Guided Democracy: Sukarno's Impossible Country
The political history of the Old Order
My political geography professor called Indonesia “the impossible country.” Three thousand miles from end to end, with hundreds of large and thousands of small islands, many languages and thousands of dialects, and hundreds if not thousands of micro-identities within six major ethnic groups, the Indonesian state fits no naturalistic theory of state formation. Thanks to their education system, however, 95 percent of Indonesians also speak the national language, a form of Malay that had been used as the lingua franca of regional trade before the Dutch arrived. A majority of the population is Javan, however, and Javan is the most spoken language in the country. Some parts of the Indonesian state contain societies with Stone Age lives and ancient traditions. So there is no linguistic, geographic, ethnic, religious, cultural, or historical thing that unifies Indonesia, not even the history of Dutch colonial rule. Indonesia only truly exists in the imagination of Indonesians. And in the two decades from his declaration of an independent state upon the surrender of Japan in 1945 until the murderous year 1965, Sukarno’s imagination shaped Indonesia the most.
His slogan Nasokom summed up the impossibility of his dream. It is an abbreviation of the initial syllables for nationalism, religion, and communism in Bahasa Indonesia (nasionalisme, agama, komunisme). As I will explain, religion and communism had a strained relationship after 1948, and decisively parted ways during 1965. Thereafter, a concerted political effort to unseat Sukarno allied the first two parts of his slogan against the third. The Partai Komunis Indonesia (PKI), the world’s third largest communist party, would be destroyed “down to the roots.”
A slow-motion coup followed. Under the rubric of destroying communist influences, everything and everyone associated with Sukarno became suspect: his Foreign Minister Subandrio, his own centrist PNI political party, his fiction editor, friendly reporters, his cabinet.
Suharto, the man who replaced Sukarno as leader of the nation after 1966, imagined Indonesia as a country without a left of any kind, political or cultural. The Indonesia he imagined is what still exists today. Genocide and political change came hand in hand.
As philosophical pillars for the nation, Sukarno had established five principles of Pancasila, Javanese for ‘five principles.’ The first of these was belief in God, while the last was social justice. These values conflicted from 1964, with Islamist youth organizations on one side and the Pemuda Rakyat, the PKI’s youth wing, on the other. The issue was land redistribution laws that had yet to be enforced. Communists organized seizures by the peasantry, which landowners resisted. Many of the latter were associated with nationalist right wing parties and Islamist organizations. Because Indonesia’s army had taken a role in the nation’s economic life during nationalization of Dutch industries, soldiers were involved in some of these clashes, and one officer was killed in March 1965. The second pillar of Pancasila, “just and civilized humanity,” was in danger of cracking.
National unity, the third pillar, seemed equally under threat. Sukarno was unable to contain these contradictions forever, and the source of his impotence can be seen in the exhausting name of his fourth pillar: kerakyatan yang dipimpin oleh hikmat kebijaksanaan dalam permusyawaratan (or perwakilan in some versions). It translates to “democracy guided by the inner wisdom in the unanimity arising out of deliberations among representatives.” This was the windy rhetorical foundation of Guided Democracy, Sukarno’s name for the period after 1957, when he suspended the nation’s liberal parliamentary constitution and restored the 1945 constitution, which gave him much broader powers. Sukarno would rule as strongman, shaping the national consensus and containing it within himself.
Let us not blame Sukarno too much for his relationship with the PKI. Instead, let us blame the Dutch entirely.
After the 1948 Madiun disaster, in which a communist uprising turned into a highly destructive Long March on the southern coast of Java that had to be quelled with armed force, the PKI was very nearly declared illegal. Only the intervention of the Dutch, who attacked the Republic in their “Second Police Action” to restore colonial sovereignty to the archipelago, saved the PKI from an earlier annihilation. The Army – or Tentara Nasional Indonesia (TNI) – was forced to set aside political differences in the resulting state of emergency. After seeing the TNI crush the uprising, however, the United States deemed it safe to let Indonesia exist, and prevailed on the Dutch to let go of the three century-old imperial project it had almost fully reconquered. Communism — an ideology imported by the Dutch — gathered momentum after the Netherlands finally withdrew in 1949. Then the unprecedented success of the PKI in the national elections of 1957, as well as local elections the following year, factored in Sukarno’s decision to set aside parliamentary government altogether.
Suspicious of western legislatures, Sukarno ruled very much like a traditional Javan king instead. Benedict Anderson explains that whereas western dialogues of leaders and power stress ideological coherence, the traditional Javan ruler is a charismatic figure who absorbs symbols of power unto himself. Java is unexceptional in the region this way. According to Lisbeth Skogstrand, traditional modes of political power in East Sumba form an “ideology of encompassment” in which the possession of a rival’s decapitated head is a kind of deed to their territory. These symbols of power can be eclectic, for they do not have to represent anything more coherent than the leader himself. “Nasokom” was a perfect illustration of the principle.
To hold the Javan political center and left, Sukarno had to contain them within himself, even if only as symbol. As long as the PKI remained strong, he had no choice but to contain them. In 1956, Sukarno was losing containment: communism threatened to outgrow his imaginary Indonesia and become larger than himself. Governing through a cabinet instead of a legislature, however, he inaugurated an era of mass political mobilization in which the streets became Indonesia’s political battleground. In such an environment, where organization and conviction mattered more than numbers, the PKI grew even more powerful. There were other consequences. Indonesia’s huge population required an enormous bureaucracy; low salaries and inflation thus guaranteed corruption, which further undermined central authority. Then Sukarno’s confrontational policies with the west led to inflation and food insecurity. By the end of 1964, chaos loomed.
Sukarno was about to lose his grip on power to Suharto. The new strongman kept the outer form of Pancasila, but the words became civic cant instead of revolutionary script. During their “reeducation” in the 1970s, political prisoners on Buru Island with years of study in Pancasila principles were amused and annoyed that such a hollow, colorless reading of their beloved ideology had become official state creed. To rule, Suharto had stripped away the spirit of Sukarno’s words and encompassed them within himself. As the new father of the nation, he would make great and drastic changes, send Sukarno into internal exile, and rule for three decades, guiding Indonesian “democracy” his own way.