I do not read a great deal of history, contemporary or otherwise, and when I do, it is usually in the field of the political economy. In recent years, for instance, I have delighted at the scholarship and intellect of Eric Hobsbawm. But what always strikes me about history is how perfect our vision can come from the distance of time. Not so if you’re closer, and so I can forgive J. D. Legge my single criticism of his book, Sukarno – A Political Biography, which is its lack of overview. Legge published the book in 1972 and so didn’t have the luxury of 35 years of clarifying hindsight that we have today.
J. D. Legge’s biography charts the life and career of Sukarno in intricate detail. Particularly strong are the descriptions of the internal machinations and wheeler dealing amongst the Indonesian political elite. Sukarno is presented as one of the main political figures of the 20th century. If anyone should doubt this, then remembered that the terms’ Third World’ and’ Non-Aligned ‘, terms that structured our thought about the world for decades and maybe still do, would probably not have existed if Sukarno hadn’t promoted them. The former arose out of the 1955 Bandung conference. These Sukarno hosted, and the latter out of continued initiatives involving the Indonesian president. Furthermore Sukarno’s importance for the century is also underlined by the fact that a result of the coup that ousted him led to the killing of 250, 000 people, while the president himself was allowed to live out his last years and die a natural death. Legge stops short of laying the ultimate responsibility for these deaths at Sukarno’s door, and neither can he be certain about the president’s respect to the coup. True, he lost power as a result, but he didn’t lose his life. He lost much of his dignity, but remained such an esteemed figure after 50 years in politics that he retained at least a figurehead status up to his death.
Were you aware of that?
A point that Legge underplays, however, is the relation of the nationalism that served as the basis of Sukarno’s politics and the pragmatism that sought inevitably loose alliances to both define and promote it. One such Sukarno initiative in particular, NASAKOM, may have been responsible ultimately for precipitating the coup and even causing the slaughter.
However, for every apparent consistency between the two, there’s a conflict. Nationalism encourages citizens to define themselves according to their nation’s borders, to rally around their country’s flag rather than their own racial and cultural groups. So while nationalism seeks to foster national unity, multiculturalism pursues minority rights that could potentially prove divisive to that nation-ironic, being as it is nationalism which is traditionally accused of being divisive. It is indeed due to rampant nationalism from the parent state that many national minorities seek political autonomy in the former place.
In fact, the general concept of nationality and citizenship polarises nationalists against immigrants and ethnic minorities. It creates an ‘us and them’ situation, in which priority is given to nationals of the nation, while the special rights and the incorporation of minorities which multiculturalism deals with are of much lesser importance. The modern state is the result of nation-building. These, in overlooking the rights of minority groups, was the cause of many of the contemporary conflicts of today. Nation-building can lead to the establishment of militant national minorities. The result is terrorist groups like ETA and the IRA (in the Basque territory of Spain and Northern Ireland respectively).
Just When You Thought You Had Heard It All…
Sukarno was about as old as the century, being born in June 1901 in East Java. Legge makes an interesting point about his parents, who met in Singharaja, Bali, while his dad was a teacher there. The father was Javanese, a member of the aristocratic priyayi class, but his mother was Balinese and not even a Muslim. I have visited Bali and Singharaja and East Java and can fully appreciate the fundamental differences, both cultural and religious, between these places. And yet, from this mixed parentage there was born a figure who consistently espoused nationalism as a defining ideology. But from the start, and perhaps on account of his background, it was a syncretic nationalism that tried to create unity by bridging difference.
Initially, of course, this nationalism was defined via opposition to Dutch colonial rule. It was a nationalism that brought the young Sukarno into trouble with the authorities, led to periods of imprisonment and exile. Nothing strange here. The twentieth century is full of such figures who struggled against externally-imposed colonial rule. In the Second World War, Sukarno, like Laurel in the Philippines, collaborated with the Japanese. But whereas to the north Laurel was eventually disgraced by the association, Sukarno found himself in 1945 the president of an independent Indonesia. And here, perhaps is here that the nationalist ideology became, out of necessity, essentially pragmatic.
As an ideology, nationalism claims it expresses a single identity or culture, often defined by language or religion. And this in spite of the fact that there are almost no nations that actually display the homogeneity that the ideology assumes. It thus has the potential to become an exclusive force in direct contradiction to its declared aim. Thus nationalism inevitably is an ideology that is easiest to identify and promulgate by opposing what it is n’t, rather than defining precisely what it is. We only have to think of the programmes of the so-called nationalist parties and movements in contemporary Europe, and how they crystallize around opposition. In Britain, we have the United Kingdom Independence Party, UKIP. This is nationalist because it opposes the European Union. And we have the National Front, nationalist because it opposes immigration. The list could serve as a long one. So nationalism often must be set out in relation to what we’re not, rather than via what we are.
If you live in a nation subjected to colonial rule, it is certainly easy to define nationalism around concepts of independence and self-government. One these things have been achieved, however, the focus that defined the nationalism is removed. If it is to continue as an ideology for an independent nation, it must change, one option is for it to be elevated to state-worship, near to the state of a national religion. The North Korea of Kim Il Sung was this route in extremis. But in a country as vast as Indonesia, the social conformity this route requires could never have been achieved.
So Sukarno took the other route that can sustain nationalism as a state ideology. This was expansionism, coupled with attempts to create coalitions across political ideology and religion. The expansionist tendency led to the inclusion of West Irian into Indonesia. It likewise led to Sukarno’s opposition to the creation of a Malaysian Federation and thus to several years of war in Borneo. It might be argued the same need for expansion to bolster nationalism led, under Suharto, to the invasion of East Timor. The point here is that the external positions are adopted, with a view to define internal political identity.
Alliances and coalitions must be erected internally to create at least a semblance of unity, as well as promoting an external focus. Sukarno’s NASAKOM was such an attempt, an initiative to unite Nasionalisme, Agama and Komunisme, Nationalism, Religion and Communism. And so the Indonesian Communist Party, the PKI, was part of an equation whose result was always going to become a problem, given the ubiquity of the cold War and the proximity of China. When we consider the challenge of creating unity out of such an admixture, we then appreciate the need for nationalism to retain its external focus. No nationalist agenda can cut across ideological differences that are global. In Sukarno’s case, effectively the Cold War won. The internal tensions had to be solved and, in Indonesia’s case, it led to military action, the slaughter of 250, anyone, and 000 communist sympathisers else who got in the manner in which, and the appearance of an initially pro-Western government under Suharto.