Formal Name: Republic of Indonesia (Republik Indonesia). The the word Indonesia was coined from the Greek “indos”—for India—and “nesos”— for island). Short Form: Indonesia. Term for Citizen(s): Indonesian(s). Former Names: Netherlands East Indies; Dutch East Indies.

The term Indonesia was invented by James Richardson Loga in his study “The Languages and Ethnology of the Indian Archipelago” (1857). The name Indonesia was favored by anthropologists because it was similar to names given to neighboring cultural areas such as Melanesia, Polynesia and Micronesia.

Indonesia used to called the Dutch East Indies and before that the East Indies and the Malay Archipelago. The term East Indies was first used to describe present-day India, Southeast Asia and Indonesia after Columbus called the islands on the Caribbean the West Indies.

The name “Indonesia” was officially adopted after Indonesia became independent in 1945 in part because it previous name, the Dutch East Indies, wouldn’t do. Indonesia can mean either “extended India” or “the islands of India.”

Short History of Indonesia

Ever since prehistoric times the Indonesian archipelago has been inhabited. Java Man or Homo erectus is the oldest known inhabitant here, having lived over a million years ago. Other more recent prehistoric species include the still disputed homo Floresiensis, or the Flores hobbits, dwarf people, who have also made these islands their home.

According to Lonely Planet: “The life of Indonesia is a tale of discovery, oppression and liberation, so it’s both impressive and perplexing to see the nation’s history displayed in a hokey diorama at Jakarta’s National Monument. The exhibit even includes Indonesia’s first inhabitant, Java Man (Pithecanthropus erectus), who crossed land bridges to Java over one million years ago. Java Man then became extinct or mingled with later migrations.

Historically, Chinese chronicles mention that trade between India, China and these islands was already thriving since the first century AD. The powerful maritime empire of Criwijaya with capital around Palembang in southern Sumatra, was the centre for Buddhism learning and was known for its wealth. It held sway over the Sumatra seas and the Malacca Straits from the 7th to the 13th. century. In the 8th -9th century, the Sailendra Dynasty of the Mataram kingdom in Central Java built the magnificent Buddhist Borobudur temple in Central Java, this was followed by the construction of the elegant Hindu Prambanan Temple built by the Civaistic king Rakai Pikatan of the Sanjaya line.

From 1294 to the 15th century the powerful Majapahit Kingdom in East Java held suzerainty over a large part of this archipelago. Meanwhile, small and large sultanates thrived on many islands of the archipelago, from Sumatra to Java and Bali, to Kalimantan, Sulawesi, Ternate and the Moluccas.

In the 13th century, Islam entered Indonesia through the trade route by way of India, and today, Islam is the religion of the majority of the population. Throughout history, traders have brought the world’s large religions of Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam to this archipelago, deeply influencing this country’s culture and way of life. Yet Indonesia was never conquered by India nor China, until Europeans came and colonized these islands.

Marco Polo was the first European to set foot on Sumatra. Later, in search for the Spice Islands the Portuguese and Spaniards arrived in these islands sailing around the Cape of Good Hope in southern Africa. In 1596 the first Dutch vessels anchored at the shores of West Java after a long voyage. Over the next three centuries, the Dutch gradually colonized this archipelago until it became known as the Dutch East Indies.

But revolt against the colonizers soon built up throughout the country. The Indonesian youth, in their Youth Pledge of 1928 vowed together to build “One Country, One Nation and One Language: Indonesia”, regardless of race, religion, language or ethnic background in the territory then known as the Dutch East Indies.

Short Modern History of Indonesia

Japan occupied the islands from 1942 to 1945. Finally, on 17 August 1945, after the defeat of the Japanese in the Second World War, the Indonesian people declared their Independence through their leaders Sukarno and Hatta. Freedom, however was not easily granted. Only after years of bloody fighting did the Dutch government finally relent, officially recognizing Indonesia’s Independence in 1950.

