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Sukarno

For much of my childhood Sukarno was seldom out of the news.  His mother was Balinese and The Sukarno Center in Bali that is perhaps the most interesting thing to see there, unless you are excited by temples and people engaged in impenetrable religious rituals; or perhaps being pampered by masseurs, pedicurists or prostitutes; or pondering the human condition while perspiring in primitive bars; or purchasing wooden penises; or persuing a perfect wave.

 

The Sukarno Center The Sukarno Center

The Sukarno Center

 

Sukarno was caught between two religions.  His mother was Hindu but his first wife had some ridiculous idea that one should be monogamous so he divorced her and took another eight, in addition to sowing a few wild oats.  He seems to have become a devout Muslim.  His non-Muslim wives, who included a Japanese, were required to convert and he attended the Hajj.

 

Sukarno's Nine Wives
Sukarno's Nine Wives

 

During the war he was allied to the Japanese for whom he organised local labour and food and he was accepted as the de-facto leader of Indonesia.  Indonesian independence was promised but before this could be made law the American A-Bombs secured Japan's unconditional surrender in August 1945.  Sukarno was immediately pressed by more radical elements to declare independence, which he did two days after the Japanese surrender on 17 August.

But the Dutch had local supporters among Europeans, Chinese, Christians and the native aristocracy and there was a wartime Dutch East Indies government-in-exile in Brisbane.  Civil war broke out during which large numbers of those opposed to independence were slaughtered by mobs who had obtained weapons from the defeated Japanese.  At the same time the United States, under General MacArthur, passed responsibility for Indonesia to the British, under Lord Mountbatten of Burma (Prince Charles's great uncle). 

Mountbatten began to facilitate the return of the Dutch including released POW's and elements of the Dutch army.  This was fiercely resisted by the Indonesian Republicans.  Together, British, Dutch and Australian troops restored order and in 1946 150,000 Dutch forces replaced the British and Australian troops. The Dutch administration then brokered agreements with the Republicans for a future union under the Dutch Queen but this was anathema to a number of the parties on both sides and the troubles continued, resulting in an attempt by the Dutch to eliminate areas of Republican resistance that resulted in several costly battles with many lives lost. 

 

Thwarting Dutch plans for a separate state in East Java
Thwarting Dutch plans for a separate state in East Java

Sukarno thwarting Dutch plans for a separate state in East Java in 1949 - the troubles continued

 

Despite US and United Nations attempts to broker a peace a further Dutch push in 1949 designed to finally crush the Republic resulted in the US threatening to withhold Marshall Plan Aid from Holland.  Thus in December 1949 the Dutch threw in the towel and withdrew from Indonesia.  Sukarno became the first President of the new Republic.  Quite a few Dutch people then departed for Australia, including the parents of one of my friends at school.

But it was not clear sailing.  No sooner than the Dutch were vanquished than the previous allies against them began to fall out.  The Islamists were opposed by the Communists; Javanese by non-Javanese and so on.  Meanwhile Dutch companies, like Shell Oil, and ethnic Chinese businesses still dominated the economy.  To restore order Sukarno moved to impose what he called 'guided democracy' (autocracy).  In March 1957 he declared martial law and in December he nationalised 246 Dutch companies and expelled 40,000 Dutch citizens.  At the same time Chinese farmers were relocated and around 100,000 native born Indonesian-Chinese 'volunteered' to resettle in China.  The military was expanded and equipped and he set about ridding Indonesia of regional pockets of rebellion and dissent against the Republic - a bit like the Empire in Star Wars.

At the same time Sukarno proved to be a consummate international diplomat, doing the rounds of world leaders and being feted in each capital, where each leader tried to outbid the others in offers of support to the new Republic.  From Communist China Sukarno made his way to the USA and then to the USSR.  With the new decade Sukarno made fence-sitting a new art-form when he formed the so called non-aligned alliance with President Nasser of Egypt; President Tito of Yugoslavia; Prime Minister Nehru of India; and President Nkrumah of Ghana. 

 

Non-aligned Sukarno, Nehru and Nasser
Non-aligned: Sukarno, Nehru and Nasser

 

This delivered even more potential to trade one major power block off against the other. He became good mates, in quick succession, with Mao Zedong (China); John F Kennedy (USA) flirting with Marilyn Munro; Nikita Khrushchev (USSR); and Fidel Castro (Cuba).

 

With Mao Zedong
with Mao Zedong (China)

Rain
with Nikita Khrushchev (USSR)

Mountain Rain
with John F Kennedy (USA)

Mountain Rain
with Marilyn Munro (Kennedy mistress)

Rain
with Fidel Castro (Cuba) 

Rain
with Mao (again) in Tiananmen Square

Bung Karno had lots of friends in the 1960's

 

His new status as one who must be sucked-up-to allowed him to invade Dutch West New Guinea.  And when the Dutch attempted to prevent this Robert Kennedy threatened them yet again with US intervention.  The Dutch withdrew entirely from the region and let Sukarno take it.  Australia was not happy.  His next move was against the new, previously British, state of Malaysia (and Singapore) where Indonesian supported terrorists began a bombing campaign and an insurgency.  This time British and Australian troops successfully opposed his 'Confrontation' and the US, having finally learnt their lesson, ceased their support for him.

Now that he met with unified resistance Sukarno nationalised British interests and began an anti-American campaign. Western popular music and media was banned or suppressed.  By now Sukarno had become very reliant on the powerful Indonesian Communist Party, the PKI, that had around three million members.  Alliances with China and Russia were renewed and strengthened.  A new alliance was made with North Vietnam. 

