. To offset the military’s power, Sukarno’s ties with the PKI grew closer.

The PRRI revolt also soured Sukarno’s relations with the United States. He accused Washington of supplying the rebels with arms and angrily rejected a United States proposal that marines be landed in the Sumatra oil-producing region to protect American lives and property. The United States was providing clandestine aid to the rebels and Allen Pope, an American B-25 pilot, was shot down over Ambon on May 18, 1958, creating an international incident. Deteriorating relations prompted Sukarno to develop closer relations with the Soviet Union and, especially, the People’s Republic of China.

D.N. Aidit
D.N. Aidit. Aidit was the head of the PKI from 1951 until its downfall in 1965

In July 1958, Nasution suggested that the best way to achieve Guided Democracy was through reinstatement of the 1945 constitution with its strong “middle way,” presidential system. On July 5, 1959, Sukarno issued a decree to this effect, dissolving the old House of Representatives. This marked the formal establishment of the period of Guided Democracy which lasted six years. In March 1960, a new legislature, the House of People’s Representatives-Mutual Self-help (DPR-GR; later, simply DPR) was established. One hundred fifty-four of its 238 seats were given to representatives of “functional groups,” including the military, which became known as Golkar*. All were appointed rather than elected. As many as 25 percent of the seats were allocated for the PKI. Another body, the 616-member Provisional People’s Consultative Assembly (MPRS; later, simply MPR), was established with communist leader Dipa Nusantara Aidit as deputy chairman. In August 1960, Masyumi and the PSI were declared illegal, a reflection of their role in the PRRI insurrection, the MPRS’s enmity toward Sukarno, and its refusal to recognize Guided Democracy.

Years of Living Dangerously

Sukarno with his daughter and future president, Megawati Sukarnoputri, at a state reception in January, 1960
Sukarno with his daughter and future president, Megawati Sukarnoputri, at a state reception in January, 1960

During the Guided Democracy years, Sukarno played a delicate balancing act, drawing the armed forces and PKI into an uneasy coalition and playing them off against each other while largely excluding Islamic forces (especially modernists as represented by the prohibited Masyumi) from the central political arena. Two other features of his political strategy were an aggressive foreign policy, first against the Dutch over West New Guinea (Irian Barat, or later Irian Jaya Province) and then against the newly created state of Malaysia; and demagogic appeals to the masses. A flamboyant speaker, Sukarno spun out slogans and catchwords that became the nebulous basis of a national ideology. One of the most important formulas was Manipol-USDEK, introduced in 1960. Manipol was the Political Manifesto set forth in Sukarno’s August 17, 1959, independence day speech, and USDEK was an acronym for a collection of symbols: the 1945 constitution, Indonesian Socialism, Guided Democracy, Guided Economy, and Indonesian Identity. Another important slogan was Nasakom, the synthesis of nationalism, religion, and communism–symbolizing Sukarno’s attempt to secure a coalition of the PNI, the Nahdatul Ulama (but not Masyumi), and the PKI. In a manner that often bewildered foreign observers, Sukarno claimed to resolve the contradiction between religion and communism by pointing out that a commitment to “historical materialism” did not necessarily entail belief in atheistic “philosophical materialism.”

MONAS. The National Monument
MONAS. The National Monument or MONAS is only one of many monuments that Sukarno built in the 1960s (although it was not finished until 1965)

Indonesia’s ailing economy grew worse as Sukarno ignored the recommendations of technocrats and foreign aid donors, eyed overseas expansion, and built expensive public monuments and government buildings at home. In late 1960, an eight-year economic plan was published, but with its eight volumes, seventeen parts, and 1,945 clauses (representing the date independence was proclaimed: August 17, 1945), the plan seems to have been more an exercise in numerology than economic planning. Ordinary people suffered from hyperinflation and food shortages. Motivated by rivalry with the pro-Beijing PKI and popular resentment of ethnic Chinese, the army backed a decree in November 1959 that prohibited Chinese from trading in rural areas. Some 119,000 Chinese were subsequently repatriated, a policy that caused considerable economic disruption. Although Washington and the International Monetary Fund* sought to encourage rational economic policies, Sukarno resisted. A major reason was that IMF recommendations would have alienated his millions of popular supporters, especially those in the PKI.

PKI power in Java’s villages expanded through the early 1960s. In late 1963, following Sukarno’s call for implementation of land reform measures that had been made law in 1960, the PKI announced a policy of direct action (aksi sepihak) and began dispossessing landlords and distributing the land to poor Javanese, northern Sumatrans, and Balinese peasants. Reforms were not accomplished without violence. Old rivalries between nominal Muslims, the abangan*, many of whom were PKI supporters, and orthodox Muslims, or santri*, were exacerbated
. The PKI membership rolls totaled 2 million, making it the world’s largest communist party in a noncommunist country. Affiliated union and peasant organizations had together as many as 9 million members. PKI leader Aidit pursued his own foreign policy, aligning Indonesia with Beijing in the post-1960 Sino-Soviet conflict and gaining Chinese support for PKI domestic policies, such as unilateral and reform actions. Some observers concluded that by 1964 it appeared that a total communist takeover was imminent.

