Colonel Suwarto and the Indonesian Socialist Party

Posted by on Oct 4, 2014 in Uncategorized | 2 comments

Colonel Suwarto and the Indonesian Socialist Party

Founded by Sutan Sjahrir and Amir Sjarifuddin, the Socialist Party (Partai Socialis) was small, but influential – and made an enduring mark on the Sukarno and Soeharto administrations. The original Socialist Party split in mid-1947, during the independence struggle, into a Right Wing (Sayap Kanan) led by Prime Minister Sjahrir and a Left Wing (Sayap Kiri) under then Defense Minister Amir Sjarifuddin. The Right Wing became the Indonesian Socialist Party (PSI) and was dominated by Sjahrir’s moderate brand of socialism and pragmatic tolerance for capitalism and free market economics. Sjarifuddin’s Left Wing joined the People’s Democratic Front (Front Demokratis Rakyat, FDR) coalition with the PKI – and was later destroyed during the army’s brutal response to the September 1948 Madiun rebellion.

Despite its name, the PSI was nominally socialist; it comprised secular, urban and western-educated intellectuals and technocrats. The PSI and its “secular modernizing intellectuals” had close ties to senior officers, including T.B. Simatupang, Kemal Idris, H.R. Dharsono and Suwarto. Others, like Nasution, Alex Kawilarang and Sultan Hamengku Buwono IX sympathized with the progressive, pro-reform PSI ideology. In alliance with Masjumi, the PSI stridently opposed the Communist Party. The party’s involvement in the October 17, 1952 Affair was a serious blow to its popularity. Lacking a popular base, the PSI garnered just five seats in the 1955 parliamentary elections. Even so, party officials remained firmly entrenched in the bureaucracy. Its influence far exceeded the party’s size and popularity.

Ordinary Indonesians tended to view PSI leaders as Dutch and English-speaking elitists, sometimes referred to as “salon socialists.” Over time, the PSI label came to refer to anyone, civilian or military, with a university education or western values. “PSI-leaning” officers played key roles in military developments throughout the 1950s and 1960s, including the October 17 Affair when pro-rationalization forces surrounded the Palace in a crude show of force; the 1956 Colonel Zulkifli Lubis mutiny; the regional rebellions in the late-1950s; the bloody 1965-1966 communist purge; the anti-communist student action fronts; and ultimately President Sukarno’s overthrow. Sukarno had banned the PSI in 1960, along with Masjumi, because party officials were involved in the regional rebellions. Nonetheless, the PSI intellectuals recovered to play a significant role in formulating Soeharto’s security and stability-based New Order development strategy.

The PSI exercised an inordinate influence on New Order policies due in large measure to Army Staff College Deputy Colonel Suwarto’s efforts. Although not well known, Suwarto was an extraordinary figure who had a major impact on Soeharto’s thinking and the evolution of the modern Indonesian Army. He had been a classmate with Nasution at the Dutch-run Bandung Military Academy and served under him in Siliwangi Division during the Revolution. Suwarto was an intelligent, energetic officer and an intellectual, a rarity in the nascent people’s army. He was closely associated with the PSI and strongly influenced by the party’s conservative thinking.

Major Suwarto was the Tasikmalaya-based Siliwangi Regiment 11 Commander in the heart of Darul Islam country during the early-1950s. He is credited with originating the Army’s civic action (karya bhakti) program to win the hearts and minds of the local population. Suwarto participated in both the October 17 Affair to support then-Army Chief Nasution and the Lubis mutiny against him. Nasution forgave his revolutionary comrade. While Suwarto served as a SSKAD (later Seskoad) instructor, the Army Chief entrusted him to refine his own ideas about Territorial Warfare, Total People’s Defense and the Middle Way into formal army doctrine – which Suwarto and his SSKAD cohorts repackaged as Dual Function. During the late-1950s, with the government’s approval, Nasution sent Colonel Suwarto to Algeria to share his guerilla warfare expertise with the freedom fighters in their independence war against the French.[1]

Suwarto was close to Lieutenant General Ahmad Yani, who succeeded Nasution as Army Commander in July 1962. Both men were Javanese and strongly anti-communist. Yani had attended the prestigious U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas in 1955-1956 and, with Yani’s patronage, Suwarto followed in 1958-1959. While in the United States Suwarto was diagnosed with cancer; his leg was amputated. Understandably concerned about his career, Suwarto wrote to Lieutenant General Yani. The Army Commander replied, “I do not need your leg. I need your brain.” Yani made Suwarto the SSKAD Deputy with a promotion to colonel. President Sukarno disliked the outspoken Suwarto and refused to sign his promotion order. Yani told Suwarto to disregard the President’s objection and pin on the colonel rank.[2]

While serving as deputy to staff college commanders Colonel Suadi Suromihardjo (1959-1962) and Brigadier General H. Sudirman (1962-1966), Suwarto was the intellectual force behind the Army’s premier educational institution. He maintained close ties to American officials who shared his interest in improving army professionalism and bolstering its capability to combat the PKI. Rand Corporation analyst Guy Pauker invited Colonel Suwarto to visit the United States in 1962. Suwarto was exposed to American military and economic thinking. After returning, he was determined to reorganize Seskoad as a “mini Rand.” He overhauled the staff college curriculum adding courses on economics, law, political science, sociology, and philosophy – and brought in American-trained, mostly PSI-affiliated technocrats from the University of Indonesia and the Bandung Institute of Technology to lecture on western economic and political theory.

