Indonesia consists of more than 17.000 islands, of these about 6.000 which are permanently inhabited. About 80 percent of the archipelago is water. The country stretches across some 5.150 km from Sumatra in the west to Papua in the east, almost one eighth of the Earth’s circumference. The distance from north to south is about 1.931 km. Indonesia lies at the junction of the Asian and the Australian continental plates, which is the reason for the high volcanic activity in this region.
Indonesia has several hundred volcanoes, about 70 of these are still active. During the centuries eruptions and earthquakes have caused thousands of human lives, but the volcanoes are also the main reason for the extremely fertile soil on islands like Java and Bali. The landscape changes between tropical rainforests, plains, swamps, mountains, volcanoes and even glaciers (on Papua). The highest mountains are found on Papua; Puncak Jaya (4.884m), Puncak Trikora (4.730m) and Puncak Mandala (4.640m). Gunung Rinjani (3.726 m) on Lombok is the highest mountain outside Papua.
Indonesia has a tropical climate with two monsoon seasons, a wet season from November to March and a dry season from June to October. This can however vary a great deal outside the central parts of Java and Sumatra. Closer to Australia, like in the southern regions of Nusa Tenggara, the dry season can last for considerably longer periods. Humidity is generally high, an average of about 80 percent. The temperature varies little from wet to dry season (an average of about 30 degrees Celsius in Jakarta). The El Nino effect in the pacific ocean have in recent years caused periods of draught and other abnormal weather conditions.
The transitional line (Wallace’s Line) between two of the world’s major faunal communities, the Asian and the Australian, runs from east of Borneo in the north to east of Bali in the south. In Sulawesi, Nusa Tenggara and Maluku both Asian and Australian species can be found. West of this line we find Asian species like orangutan, gibbon, rhinoceros, tiger and elephant. East of the line we find Australian species like cockatoo, birds of paradise, bandicoot and cuscus.
Species like orangutan, elephant, tiger and several others only exist on specific islands. The famous Komodo Dragon only exist on the island of the same name, and the orangutan only live on Sumatra and Borneo. Unfortunately many species are high on the endangered list, only found in reserves and national parks. Also the plant life has a great variety with more than 40.000 species of flowery plants, 3.000 trees and 5.000 orchids. This includes the world’s largest and smelliest flower; Rafflesia. About two thirds of the country are still covered with tropical rainforest, but very intensive logging in some areas is a treat to the indigenous wildlife.
The last count in year 2000 reached an approximate number of 208 million people, which makes Indonesia the fourth most populous country in the world. About two thirds of the population inhabits the islands of Java, Madura and Bali. Indonesia’s location between Asia and Australia is reflected in the large number of different ethnic groups (about 330) and languages (about 250). In addition Indian, Arabic, Chinese and European immigrants have created new groups and have also mixed with the local population. All of the worlds major religions are presented here, with a large majority of Muslims.
A majority of the country’s income depends on raw materials like oil, gas and minerals, in addition to export of agricultural products like rubber, tea, coffee and spices. Great efforts have been made to make Indonesia less dependent of raw goods, with huge investments in education and infrastructure. Most of the population are still considered poor, and great challenges lay ahead to increase the welfare of the population as a whole, not only the richer minority. Since 1970 Indonesia’s economy has been growing rapidly, with an average of 7 percent a year. A major setback in 1997 was caused by the economic collapse due to the Asia crisis. Regardless of huge economic contributions from IMF the Indonesian economy has still far from recovered.
Indonesia was declared an independent republic in 1945, and achieved total independence from the Dutch in 1949. The president is the supreme leader of the state, selected for a period of five years by the “People’s Consultative Assembly”, or MPR. MPR includes the parliament and is the country’s highest authority. Until recently ABRI, the Indonesian army, had permanent seats here, and the president could choose a large number of the representatives. This is now about to change, following a more democratic path.
Some of the greatest challenges for the leaders have been to create a feeling of national unity, a difficult task considering Indonesia’s complex diversity in population and geography. As a tool to achieve this they developed the “five principles”, or Pancasila. They are: The belief in an almighty God, a just and civilized society, the unity of Indonesia, democracy (governed by chosen representatives) and social rights for all (regardless of social, cultural and religious status). All social and political organizations are obliged to follow these principles.
The House of Representatives, DPR, has the legislative power in Indonesia. DPR must approve all statutes and has the right to submit draft bills for ratification by the president. DPR is also part of the MPR and must according to law meet at least once a year. MPR must meet at least once every five years to choose a new president. In addition to the national government every province has their own local government. The nation is divided into 27 provinces, each of them administered by a governor approved by the president. On a lower level there are districts and municipalities, headed by district heads and mayors, at even lower levels there are sub-districts and villages.
