Indonesia is an island chain or archipelago made up of 17,508 islands stretching along the equator where its climate and soils have dominated the nature of the modern state. The boundaries of that modern state are largely those of the Dutch East Indies but Indonesia has a rich history largely dictated by trade which goes way back beyond the Dutch influence.
Indonesia is the site of Java Man, one of the oldest known remains of Homo erectus which dates back 1.5 million years. Coming a little closer to the present, the Austronesians who make up most of the modern day population can trace their origins back to 2,000 B.C. when people from the East, possibly Taiwan, arrived.
From the 1st Century A.D. small Kingdoms started to form on the various islands and rice had become an important staple after its arrival from south China. By the 7th Century the Srivijaya kingdom had started to expand under King Jayanasa and eventually covered large tracts of the island chain as well as the Malay Peninsula. Historians say that it was during this period that Hindu and Buddhist influences were brought to the area.
The Srivijaya were superseded by the Buddhist Sailendra and Hindu Mataram dynasties as well as the Majapahit kingdom.
Islam appears to have arrived in Indonesia, or more accurately, northern Sumatra around the 13th century before moving east and becoming the dominant religion by the 16th Century. Europeans arrived in the early 16th century in the form of the Portuguese who were after the spice trade; especially nutmeg, cloves and pepper. They didn’t have an easy time of it and suffered some setbacks at the hands of the locals, but they brought Catholicism.
Cornelis de Houtman in 1596 led a small armada of ships, the first of the Dutchmen to take home a large quantity of spices. By 1602 the Dutch had established the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and soon became the dominant power in the region. For the best part of the next two hundred years the Dutch ruled and controlled the local kingdoms and beat back the Portuguese and the British. In 1799 the VOC was wound up following a steady decline brought about through expensive wars, corruption and mismanagement.
By 1830 it wasn’t just the VOC that had declined, the home country was also in trouble and, wishing to encourage more local management, the Dutch East Indies was founded and the land and its farmers was exploited. Famine resulted as farmers were made to grow crops that fed the home country but not their own people. The Dutch profits increased as further exploitation took place but the local people suffered.
In 1901 the Dutch introduced what they called the ‘Ethical period’ in which healthcare and education along with other social initiatives were provided. It produced a new state which expanded pretty much to the modern day boundaries but still the locals were unhappy and local rebellions were commonplace.
It was during this period that the nationalist movement started to find its feet; the Sarekat Islam (SI), was founded in 1909 and the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) was founded in 1920. In 1928, the All Indonesia Youth Congress was founded and in 1929 Sukarno founded the Indonesian National Party (Partai Nasional Indonesia, PNI).
Change, in the end, came from a different direction when the Japanese Imperial Army invaded Batavia (now the capital, Jakarta) on 5th March 1942 and announced that Dutch rule was over. By 1945 the Indonesians were pretty fed up of the Japanese and days before the final Japanese surrender, on 17th August 1945, nationalist leader Sukarno declared independence for the Republic of Indonesia and became the new country’s first President.
For a brief time the Dutch tried to reclaim their pre-war empire, and the British also tried to interfere (disastrously) but in December 1949 the Dutch formally recognised Indonesia’s independence. The years immediately after independence were tough ones; keeping a country with such a vast geographic area, huge cultural and religious differences and the overbearing dominance of Java helped to create disunity.
Separatist movements, splintered politics with a proliferation of political parties and an economy in tatters all played their part to make the new country almost ungovernable; there were 17 cabinets over 13 years during this period. President Sukarno blamed Western style parliamentary democracy for much of the problem and in 1957 he proclaimed a ‘guided democracy’ and in 1959 he dissolved the Constitutional Assembly and replaced it with an appointed parliament. Indonesia was not to see a parliamentary democracy again until the 1999 elections of the Reformasi era.
The inevitable happened, the originally well-meaning Sukarno became increasingly authoritarian and he picked fights with Western New Guinea, Malaysia and Brunei Meanwhile the economy was deteriorating, inflation was at 1,000% and industry was idling.
On 30th September 1965 an attempted coup d’état failed and although the truth will never be known, it was blamed on the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) leading to a violent anti-communist purge across the country. More than half a million people died in the violence and the credibility of President Sukarno was destroyed.
In March 1967, the Provisional People’s Consultative Assembly (MPRS) called on the head of the armed forces, General Haji Muhammad Suharto to become acting president. Suharto was formally appointed president on 12th March 1968.
Suharto was to remain president until 21st May 1998. Immediately after his appointment many more thousands of people were killed until his administration was secure. This period of Indonesia’s history has become known as the ‘New Order’ era and, although it brought a degree of economic growth, it was a period of widespread corruption and one in which the president and his family became immensely wealthy.
In 1997 the Asian economic crisis, rampant inflation and foreign debt all closed around the government. Suharto in his sham seventh election was re-elected in February1998, but millions had suffered economic hardship, job losses and the inevitable student marches began. By May 1998 the student demonstrations had intensified and on 13th/14th May riots broke out with possibly as many as 5,000 killed in the ensuing violence.
Suharto’s power base evaporated and on 21st May 1998 he was forced to resign after 32 years in power and was replaced by his Vice-President B. J. Habibie. The new President quickly assembled a new Cabinet and organised elections for 7th June 1999.
The Indonesian Democratic Party – Struggle (PDI–P), led by Sukarno’s daughter Megawati Sukarnoputri, emerged as the largest party with 153 of the 462 seats in the People’s Representative Council. The party which had formerly been the only legal party and the party of Suharto, the Party of the Functional Groups (it is better known as Golkar) came second with 120 seats.
In October 1999 the parliament elected Abdurrahman Wahid as the fourth President of Indonesia and, after weeks of rioting, Megawati Sukarnoputri as Vice President. Wahid continued the democratisation process but on 29th January 2001 parliament was stormed by students claiming that the president was involved in corruption scandals. Soon after he resigned and Megawati Sukarnoputri became the new President on 23rd July.
On 20th September 2004, in the second round of Indonesia’s first direct presidential election, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of the recently formed Democratic Party (PD) was elected with 60.62% of the vote. Megawati Sukarnoputri came second with 39.38%. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was re-elected in July 2009 with 60.80% in the first round.
The President and Vice President are elected for five year terms by popular vote.
The bicameral parliament is made up of the House of Representatives or Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat (DPR) which has 560 members elected to serve five-year terms. The House of Regional Representatives (Dewan Perwakilan Daerah (DPD) has 132 members, four from each of Indonesia’s 30 provinces, two special regions, and one special capital city district. The DPR and DPD appoint members to the People’s Consultative Assembly or Majelis Permusyawaratan Rakyat as required.
The Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) 2016 places Indonesia at joint 90th out of 176 countries with a CPI 2016 score of 37 (where 100 is least corrupt).