The islands of Indonesia are south of Malaysia and west of Papua New Guinea in Southeast Asia, and these islands comprise the world’s largest archipelago. The islands stretch over 3,000 miles spanning 46 degrees of longitude and six degrees of latitude. Surprisingly, the precise number of islands in the archipelago seems to be unknown, and estimates range from 17,000 to 18,585. The land mass of the islands is estimated at slightly more than 740,000 square miles scattered about in 1,263,000 square miles of sea. The islands’ coastlines measure 35,000 to 50,000miles.
Approximately six thousand of Indonesia’s islands are inhabited by 225,000,000 to 250,000,000 people making Indonesia the 4th most populous country on earth after China, India, and the United States. Half of the population lives on the island of Java. Forty five percent of Indonesians are Javanese, and the remaining fifty five percent are of more than 300 other ethnic groups. Eighty eight percent of Indonesians – approximately 200 million – are Muslims. Indonesia has the largest Muslim population on earth. There are, however, also large Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist populations. At present, these groups are getting along relatively well.
Indonesia’s government is a republic, and its capital is in Jakarta on Java. The official language is Bahasa Indonesia; however, more than 600 languages and dialects are spoken. Indonesia’s monetary unit is the rupiah which is presently equivalent to approximately .001 cents of US currency (eg. 5,000 rupiah are equivalent to 50 cents).
Indonesia is part of the Pacific Ocean’s ‘Ring of Fire’, and there are more active volcanoes in Indonesia than anywhere else in the world. Indonesia also experiences frequent earthquakes.
Indonesia is the location of the “Wallace Line” which is a demarcation between Asian and Australian flora and fauna. The Wallace Line runs through Kalimantan and Sulawesi then south through the Straits of Bali and Lombok. East of the Wallace Line one finds crocodiles, marsupials, and the komodo dragons – similar to Australia. West of the Wallace Line one finds the orangutan, rhinoceros, tigers, and the rafflesia flower (the world’s largest) – similar to Asia.
Indonesia has been populated for at least one million years – since ‘Java Man’ walked across land bridges from mainland Asia to Java. However, little else is known about Indonesia’s early civilizations until approximately 7,000 years ago.
Around 2,000 years ago, small Javan kingdoms began trading with India and China, and this simultaneously imported Hinduism and Buddhism to Java. The Hindus became powerful, and they eventually built empires that ruled through the 13th century. However, invasions by Muslins began in the 13th century, and most of Java was converted to Islam by the 15th century. The Hindus fled to Bali as the power of Islam grew.
The Portuguese began colonizing the islands early in the 16th century, but they were forced out of most areas before the end of the century by the Dutch. In the 17th century, the Dutch United East India Company was established to control the spice trade. In the early 19th century, Britain briefly seized power, but it was returned to the Dutch in 1816. The islands were made an integral part of the Dutch kingdom in 1922.
Japan seized the islands –and their oil resources – during World War II. A sense of nationalism had been developing, and during Japan’s occupation, Sukarno and Hatta emerged as two vocal nationalists. Following Japan’s surrender, Sukarno and Hatta proclaimed Indonesia’s independence on August 17, 1945.
The Dutch, however, did not accept this proclamation, and they sought to return the islands to their pre-war status. In that effort, allied troops fought the nationalist militia. By November of 1946, an agreement was reached to form the Netherlands-Indonesia Union. This agreement was interpreted differently by the two parties, and fighting resumed. A bitter war ensued until November 2, 1949 when Indonesia was granted its independence.
Sukarno and Hatta were considered the cofounders of Indonesia’s independence, and they became Indonesia’s first president and vice-president respectively. They soon split, however, over Sukarno’s concept of “guided democracy” which was a thinly veiled euphemism for dictatorship. During Sukarno’s rule, the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) increased its influence, and a power struggle developed between the PKI and the military.
In an effort to undermine Sukarno’s rule, then-General-later-President Suharto’s military forces killed hundreds of thousands of suspected communists in a massive purge. Suharto replaced Sukarno in 1967.
Suharto made numerous positive changes in the Indonesian government upon assuming power, but he made a dreadful mistake in 1975 – he invaded East Timor. Timor is an island in southeast Indonesia. The eastern part of the island had been ruled by the Portuguese for 400 years, and when the Portuguese left, the Catholic East Timorese did not want to be ruled by Muslim Indonesia. They wanted their independence, and a separatist movement developed immediately. Suharto’s troops seized East Timor in 1976, and more than 200,000 died in the ensuing violence.
Suharto was forced to resign following the Asia-wide economic crash in 1997, and his successor, Habibie, asked for a referendum on independence for East Timor in 1999. Although the vote was cancelled twice due to violence, a UN-organized referendum was held on August 30, 1999, and 78.5% of East Timorese voted to secede. This vote sparked massive violence against the East Timorese by the pro-Indonesia militias and Indonesian military. Civilians were murdered, and 1/3 of the population was forced to leave. Massive international pressure was applied to the Indonesian government, and UN forces were allowed in. East Timor finally achieved independence on May 20, 2002.
This was not the end of violence in Indonesia. In 2002, more than 200 – mostly tourists – were killed when bombs exploded in a nightclub in Bali. Jakarta’s Marriott Hotel was bombed in 2003. The Australian embassy was bombed in 2004, and Bali was bombed again in 2005. When will this end?
Indonesia has also recently experienced numerous natural disasters including tsunamis and flash floods. Further, they have a ticking time bomb in their lack of effective environmental controls. Their deforestation is the worst on the planet. They lose an area the size of Switzerland every year, and they have already lost 70% of their original forests. Also, 86% of their reefs are at moderate-to-high risk of destruction.
Recurring civil unrest, natural disasters, and ecological destruction will undoubtedly influence future directions for Indonesia. Indonesia’s national motto is an old Javanese phrase, “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika” which means, “There are many; they are one.” Time will tell.
Follow us to our first stop in Indonesia, Timor, or jump ahead to any of the other Indonesian islands we visited:
Roti Sumba Komodo-Rinca Flores Sumbawa Lombok Bali Kalimantan