When I was in the University of New South Wales Regiment we had no doubt about who we were likely to be fighting, apart of course from beginning to get embroiled in the rather more distant war in Vietnam. Indonesia posed a real and immediate threat and formed part of the justification for Australia opposing Communist 'insurgency' in Vietnam.

TEWT's (Tactical Exercises Without Troops) usually imagined them (unnamed) coming over, or in position on, the hill: "Now what are you going to do?  If you decide on calling in an air or artillery strike and then charging their position don't try to do it across that gully. Your men will go to ground.  Do it from the gully or choose another route. And what are you going to do after you take their position - sit there and get mortared?  Tactics and strategy. Remember Gallipoli. We took their positions in the first attack then squandered it." 

As it turned out we needn't have worried.  With the nationalisations and heavy military expenditure, the Indonesian economy soon collapsed and hyper-inflation set in.  Sukarno survived various assignation attempts, including one involving a fighter aircraft.  Then, on my 20th birthday, came an incompetent attempted coup, which is now thought to have been a set-up by Major General Suharto as an excuse to act. It was alleged that this was an attempted Communist overthrow of the government.  It gave Suharto the opportunity to purge the PKI and anyone else with apparent leftist leanings.  This became a bloodbath and one of the largest mass slaughters of the twentieth century when at least half a million were killed and a further 1.5 million were jailed.  

In Bali the Communists had supported attempts to rid the island of the Hindu caste system that held around 83% of the population in the lowest caste as peasant labourers.  The purge gave some among the upper castes an opportunity to get rid of anyone opposed to the traditional caste system.  

Sukarno remained President but his powerbase was destroyed.  Two years later in 1967 Suharto seized complete power and was installed as President, a position he held until 1998.  His anti-Communist credentials earned him strong Western support and Indonesia's economy recovered, at least for a time.  Suharto launched a program of de-Sukarno-isation and de-communisation.  Australians breathed a sigh of relief.  I resigned from the Regiment.  But in some ways Indonesia went from the frying pan to the fire.

Sukarno had been an idealist, from a patrician background, like Ghandi.  Suharto had risen from a peasant background and could afford no such ideals. He was an opportunist. He became renowned for massive corruption, including favouring his own family, several of whom have been arrested since. According to Transparency International Suharto is the most corrupt leader in modem history, having embezzled an alleged $15-35 billion during his rule. The Asian Financial Crisis eventually forced his resignation.

It's interesting to note that it was with Suharto taking over in 1967 that US President Barak Obama's American mother, Ann Dunham, moved to Jakarta to join his Indonesian step-father who was a geographer working for the Indonesian Government.  As a result there has been considerable speculation in social media about his possible Muslim sympathies.  Ann Dunham was an anthropologist and hence a secular humanist with sensible religious views, reportedly regarding religion as a man's attempt to deal with the unknowable.  Barak Obama senior was a Kenyan who had once converted to Islam but was described as a confirmed atheist by the time he met Ann.  Ann fell pregnant to him accidently and divorced him after three years, marrying baby Barak's step-father Lolo Soetoro a year later, so it's unlikely that Barak senior had much religious influence over his son. Barak lived in Indonesia until he was ten, attending a Catholic and an elite Government school, after which he attended school in Hawaii. 

Lolo, who was obviously much more influential, was nominally Suni Muslim but he is said to have had little use for religion.  His declared religion was probably career related.  Being Muslim was a good choice.  In Indonesia everyone has an identity card and at that time had to select from among the six approved religions (Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism).  It was, and still is, illegal to be an atheist in Indonesia. But now, if you have no concern for your future prospects, you can leave that entry blank on your card.  Most do not.  No one is going to die in a ditch for the principle of not believing something.

Similarly it's now impossible for a US President to be an unbeliever, even thought most of the founding fathers were Unitarians or secular humanists.  In God We Trust replaced e pluribus unum as the official motto of the United States in 1956, in blatant violation of the First Amendment (that prohibits the making of any law respecting the establishment of religion). Yet the US Supreme Court has steadfastly refused to repudiate it.  What was once the most secular is now the most religious of all advanced countries.  Barak junior describes himself as a devout Protestant Christian, at various times a Baptist or an Episcopalian (Anglican), so who knows?  Thus some Christian fundamentalists think he's a secret Muslim.

Since Suharto, Indonesia has moved to become more like the democratic country Sukarno once envisaged as a radical young architect, before absolute power corrupted him absolutely.  As with Ghandi, he is returning to popularity as evinced by the The Sukarno Center, that stands as a kind of shrine to his memory. As further evidence of his return to popularity, Sukarno's daughter Megawati Sukarnoputri was elected President of the Republic of Indonesia in 2001, serving until 2004. 

As I wandered around The Sukarno Center I felt a touch of nostalgia for these, sometimes scary, characters from the past who populated the news bulletins of my childhood and youth, now all, except for somewhat beloved Fidel, long gone to dust.  Memories of Nikita banging the desk with his shoe at the UN; of Kennedy's inspirational speeches; of Marilyn's Happy Birthday Mr President; of the Bay of Pigs and Che Guevara and the Cuban Missile Crisis; and of Mao bobbing along in the Yangtze; came to mind. 

The Sukarno Center remains, for me, a highlight of our trip.

 

 

 


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