Indonesia declared its independence shortly before Japan's surrender, but it required four years of sometimes brutal fighting, intermittent negotiations, and UN mediation before the Netherlands agreed to transfer sovereignty in 1949. A period of sometimes unruly parliamentary democracy ended in 1957 when President Sukarno declared martial law and instituted "Guided Democracy." After an abortive coup in 1965 by alleged communist sympathizers, Sukarno was gradually eased from power. [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

From 1967 until 1988, President Suharto ruled Indonesia with his "New Order" government. After rioting toppled Suharto in 1998, free and fair legislative elections took place in 1999. Indonesia is now the world's third most populous democracy, the world's largest archipelagic state, and the world's largest Muslim-majority nation. Current issues include: alleviating poverty, improving education, preventing terrorism, consolidating democracy after four decades of authoritarianism, implementing economic and financial reforms, stemming corruption, reforming the criminal justice system, holding the military and police accountable for human rights violations, addressing climate change, and controlling infectious diseases, particularly those of global and regional importance. =

In 2005, Indonesia reached a historic peace agreement with armed separatists in Aceh, which led to democratic elections in Aceh in December 2006. Indonesia continues to face low intensity armed resistance in Papua by the separatist Free Papua Movement.

Today, after six decades of freedom, Indonesia has become the third largest democracy in the world. Despite facing today’s global financial crisis, the country has managed to show positive economic growth, and is internationally respected for her moderate, tolerant yet religious stance in today’s global conflict among civilizations.

Themes in Indonesian History

Indonesia is incredibly diverse. According to one count there are 336 ethnic groups in Indonesia, speaking more 700 languages, spread among 13,000 islands. Because there are so many islands and on the islands the landscape is often very rugged, ethnic groups have developed in isolated spots. On the tiny island of Alor, for example, there are 140,000 people divided among 50 tribes, each of which speaks a distinct language or dialects that fall into seven distinct language groups.

Indonesia was molded from parts of Southeast Asia and Oceania. Traveling from one island to another is often like going from one country to another. Often there is little to unite the people on one island with another. After independence in 1949, “Unity in Diversity” was adopted as a national slogan and was pushed on Indonesians. The only modern nation comparable in terms of multiplicity of ethnic groups, languages and religions is the former Soviet Union. Through the development of a national language, standardized education and persistent government propaganda, Indonesia has become surprisingly unified.

Sumatra and Java and to a varying degree some of the other islands were under the control or influenced by a series of 5th to 15th century Malay and Javanese kingdoms (the Melayu, Sri Vijaya, Majapahit and Malacca). Indonesia has traditionally functioned operated under a system of sultans. Society has traditionally been divided between royalty, with its court and nobility, and landless peasants and government officials known as “prijaji”. The “prijaji” have traditionally been urban and there are several statuses.

Agriculture dominates the domestic economy. The Indonesians have traditionally practiced two types of agriculture: wet-land rice farming, and slash and burn agriculture, known as “ladang”. Many Indonesians have traditionally grown rice in the wet season and another crop in the dry season. The Dutch introduced efficient plantation agriculture which is still widely practiced. During colonial times 50 percent of the agriculture exports were produced on plantations that covered only 4 percent of the agricultural land. The plantations were of two types: ones in upland areas and ones in lowland fields. The Dutch-owned plantations were nationalized after independence. Many ultimately fell into the hands of Chinese businessmen and Suharto cronies.

What Is an Indonesian?

Debate about the nature of Indonesia’s past and its relationship to a national identity preceded by many decades the Republic’s proclamation of independence in 1945, and it has continued in different forms and with varying degrees of intensity ever since. But beginning in the late 1990s, the polemic intensified, becoming more polarized and entangled in political conflict. Historical issues took on an immediacy and a moral character they had not earlier possessed, and historical answers to the questions, “What is Indonesia?” and “Who is an Indonesian?” became, for the first time, part of a period of widespread public introspection. Notably, too, this was a discussion in which foreign observers of Indonesian affairs had an important voice. [Source: Library of Congress *]

There are two main views in this debate. In one of them, contemporary Indonesia, both as an idea and as a reality, appears in some degree misconceived, and contemporary “official” readings of its history fundamentally wrong. In large part, this is a perspective originating with the political left, which seeks, among other things, to correct its brutal eclipse from national life since 1965. But it also has been, often for rather different reasons, a dominant perspective among Muslim intellectuals and foreign observers disenchanted with the military-dominated government of Suharto’s New Order (1966–98) or disappointed with the perceived failures of Indonesian nationalism in general. The foreign observers, for example, increasingly emphasized to their audiences that “in the beginning there was no Indonesia,” portraying it as “an unlikely nation,” a “nation in waiting,” or an “unfinished nation,” suggesting that contemporary national unity was a unidimensional, neocolonial, New Order construction too fragile to long survive the fall of that government. *

