Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Sukarno and the Rhythm of Revolution

Sukarno and the Rhythm of Revolution

I woke up this morning brimming with thoughts of Sukarno, so I will write about him today.

In his autobiography, Sukarno describes himself quite frankly:

"I am a Sybarite. I am a man who gratifies his senses...I enjoy good food, fine clothes, love-making..."

Sukarno is often caricatured as a womanising dictator by the West. The many wives that he accumulated during his lifetime, didn't help his image either. And he definitely wasn't a loved figure in Malaysia during the 60s because of his Konfrontasi policy against the formation of Malaysia.

But in Indonesia, he is still spoken of with awe. In kampungs, dusty pictures of him in his immaculate uniform still adorn walls of houses and warungs. During his heydays, he was revered almost like a God-King. His speeches magnetized people; they were often peppered with phrases in Dutch, French and English; and he had a fondness for quoting from a wide variety of sources: from Vivekananda to Voltaire, from Javanese folklore to Jefferson's Declaration of Independence.

His Western detractors then could not believe that an Asian--an Indonesian--could possess such a brilliant mind and even encouraged the rumour that he was actually the illegitimate child of a Dutch. But Sukarno is a true product of Indonesia's great diversity--his father was a Javanese Muslim and his mother, a Balinese Hindu. He was the personification of Bhinneka Tunggal Ika--Unity in Diversity.

Sukarno saw himself as a leader of the Third World, an inspiration to the newly independent nations of Asia and Africa--new emerging forces, NEFOS, as he called it. He was at odds with Tunku Abdul Rahman over the formation of Malaysia, which he saw as a puppet of the West, a neo-imperialist plan to encircle Indonesia. He saw himeself as the defender of the downtrodden people, the common folk (Marhaens, he called them, after the name of the poor farmer he met when he was a youth in Bandung) of Asia and probably despised the Tunku for being a bourgeois racehorse-loving Anglophile.

He lambasted the West for their hypocrisy and told the US to go "to hell with their aid". In many ways, he reminds one of Dr M. Even Pramoedya Ananta Toer drew comparisons between Dr M and Sukarno. Both had a love for grandiose nationalistic projects. But in the end, Dr M, looked like a more successful version of Sukarno.

Sukarno failed dismally in managing the economy of the nation. Inflation at one point was 600 over percent. There was shortage of food. He was seen as being too sympathetic to the PKI--the Communist Party of Indonesia, then the largest communist party outside the Soviet Union and China. The US looked at him with great suspicion. And the CIA was said to be working actively behind the scenes to engineer his downfall.

In the end, it took another Javanese to oust a Javanese, and in the most Javanese of ways. After the events of The Year of Living Dangerously (which I had written about in a previous posting), Suharto slowly and patiently stripped Sukarno of his powers. At no point was there a direct confrontation nor outright humiliation for the man who was still respected as the Father of the Nation, the Great Leader of the Revolution, the Child of the Dawn.

But the tide of public opinion had turned, the self-proclaimed Mouthpiece of the People was ultimately silenced. Put in house arrest, the Lion of the Podium withered like a caged animal. He died a lonely man in 1970.

The young generation today do not have a chance to experience the mystique of Sukarno. Many foreigners even confuse Sukarno with Suharto. Critics of the current President, Megawati, (Sukarno's daughter from his third wife, Fatmawati), say she does not possess the qualities of Sukarno. No strong leader has emerged since the fall of Suharto.

The rhythm of a revolution is creation and destruction, said Sukarno. Student demonstrators played a hand in ousting both Sukarno and Suharto. On both occassions, massive riots and destruction took place.

Sukarno created a nation out of a diverse archipelago of 17,000 islands, which was no trivial feat. He forged a common identity and language for his people. He spent years in prison and exile fighting unrelentlessly for his cause. He gave pride and confidence to a people humiliated over 350 years of Western colonization.

When the quiet and unassuming army general, Suharto decisively quelled the communist coup in 1965, and subsequently replaced Sukarno to became the second president of Indonesia, he too was seen as the saviour of the nation. Suharto, despite all his faults, created a thriving economy in the 70s, 80s and much of the 90s--enjoyed and taken for granted by many of the younger generation.

In removing Sukarno and Suharto from power, Indonesia has gone through two rounds of creation and destruction. Who will be the next creator? Only time will tell. Meanwhile the rhythm of revolution continues.

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