Lifting the Bamboo Curtain: The Rise and Fall of “Guided Democracy” and the Indonesian Communist Party

Consider for a moment the plight of Indonesia’s leaders in 1945: how to establish a national identity in a country spread across more than 13,000 islands, featuring hundreds of languages and ethnic groups, all in a precarious balance between the military, Muslims, and communists?

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During Indonesia’s struggle to break free from over 300 years of Dutch colonial rule, and then from Japanese military occupation following World War II, early attempts to govern through parliamentary democracy became synonymous with corruption and bureaucratic paralysis. Between 1950 and 1959 there were seven attempts to build coalition governments, the last culminating in a period of martial law. Clearly a new approach was needed.

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That approach came to be known as “Guided Democracy” (Demokrasi Terpimpin). Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president and the leader of the 1945 revolution that finally established Indonesia as a sovereign state, exercised an increasingly prominent role in the nation’s politics until his downfall in 1967. His administration’s managed or “Guided” democracy became more than an empty slogan or a euphemism for one-man rule; we shall see that there was indeed a unique Indonesian variant of the socialist experiment.

The spans of Joint Publications Research Service (JPRS) Reports, 1957-1995, and Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) Daily Reports, 1941-1996, coincide with the rise and fall of Indonesian socialism. JPRS Reports in particular is an excellent source for material on the PKI (Partai Komunis Indonesia, Indonesian Communist Party); its charismatic leader, Dipa Nusantara Aidit; and Aidit’s political patron, President Sukarno.

D.N. Aidit achieved a great deal during his brief life. He was only 27 when he became First Secretary of the PKI in 1951; he would be shot in 1965 at the age of 42 following a failed coup in which he was perhaps implicated.

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Aidit joined the PKI in 1943 while it was still poorly organized and illegal. In the following year he joined Ankatan Muda (Young Generation), a political training group established by the Japanese to indoctrinate and co-opt the rising generation of Indonesians. The Japanese succeeded in cultivating Aidit’s nationalism but ultimately couldn’t control it. When Japan lost World War II, the brakes were finally released on Indonesian politics, resulting in the 1945 revolution and Sukarno’s rise to power.

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Sukarno was over twenty years older than Aidit. In 1927 he established the Indonesian Nationalist Party (PNI). He had long fought for independence from the Dutch, who arrested him in 1933 and sent him into exile. During that period he created the nationalist ideology of Mahaenism which promoted revolutionary action against imperialism and capitalism through noncooperation, power-building, and mass action. It was derived from “Mahaen,” the name of a landless farmer whom Sukarno encountered.

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Upon his return to political life during the Japanese occupation, Sukarno developed the Pancasila (Five Principles) of monotheism, justice and civility, national unity, democracy through consensus, and social justice that would be included in the 1945 constitution of Indonesia.

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Sukarno led the Indonesian government during the four years of resistance to the reinstatement of Dutch colonial rule between 1945 and 1949. In 1950 a new constitution was adopted that was less oriented to revolutionary circumstances, but led to the government instability noted above. In response, Guided Democracy was formalized as a government policy in 1959. It emphasized socialism, a command economy, nationalism, and the reassertion of presidential power under the 1945 constitution.

Guided Democracy was based on traditional Indonesian village government and diminished the influence of political parties in favor of diverse, advisory councils that would develop consensus positions to guide the president. Sukarno chose the members of this cabinet of advisors. He left the parliament intact, but retained the power to dissolve it or change its composition.

Eventually he would seek to subsume all of Indonesia’s political parties in an organization he called the National Front. The parties were of course skeptical of his intentions. The following excerpt comes from a cautionary communist critique of Sukarno’s growing power:

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In keeping with his increasingly authoritarian ideology, when the National Assembly refused to reinstate the revolutionary 1945 constitution, Sukarno adopted it by presidential decree on July 5, 1959. He would also take other unilateral and unprecedented actions such as withdrawing Indonesia from the United Nations in response to neighboring Malaysia’s joining the UN Security Council in 1965. In the same year he withdrew Indonesia from the International Monetary Fund and from the World Bank.

Sukarno compelled the PKI to accept the primacy of Islam despite communism’s inherent rejection of religion. In return, he embraced many of the PKI’s economic and nationalist positions. Conservative Muslims were thereby appeased enough to accept relatively progressive policies, and the military maintained an uneasy accommodation of socialism in return for their prominent role in Sukarno’s militant nationalist regime. It was a tremendous balancing act that would not last.

Part of Sukarno’s undoing would come down to economics. His embrace of the peasants and workers at the grassroots level inhibited the economic development of the country. Inflation rose from 40% in 1960 to 1,136% by 1966. This had a drastic impact on the standard of living for most Indonesians. Mahaenism emphasized domestic self-sufficiency over foreign trade, which also limited growth. Long experience with colonialism dissuaded Sukarno from seeking foreign aid. In 1960 the country’s dire economic situation was summarized in U.S. House Report 1386 as follows:

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Sukarno was to some extent also a victim of his own success. With the diminishing role of Dutch colonialism as a unifying factor in the country, competition between different constituencies became more intense. On October 1, 1965, a failed coup d’état in which six generals were killed would be blamed on the communists, and by inference upon Sukarno’s alignment with the PKI. The army reacted to protect its interests, and Sukarno’s coalition fell apart amid a bloodbath in which the military and the Muslim majority killed an estimated 500,000 purported communists.

Even the Soviet Union was alarmed by the level of political violence in Indonesia. In an Indonesian-language radio broadcast from Moscow featuring a veiled reference to the United States and Great Britain, the Soviet newspaper Izvestiya noted that “Things have really gotten out of hand, and forces outside Indonesia are making efforts to exploit the public fanaticism to serve their own interests.”

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Regarding those “forces outside Indonesia” seeking to further their own interests, it’s notable during this period that the U.S. government viewed Indonesia’s realignment away from communism as a desirable outcome despite the stigma of genocide.

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This was a time when the “domino theory” of successive resurgent communist regimes in Asia was viewed as a real threat to Western interests; any event that inhibited that possibility was embraced. The following excerpt comes from a Special Study Mission of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs in 1969. In the single paragraph devoted to the failed coup, nowhere is the death toll mentioned:

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A comprehensive official account of America’s policies and actions during that period, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964–1968, Volume XXVI, Indonesia; Malaysia-Singapore; Philippines, would not become publicly available from the U.S. Department of State until 2001.

During Suharto’s tenure as President, Indonesia opened its economy to the West and achieved sustained economic growth despite persistent corruption. Since his resignation in 1998, Indonesia has instituted term limits and direct elections for the executive branch of government, and has increased legislative oversight. Today Indonesia is the largest economy in Southeast Asia and the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation.


For more information about the Evening Star, 1852-1981; the U.S. Congressional Serial Set, 1817-1984; Joint Publications Research Service (JPRS) Reports, 1957-1994; Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) Daily Reports, 1941-1996,or to request a trial for your institution, please contact readexmarketing[at]readex[dot]com.

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