Modern humans have probably lived in this region for more than 40.000 years. The remains of the “Java Man” were found on central Java in 1891. This was the remains of Homo Erectus, one the earliest forms of humans, which existed about 250.000 years ago. Even up to the 20th century tribes have been living like in the Neolithic era, or the Young Stone age. Parts of this culture can still be found on remote islands like Nias outside Sumatra and on Sumba. The Bronze age began about 300 BC, influenced by Chinese bronze cultures from northern Vietnam. Even at this time small kingdoms started to arise, and trade were common in the entire archipelago about 200 BC.
About 200 AD there was a sudden change in the whole of South-East Asia. In a part of the world still in the stone age or bronze age a large number of highly developed civilizations suddenly appeared. These civilizations were clearly influenced by Indian culture, and built some of the worlds most remarkable monuments like Borobodur, Prambanan and Angkor. The most famous of these kingdoms were Srivijaya on Sumatra, Sanjaya whose prince Rakai Pikatan built Prambanan, Kediri and maybe the most famous of them all, Majapahit on East-Java. Majapahit was the first kingdom to include the whole Indonesian Archipelago.
With the great kingdoms on Sumatra and Java influenced by India, Buddhism and Hinduism made a strong appearance in Indonesia. But at the end of the 15th century the great Hindu kingdom of Majapahit were defeated by the Islamic Demak kingdom from the north coast of Java, and the remaining Hindus on Java escaped to Bali, which still has a majority of Hindus. Islam first came to Indonesia with Muslim traders, the first Islamic region were the north east coast of Sumatra by the very strategic Malacca strait around 1300 AD. With the growing dominance of Muslim traders there were significant economic advantages to convert to Islam. By Demak’s victory over Majapahit the whole of Java were converted to Islam, and from there spread to south Sulawesi and Maluku. Today more than 90 percent of Indonesia’s population are Muslim. Christianity arrived later with the European colonial powers, and the natives were in some areas forced to convert to this religion. Today the largest Christian societies can be found on north Sulawesi, Timor and Maluku. In addition to the great religions there are still some tribes in remote areas that worship their traditional gods and spirits.
The Portuguese were the first Europeans to get a foothold in the region. In 1511 they conquered Malacca, Asia’s richest trade city (see Riau). This was part of a plan to monopolize the spice trade and to stop the spreading of Islam. They were however not able to defend their many conquests in the Indonesian archipelago, and a spice monopoly were never achieved by the Portuguese. In the 17th century all of the Portuguese areas were taken over by Dutch and British powers, except Timor island.
The long history of Dutch influence in Indonesia started in 1596 when four small trading ships returned to Europe with a small cargo of spice. The cargo were so valuable that immediately other expeditions followed. In 1605 Ambon were taken from the Portuguese, and in 1618 Jayakarta on Java were founded as a headquarter for the Dutch. Jayakarta was strategically situated close to Sumatra and the Sunda strait, and was for a long period under siege by British and Javanese forces. Eventually the Dutch broke through the enemy lines and freed the town. Later the original city were destroyed, and a new town which in many ways were a copy of Amsterdam rose from the ruins. This city were called Batavia and is today known as Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia.
The next Dutch goal was to conquer all of the Spice Islands in Maluku, which led to the killing of thousands of natives. At the end of the century the Dutch had established the spice trade monopoly that the Portuguese had to give up. The Dutch conquest of the rest of Indonesia continued until 1811, when the British performed a successful invasion of Java and took control. England’s rule came to an end in 1816 when control over Indonesia again were transferred to the Dutch. War followed war during the following century in order to expand and establish the Dutch rule. The bloodiest of them all was the Java war (1825-30), were 200.000 Javanese and 8.000 Europeans lost their lives. Also the Aceh war was remarkably bloody, it started in 1873 and went on for thirty years.
At the turn of the century a new nationalism and independence movement started to grow in Indonesia, ironically strongest among the Indonesians who got their education in the Netherlands, influenced by European ideas. The idea of an Indonesian nation were first proclaimed by students in 1928. The previous year a young engineer by the name of Sukarno formed the first political party with independence as a goal, he was shortly after arrested and together with other student leaders deported to remote islands for ten years.
The Japanese invasion in 1942 and the humiliating Dutch escape first came as a relief to the Indonesians, but soon the Japanese appeared as even more brutal rulers. On the other hand they used promises of independence as a tool during the occupation, and before Japan surrendered to the allies at the end of World War II they appointed Sukarno as leader of a committee which should prepare for Indonesia’s independence. 17th of August 1945 Sukarno and his vice president Hatta declared independence (“merdeka”), and suddenly chaos broke out. While the Indonesians called for “merdeka” and celebrated the Japanese capitulation, military forces from the Netherlands, a country still weak due to the war in Europe, returned to reestablish former power and glory.
