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A Brief History

Archeological excavations in the 1890s on the island of Java discovered evidence of the 600,000-year-old "Java Man," a distant ancestor of modern-day humans. During the Mesolithic period, the island archipelago now known as Indonesia was connected by land to mainland areas of what is now Asia proper. The people that established themselves in this period in the archipelago can be roughly divided into two groups: Melanesian and Mongoloids. Melanesians had dark skin and curly hair and the Mongoloids lighter skin and straight hair. The ancestors of the Mentawai of Sumatra, the darker Melanesians of Papua and the Timorese arrived during the Neolithic period from the Asian mainland to Indonesia. From 850 to 700 B.C., the ancestors of the Indonesians in Yunnan (southern China) and the northeast part of Vietnam and Laos began arriving.

Much later, Buddhist and Hindu immigrants from India brought with them new religions. Around 250 B.C., Buddhism spread throughout Asia. The oldest proof of the presence of the Hinduism in Indonesia comes in the form of Sanskrit text on the island of Borneo.

The Sjriwijaya empire was the first large nation-state known to exist in the archipelago. This maritime power controlled coastal areas surrounding the Strait of Malacca and the Sunda Strait from the 7th to 12th centuries. In the 11th century, Islam first entered the archipelago via Arabic traders.

The Sriwijaya dynasty was followed by Mataram, then Majapahit, although there was some overlap in time as each of those controlled different parts of the sprawling archipelago at any given time. There were also smaller sultanates aligned or distinct from the large dynasties. By the time all these dynasties had run their course, Islam had become the dominant religion.

Arrival of the Europeans

In 1292, the Venetian Marco Polo was the first European to set foot in the archipelago. In 1512, the Portuguese docked in the Moluccas (now called Maluku, or the "Spice Islands") and 80 years later, sailors from the Netherlands landed in western Java, quite near to what is now the sprawling megalopolis of Jakarta. At the time, its was a giant mangrove swamp dissected by meandering rivers and dotted with shallow lakes inhabited by the Javan rhinoceros, tigers, saltwater crocodiles near the sea and freshwater crocodiles in the lakes a few kilometers inland. It was a savage environment for human habitation and most of the native tribes lived in the mountains and western Java uplands, well above the mangrove swamps and the predators therein. By the 15th and 16th centuries the political geography had changed due to the rise of trading states along the north coast of Java. Two of the nearest states to what is now Jakarta were centered around the ports of Cirebon and Banten.

In the early part of the 16th century, the first Portuguese found a multitude of small states, mostly near the Spice Islands, which were frequently at war with one another. As the local states were relatively weak militarily, the settlers were able to monopolize the spice trade in and around the Moluccas. The Dutch arrived in force in the 17th century and were stronger than the British contingent of would-be colonizers and the more-established Portuguese.

The Dutch East India Company (VOC) established its first permanent foothold on the Javanese coast in 1610, when it purchased a plot of land on the east bank of the mouth of the Ciliwung River, opposite an existing native settlement called Sunda Kalapa, whose ruler was the vassal of the Sultan of Banten. In 1618, the Dutch Governor-General, Jan Pieterszoon Coen, built a fort to keep the Bantenese at bay and named it Batavia, after the prehistoric inhabitants of the Netherlands. The VOC eventually ousted the Portuguese and quickly set up a monopoly in the spice trade. At the time in Europe, spices like cloves, nutmeg and mace were a commodity as precious as oil is today. They were "worth their weight in gold" and used as food flavoring, in perfumes and were a key preservative, particularly for meat.

The first modern cities

At the beginning of the 19th century, Governor-General Daendels constructed a postal road along the north coast of Java, giving Indonesia its first intercity highway. He also built a sparkling new European town a few kilometers south or Batavia and named it Weltevreden ("Well Contented") at the heart of which was an expansive plaza called Koningsplein (now known as Monas - National Monument  Park - in Jakarta). The square was surrounded by government buildings (still the case today) and just a short walk or carriage ride to the leafy neighborhoods of Menteng and Tanah Abang with their wide shady streets, large mansions and broad verandas.

The cities flourished together along with the open-air markets on and around the canal between Weltvreden's Koningsplein and the government seat of Batavia, whose hub was Stadhuisplein (now known as Fatahillah square in the old Kota area, which still boasts a very nice colonial restaurant/café/bar called Café Batavia). They eventually became a single city, which soon became overly congested and the Dutch moved the government to another planned city in the cooler upland climes and named it Buitenzorg (now known as Bogor).