Sukarno’s Foreign Policy

Sukarno, president of Indonesia from 1945 to 1967
Sukarno, president of Indonesia from 1945 to 1967. Photograph taken in 1946

The international scene was, for Sukarno, a gigantic stage upon which a dramatic confrontation between (as he termed them) the New Emerging Forces and Old Established Forces was played out in the manner of the wayang contest between the virtuous Pandawas and the evil Kurawas. With the assistance and support of the PKI, Sukarno attempted to forge a “Jakarta-Phnom Penh-Beijing-Hanoi- Py’ngyang axis” in order to combat Neocolonialism, Colonialism, and Imperialism (Nekolim). Although the Soviet Union was a major supplier of arms and economic aid, relations with China through official and PKI channels were growing close, particularly in 1964- 65.

A later photo of Suharto in Kostrad gear
A later photo of Suharto in Kostrad gear. Suharto was the commander of Kostrad

Continued Dutch occupation of West New Guinea led to a break in diplomatic relations between Jakarta and The Hague in 1960. In December of that year, Sukarno established a special military unit, the Army Strategic Reserve Command (Kostrad), also known as the Mandala Command, based in Ujungpandang, to “recover” the territory. Full-scale war, however, was averted when a compromise was worked out under United States auspices in which West New Guinea was first turned over to UN and then to Indonesian administration. The UN replaced the Dutch on October 1, 1962, and in May 1963, Indonesian authority was established. The so-called Act of Free Choice, a UN sanctioned and -monitored referendum to discover whether the population, mostly Papuans living in tribal communities, wanted to join the republic, was held in 1969. Community leaders representing the various sectors of society were chosen by consensus at local level meetings and then met among themselves at the village, district, and provincial levels to discuss affiliation. Only these community leaders could vote and they approved incorporation unanimously. Criticism of the process by foreign observers and suspicions of pressure on the voting leaders threw its legitimacy into question.

Hostility to Malaysia, which was established on September 16, 1963, as a union of states of the Malay Peninsula, Singapore, and the North Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak, sprang from Sukarno’s belief that it would function as a base from which Nekolim forces could subvert the Indonesian revolution. Malaysia’s conservative prime minister, Tengku Abdul Rahman, had agreed to the continued basing of British armed forces in the country, and Sukarno could not forget that the government of independent Malaya had given assistance to the PRRI rebels in 1958. In the wake of Malaysia’s creation, a wave of anti-Malaysian and anti-British demonstrations broke out, resulting in the burning of the British embassy. PKI union workers seized British plantations and other enterprises, which were then turned over to the government.

Gunung Agung erupting
Gunung Agung erupting on Bali, 1963, with Pura Besakih in the foreground. The eruption of Gunung Agung caused a great deal of hardship and suffering on Bali during and after 1963

On September 23, 1963, Sukarno, who had proclaimed himself President-for-Life, declared that Indonesia must “gobble Malaysia raw.” Military units infiltrated Malaysian territory but were intercepted before they could establish contact with local dissidents. This action–known as Confrontation* –soon involved Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union, and China. When the UN General Assembly elected Malaysia as a nonpermanent member of the Security Council in December 1964, Sukarno took Indonesia out of the world body and promised the establishment of a new international organization, the Conference of New Emerging Forces (Conefo), a fitting end, perhaps, for 1964, which Sukarno had called “A Year of Living Dangerously.”

The Coup and its Aftermath

By 1965 Indonesia had become a dangerous cockpit of social and political antagonisms. The PKI’s rapid growth aroused the hostility of Islamic groups and the military. The ABRI-PKI balancing act, which supported Sukarno’s Guided Democracy regime, was going awry. One of the most serious points of contention was the PKI’s desire to establish a “fifth force” of armed peasants and workers in conjunction with the four branches of the regular armed forces (army, navy, air force, and police). Many officers were bitterly hostile, especially after Chinese premier Zhou Enlai offered to supply the “fifth force” with arms. By 1965 ABRI’s highest ranks were divided into factions supporting Sukarno and the PKI and those opposed, the latter including ABRI chief of staff Nasution and Major General Suharto, commander of Kostrad. Sukarno’s collapse at a speech and rumors that he was dying also added to the atmosphere of instability.

Gen. Nasution
Gen. Nasution gives the eulogy at the funeral for the officers killed on September 30, 1965

The circumstances surrounding the abortive coup d’état of September 30, 1965–an event that led to Sukarno’s displacement from power; a bloody purge of PKI members on Java, Bali, and elsewhere; and the rise of Suharto as architect of the New Order regime–remain shrouded in mystery and controversy. The official and generally accepted account is that procommunist military officers, calling themselves the September 30 Movement (Gestapu), attempted to seize power. Capturing the Indonesian state radio station on October 1, 1965, they announced that they had formed the Revolutionary Council and a cabinet in order to avert a coup d’état by corrupt generals who were allegedly in the pay of the United States Central Intelligence Agency. The coup perpetrators murdered five generals on the night of September 30 and fatally wounded Nasution’s daughter in an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate him. Contingents of the Diponegoro Division, based in Jawa Tengah Province, rallied in support of the September 30 Movement. Communist officials in various parts of Java also expressed their support.

