Biography of Sukarno, Indonesia's First President

Indonesia Independence

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Sukarno (June 6, 1901–June 21, 1970) was the first leader of independent Indonesia. Born in Java when the island was part of the Dutch East Indies, Sukarno rose to power in 1949. Rather than supporting Indonesia's original parliamentary system, he created a "guided democracy" over which he held control. Sukarno was deposed by a military coup in 1965 and died under house arrest in 1970.

Fast Facts: Sukarno

  • Known For: First leader of an independent Indonesia
  • Also Known As: Kusno Sosrodihardjo (original name), Bung Karno (brother or comrade)
  • Born: June 6, 1901 in Surabaya, Dutch East Indies
  • Parents: Raden Sukemi Sosrodihardjo, Ida Njoman Rai
  • Died: June 21, 1970 in Jakarta, Indonesia
  • Education: Technical Institute in Bandung
  • Published Works: Sukarno: An Autobiography, Indonesia Accuses!, To My People
  • Awards and Honors: International Lenin Peace Prize (1960), 26 honorary degrees from universities including Columbia University and the University of Michigan
  • Spouse(s): Siti Oetari, Inggit Garnisih, Fatmawati, and five polygamous wives: Naoko Nemoto (Indonesian name, Ratna Dewi Sukarno), Kartini Manoppo, Yurike Sanger, Heldy Djafar, and Amelia do la Rama.
  • Children: Totok Suryawan, Ayu Gembirowati, Karina Kartika, Sari Dewi Sukarno, Taufan Sukarno, Bayu Sukarno, Megawati Sukarnoputri, Rachmawati Sukarnoputri, Sukmawati Sukarnoputri, Guruh Sukarnoputra, Ratna Juami (adopted), Kartika (adopted)
  • Notable Quote: "Let us not be bitter about the past, but let us keep our eyes firmly on the future."

Early Life

Sukarno was born on June 6, 1901, in Surabaya, and was given the name Kusno Sosrodihardjo. His parents later renamed him Sukarno after he survived a serious illness. Sukarno's father was Raden Soekemi Sosrodihardjo, a Muslim aristocrat and school teacher from Java. His mother Ida Ayu Nyoman Rai was a Hindu of the Brahmin caste from Bali.

Young Sukarno went to a local elementary school until 1912. He then attended a Dutch middle school in Mojokerto, followed in 1916 by a Dutch high school in Surabaya. The young man was gifted with a photographic memory and a talent for languages, including Javanese, Balinese, Sundanese, Dutch, English, French, Arabic, Bahasa Indonesia, German, and Japanese.

Marriages and Divorces

While in Surabaya for high school, Sukarno lived with the Indonesian nationalist leader Tjokroaminoto. He fell in love with his landlord's daughter Siti Oetari, who he married in 1920.

The following year, however, Sukarno went to study civil engineering at the Technical Institute in Bandung and fell in love again. This time, his partner was the boarding-house owner's wife Inggit, who was 13 years older than Sukarno. They each divorced their spouses and married each other in 1923.

Inggit and Sukarno remained married for 20 years but never had children. Sukarno divorced her in 1943 and married a teenager named Fatmawati. She would bear Sukarno five children, including Indonesia's first female president, Megawati Sukarnoputri.

In 1953, President Sukarno decided to become polygamous in accordance with Muslim law. When he married a Javanese woman named Hartini in 1954, First Lady Fatmawati was so angry that she moved out of the presidential palace. Over the next 16 years, Sukarno would take five additional wives: a Japanese teen named Naoko Nemoto (Indonesian name Ratna Dewi Sukarno), Kartini Manoppo, Yurike Sanger, Heldy Djafar, and Amelia do la Rama.

Indonesian Independence Movement

Sukarno began to think about independence for the Dutch East Indies while he was in high school. During college, he read deeply on different political philosophies, including communism, capitalist democracy, and Islamism, developing his own syncretic ideology of Indonesian socialist self-sufficiency. He also established the Algameene Studieclub for like-minded Indonesian students.

