Legacies of the Global South: Sukarno’s Domestic Policy

By Bongi Maseko

The calamity of World War II, presented a situation in which the victors became the new power brokers of the international political economy. The “First World” comprised of Western Europe and United States who promulgated the ideas of market-orientated capitalism and “Western” political ideologies. The “Second World” (Namely East Germany, East Europe, USSR and China) sought to counter the First World by reifying the validity of socialist policies. The question has long been put forward, enquiring about the role of the other parts of the world, who had either just overcome or were within the tempestuous structural dominance of the imperial project. The alienation and subjugation of other parts of the world proved to be a catalyst factor in the formation and political theorizing of self-conscious political bodies such as the “Third World”.

Indonesian President Sukarno falls amongst a generation of third world leaders who sought to develop new economic and political discourses which could respond to the negative externalities of being integrated into market-orientated capitalism as unequals. Sukarno propelled the self-theorizing and political consciousness of the Third World through the first formal meeting of nations who were traditionally seen as constituting the Third world – The Bangdung Conference. Assessing the direction of Sukarno’s anti-imperial sentiments which permeated his domestic and international politicking, let us  pause for reflection. What lessons can the contemporary “Global South” draw upon? Can we draw parallels in the imbalances in global power which existed during colonialism and the problems the developing world are facing now? And if the answer to the latter is yes, what are the contradictions the global south can avoid when attempting the daunting task of asserting themselves as equals in our contemporary international political economy.

The legacy of colonialism did significant damage to Indonesia. The nation was slapped with exorbitant amounts of colonial debt; furthermore, the Netherlands colonial structuring of the means of production led to an economy reliant essentially on the production of cash crops.  Sukarno acknowledged Indonesia’s problems of needing to unite diverse socio-cultural constituents whilst simultaneously delivering economic growth and development.

Non- alignment, autonomy and nationalism were key instruments Sukarno’s utilized in the pursuit of his ideal Third world project. Sukarno’s economic policies embraced development that had a high-level of state intervention, in order to fundamentally restructure the means of production, in the context of the nationalization of Dutch owned assets. The Indonesian government used earnings from the commodity export sector, to fund and strengthen state-owned industries within the manufacturing sectors. Export surpluses were also used for public services and goods such as education, health, transportation and the repayment of foreign debt. Sukarno’s “Guided Democracy” furthermore actively involved the Indonesian Army in a political and economic role. The Indonesian National Armed Forces (ABRI) took direct control of large sectors of the Indonesian economy, such as rubber and sugar.  Besides the role of the military, Sukarno deployed a regime which involved rule by decree and full presidential powers. Sukarno’s domestic policies involved a complex network of political alliances that centered on fostering a unity between Indonesian Marxists, Islamists and nationalists. The Communist Party (PKI), Partai Nasional Indonesia (Nationalist Party of Indonesia—PNI) and a major Muslim party, under-pinned Sukarno’s strident anti-Western nationalism project. Sukarno’s power amid the years of Guided Democracy depended in incredible measure, on the conservation of a harmony between the armed force and the PKI .Sukarno reliably shielded the PKI from aggression made against it by the armed force, and this period was one of development in the communist’s distinction .Sukarno progressed PKI pioneers to positions inside the governing apparatus. To numerous spectators, he gave off an impression of setting up the path for the communists to come to control. To others he showed up simply to be changing an equalization that was in consistent peril of being tilted against the PKI. Sukarno was “determined, that our (sic) nation (Indonesia), and the world as a whole, shall not be the play thing of one small corner of the world” . This clear state led attempt at national development sought to rectify the social and economic negative externalities caused by Dutch colonialism. Many nations alike have attempted to use state intervention to protect their economies from the harsh volatility of market forces. Sukarno’s idea of nationalism involved “de-linking” and fostering self-dependence and he furthermore placed these normative obligations on other “Third world” political elites –

“the nations of Asia and Africa cannot, even if they wish to, avoid their part in finding solutions to these problems”. 