The ‘Queen of the East'

The Dutch shared these idyllic cities - described by the Englishman Oliver Breakspear as the "Queen of the East" - with what they termed "foreign Orientals." This group consisted of predominantly Chinese with several pockets of Arabs and Indians. They occupied the middle tier of a rudimentary three-tiered apartheid system, with the Europeans on top and the local people (inlanders) at the bottom. Most of these local people were not even the people from the island of Java, but seafaring traders, crewmen and coolies from the Moluccas, Celebes (Sulawesi) and other parts of the archipelago. The Chinese were concentrated in the Glodok district (which still is largely the case in modern-day Jakarta). As these disparate groups intermingled over the centuries and a new "ethnic" group was born in Batavia, the Betawi.

 By 1900, the VOC was a long-spent force and the Dutch government had settled most parts of the archipelago under an administration of the Netherlands East Indies. In 1908, a local Javanese by the name of Soetomo started the first nationalist movement with fledgling independence aspirations, and called it the Budi Oetomo group (hence the reference in the 2008 tourist slogan "100 Years of National Awakening"). Sarekat Islam, also with independence aspirations of its own, was formed a few years later and counted several hundred thousand among its followers. The Dutch responded to these upstarts with equal measures of brutality and manipulation. Many nationalists, including the man who would become Indonesia's first president, Soekarno (1901-1970), were sent to prison due to their political activism.

Early nationalist stirrings

Ki Hadjar Tara Dewan was in charge in the 1920s of 40 independent schools and on October 28, 1928 he convened a "national" youth congress of independence-minded Indonesians (that day is now revered and celebrated as Youth Pledge Day each year). The youth ('pemuda') concluded that the nation of Indonesia should consist of "one country, one language, one people." This is also the time that the lingua franca of the archipelago, a blend of Malay, Javanese, Dutch and Arabic became the official language (Bahasa Indonesia) of the nationalist movement.

Japanese occupation

At the height of WWII in January 1942, Japanese troops arrived en masse in Indonesia to kick out the Dutch and occupy the archipelago. A month later, the British and American forces retreated from Java. On March 8, the Dutch military, colonial administrators and their bureaucrats all fled. The Europeans that remained were sent to brutal internment camps, mostly in Java and Sumatra. During the Japanese occupation, the local nationalist movement, with Soekarno as the nominal head, was actually encouraged to develop further as the Japanese campaigned for a pan-Asia solidarity. Most Indonesians decided that was much better than Dutch oppression.

Independence struggle

When the Americans finally defeated the Japanese in August 1945, the occupation of Indonesia also ended. Two days later, on August 17, Soekarno proclaimed independence for the Republic of Indonesia. However, that precipitated four years of intermittent negotiations, recurring hostilities, sometimes inordinately brutal, and UN mediation before the Netherlands finally agreed to set its former colony free. The Netherlands recognized Indonesian independence (under pressure from the U.S.) on December 27, 1949. An estimated 150,000 Indonesians and 6,000 Dutch were killed in the four-year war, and when it was over Soekarno found himself as the young republic's first president.


SoekarnoBy 1958, with Soekarno growing bolder by the year and looking more like he would be one of those ‘presidents for life,' cut all diplomatic and economic ties with the Netherlands. Hundreds of Dutch companies were seized and nationalized, and within a few months some 35,000 Indonesian-born, but ethnically Dutch people, were deported to Holland, a strange land that most had never even visited. In the early 1960s, after successfully leading the charge among Third World nations and creating in the mid-50s the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), Soekarno became increasingly erratic, although he was still deeply loved by his people.

In 1962, Soekarno declared that his government was a "guided democracy" - as opposed to a full Western-style democracy, which he spoke ill of on a number of occasions. There were serious foreign relations problems over the West Papua issue at the time (the territory was officially in the hands of the Netherlands and was never part of the 1949 agreement). Soekarno had become increasingly close to the burgeoning Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), but it never appeared that he fully shared their communist ideals, only that he needed them politically as a counterweight to the progressively more powerful right-wing military. Though Soekarno was endeared as a leader by a huge majority of his people, he also showed tendencies toward despotism. Anybody that spoke or acted out in opposition was, sometimes viciously, silenced.


