Independence in Indonesia

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. 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 self government . 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.

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 dwi-fungsi, 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.

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.

Source: US Library of Congress