Sukarno’s foreign policy was also grounded on a philosophy of Unity amongst Third world nations and equilibrium in the international arena.  The Indonesian president’s policy under “Guided Democracy” became increasing hostile and aggressive in pursuing the end of colonialism, imperialism and neo-colonialism. Surkano adopted neo-Marxist-Lenin view of history that pitted the capitalist nations of the West in a dialectical confrontation with new emerging and socialist states.  Consequently, this standpoint influenced Indonesia’s foreign policy fundamentally structured on nationalism, anti-imperialism and independence. To Sukarno, the preservation of economic, political, cultural and territorial integrity was of critical importance. Rhetoric such as “independent or die” (merdeka atau mati) and we love peace but love independence more” (kami cinta perdamaian tapi lebih cinta kemerdekaan) became regular in Sukarno’s political discourse and rhetoric.  Indonesia’s foreign policy was furthermore oheavily contingent on elements of “hard power”- The development of economic and military strength. These two elements were of particular instrumental value as they enabled Sukarno to push for an aggressive foreign policy. Sukarno felt strongly that Indonesia should have a military establishment “commensurate with her size and population”. Not only would this reduce the likelihood of “Western” intervention and influence, but it would make Indonesia more powerful than any of her immediate neighbours, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and the Philippines. This was illustrated in the manner in which Indonesia under Sukarno aggressively pursued the territory of West Papua. In 1961 repeated attempts through the United Nations to recover West New Guinea, which was taken during the colonial period were rejected. Sukarno consequentially declared a military mobilization to invade the territory and annex it by force.

For all Surkano’s attempts to challenge the balance of power, there are recurring lessons which the contemporary left can use its arsenal in the battle against global inequality and vast political and economic imbalances in power. Consider Sukano’s “Guided democracy”. The expectations amongst Indonesian masses was that after escaping the shackles of their Dutch imperial overlords, Sukarno would revolutionize the relationship the post-colonial state had with its citizens. Sukarno decreed himself full presidential power and veto power making Indonesia a democracy de jure , but a dictatorship de facto.  Sukarno proceeded to ban all political entities that did not represent his ideals and aspirations. Sukarno’s regime swiftly became a dictatorship that suppressed the democratic rights of the masses unrepentantly. Like many Third world elites who have fallen into the turpitude of authoritarianism in post-colonial states, Sukarno was yet another victim.

Going forward it is of crucial importance we realize authoritarian rule ostracizes the masses from making a significant contribution to the process of nation building and “decolonization” in post-colonial nations. Rather than changing the apparatus of domination exercised over the masses during colonialism, Surkano’s regime merely replicated the subjugation of the masses, by centralizing power and not establishing sound social democracies. Comrade Frantz Fanons “Wretched of the Earth” reifies the manner in which indigenous elites failed to enlighten the masses by reverting to authoritarian types of governance. The “intellectual laziness”  of Sukarno’s regime failed to adequately integrate the masses , putting into doubt the notion of, liberating and emancipating the masses – a key tenet of the Third world projects decolonial mission.

Another pertitent lesson to be learnt can be seen in the manner Surkano envisaged the “Third World” as a political group. third world project was the manner in which he failed to account for differences within the Third world.  Despite the fact the Third world shared a colonial history, this phenomenon manifested itself in varying systems and relations across the third world resulting in different outcomes. Sukarno advocated for “Unity in a shared experience”, but the third world nations ranged from the small sub-continental nation of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to political and economic powerhouses such as China who holds a seat on the United Nations Security Council. One may deduce that even amongst third world nations relationships of domination existed, further undermining a core tenet of the project of unity.

In conclusion, it is said that political theorising occurs under specific historic predicaments, particularly when there are intense issues and problems are rife. Generations of Third World Political elites such as Sukarno developed political theorising which countered the political practice of excluding the Third World from the benefits of the global political system.

Sukarno’s Third World project involved various strategies and admirable attempts to enable the Third world and particularly Indonesia to move up a few steps into parity with the First and Second World. That being said, the ultimate failure of Sukarno’s own Third world project manifested itself in the manner in which Sukarno omitted a class perspective. Sukarno believed to fight colonialism and imperialism a unity between and within third world nations was pivotal, yet in the wake of independence he attempted to consolidate that unity by means of state coercion. To fully achieve the intended goals of the project, there was a pertinent need to galvanize the proletariat and workers into supporting the vision and goals of the project.  Instead Sukarno suppressed popular movements in the name of state-led development. The failure of numerous Third World projects to guarantee political participation acceptable to the broad majority raises doubt about the relationship between nationalism and the nation.  Despite the discussed strengths and weaknesses of the Third World project, it is of critical importance to view the Third World project as a unique concept whose ideas are still relevant even though the ideological development proposed by the Third World elites declined. As Vijay Prashad’s “Darker Nations” promulgates the “The Third World will find its successor”.