There was also the biggest issue of the day: ‘Konfrontasi.' In 1963, the Malaysian Federation was established and part of its territory was in the northern third of Borneo Island. Soekarno believed that all of "Kalimantan" (the Indonesian name for the island) belonged to his republic. He deployed the military and fought a proxy war with the British, who were winding down their colonization of Malaya and in the process of a peaceful handover. That conflict raged and Soekarno became even more defiant in the face of the international community's efforts to keep him and his neo-imperialism in check.

Having already cut ties with Holland, he then pulled Indonesia out of the UN. A fantastically charismatic orator, he once famously told the U.S. ambassador, while thousands of his beloved followers at a public rally stood and watched: "Go to hell with your aid!" In many ways, it was the rallying cry for the little man against the big bullies of the world. With his huge popularity among fellow NAM countries in Asia and Africa, he probably could have won the presidency in a dozen countries, such was his popularity among fellow Third World citizens at the time. To wit: Today, in the Moroccan capital of Rabat, one can find a street named after him - Rue Soekarno.

The coup

Alas, the big bullies of the world couldn't quite appreciate the defiant little brown man in the same way as his NAM cheerleaders could, and that meant only one thing.

1965 coup depiction at National Monument On the morning of October 1, 1965, the right-wing military, led by major-general Soeharto, rid the Indonesian government of all its progressive and leftist figures and placed President Soekarno under house arrest.

The cover story (and still official Indonesian government and school textbook version) was that the PKI had tried to stage a coup d'état by killing six left-leaning generals (and Soekanro loyalists) on the night of September 30, 1965. But the "patriotic officers" led by Soeharto made the claim that they had foiled it and launched a countercoup, thereby "rescuing the country from a communist takeover."

It remains a fanciful tale, and yet it's still believed by millions of people. The PKI was the largest communist party outside the socialist countries, with three million members and links to 15 million more in mass organizations. Yet it was totally unprepared (read: unarmed) to stage a coup against a president they greatly admired.

After the events of October 1, the PKI leaders were assassinated or jailed without ever calling out their supporters. There was no civil war. The PKI was not armed. The officer charged with aiding and abetting the PKI in the apparent coup plot was Lt. Col. Untung of Soekarno's palace guard. Untung was not a communist, but a nationalist who worked closely with the president. He and Air Marshal Omar Dhani later testified that they had attempted to break up a clandestine "Council of Generals" that, with CIA assistance, was plotting to overthrow Soekarno. The CIA was involved, to be sure (official documents now released confirm that), but it was instead to guide and empower, aid and abet, the Soeharto clique to assassinate the six generals that would never have agreed with the plot by the right-wing anti-Soekarnoists.

The surviving generals (all of whom happened to be the right-wingers favored by the CIA) then accused all of Soekarno's Cabinet ministers of participating in the attempted communist coup. The whole government was rounded up with some being summarily executed.

It's not a secret that Soeharto and his gang, abetted by the CIA, were the real coup organizers. They destroyed the civilian government. But they also did much more.

They made the rivers in many parts of Indonesia literally turn red with the blood of the countless victims. For several months, the army and its militia proxies went from village to village, island to island, shooting and hacking to bits whoever was pointed out to them by local reactionaries as "troublemakers." Millions of Indonesian civilians were murdered. The mass Muslim militias, the police, landlords and merchants used this holocaust as the opportunity to settle old scores and annihilate the PKI in the process. The several thousand PKI people that survived the purge were herded off to barbaric concentration camps, where many died.

Looking at the events of 1965, an honest historian would logically conclude that a military coup had taken place: a civilian government (under Soekarno) was ousted violently, which was then replaced by a military regime under Soeharto. However, a curious and significant fact is that the military was able to convince the people that "a coup was an aborted coup." However, the rest of the world now clearly knows that the right-wing elements of the military initiated and directed the whole show, just like a ‘wayang kulit' puppet show - the ‘dalang' being the CIA with the strings being Soeharto and his gang.

The Soeharto era

Soeharto installed himself officially as president in 1966 and Soekarno became a shell of his defiant, swaggering self, eventually dying quietly in 1970. Soeharto quickly became an omnipotent despot, instituting authoritarian policies and barring all Chinese-Indonesians from the bureaucracy (he had decided that Chinese-Indonesians were too much like communist China and thus too much like the PKI - others theorize that he, like Hitler before him, despised them for their skilled entrepreneurial prowess, making it too difficult for locals to compete in the economy). Soeharto did, however, in one of those mind-boggling paradoxes that define Indonesia, befriend several leading Chinese-Indonesian businessmen and allow them free hands to build the economy. He also restored ties with the U.S., Holland and the UN and hammered into the populace the need for stabilization and unquestioning loyalty - all with a veiled threat of death or disappearance.