An alternative view, reflecting government-guided textbook versions of the national past, defines Indonesia primarily by its long anticolonial struggle and focuses on integrative, secular, and transcendent “mainstream” nationalist perspectives. In this epic, linear, and often hyperpatriotic conception of the past, Indonesia is the outcome of a singular, inevitable, and more or less self-evident historical process, into which internal difference and conflict have been absorbed, and on which the national character and unity depend. Some foreign writers, often without fully realizing it, are inclined to accept, without much questioning, the essentials of this story of the development of the nation and its historical identity. *

Both of these views came into question in the first decade of the twenty-first century. On the one hand, Indonesia’s persistence for more than 60 years as a unitary nation-state, and its ability to survive both the political, social, and economic upheavals and the natural disasters that followed the New Order, have driven many foreign specialists to try to account for this outcome. Both they and Indonesians themselves found reason to attempt a more nuanced reevaluation of such topics as the role of violence and the various forms of nationalism in contemporary society. On the other hand, a general recognition took hold that monolithic readings of Indonesia’s (national) historical identity fit neither past facts nor contemporary sensibilities. In particular, Indonesian intellectuals’ penchant for attempting to “straighten out history” (“menyelusuri sejarah”) began to be recognized largely as an exercise in replacing one singular perspective with another. Some younger historians have begun to question the nature and purpose of a unitary “national” history, and to search for ways to incorporate more diverse views into their approaches. Although it is still too early to determine where these realignments and efforts at reinterpretation will lead, it is clear that in contemporary Indonesia, history is recognized as a key to understanding the present and future nation, but it can no longer be approached in the monolithic and often ideological terms so common in the past. *

Indonesia and Trade

Many parts of the archipelago played a role in local and wider trading networks from early times, and some were further connected to interregional routes reaching much farther corners of the globe. Nearly 4,000 years ago, cloves—which until the seventeenth century grew nowhere else in the world except five small islands in Maluku—had made their way to kitchens in present-day Syria. By about the same time, items such as shells, pottery, marble, and other stones; ingots of tin, copper, and gold; and quantities of many food goods were traded over a wide area in Southeast Asia. As early as the fourth century BC, materials from South Asia, the Mediterranean world, and China—ceramics, glass and stone beads, and coins— began to show up in the archipelago. In the already well-developed regional trade, bronze vessels and other objects, such as the spectacular kettledrums produced first in Dong Son (northern Vietnam), circulated in the island world, appearing after the second century B.C. from Sumatra to Bali and from Kalimantan and Sulawesi to the eastern part of Maluku. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Around 2,000 years ago, Javanese and Balinese were themselves producing elegant bronze ware, which was traded widely and has been found in Sumatra, Madura, and Maluku. In all of this trade, including that with the furthest destinations, peoples of the archipelago appear to have dominated, not only as producers and consumers or sellers and buyers, but as shipbuilders and owners, navigators, and crew. The principal dynamic originated in the archipelago. This is an important point, for historians have often mistakenly seen both the trade itself and the changes that stemmed from it in subsequent centuries as primarily the work of outsiders, leaving Indonesians with little historical agency, an error often repeated in assessing the origins and flow of change in more recent times as well. *

By the middle of the first millennium BC, the expansion of wet-rice agriculture and, apparently more importantly, certain requirements of trade such as the control of local commodities, suggested new social and political possibilities, which were seized by some communities. For reasons not well understood, most—and all of those that endured—were located in the western archipelago. Already acquainted with a wider world, these Indonesians were open to, and indeed actively sought out, new ideas of political legitimation, social control, and religious and artistic expression. *

Their principal sources lay not in China, with which ancient Indonesians were certainly acquainted, but in South Asia, in present-day India and Sri Lanka, whose outlooks appear to have more nearly reflected their own. This process of adoption and adaptation, which scholars have somewhat misleadingly referred to as a rather singular “Hinduization” or “Indianization,” is perhaps better understood as one of localization or “Indonesianization” of multiple South Asian traditions. It involved much local selection and accommodation (there were no Indian colonizations), and it undoubtedly began many centuries before its first fruits are clearly visible through the archaeological record. Early Indonesia did not become a mini-India. Artistic and religious borrowings were never exact replications, and many key Indic concepts, such as those of caste and the subordinate social position of women were not accepted. Selected ideas filled particular needs or appealed to particular sensibilities, yet at the same time they were anything but superficial; the remnants of their further elaboration are still very much in evidence today. *

