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Indonesia History, Language and Culture

History of Indonesia

The discovery of the remains of ‘Java Man’ suggest that Indonesia was inhabited by early humans as early as 1.5 million years ago, but little evidence remains of early tribal civilisations. In the 7th century, Indonesia fell under the influence of the Srivijaya kingdom, bringing Hinduism and Buddhism to the islands for the first time.

Islam arrived in the 13th century, and Java and Sumatra became powerful sultanates, while other islands continued to follow Hindu, Buddhist and Animist traditions. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to settle in Indonesia in 1512, establishing trade posts for valuable spices such as nutmeg and cloves.

A century later, under the auspices of the Dutch government, the Dutch East India company moved in, establishing the city of Batavia (now Jakarta), taking over major trade routes, and eventually establishing colonial rule over the archipelago.

The start of the 20th century saw the beginnings of an Indonesian independence movement known as Sarekat Islam, which gained huge popularity, despite suppression from the Dutch colonial regime. The Japanese invasion in WWII lead to the withdrawal of the Dutch, but some four million Indonesians died as a result of occupation.

The subsequent surrender of Japan at the end of the war lead the then-president Sukarno to pronounce Indonesia’s independence on 17 August 1945, but democracy was quickly replaced by an increasingly authoritarian regime with power residing ultimately with the president and a series of appointed councils. To unify this disjointed collection of kingdoms and sultanates, the Sukarno regime launched a massive propaganda campaign based on concepts of national heroes and national identity.

In 1965, General Suharto seized control in a military coup and brutally suppressed opposition in a reign lasting until 1998. The independent islands of West Irian (part of New Guinea) and East Timor were annexed and landless peasants from Muslim majority islands were strategically settled on other islands.

Eventually opposition to Suharto’s rule reached a critical level during the East Asian Financial Crisis. Suharto was forced to step down in 1998 after elections were won convincingly by Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of former president Sukarno. Since then, the islands have seen relative stability, despite challenges ranging from rampaging forest fires, terrorist attacks, the 2004 tsunami and East Timor gaining independence in 2002.

Did you know?
• There are more than 150 volcanoes in Indonesia, and 127 of them are still active.
• Indonesia is the most populous Muslim nation in the world.

Indonesia Culture

Religion in Indonesia

There is a Muslim majority of approximately 90%, with Christian, Hindu (mainly in Bali) and Buddhist minorities. Freedom of religion is enshrined in the constitution.

Social Conventions in Indonesia

Social courtesies are often fairly formal. Using a few words of the local language will be appreciated. When drink or food is served, it should not be touched until the host invites the guest to do so. Never pass or accept anything with the left hand, as this is seen as unclean. Public displays of affection between men and women are frowned upon, and kissing in public will attract a great deal of unwanted attention.

Touching a stranger of the same sex while in conversation is very common. Smiling is a cultural tradition and Indonesians smile frequently, even in an uncomfortable or difficult situation. Visitors should avoid losing their temper as saving face is very important in Indonesian culture; tourists should avoid putting others in a situation where they may feel embarrassed or ashamed. Both men and women should take care to dress in an appropriate way for their surroundings – whilst a more casual attitude may be fine in Bali, Aceh is rather more conservative and you may be expected to cover up a little more.

Language in Indonesia

Bahasa Indonesia is the official national language. Altogether, there are an estimated 583 languages and dialects spoken in the archipelago. The older generation still speaks Dutch as a second language and English is widely spoken in tourist areas.

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