The New Order economy flourishes

The economy had gone south in Soekarno's twilight years, but under Soeharto's iron-fisted leadership (dubbed the New Order) and with the backing of the major Western powers, the economy surged. Indonesians were never more oppressed by their government, but never more prosperous - and both prosperity and oppression would intensify throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s as Indonesia's natural resource-rich archipelago continued to hit the jackpot. Nobody became more prosperous than Soeharto's Chinese-Indonesian cronies, who, in turn, assisted his wife and children (a.k.a., the Cendana clique, named after Jalan Cendana in Menteng where they all lived in a stately mansion) to become US-dollar billionaires several times over. Corruption and cronyism were at the heart of Soeharto's kleptocracy.


Dissatisfaction with the corruption and the decline of the economic growth (precipitated by the Asian monetary crisis of 1997) led to huge street demonstrations (termed the 'reformasi' movement) throughout 1998, culminating in the shooting of student demonstrators and Army-backed and coordinated rampages targeting Chinese-Indonesians. Soeharto was soon pressured to resign. He stepped aside May 21, 1998. His appointed successor was technocrat B. J. Habibie, who ushered in unprecedented economic and political reforms, including the granting of an independence referendum to East Timor, which Soeharto had invaded in 1975 and harshly occupied for over 24 years, killing nearly one-third of the Timorese.

Gus Dur

After the hastily planned elections of 1999, Abdurrahman "Gus Dur" Wahid was elected president by parliament in a shocker over the seeming heir apparent Megawati Soekarnoputri - the daughter of Soekarno. Gus set about expanding on Habibie's reforms by making overtures to the disgruntled, independence-minded Acehnese, reaching out in a statesman-like manner to the Papuans (who were still grieving since being incorporated into the republic against their will in the 1960s). The military, who took a major body blow in 1998 via negative popular sentiment, began consolidating against the reform-minded Gus, and engineered at least two horribly blood-spattered conflicts (one in Maluku, and one in Kalimantan), all in a bid to make the president look weak and powerless: much like the mafia busting up a shop's windows for refusing to pay for mafia "protection." Eventually, Gus was ousted mid-term and the Mega era began.


She was the best shopping president this country has ever had. And that is probably the most positive aspect of her three-year reign of blundering. Enter the only-in-Indonesia paradox yet again. Despite having her dad routed, humiliated and emasculated by the military, despite the atrocity-laden 1996 takeover of her party's headquarters (wherein dozens of her supporters were murdered by the military) and despite being outspoken throughout the 1990s against military oppression, Megawati Soekarnoputri was the key driver in the military's resurgence, culminating in Indonesia's largest-ever war (in terms of men and materiel). But this war, which began in the spring of 2003 after a peace agreement was torn up, was not against another country. It was against her own citizens, the people of Aceh province, who had offered her father refuge during the war for independence.

Terrorism hits Indonesia

If Mega was a terror in the shopping malls while her military ran roughshod over her own people, it was on her watch that the Clash of Civilizations descended upon Indonesia. In October 2002, the Bali terror bombings killed over 200 holiday revelers in a nightclub. That was followed by a series of suicide bombings over the next three years by homegrown Islamic terrorists.


In 2004, with the Aceh war getting nowhere, the economy muddling along with reports of unprecedented corruption levels and Islamic terrorism out of control, the country turned away from Mega and toward the "smiling general," Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. SBY, as he is known to his people, has been a very solid president, somewhat appeasing and toning down the military, steadily guiding the economy to growth levels of the mid-1990s heyday and providing a stabilizing influence. Unlike most of the military men he served with, and Soeharto before him, he is an educated man and has a legitimate doctorate to prove it. Democracy and direct elections have bloomed on his watch, but most importantly he has done what neither the Dutch colonizers nor any of Indonesia's first five presidents could do: He brought peace to Aceh.


This is the briefest of brief histories of this fascinating and eventful country, which means dozens of newsworthy events were left out in the interest of space. Pick up a book or two on this country's history to learn more and allow yourself to be immersed in this captivating place called Indonesia.



Abeyasekere, S., “Jakarta: a History", (Singapore, 1987)

Raffles, T.S., “The History of Java”,  (London, 1817)

Wright and Breakspear, "Twentieth Century Impression of Netherlands India" (London, 1909)

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