Monday, April 21, 2008

Analysis leaves Sukarno's rise to popularity untouched

This book review was originally published in The Jakarta Post Sunday Edition, November 26, 2006

Features - November 26, 2006

Yosef Djakababa, Contributor, Jakarta
Bung Karno Menggugat!: Dari Marhaen, CIA, Pembantaian Massal '65 hingga G.30.S ('Bung' Karno accuses!: From the working class, CIA, the mass killings of '65 to the Sept. 30 abortive coup) Dr. Baskara T. Wardaya SJ Galang Press, February 2006 297 pp.

Bung Karno -- Brother Karno -- Indonesia's first president, has never ceased to spark debate and controversy. This recent book by Dr. Baskara Wardaya SJ is another such book that discusses Sukarno and his legacies during the struggle for establishment of the republic and his leadership.

Nonetheless, the more appropriate title for this book would perhaps be "Menggugat Bung Karno" (accusing Bung Karno) instead of Bung Karno Menggugat (Bung Karno accuses/charges). The reason is that the book contains mostly the author's analyses of Sukarno's reactions, attitudes and positions towards colonialism, the United States' involvement in Indonesia's domestic politics, the 1965 tragedy and national leadership; and less about what Sukarno actually thought about all these topics.

Bung Karno Menggugat is organized into four sections. The first section shows how the young Sukarno initially developed his strong feelings of anti-colonialism and -imperialism, as he became more involved and active in the nationalist movement. The second section jumps to the latter part of his presidency, and discusses the involvement of various American administrations in Indonesian domestic affairs in the 1950s.
In this illuminating second section, Baskara discusses many aspects of the relationship between Indonesia and the United States that have received little attention, especially by Indonesian scholars. This section is clearly the strongest part of the book.
The information presented here is abundant, comprehensive and well researched. Baskara illustrates various U.S. foreign policies towards Indonesia, including the CIA's involvement in the 1957-1958 armed movement in Sumatra and Sulawesi (PRRI/Permesta).

In the third section, Baskara talks about Sukarno's alleged involvement in the September 30th movement -- the abortive coup allegedly orchestrated by the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) -- and the New Order regime's efforts to produce and reproduce memory and myth about the tragedy in order to reinforce its legitimacy.

Finally, the fourth section compares the national leadership styles of Sukarno and Soeharto. Both leaders are considered strong men -- or absolute rulers -- but this section highlights the differences between the two leaders in implementation of their somewhat similar but different leadership style.

Bung Karno Menggugat seems to be trying to track the development of Sukarno's political thinking from the beginning of his political career into the late period of his presidency. However, the illustration of Sukarno's evolution is hurt by the sudden jump in chronology -- from Sukarno's early years as a political activist into the middle of his presidential period.
As a result of this abrupt jump in the historical narrative, the book does not provide an analysis of how and when Sukarno shifted from a relatively unknown figure into a major Indonesian political leader.

Without discussion of how Sukarno transformed himself into one of the new republic's founding fathers, the character analysis of his later political career feels skewed.
The book is also lacking in discussion of one of the most important periods in Sukarno's political life, which in my opinion is too critical to be omitted: the Japanese occupation.
Without any discussion of Sukarno's activities during this period, Baskara misses major developments in his character, ideas, actions and his leadership style, which are perhaps relevant in explaining his leadership later in his presidency.
Moreover, I would argue it was during this particular time that Sukarno gained popularity among the masses, since he appeared in public so many times through many different kinds of Japanese war propaganda, while at the same time, he was also promoting the cause for the establishment of Indonesian nation in a subtle way to the public. Thus, it is crucial to discuss the Japanese occupation period in order to have a more complete understanding of Sukarno's character.
In addition, as result of the sudden jump in the chronological timeline, the analyses done in the previous sections on Sukarno's initial character development as anti-colonial and anti-imperialist loses their strength later on in the book, since the narrative becomes incomplete and somewhat confusing. For example, Baskara argues (citing McVey) that for young Sukarno, although the masses appeared important for their symbolic potential in politics, in reality they were more needed as a source to support his first political steps (p. 61). Then the author argues (citing Bernard Dahm) that Hatta once complained about Sukarno's limited contact with the masses, as this "contact" was limited to their reactions to his public speeches, full of applause and cheering.
Still citing Dahm, Baskara mentions how Sukarno disliked the common people's attitude of easily accepting/surrendering to their fate, while on the other hand, he needed their ovations and rooting to boost his self-confidence (pp.61-62).
None of the examples above give a clear explanation as to how and when Sukarno emerged as the most popular Indonesian political leader. Hence, how can we explain Sukarno's huge popularity and support among the masses prior to and after the proclamation of independence in 1945? If Sukarno's relationship with the masses was limited only to "speeches that were full of clapping and cheering", as the author suggests by citing another source, then how can we explain the many ordinary people who were ready to sacrifice their lives in following his leadership towards Indonesian independence? Many ordinary Indonesians prior to, during, and after the revolutionary war were extremely loyal to Sukarno and were willing to die for him and his cause.
Moreover, in the chapter on "Bung Karno as the teacher of the nation", Baskara quotes the late Pramoedya Ananta Toer as saying, "The influence of Sukarno is great. That is because he was closer to his own people than those other leaders who were educated in Europe." (p.205)
This statement clearly contradicts earlier arguments the author uses in describing Sukarno's limited contact with the people.
In the beginning, Baskara points out Sukarno's distance to the masses (although he needed them), but then suddenly in the latter part of the book Sukarno is shown to be very close and popular. Without any proper and satisfying explanation for this seemingly sudden change in character, there is a big gap that could make some readers feels lost in trying to understand what made Sukarno a very popular leader. The lack of information could be confusing for some -- let alone for those readers who are trying to figure out the subjects of Sukarno's accusations (menggugat), as the title suggests.
There is still much work need to be done in trying to understand and appreciate the thinking of Indonesia's most important political figure. However, despite its shortcomings, this book should be welcome as an engaging study on Sukarno's character development, especially as it gives a fresh perspective on one of the country's founding fathers and is written by an Indonesian scholar.

The reviewer is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.