A Brief History of Modern Indonesia

On the world stage, Indonesia has the fourth largest population behind China, India, and U.S.A. It has the second and third largest islands, hundreds of ethnic groups and languages, and the most populated island. It’s GDP is a booming $3.6 trillion and growing. Indonesia is blessed with abundant natural resources.

Indonesia’s history is shaped by its geographic position on the Pacific rim and the fact it is an archipelago of over 17,000 islands. Of these, 8,000 are named and 922 are permanently inhabited. Approximately 10% of the population lives in Jakarta area on the Island of Java. Java is the most densely populated island in the world.

Flag of the Republic of Indonesia

It’s easy to understand how development of infrastructure in Indonesia has been difficult. Indonesia’s 34 districts (states) are not contiguous. Oceans and seas separate Indonesia’s ethnic groups and land masses.

On the other hand, America’s development relied heavily on the transcontinental railroad, and later, a vast network of super highways. Everything and everybody in America is connected. Wikipedia has a great article about Indonesia if you want to learn more in detail. >> History of Indonesia.

Prior to WWII, Indonesia was a Dutch colony for nearly 300 years. They struggling for independence before and during the Japanese occupation. Indonesians detested the occupation. Borneo in particular hated the Japanese for killing Western missionaries and abusing tribal land and women.

Most of Borneo was home to many Dayak tribes who were generally peaceful but were also fierce warriors. They were renowned for their skill with poison blow darts and their head-hunting reputation. The Japanese were fearful of venturing far into the jungle—for good reason.

Here’s an odd bit of WWII/Indo history: The Japanese were comparatively civil with the leaders in Jakarta. The most prominent Indonesian leader of the time was Sukarno, who later became Indonesia’s first president. Sukarno negotiated with the Japanese and eventually secured Indonesia’s independence, albeit in the last days of WWII. However, the western world did not accept the legality of the agreement.

Americans as a whole, know very little about Indonesia

Indonesia gained its independence shortly after WWII. Indonesia/American relations in the beginning were not strong for two compelling reasons: 1, Sukarno, the first president, favored an political alignment with Russia over the west, and 2, the vast majority of Indonesians are Muslim. To Someone like me from America this may not sound like a good thing. But it’s easy to understand Indonesia’s position.

Consider Sukarno’s relationship with Russia. At that time, the world was bipolar. Countries aligned with the East or the West. The term third-world was used to identify countries who aligned with neither. Sukarno detested European colonization of S.E. Asia, particularly Indonesia.

After WWII, Indonesians had to fight for their freedom from tyranny again. The British backed a plan by the Dutch to recolonize Indonesia. The plan was abandoned following Indonesia’s fierce resistance. It’s hard to comprehend how the Dutch, after ending German occupation of their own country, wanted to occupy Indonesia.

With first-hand experience, I can say America and Indonesia have much in common.

Sukarno was a great first leader for Indonesia because he was able to unite the religions with a common national cause for independence. Tolerance between religious groups became the national coda. That is quite remarkable in a non-secular place such as Indonesia.

You will not find many atheists here. Most Indonesians are Muslim, however, there are also large Christian, Catholic, Buddhist, and Hindu populations. Something like the ACLU would not survive in Indonesia.

In the 60’s, the communist party became too radical and was overthrown. Soerto became Indonesia’s next president. This opened the door for western investment which led to three decades of substantial growth. Unfortunately, the door was also opened to large scale corruption. In the 90’s, Indonesia was crippled by the Asian financial crisis resulting in Seorto’s resignation.

Since then, Indonesia has become more democratic and enjoys a relatively stable, growing economy. The current president, Joko Widodo (Jokowi), has made many reforms and reduced the amount of corruption. Most recently, He has initiated the move of the capital city from Jakarta to Borneo to relieve overpopulation of Java and economic disparity.


This map will give you an idea Indonesia’s diversity.

2 Replies to “A Brief History of Modern Indonesia

    1. That’s a great idea. Funny thing…I still can’t speak Indonesian language, but I can read everything on a menu. Time for an article on Indonesian cuisine. Thanks for the idea. Of course it will require lots of research. 😀

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