With General Yani’s patronage, Suwarto turned the army staff college into the army think tank. Like Sarwo Edhie Wibowo, Suwarto was embittered by his friend and mentor’s cruel assassination on October 1, 1965. The “warrior-priest” Suwarto influenced the thinking of thousands of officers who passed through the Seskoad doors, among them Soeharto. Instruction on territorial management, economic and civil administration prepared officers for positions in the bureaucracy. Not surprisingly, Soeharto turned to Suwarto and his PSI-leaning associates to help establish the political and economic framework for his New Order. Suwarto organized and directed the First and Second Army Seminars hosted by Seskoad in 1965 and 1966.

With Suwarto’s patronage, civilian intellectuals worked side-by-side with army officers during the Second Army Seminar to shape the New Order’s political and economic design. Suwarto was patron and protector for the civilian experts, who included the well-known Berkeley Mafia – Sumitro Djojohadikusumo, Mohammed Sadli, Widjojo Nitisastro, Ali Wardhana and Subroto – and political strategists like law professor Mochtar Kusumaatmadja and Catholic Party leader Frans Seda. The same PSI technocrats who had lectured at Seskoad became de facto advisors to army leaders on political and economic matters – and ultimately senior officials in the New Order government, where they crafted the New Order Five-Year Development Plans and ushered in liberal foreign investment policies intended to speed economic development.

Suwarto had advanced to become Seskoad Commander by the time he died on September 28, 1967 at age forty-five after his cancer recurred – just a year after the Second Army Seminar and six months after Soeharto was sworn in as acting president. Soeharto came to Bandung to visit Suwarto in the hospital, granted him an extraordinary promotion to lieutenant general and awarded Suwarto a medal before he died. And, in an unprecedented gesture, Soeharto presided over the military funeral for his fallen comrade. Mrs. Soeharto and most top army leaders attended the ceremony at the Bandung Cikutra Heroes Cemetery.

Suwarto viewed the Army as a tool to stabilize society and the national economy, and advocated a parallel army administration embodied by the army territorial structure. Indeed, Suwarto’s views were closely aligned with fellow Siliwangi radicals, H.R. Dharsono and Kemal Idris. (Both Suwarto and Kemal Idris had participated in the October 17, 1952 Affair and the 1956 Zulkifli Lubis mutiny.) The Second Army Seminar predated the rift between Soeharto and the New Order radicals. If he had lived, Suwarto would likely have been sidelined along with fellow radicals. After his death, Seskoad lost some influence as the Army’s center for strategic thought. The National Defense Institute (Lembaga Pertahanan Nasional, or Lemhannas), later renamed the National Resilience Institute (Lembaga Ketahanan Nasional), was established in 1965 as an Armed Forces “think tank.” Despite the Lemhannas location on Merdeka Square next to the seat of power, army leaders consistently turned to Seskoad for major strategic and doctrinal change.[3]

The nexus shifted to Soeharto’s insiders, his personal staff (staf pribadi, spri), and ultimately to Ali Moertopo and his Chinese-Catholic intellectuals at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), which he founded in September 1971 to formulate New Order political, economic and social policies. An unhealthy – and very much Javanese – dualism developed between the cabinet technocrats and Moertopo’s pragmatic CSIS intellectuals as a more informal policymaking structure, one more consistent with New Order “crony capitalist” propensities.

There is an interesting parallel between Panglima Besar Sudirman and Suwarto. Both were influential army leaders at a time when the Army and the people were closely allied in accordance with Nasution’s Total People’s Warfare doctrine. Both officers died before a significant conflict emerged within the Army – between ex-Peta and former Colonial Army officers after the Revolution – and between the New Order’s true believers and the so-called army radicals following the 1965-1966 national trauma. If Sudirman had lived, he almost certainly would have clashed with Sukarno. If Suwarto had lived, he would have inevitably come into conflict with Soeharto and his inner circle.


[1] Cynthia Myntti, “Interview: Hamid al-Gadri” (Ardmore, Pennsylvania: American Institute of Yemeni Studies, Yemen Update, Volume 34, 1994), on

[2] Yani, Profile of a Soldier, p. 163, and Sundhaussen, The Road to Power, p. 139.

[3] Ruth T. McVey, “The Post Revolutionary Transformation of the Indonesian Army:Part II,” in Indonesia (Ithaca: Cornell University Southeast Asia Program, Volume 13, April 1972), pp. 164-165.


  1. 8-26-2018

    Was General Suwarto’s wife Ibu Yanti?

    • 8-26-2018

      David, Sorry I don’t have any information about Mrs. Suwarto or any children. Both names — Suwarto/Soewarto and Yanti — are common Indonesian/Javanese names.

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