Tempestuous history of Indonesia

Your journey to Indonesia will be a better experience if you get to know more about its past and all types of influences which made Indonesia be just like it is today. That’s why we prepared a short guide through the history of Indonesia. So, let’s start exploring the dynamic past of this wonderful country.


Not long ago prevailed the belief that about 500 000 years ago in central Java a primitive humanoid with African origin (Homo erectus) had lived. Homo erectus inhabited Indonesia after he found the isthmus which existed back then and crossed it. Indonesia was his habitat until Homo sapiens appeared. That’s when Homo erectus was wiped out.

However, in 2003, remains of a small inhabitant of the islands, nicknamed “hobbit”, were discovered, suggesting that Homo erectus survived much longer than it was previously thought, and that timeline of the evolutionary history of Indonesia should be reconsidered, though many scientists remain skeptical when it comes to this theory.

Most Indonesians are descended from the Malay people, who began to migrate from Cambodia, Vietnam and southern China in 4000 BC. These settlers were forming small kingdoms and around 700 BC they had already developed sophisticated techniques of rice cultivation.

Hinduism and Buddhism history

The growing prosperity of these early kingdoms quickly attracted the attention of Indian and Chinese traders, and together with silks and spices, they also brought Hinduism and Buddhism to Indonesia.

These religions rooted quickly in the area of the archipelago and soon became a key element of the great kingdoms of the first millennium AD. Buddhist empire of Srivijaya dominated over the peninsula of Malacca and southern Sumatra, taking advantage of the ownership of strategically important Strait of Malacca, while the Hindu Kingdom of Mataram and the Buddhist Sailendra dominated central Java. On its fertile land that gave them prosperity, they built great monuments of Borobudur and Prambanan.

In 1294, the Kingdom of Mataram was replaced by an even more powerful Hindu kingdom, the Majapahit, which made extensive annexations to its territory under the reign of Hayam Wuruk and his prime minister, Gajah Mada. Although it may seem exaggerated now, they controlled much of Sulawesi, Sumatra and Borneo, so there is no doubt that most of Bali, Java and Madura were within its borders.

Anyway, things changed soon. Despite the enormous power and influence of the empire of Majapahit, nationwide important abysses opened, and the golden age of Hinduism came quickly to an end.

Islam rising

Along with Islam came strength, reason and the will to confront Majapahit and satellite kingdoms and arms were immediately taken up against the Hindu kings. In the XV century, the Majapahit leaders fled to Bali, where the Hindu culture was still preserved, and Java was in the hands of increasingly powerful Islamic sultanates. Meanwhile, the influential merchant kingdoms of Malacca (in the Malay Peninsula) and Makassar (South Sulawesi) also adopted Islam, placing the seed that was supposed to make modern Indonesia the most populous Muslim country in the world.

European expansion history

Portuguese had conquered Malacca in 1511 and Europe quickly set its sights on the wealth of the archipelago, which led to two centuries of turmoil in which Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and British control was disputed. By 1700, the Dutch dominated the game, and the Dutch East India Company controlled the lucrative spice market, becoming the first multinational company in the world.

However, after the bankruptcy of this company, the British imposed the government of Sir Stamford Raffles (1811-1816) in Java. After the Napoleonic Wars, Britain gave the island to the Dutch, who remained in control until its independence from Indonesia, 129 years later.

As you can see, the area of Indonesia in this period was not a peaceful domain, but that is not all. The Dutch faced numerous rebellions against Prince Diponegoro in Java, who was defeated in 1830 after five years of guerrilla warfare, during which he killed 8,000 Dutch soldiers.

Path of independence

At the beginning of XX century, the Dutch had managed to get the most of the archipelago, but the revolutionary tradition of Diponegoro never entirely disappeared, and remained so until young Sukarno came. The debate was put up with the Japanese invasion of Indonesia during World War II, but their withdrawal led to declaring the Indonesian independence, on August 17, 1945.

However, the Dutch were not willing to give up so easily. With the support of the United Kingdom, which had entered Indonesia to accept the Japanese surrender, they moved quickly to assert their authority over the country. The resistance was hard, with four stormy years of guerrilla warfare. US and UN opposition to the new imposition of colonialism and the growing number of casualties forced the Netherlands to withdraw. Finally, on December 27, 1949, the Indonesian flag finally flew over the Istana Merdeka (Liberty Palace).

