Soekarno (1901-1970) was the first president of Indonesia, a nationalist leader, and a demagogue. He was the founder of the Republic of Indonesia and a dominant figure throughout its history until his death.

Soekarno was born on June 6, 1901, in Surabaya, East Java, of a Javanese father and Balinese mother. At an early age the family moved to Mojokerto, where his father taught school. Soekarno’s adequate knowledge of Dutch made it possible for him to enter the European Elementary School. In 1916 he enrolled at a high school in Surabaya. During this period he lived with H.O.S. Tjokroaminoto a prominent Islamic leader and head of Sarekat Islam. The five years (1916-1921) Soekarno spent in Surabaya were most important in his future intellectual and political development, for here he came in contact with prominent Indonesian nationalists and with Dutch socialists.

In 1920 the left wing of the Sarekat Islam split a way and formed the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). The following year Soekarno entered the Institute of Technology in Bandung, from which he graduated in 1926 as an engineer. He embarked on a political career, publishing a series of article in which he endeavored to reconcile the two contending factions by trying to show that Islam and communism (socialism) were not incompatible.

The rallying force for Indonesian independence was to be nationalism, aggresively pursued. The enemies common to all groups in Indonesia were, in his judgement, imperialism and capitalism, both exemplified in the Dutch. Soekarno’s belief that a misunderstanding had brought about the conflict between Islam and communism was first presented in 1926 and continued into the sixties.

Revolutionary and Independence Leader
In 1927 Soekarno became a chairman of the Nationalist Study Club in Bandung. With the founding of the Indonesian Nationalist Party (PNI) in 1927 and the earlier banning of the PKI as a result of the Madiun revolt in 1926, Soekarno’s task of unifying the various nationalist groups was made much easier. His spellbinding oratory and his ability to phrase his political goals in a language the masses could understand soon made him a national hero. His influence and fame were greatly enhanced by his trial in 1930. As a result of anticolonialist utterances, he had been accused by the government of the Dutch Indies of treason and sentenced to 4 years in prison, only 2 of which he had to serve. It was on the occasion of this trial that he delivered his famed defence speech, Indonesia Menggugat (Indonesia Accuses), which is considered one of the most important statements of his credo.

Shortly after his release Soekarno was arrested again, and was exiled to Ende on the island of Flores in February 1934. Four years later he was moved to Bengkulu in Sumatra. Soekarno was released when the Japanese occupied Indonesia in March 1942. The Japanese, familiar with Soekarno’s strong anticolonialist views, made him a leader in their various organizations, and in June 1945 he headed the very important preparatory Committee for Indonesian Independence.

Soekarno indicated clearly that his goal had always been, and still was, Indonesia’s independence. On this occasion he set forth in eloquent terms the Pantjasila, or Five Pillars: nationalism, internationalism, democrazy, social justice, and belief in God. On August 17, 1945, Soekarno, at the strong urging of youth groups and colleagues, proclaimed his country’s independence in Jakarta, and he became the first president of the new Republic of Indonesia, a position he retained for almost 21 years.

Internal Strife
After the transfer of sovereignity on December 27, 1949, the unity which  Soekarno succeeded in maintaining during the revolution fell apart, and the three ideological groups began attacking each other. In this feuding,  Soekarno found allies in the Indonesian Communist Party and in the Nadhlatul Ulama, a conservative Islamic party. He could also continue to count on the support of his PNI.

In 1959 Soekarno reintroduced the Constitution of 1945, which gave the president full powers, responsible only to a very weak Congress. He dissolved Congress, banned the Masjumi (liberal Moslem) party and the Socialist party (PSI), and ruled by decree. He then introduced the concept of “guided democrazy” and called for the extermination of neoimperialism and neocolonialism and the establishment of a socialist society.

To achieve these goals, Soekarno united three groups whose philosophies were respectively nationalism (nasionalisme), religion (agama), and communism (komunisme) into an ideological front to which he gave the acronym Nasakom. This union was not successful, however, because the first two groups became unhappy at the extraordinarily rapid rise of the PKI and at Soekarno’s strong praise of this party.

Upheaval and Death
The army and the PKI had been enemies from the earliest days of the republic, and with the abortive coup on October 1st, 1965, led by alleged Communist sympathizers, Soekarno’s days as president were numbered. Thousands of people were killed in the purge that followed. The army, under Gen. Soeharto, assisted in the pogrom and supported the Indonesian students in their move to bring down Soekarno.

Under this pressure Soekarno, on March 11, 1966, transferred his presidential powers to Gen. Soeharto, who was reluctant to remove Soekarno completely from the scene. The latter refused to go a long with the new developments, and a year later he was deposed and placed under house confinement in Bogor, where he remained, a phisically ill man, until a few days before his death in a Jakarta hospital on June 21, 1970, of complications from kidney trouble and high blood pressure. Soekarno was not accorded a place in the Heroes’ Cemetary in Jakarta but was buried beside his mother in Blitar, East Java.

Soekarno’s significance in the establishment of the Republic of Indonesia is tremendous. His devotion to his principles, first enunciated in 1926, was unswerving. A brilliant orator, a charismatic leader, and an idealist, he achieved his original goal but failed as a “man of facts” and readily admitted that he was not an economist. His rule has been called the era of slogans rather than performance.