Indonesia History


Although 87% of its population would consider themselves Muslim, Indonesia is home to a varied array of cultures and a synergistic belief system that would also include Hindu-Buddhist ideas as well as animist or indigenous beliefs. Until the 12th century ad Indonesia was under the rule of the Mahayana Buddhist Sri Vijaya Empire. The maritime kingdom centred on the south east coast of Sumatra in the city of Palembang was greatly influenced by India and China and was the center of trade for the region. It also attracted many pilgrims and scholars from all over Asia including the Buddhist scholar Atisha who was credited with the development of Tibetan Buddhism.

Around this same time another Buddhist kingdom, the Sailendra, in Central Java was responsible for building the Borobudur temple com- plex northwest of Yogyakarta. It is said the Sailendras were the original rulers of the Funan Empire in Cambodia. The Hindu Kingdoms, Mataram, Kediri and Singosari dominated the eastern part of Java. Located east of Yogyakarta in the Prambanan temple complex dedicated to the Durga, the Hindu Divine Mother.  By the 13th century the Buddhist king Kertanagara asserted Java's dominance over all the areas in Sumatra that were previously ruled by Sri Vijaya. The successor to Kertanagara, Prince Vijaya succeeded in repelling the Mongol invaders sent by Khubilai Khan and founded a new dynasty, Majapahit, the greatest Javanese empire. This empire cultivated both Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism and included much of the territory of what is now Indonesia today.

Ironically, the spread of Islam is attributed to Melaka a rich port on the Malay Peninsulas that dominated the Strait of Malacca and controlled much of the trade in the 15th century. Melaka was supposedly founded by on the descendants of the rulers of Sri Vijaya, having fled Palembang when Majapahit attacked it. The Hindu-Buddhist prince converted to Islam and took the name Iskandar Syah.  Iskandar Syah's origins may be a matter of dispute but whether he came from Palembang, Singapore or Johor the fact remains that the kingdom of Malacca was responsible for the spread of Islam through much of the archipelago almost solely by virtue of trade, marriage and politics.

The 17th century saw the coming of Dutch in the form of the VOC or Dutch East India Company. The VOC initially established a trading post on the north coast of Java, which later became their capital city of Batavia (now Jakarta). Their chief strategy was to isolate the Spice Islands from other international competitors there by insuring a virtual monopoly in Europe. This was accomplished by intimidation, coercion, military and political control over the entire archipelago. Even though they asserted their control over all the islands, the Dutch were initial satisfied with just maintaining a base of operations in Batavia. They did not envision them becoming involved in local politics except to insure their trading monopoly but political instability especially on Java forced the VOC to take an active interest. The result was an increase in their territorial claims. 

During the 16th and 17th century, the kingdom of Makassar was a haven for Portuguese merchants. Having a mutual hatred of the Dutch interlopers in the Moluccas, this alliance proved to be prosperous for both the Portuguese and the Makassar sultans. The Dutch finally forced the Portuguese out of most of the eastern islands leaving them with just Portuguese Timor.  

The Moluccas is a chain of islands stretching north south some hundred kilometers east of Borneo. The island cultures there are diverse and the people unique and independent of each other. These were the legendary spice islands that attracted all the East Indian traders including the Chinese, Arab, Indian and later the Europeans. However thanks to the Dutch interference in creating their monopoly of the spice trade there is no longer any cultural depth to the inhabitants of the islands.

The French occupation of the Netherlands at the beginning of the 19th century saw the end of the VOC and all their territories came under the control of the Dutch government. The British at war with France, took control of Java and Stamford Raffles was appointed lieutenant governor. He instituted many enlightened re- forms but before they could take effect the territories were returned to Dutch control at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. The Dutch squeeze every bit of revenue they could out of the Indonesian colony during the 1800's. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the overwhelming poverty and overpopulation and the guilt of a liberal Dutch administration brought about a series of welfare and education reforms called the Ethical Policy. Ironically, this policy created a new western-educated Indonesian elite and by 1920 Indonesia was pushing hard for its independence, but it wasn't until after the Japanese occupation that such independence was declared. Dutch attempts to regain control were met by fierce opposition, and in what is now known as the National Revolution, independence was won in 1949. The leader of the independent Indonesia, Sukarno, had a massive public following but was only able to stay in power through an uneasy coalition of two antagonistic political groups the PKI or Indonesian Communist Party and the ABRI, Armed Forces of the Republic of Indonesia.

With Sukarno's health failing, an alleged coup attempt in 1965 gave General Suharto enough of a reason to massacre all of the PKI supporters and seize supreme authority over the republic. Suharto instituted a New Order regime backed by the ABRI, which on the surface saw a period of economic growth and orderly development but was actually fraught with corruption and responsible for over- whelming social and economic inequalities. In 1976 Indonesia annexed Portuguese East Timor, with the resistance lasting into the 1990s. With Irian Jaya attempting to unify with Papua New Guinea at the same time, Indonesia was under immense military pressure. The issues were resolved, largely thanks to the UN. However Indonesia still carries a mighty military presence in South East Asia.