Books on Indonesian History

The literature on Indonesian history is quite large, and includes materials in many languages. This bibliographic essay mentions only works in English. The most satisfactory summaries of Indonesian history are Colin Brown’s A Short History of Indonesia: The Unlikely Nation? and the short but sophisticated chapter by Robert B. Cribb, “Nation: Making Indonesia.” The basic reference works any serious student of Indonesian history will find indispensable are Cribb’s and Audrey R. Kahin’s Historical Dictionary of Indonesia, Cribb’s Historical Atlas of Indonesia, and the relevant portions of Jan M. Pluvier’s Historical Atlas of South-East Asia. “A History of Modern Indonesia “ by M.C. Rickliefs cover Indonesian history from the advent of Islam in the 12th century to today. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The most comprehensive guide to pre- and proto-history is still Peter Bellwood’s Prehistory of the Indo- Malaysian Archipelago, but this is a field that changes very rapidly, and the best information is contained in articles in specialist journals. The volume Ancient History (edited by John N. Miksic) in the Indonesian Heritage Series is a wonderful summary and is superbly illustrated. It can be supplemented with the more comprehensive and academic work by Paul Michel Munoz, Early Kingdoms of the Indonesian Archipelago and the Malay Peninsula. For a general guide to the period after 1200, the standard work is Merle C. Ricklefs’s A History of Modern Indonesia Since c. 1200. A detailed guide to the following few centuries is the Early Modern History volume, edited by Anthony J. S. Reid, in the Indonesian Heritage Series. Reid’s Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce, 1450–1680 and Charting the Shape of Early Modern Southeast Asia contain very helpful information on Indonesia, as well as challenging interpretations. Merle C. Ricklefs’s works on Java in the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries, beginning with War, Culture, and Economy in Java, 1677–1726, set high standards of scholarship in that difficult field. *

The literature on Dutch expansion and the Netherlands East Indies is extensive. The most comprehensive work on the Cultivation System is perhaps Robert E. Elson’s Village Java under the Cultivation System. The 1860 novel Max Havelaar: Or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company by Multatuli, penname of Eduard Douwes Dekker, is still captivating reading. A History of Modern Indonesia by Adrian Vickers begins its coverage with the late nineteenth century, and the collection of papers edited by Robert B. Cribb in The Late Colonial State in Indonesia is very useful. *

The subjects of nationalism and modernism are woven together in Robert E. Elson’s valuable consideration of The Idea of Indonesia: A History and can also be studied through the lens of biography in, among many available works, John D. Legge’s Sukarno: A Political Biography and Rudolf Mrázek’s Sjahrir: Politics and Exile in Indonesia. The periods of Japanese occupation and revolution are the subject of a great many publications, but few attempt a comprehensive view. The essays by Ken’ichi Gotō in Tensions of Empire: Japan and Southeast Asia in the Colonial and Postcolonial World are mostly about Indonesia, and, coupled with Remco Raben’s volume entitled Representing the Japanese Occupation of Indonesia, are good places to begin. Peter Post’s The Encyclopedia of Indonesia in the Pacific War is a valuable new resource on the World War II period. On the years 1945–50, Anthony Reid’s brief but comprehensive The Indonesian National Revolution, 1945–1950 is still the best overall treatment. *

There is no entirely satisfactory general history covering the entire post–1945 period, beyond the excellent relevant chapters in Ricklefs and in Vickers, mentioned above, but Robert B. Cribb and Colin Brown’s Modern Indonesia. A History Since 1945 packs a great deal of information and analysis in a very short book, and Theodore Friend’s colorful Indonesian Destinies offers an intimate view. A number of works illuminate aspects of each of the political periods of Liberal Democracy, Guided Democracy, the New Order, and reformasi, but none of these periods yet has found a comprehensive treatment. *

Scholarly articles in English on various aspects of Indonesian history can be found in specialized journals such as Bijdragen tot Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde (Leiden, Netherlands) (; Cornell University’s Indonesia (; Journal of Southeast Asian Studies (Singapore) ( action/displayJournal?jid=SEA); and South East Asia Research (London) ( There are numerous useful Web sites on various aspects of the Indonesian past, many of them in the Dutch and Indonesian languages. A well-known English-language site offering a detailed, and sometimes annotated chronology (up to 2004) is Charles A. Gimon’s Sejarah Indonesia: An Online Timeline of Indonesian History (http:// A useful collection of relevant Web sites is maintained by the International Institute of Social History (

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Republic of Indonesia, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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