Indonesia — History and Culture
With more than 16,000 islands throughout the archipelago, Indonesia is home to a diverse and intriguing heritage. From the ancient indigenous cultures to the colonial development of the country, Indonesia is certainly one of the more exciting regions of Southeast Asia.
After the arrival of Austranesian people into the archipelago between 2,500 BCE and 1,500 BCE, Indonesia quickly developed dozens of kingdoms, some short-lived and some lasting for a lengthy period of time, like the all-conquering Srivijaya kingdom of Sumatra, and the Javanese-Malaysian kingdom of Majapahit. Unfortunately, the arrival of colonial powers brought these kingdoms to a standstill.
Marco Polo regularly passed through the Indonesian islands during the 1200’s. However, it wasn’t until the 1500’s that European presence began influencing the area. The Dutch and the British began colonizing parts of Sumatra, Java and the modern day Malaysian peninsula and eventually, Dutch forces took control of Indonesia in 1619, although there were small British sections in Sumatra.
Throughout Holland’s colonization of Indonesia there were dozens of uprisings across the country, but these were usually rapidly suppressed by the Dutch. This lasted until the early 1900’s, when the Japanese defeated both the Dutch and British forces to control Indonesia and much of Southeast Asia. This was originally met with cheers from locals, but Japanese control soon became brutal and bloody. Following the surrender of Japan in 1945, the archipelago was returned to the Dutch, although they didn’t return to the islands due to Holland’s destruction during the war. This paved the way for Indonesian independence.
The post-1945 period saw Indonesia experience conflict after conflict. Even today, independence issues still prevail in several areas of the archipelago. After four years of fighting, Indonesia finally defeated the Dutch forces, and took their independence in 1949. President Sukarno ruled until 1965, when a military coup led by General Suharto replaced the nationalist government. More than 30 years of economic stability and growth followed, but not without the country’s fair share of revolts and violence.
Suharto quelled any uprising brutally. In 1997, the reformist movement brought down Suharto, leading to a democratically elected government in 2004.
Post-1997 saw several important events take place. East Timor gained independence after three decades of fighting in 2002. In 2004, the Boxing Day tsunami crippled the country, killing many thousands of citizens. Much of the country’s long history is on display at Jakarta’s National Museum (Jl Medan Merdeka Barat) and the political past can be found at Jakarta’s most visited site, the Monas or National Monument (Freedom Square, Jakarta).
Modern day Indonesia may be thriving with well-preserved colonial structures and influences, but there are plenty of ancient cultures still evident throughout the archipelago.
Despite the many different cultures within and between islands, the largest influence in Indonesia was Hindu that dominated the island during the Majahapit civilization. Even today, many of the ancient traditions are derived from Hindu, including the legendary shadow puppetry known as wayang kulit and the gamelan orchestra.
The local people are generally easygoing and friendly to visitors, but there are important etiquette tips to remember. Never use the left hand for anything, and saving face has become an important aspect of modern Indonesian society.