In 1927, Sukarno and the other members of the Algameene Studieclub reorganized themselves as the Partai Nasional Indonesia (PNI), an anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist independence party. Sukarno became the first leader of the PNI. Sukarno hoped to enlist Japanese help in overcoming Dutch colonialism and unite the different peoples of the Dutch East Indies into a single nation.

The Dutch colonial secret police soon learned of the PNI, and in late December 1929, Sukarno and the other members were arrested. At his trial, which lasted for the last five months of 1930, Sukarno made a series of impassioned political speeches against imperialism that attracted widespread attention.

Sukarno was sentenced to four years in prison and went to the Sukamiskin Prison in Bandung to begin serving his time. However, press coverage of his speeches so impressed liberal factions in the Netherlands and in the Dutch East Indies that Sukarno was released after just one year. He had also become very popular with the Indonesian people.

While Sukarno was in prison, the PNI split into two opposing factions. One party, the Partai Indonesia, favored a militant approach to revolution, while the Pendidikan Nasional Indonesia (PNI Baroe) advocated slow revolution through education and peaceful resistance. Sukarno agreed with the Partai Indonesia approach more than the PNI's, so he became the head of that party in 1932 after his release from prison. On August 1, 1933, the Dutch police arrested Sukarno once again while he was visiting Jakarta.

Japanese Occupation

In February 1942, the Imperial Japanese Army invaded the Dutch East Indies. Cut off from help by the German occupation of the Netherlands, the colonial Dutch quickly surrendered to the Japanese. The Dutch forced-marched Sukarno to Padang, Sumatra, intending to send him to Australia as a prisoner, but had to leave him in order to save themselves as Japanese forces approached.

The Japanese commander, Gen. Hitoshi Imamura, recruited Sukarno to lead the Indonesians under Japan's rule. Sukarno was happy to collaborate with them at first, in hopes of keeping the Dutch out of the East Indies.

However, the Japanese soon began to impress millions of Indonesian workers, particularly Javanese, as forced labor. These romusha workers had to build airfields and railways and grow crops for the Japanese. They worked very hard with little food or water and were regularly abused by the Japanese overseers, which quickly soured relations between the Indonesians and Japan. Sukarno would never live down his collaboration with the Japanese.

Declaration of Independence for Indonesia

In June 1945, Sukarno introduced his five-point Pancasila, or principles of an independent Indonesia. They included a belief in God but tolerance of all religions, internationalism and just humanity, the unity of all Indonesia, democracy through consensus, and social justice for all.

On August 15, 1945, Japan surrendered to the Allied Powers. Sukarno's young supporters urged him to immediately declare independence, but he feared retribution from the Japanese troops still present. On August 16, the impatient youth leaders kidnapped Sukarno and then convinced him to declare independence the following day.

On August 18 at 10 a.m., Sukarno spoke to a crowd of 500 in front of his home and declared the Republic of Indonesia independent, with himself serving as president and his friend Mohammad Hatta as vice president. He also promulgated the 1945 Indonesian Constitution, which included the Pancasila.

Although the Japanese troops still in the country tried to suppress news of the declaration, word spread quickly through the grapevine. One month later, on September 19, 1945, Sukarno spoke to a crowd of more than one million at Merdeka Square in Jakarta. The new independence government controlled Java and Sumatra, while the Japanese maintained their hold on the other islands; the Dutch and other Allied Powers had yet to show up.

Negotiated Settlement With the Netherlands

Toward the end of September 1945, the British finally made an appearance in Indonesia, occupying the major cities by the end of October. The Allies repatriated 70,000 Japanese and formally returned the country to its status as a Dutch colony. Due to his status as a collaborator with the Japanese, Sukarno had to appoint an untainted prime minister, Sutan Sjahrir, and allow the election of a parliament as he pushed for international recognition of the Republic of Indonesia.

Under the British occupation, Dutch colonial troops and officials began to return, arming the Dutch POWs formerly held captive by the Japanese and going on shooting sprees against Indonesians. In November, the city of Surabaya experienced an all-out battle in which thousands of Indonesians and 300 British troops died.