The extent and nature of PKI involvement in the coup are unclear, however. Whereas the official accounts promulgated by the military describe the communists as having a “puppetmaster” role, some foreign scholars have suggested that PKI involvement was minimal and that the coup was the result of rivalry between military factions. Although evidence presented at trials of coup leaders by the military implicated the PKI, the testimony of witnesses may have been coerced. A pivotal figure seems to have been Syam, head of the PKI’s secret operations, who was close to Aidit and allegedly had fostered close contacts with dissident elements within the military. But one scholar has suggested that Syam may have been an army agent provocateur who deceived the communist leadership into believing that sympathetic elements in the ranks were strong enough to conduct a successful bid for power. Another hypothesis is that Aidit and PKI leaders then in Beijing had seriously miscalculated Sukarno’s medical problems and moved to consolidate their support in the military. Others believe that ironically Sukarno himself was responsible for masterminding the coup with the cooperation of the PKI.

In a series of papers written after the coup and published in 1971, Cornell University scholars Benedict R.O’G. Anderson and Ruth T. McVey argued that it was an “internal army affair” and that the PKI was not involved. There was, they argued, no reason for the PKI to attempt to overthrow the regime when it had been steadily gaining power on the local level. More radical scenarios allege significant United States involvement. United States military assistance programs to Indonesia were substantial even during the Guided Democracy period and allegedly were designed to establish a pro-United States, anticommunist constituency within the armed forces.

A suspected communist is questioned by soldiers, late 1965
A suspected communist is questioned by soldiers, late 1965

In the wake of the September 30 coup’s failure, there was a violent anticommunist reaction. By December 1965, mobs were engaged in large-scale killings, most notably in Jawa Timur Province and on Bali, but also in parts of Sumatra. Members of Ansor, the Nahdatul Ulama’s youth branch, were particularly zealous in carrying out a “holy war” against the PKI on the village level. Chinese were also targets of mob violence. Estimates of the number killed–both Chinese and others–vary widely, from a low of 78,000 to 2 million; probably somewhere around 300,000 is most likely. Whichever figure is true, the elimination of the PKI was the bloodiest event in postwar Southeast Asia until the Khmer Rouge established its regime in Cambodia a decade later.

The period from October 1965 to March 1966 witnessed the eclipse of Sukarno and the rise of Suharto to a position of supreme power. Born in the Yogyakarta region in 1921, Suharto came from a lower priyayi family and received military training in Peta during the Japanese occupation. During the war for independence, he distinguished himself by leading a lightning attack on Yogyakarta, seizing it on March 1, 1949, after the Dutch had captured it in their second “police action.” Rising quickly through the ranks, he was placed in charge of the Diponegoro Division in 1962 and Kostrad the following year.

Sukarno and Suharto in 1966.
Sukarno and Suharto in 1966.

After the elimination of the PKI and purge of the armed forces of pro-Sukarno elements, the president was left in an isolated, defenseless position. By signing the executive order of March 11, 1966, Supersemar, he was obliged to transfer supreme authority to Suharto

making). An important issue prior to the institution of any cialis or improvement of ED. These patients must be evaluated.

. On March 12, 1967, the MPRS stripped Sukarno of all political power and installed Suharto as acting president. Sukarno was kept under virtual house arrest, a lonely and tragic figure, until his death in June 1970.

The year 1966 marked the beginning of dramatic changes in Indonesian foreign policy. Friendly relations were restored with Western countries, Confrontation with Malaysia ended on August 11, and in September Indonesia rejoined the UN. In 1967 ties with Beijing were, in the words of Indonesian minister of foreign affairs Adam Malik, “frozen.” This meant that although relations with Beijing were suspended, Jakarta did not seek to establish relations with the Republic of China on Taiwan. That same year, Indonesia joined Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Singapore to form a new regional and officially nonaligned grouping, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations*, which was friendly to the West.

Golongan Karya (Functional Groups); the ruling political parties; a federation of groups within society, such as peasants, workers, and women.

*International Monetary Fund (IMF)
Established along with the World Bank in 1945, the IMF is a specialized agency affiliated with the United Nations and is responsible for stabilizing international exchange loans to its members when they experience balance of payments difficulties.

Refers to people who are nominally Muslim and who, in fact, are followers of kebatinan (q.v.). The word is derived from the Javanese abang, which means “red.”

Orthodox Muslims. In the Javanese context, the santri are also sometimes referred to as putihan (white ones), an allusion to their purity, especially as contrasted to abangan (q.v.) Javanese.

*Confrontation (Konfrontasi)
Indonesia’s 1963-66 effort to disrupt the new state of Malaysia, which Indonesian leaders regarded as a front for a continued British colonial presence in Southeast Asia.

*Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)
Founded in 1967 for the purpose of promoting regional stability, economic development, and cultural exchange. ASEAN’s founding members were Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand; Brunei joined ASEAN in 1984.

Data as of November 1992


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Bjørn Grøtting

Photographer based in Norway. See a collection of my best photos in the portfolio. Licensing of images is done through Photoshelter or alamy.
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