The lack of organization from the new leaders of Indonesia gave the Dutch an opportunity to reclaim the large cities. But even if thousands of Indonesians were killed they continued to keep up a brave fight, which made the Dutch look very bad in front of the world opinion. In 1949 all economic help to the Netherlands were stopped by the UN, and UN’s security council ordered the Dutch to redraw and start negotiations. Indonesia’s dream of independence became a reality on 17th of August 1950 when the government of the Republic of Indonesia put aside all former deals with the Netherlands, and the Dutch occupation which had lasted several hundred years finally reached an end.
The population were ecstatic about the withdrawal of the Dutch, but should soon face new problems. The new nation were split along ethnical, religious and political lines, the people were very poor and a majority were illiterates. A sort of parliamentary rule was established, but with countless political parties and chaos the president had to declare martial law in 1959. A new political system called “governed democracy” was established, were the president and the army kept most of the powers.
The highly popular Sukarno appeared as a strong nationalistic leader, and again he attacked the Dutch military on west New Guinea, were the Netherlands still had control. In 1963 the administration of this province was transferred to Indonesia by the UN, and given the name Papua. The same year Indonesia also went to military confrontations with the newly independent nation of Malaysia (see Kalimantan). It soon became apparent that the president had less control with the national economy than with his military actions outside the country. He identified himself more and more with the communist party PKI, investors fled the country, the inflation reached almost 700 percent and the country were on the brink of bankruptcy.
The year 1965 was the beginning of the end of Sukarno’s political life, when a so called communist coup lead by PKI were aborted by general Suharto. In a few hours Suharto took control of the army and stopped the coup. Even today it is not clear what really happened, and if the communists had anything to do with the coup at all. In the years that followed, 1965-66, a sort of civil war broke out, thousands were killed in bloody clashes on Sumatra, Java, Bali and Lombok. March 1966 Sukarno were “convinced” to transfer a great part of his powers to Suharto, who in 1968 were sworn in as the new president. Sukarno was put in house arrest, were he later died. Hundreds of thousands of so called communists were arrested or executed in the years that followed, maybe the darkest chapter in the history of Indonesia. Only now, after the fall of Suharto the truth about what really happened may be clear.
Suharto completely reversed the economic and political ideology, and established his “New Order” policy. Confrontations with Malaysia were stopped, and Suharto assumed a basically pro western stance. Foreign investors and western aid started to return, this was the beginning of the “tiger economy”. With increased stability also Japanese and Chinese investors established business here. Income from the oil industry were enormous, still there are many unexplored gas and oil reserves in Indonesia.
Education had high priority during Suharto’s rule, and almost 90 percent of the children aged 15 or older are literate. Even if Indonesia is rich on resources, much of the fortune has disappeared in corruption and nepotism. This led to a growing unrest among the population, which exploded in 1998, fueled by the Asian economic crisis. Especially in Jakarta huge demonstrations were staged, demanding that Suharto retired. 21st of May 1998 he finally transferred the presidency to his old friend B.J.Habibie, who in turn had to leave office after a somewhat democratic election in 1999. The election was won by the party of Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of first president Sukarno. MPR however decided that the new president should be Abduhramman Wahid, a popular Islamic cleric, who chose Megawati as vice president. Conditions have improved somewhat, but still there are a lot of unsolved problems regarding political, ethnical and religious unrest, plus an economy in ruins. The worst hit areas are Maluku, Papua and Aceh. Some of these regions may declare independence in a not so far future. East Timor has finally got it’s independence.
July 23 2001 was another day to remember in the history of Indonesia when president Wahid with a large majority was impeached by the MPR, on accusations of corruption and incompetence. Vice president Megawati was on the same day sworn in as the fifth president of Indonesia. A new election in 2004 put S.B. Yudhoyono, a former military officer, in office as the sixth president.
One of the reasons for a visit to Indonesia is the huge variety in culture and traditions. The most famous islands are probably Java and Bali, but the other regions are also rich on culture, often as an integrated part of religious ceremonies. See the different regions for further details.
The best time of the year to visit Indonesia is in the dry season between May and October, but most areas are also easily accessible in the wet season. Bali is without competition the most frequently visited island, but also Java and Sumatra are popular destinations. In some remote areas there hardly never come any travelers, maybe a reason to go there?
The safety in Indonesia is a big concern for people who plan to go there. Today most parts of the country is considered as safe if you use common sense, despite much negative press lately. In Aceh, on Papua, Central Sulawesi and Maluku you should be careful and check the conditions first. There is also an increasing threat from terrorist groups (see separate article about safety in Indonesia).