This incident encouraged the British to hurry their withdrawal from Indonesia and by November of 1946, all British troops were gone and 150,000 Dutch soldiers returned. Faced with this show of force and the prospect of a long and bloody independence struggle, Sukarno decided to negotiate a settlement with the Dutch.

Despite vociferous opposition from other Indonesian nationalist parties, Sukarno agreed to the November 1946 Linggadjati Agreement, which gave his government control of Java, Sumatra, and Madura only. However, in July 1947, the Dutch violated the agreement and launched Operatie Product, an all-out invasion of the Republican-held islands. International condemnation forced them to halt the invasion the following month, and former Prime Minister Sjahrir flew to New York to appeal to the United Nations for intervention.

The Dutch refused to withdraw from the areas already seized in Operatie Product, and the Indonesian nationalist government had to sign the Renville Agreement in January 1948 as a result, which recognized Dutch control of Java and the best agricultural land in Sumatra. All over the islands, guerrilla groups not aligned with Sukarno's government sprang up to fight the Dutch.

In December 1948, the Dutch launched another major invasion of Indonesia called Operatie Kraai. They arrested Sukarno, then-Prime Minister Mohammad Hatta, Sjahrir, and other Nationalist leaders.

The backlash to this invasion from the international community was even stronger; the United States threatened to halt Marshall Aid to the Netherlands if it did not desist. Under the dual threat of a strong Indonesian guerrilla effort and international pressure, the Dutch yielded. On May 7, 1949, they signed the Roem-van Roijen Agreement, turning over Yogyakarta to the Nationalists and releasing Sukarno and the other leaders from prison. On December 27, 1949, the Netherlands formally agreed to relinquish its claims to Indonesia.

Sukarno Takes Power

In August 1950, the last part of Indonesia became independent from the Dutch. Sukarno's role as president was mostly ceremonial, but as the "Father of the Nation" he wielded a lot of influence. The new country faced a number of challenges; Muslims, Hindus, and Christians clashed; ethnic Chinese clashed with Indonesians; and Islamists fought with pro-atheist communists. In addition, the military was divided between Japanese-trained troops and former guerrilla fighters.

In October 1952, the former guerrillas surrounded Sukarno's palace with tanks, demanding that the parliament be dissolved. Sukarno went out alone and gave a speech, which convinced the military to back down. New elections in 1955 did nothing to improve stability in the country, however. Parliament was divided among all the various squabbling factions and Sukarno feared the entire edifice would collapse.

Growing Autocracy

Sukarno felt he needed more authority and that Western-style democracy would never function well in volatile Indonesia. Despite protests from Vice President Hatta, in 1956 he put forth his plan for "guided democracy," under which Sukarno, as president, would lead the population to a consensus on national issues. In December 1956, Hatta resigned in opposition to this blatant power grab—a shock to citizens around the country.

That month and into March 1957, military commanders in Sumatra and Sulawesi ousted the Republican local governments and took power. They demanded that Hatta be reinstated and communist influence over politics end. Sukarno responded by installing Djuanda Kartawidjaja as vice president, who agreed with him on "guided democracy," and declaring martial law on March 14, 1957.

Amid growing tensions, Sukarno went to a school function in Central Jakarta on November 30, 1957. A member of the Darul Islam group tried to assassinate him there with a grenade. Sukarno was unharmed, but six school children died.

Sukarno tightened his grip on Indonesia, expelling 40,000 Dutch citizens and nationalizing all of their property, as well as that of Dutch-owned corporations such as the Royal Dutch Shell oil company. He also instituted rules against ethnic-Chinese ownership of rural land and businesses, forcing many thousands of Chinese to move to the cities and 100,000 to return to China.

To quell military opposition in the outlying islands, Sukarno engaged in all-out air and sea invasions of Sumatra and Sulawesi. The rebel governments had all surrendered by the beginning of 1959, and the last guerrilla troops surrendered in August 1961.