Depression, division and dictatorship

The unity in the war quickly became a division in peace. Religious fundamentalists, separatists and nationalists were provoking the central government. After almost a decade of political deadlock and economic depression, Sukarno took the step in 1957, and with the support of the army declared Guided Democracy (euphemism for dictatorship) and imposed almost four decades of authoritarianism.

In spite of moves towards a one-party state, the Communist Party of Indonesia (Partai Komunis Indonesia, PKI), with three million members, was the largest in the world in 1965 and Sukarno had known the importance of getting their support. However, with increased influence of PKI on the government, tensions with the armed forces also increased.

The situation became really critical on the night of September 30, 1965. That is when some of the palace guard members launched a coup attempt. It was immediately crushed by General Suharto, which perhaps unfairly blamed the PKI and it became the pretext for a cleaning operation launched by the military. It ended with the elimination of half a million communists and sympathizers.

Afterwards, strong evidence emerged from declassified documents, showing that both the US (opposition to communism) and the UK (trying to protect their interests in Malaysia) aided and abetted in the purge of Suharto, by drafting lists of communist agitators. In 1968, Suharto overthrew Sukarno and declared himself as president.

Suharto brought unity through repression, annexing Irian Jaya (Papua) in 1969, reacting to the insurgency with an iron fist. In 1975, he invaded Portuguese Timor, leaving tens of thousands dead. The separatist ambitions of Aceh and Papua also met with a fierce military response. But despite endemic corruption, the 1980 and 1990 brought an economic boom to Indonesia, which experienced a meteoric growth and the emergence of large buildings that changed the profile of the capital.

Fall of Suharto

In the late nineties, with the Asian economy in free fall, the house of cards began to wobble Suharto. Indonesia went into bankruptcy overnight and the country found an obvious scapegoat in the dictatorial regime, with its endemic graft and corruption. In 1998 the protests spread across the country, and the May riots left thousands of victims, many of them Chinese. After three decades of dictatorship, Suharto resigned on May 21, 1998.

The unbridled joy refrained when the Vice President BJ Habibie took the leading role promising reform that took ages to materialize. In November of that year, the riots turned to shake the foundations of many Indonesian cities.

The promise of elections managed to calm the waters, but the separatists took advantage of the weakness of the government. Violence prevailed in Maluku, Irian Jaya, East Timor and Aceh. East Timor gained independence after a referendum in August 1999, but not before the Indonesian army in retreat destroyed its infrastructure and caused thousands of victims.

Democracy and reform history

Considering the hectic climate, legislative elections in June 1999 were held with relative ease; Megawati Sukarnoputri (daughter of Sukarno) and his reformist Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P) were the next most popular choice (33%). But months later, in the presidential elections held separately, a narrow victory was won by Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur), whose efforts to combat corruption ran into stiff resistance. Megawati finally took the president role in 2001, but her mandate was a disappointment to many Indonesians:

  • corruption was perpetuated,
  • military power remained intact,
  • the continued high rate of poverty,
  • serious terrorist attacks occurred in 2002.

Megawati lost the 2004 presidential election to Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), former Army officer who was on his duty in East Timor. This “thinking general” has succeeded in imposing a crackdown on Islamic militants. He allocated more money to education and health and introduced a basic pension.

SBY’s mandate has also been marked by a series of disasters, starting with the tsunami (December 26, 2004), that devastated Aceh in northern Sumatra. In 2006, an earthquake struck Yogyakarta, causing 6800 victims, and another from 2009 devastated Padang on Sumatra.

The elections of 2009 were easier than many had predictedand SBY won a comfortable re-election on a platform of moderate policies. In the parliamentary elections held earlier that year, the extremist Islamic parties, which had forecast a steep ascent, finished with only 8% of the vote. Moderates triumphed, including SBY party.

It can be said that last couple of years provided a solid base for creating a healthy, real democratic system which won’t include serious political plots which may affect the peace of Indonesian habitants. One thing is sure – after their dynamic past and drastic changes, it is the high time they lived in the peaceful environment.

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