Islamic Studies Sukarno
Andrew Goss
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 April 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0237


Sukarno (1901–1970) was the defining political leader of 20th-century Indonesia. He was a leading figure of the anti-colonial and nationalist movement after 1927 and, after proclaiming the independence of Indonesia, the face of the Indonesian Revolution (1945–1949). From 1945 until 1967 he was the first president of the Indonesian Republic, the symbol of Indonesian independence, both inside and outside the country. He rose to prominence in the late 1920s, giving shape to a secular nationalist movement that strove for merdeka, complete freedom, from Dutch colonialism. He emphasized Indonesian anti-imperialism, political unity, revolutionary action, and social justice for the poor. He grew up in the Javanese Islamic tradition although there is no evidence he was a devout Muslim; he nonetheless used Islamic symbols and terminology when it suited him politically. During his entire political career, his political charisma, displayed most prominently through his oratory, sought to create a unified and revolutionary nationalist society. He consistently emphasized the unique nature and qualities of Indonesian revolutionary nationalism even as he acknowledged the influence of European leftists. The path toward Indonesian freedom and prosperity that he envisioned in the early 1930s continued to animate his political actions and writings even as they developed in new directions in response to his lengthy internal exile in the 1930s, the Japanese occupation, and the Indonesian Revolution. He was at the center of the Proclamation of Independence on 17 August 1945, and served as president throughout the revolution and into the national period. After the Indonesian Revolution began, and continuing into the 1950s, Sukarno’s power was eclipsed by others. In the late 1950s he cultivated new allies internally, and raised his stature internationally, staging a political comeback. After 1959 he governed as a dictator, and under the banner of Guided Democracy, he ruled by maintaining a tenuous balance between the mutually antagonistic army and Communist Party. He was caught off guard by the 1965 coup, and although he managed initially to remain in power, Suharto’s crushing of the coup leaders allowed the army to destroy the Communist Party and their leaders, and to dismantle the structures of Guided Democracy. By March of 1966 Suharto had largely sidelined Sukarno. He was formally removed as president in 1967. In the years after his death, Australian and US-based scholars published broadly about the life and works of Sukarno, although it was not until a decade after his death that Indonesians began to process his legacy.

General Overviews and Biographies

Sukarno, sometimes addressed as nationalist brother Bung Karno, shaped his own story in Sukarno 1965, and although it requires critical distance, it remains invaluable as the only autobiographical text. Dahm 1969, the first book-length study to examine the roots of Sukarno’s political career in the 1920s and 1930s using primary documents, remains indispensible. The best full-length biographies were written by Australian-based scholars shortly after Sukarno’s death: the most readable account is Penders 1974, while the best treatment of his entire political career is in Legge 1985. Hering 2002 provides an exhaustive and dense narrative of Sukarno’s political development, focusing on the influences of late colonial Dutch policies and other Indonesian nationalists and activists. Giebels 1999 and Giebels 2001, a two-volume biography in Dutch, is valuable for its inclusions of newer scholarship and Sukarno’s relationship with the Dutch. The original Indonesian-language biography (Nasution 1951), first published at the beginning of the revolution, is still important for stories and anecdotes about Sukarno’s childhood. Use Bung Karno to track down Indonesian-language writings not cited here.

  • Bung Karno: sebuah bibliografi memuat daftar karya oleh dan tentang Bung Karno. 4th ed. Jakarta, Indonesia: Haji Masagung, 1988.

    Bibliography of writings by and about Sukarno. Especially useful for tracking down less-well known writings and speeches of Sukarno, and for memoirs and other appraisals of Sukarno published in Indonesia during the 1970s and 1980s.

  • Dahm, Bernard. Sukarno and the Struggle for Indonesian Independence. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1969.

    This translation from German remains the best guide to understanding the development of Sukarno’s vision for achieving freedom from imperial domination. Dahm’s analysis of Sukarno’s non-cooperation movement, the role of Javanese political culture in structuring his leadership, and the development Marhaenism—a variant of class-analysis fit to the Indonesian case—make up the scholarly consensus. Although the book-length study ends in 1945, Dahm argues that the ideologies and practices he developed before the revolution remained consistent during his subsequent presidency.

  • Giebels, Lambert. Soekarno: Nerderlandsch onderdaan, Een Biografie 1901–1950. Amsterdam: Bert Bakker, 1999.

    Sympathetic biography by Dutch politician turned historian. Relies on secondary literature for much of the book, especially for Sukarno’s life and writings prior to 1932. Giebels drew upon sources from the Dutch colonial archives that had been neglected by US and Australian scholars, perhaps the reason he choose the controversial title suggesting Sukarno was a Dutch subject or citizen. Original and useful synthesis of his writing and thinking during exile (1934–1942), in particular the place of religion in Indonesian nationalism.

  • Giebels, Lambert. Soekarno: President, een biografie 1950–1970. Amsterdam: Bert Bakker, 2001.

    Second volume by Giebels, which uses a biography of Sukarno as a lens to reflect on the first two decades of full Indonesian independence. Like the first volume (Giebels 1999), largely dependent upon secondary literature, with important doses of Dutch archival material and numerous interviews. More important than the first volume, because Giebels provides an original synthesis of the first twenty-five years of independent Indonesia, highlighting the importance of Sukarno’s leadership.

  • Hering, Bob. Soekarno: Founding Father of Indonesia, 1901–1945. Leiden, The Netherlands: KITLV, 2002.

    Rather than proposing a new synthesis—there is neither introduction nor conclusion—Hering leaves no stone unturned following breadcrumbs left by other biographers. Hering’s goal is to probe deeply, using oral interviews, Dutch archival sources, and extensive analysis of Sukarno’s writings, in trying to answer questions raised by Sukarno’s autobiography, provide an exhaustive context for his politics, and at times wage battles of interpretation with other Sukarno scholars.

  • Legge, John. Sukarno: A Political Biography. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1985.

    Legge’s revised edition of his 1972 biography is still the best scholarly effort to balance the strengths and weaknesses of Sukarno’s politics, especially after independence. The book is comprehensive in treating the entirety of Sukarno’s career, however it is most valuable for its effort to judge Sukarno’s legacy through careful examination of key moments in his political development: the late 1920s, the Japanese occupation, and the transition to Guided Democracy.

  • Nasution, M. Y. Riwajat Ringkas Penghidupan dan Perdjuangan Ir. Sukarno. 7th ed. Jakarta: Aida, 1951.

    Original biography published shortly after the proclamation of independence in 1945, which until the 1970s was the main source about his family and childhood.

  • Penders, C. L. M. The Life and Times of Sukarno. Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1974.

    The most readable and accessible of the biographies, and the shortest. Largely based upon published sources, its strength is a discussion of Sukarno’s revolutionary leadership in the 1940s, including his contentious relationships with other nationalists, and his insightful discussion of what Penders calls Sukarnoist thinking. The book treats the last ten years of Sukarno’s political career as tragedy, highlighting his pettiness, his demagoguery, and his ultimate failure to create a unified and prosperous Indonesia.

  • Sukarno. An Autobiography as Told to Cindy Adams. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965.

    Invaluable autobiographical account by Sukarno. Although mediated by an American journalist, who spent almost a year interviewing the president, Sukarno’s voice predominates. Filled with a combination of anecdotes about childhood, first-person accounts of the dramatic political events he was part of, and modest score settling (especially with Sutan Sjahrir, the Indonesian socialist politician and nationalist leader during the revolution), it remains very readable. The core narrative ends in 1949, with the achievement of merdeka, although four concluding chapters cover material from independence.

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