On July 5, 1959, Sukarno issued a presidential decree voiding the current Constitution and reinstating the 1945 Constitution, which gave the president significantly broader powers. He dissolved parliament in March 1960 and created a new Parliament, for which he directly appointed half of the members. The military arrested and jailed members of the opposition Islamist and socialist parties and shut down a newspaper that had criticized Sukarno. The president also began to add more communists to the government so that he wouldn't be solely reliant on the military for support.

In response to these moves toward autocracy, Sukarno faced more than one assassination attempt. On March 9, 1960, an Indonesian Air Force officer strafed the presidential palace with the machine gun on his MiG-17, trying unsuccessfully to kill Sukarno. Islamists later shot at the president during Eid al-Adha prayers in 1962, but again Sukarno was unhurt.

In 1963, Sukarno's hand-picked Parliament appointed him president for life. As a dictator, he made his own speeches and writings mandatory subjects for all Indonesian students, and all mass media in the country was required to report only on his ideology and actions. To top his cult of personality, Sukarno renamed the highest mountain in the country "Puntjak Sukarno," or Sukarno Peak, in his own honor.

Suharto's Coup

Although Sukarno seemed to have Indonesia gripped in a mailed fist, his military/communist support coalition was fragile. The military resented the rapid growth of communism and began to seek an alliance with Islamist leaders, who also disliked the pro-atheism communists. Sensing that the military was growing disillusioned, Sukarno rescinded martial law in 1963 to curb the Army's power.

In April 1965, the conflict between the military and communists increased when Sukarno supported communist leader Aidit's call to arm the Indonesian peasantry. U.S. and British intelligence may or may not have established contacts with the military in Indonesia to explore the possibility of bringing down Sukarno. Meanwhile, the ordinary people suffered enormously as hyperinflation spiked to 600%; Sukarno cared little about economics and did nothing about the situation.

At the break of day on October 1, 1965, the pro-communist "30 September Movement" captured and killed six senior Army generals. The movement claimed that it acted to protect President Sukarno from an impending Army coup. It announced the dissolution of parliament and the creation of a "Revolutionary Council."

Major General Suharto of the strategic reserve command took control of the Army on October 2, having been promoted to the rank of army chief by a reluctant Sukarno, and quickly overcame the communist coup. Suharto and his Islamist allies then led a purge of communists and leftists in Indonesia, killing at least 500,000 people nationwide and imprisoning 1.5 million.

Sukarno sought to maintain his hold on power by appealing to the people over the radio in January 1966. Massive student demonstrations broke out, and one student was shot dead and made a martyr by the Army in February. On March 11, 1966, Sukarno signed a Presidential Order known as the Supersemar that effectively handed control of the country over to General Suharto. Some sources claim he signed the order at gunpoint.

Suharto immediately purged the government and the Army of Sukarno loyalists and initiated impeachment proceedings against Sukarno on the grounds of communism, economic negligence, and "moral degradation"—a reference to Sukarno's infamous womanizing.


On March 12, 1967, Sukarno was formally ousted from the presidency and placed under house arrest at the Bogor Palace. The Suharto regime did not allow him proper medical care, so Sukarno died of kidney failure on June 21, 1970, in the Jakarta Army Hospital. He was 69 years old.


Sukarno left behind an independent Indonesia—a major achievement of international proportions. On the other hand, despite his rehabilitation as a respected political figure, Sukarto also created a set of issues that continue to plague today's Indonesia. His daughter, Megawati, became Indonesia's fifth president.


  • Hanna, Willard A. “Sukarno.” Encyclopædia Britannica, 17 June 2018.
  • Sukarno.” Ohio River - New World Encyclopedia.
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Szczepanski, Kallie. "Biography of Sukarno, Indonesia's First President." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Szczepanski, Kallie. (2020, August 28). Biography of Sukarno, Indonesia's First President. Retrieved from Szczepanski, Kallie. "Biography of Sukarno, Indonesia's First President." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 29, 2023).