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Location in Asia.
Indonesia such a big country, such a diverse country and so many different people there, and it reminded me that we have to have a broad view of the world and recognize that we all are connected.
—US president Barack Obama.[1]

Indonesia, officially known as the Republic of Indonesia (Indonesian: Republik Indonesia) and occasionally the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia (Negara Kesatuan Republik Indonesia, or NKRI),[2] is the world's fourth most populous country and largest archipelago (group of islands) (estimates between 8,000 to 18,000 islands, don't ask), roughly between mainland Asia and Australia, known to Australians and Americans tourists as Bali. Its 250 million people are mostly Sunni Muslims of the Syafi'i branch with local outcrops of other religions (e.g., North Sumatra, predominately Protestant; Bali predominately Hindu, East Nusa Tenggara predominately Catholic, etc.). Despite demographically being the largest Muslim country in the world, culturally, Indonesia has its roots embedded deep in animist beliefs, stemming from assimilation of Hinduism and Buddhism.

In its long and complex history, Indonesia has come under the sway of various empires, most importantly almost three centuries of Dutch rule, specifically under the Dutch India Company (VOC).


End of Dutch rule[edit]

Japanese naval landings in Java, 1942.

Dutch colonial rule ended in 1942 when the Japanese Army invaded South-East Asia. After the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the surrender of the Japanese Army, Indonesian nationalists used this opportunity to achieve independence, which was proclaimed on 17 August 1945 under the leadership of Sukarno and Muhammad Hatta, who later would become Indonesia's first president and vice president. The Dutch, with the support of the Allies (i.e., the British Empire), tried to re-take Indonesia, initially landing in East Java, however heavy guerrilla fighting and a threat by the US to end Marshall Aid to the Netherlands (crippled by the war) forced the Dutch to recognize Indonesian independence. The Dutch aggression also helped Indonesia gain favorable diplomatic support in the international arena of diplomacy.

The new leader Soekarno attempted a democracy of sorts in the form of a democratic dictatorship guided democracy. With Indonesia's economy in turmoil, with inflation rates up to 500%, in a bid to distract the citizens from the hardships they faced, Soekarno created a common enemy in the newly federated states of Malaysia under the guise of labeling them a puppet state of the British with the "Ganyang Malaysia" (roughly defeat or destroy Malaysia) movement. The Indonesian-Malaysian confrontation was an undeclared war that involved a failed attempt to seize control of oil-rich Brunei and Malaysian Borneo using guerrilla warfare in 1963. Malaysian territories were well defended by primarily the Malaysian armed forces complemented by British (which included the Indian Gurkha) and Australian special forces, defeating numerous skirmishes by the Indonesian Army (the many defeats are unknown to most Indonesians and are not taught in the history curriculum). While Sukarno publicly portrayed himself as an anti-colonial and a key protagonist in the non-aligned movement, in reality, he was aiming for a greater Indonesia (Indonesia Raya). This involved the eventual occupation of Malaysia and Brunei and the invasion and incorporation of Papua New Guinea (East Irian) and Australia (South Irian).

1965 coup attempt and mass killings[edit]

In 1965, a failed coup that left several top pro-Soekarno army generals dead was blamed on Indonesia's only communist party (PKI), allegedly backed by China. This led to a widespread mass killing that killed at least half a million people, which not only targeted PKI supporters, alleged supporters, and their extended families, but also the political opponents of the military and Islamists, such as atheist organizations, GerwaniWikipedia (Indonesia's largest women's organization), AbanganWikipedia (a ground of Muslims who practiced an unorthodox fusion of Islam with Buddhism and Hinduism), and ethnic Chinese. Soekarno was forced to hand over command of the militaryWikipedia to the Commander of the Army Strategic Command (Kostrad), General Suharto under disputed circumstances. While Indonesia remained in the Non-Aligned MovementWikipedia, its policies shifted towards the Western world, while it broke off its relations with China until the 1990s.

We shoved wood in their anus until they died. We crushed their necks with wood. We hung them. We strangled them with wire. We cut off their heads. We ran them over with cars. We were allowed to do it. And the proof is, we murdered people and were never punished.
Adi Zulkadry, death squad leader quoted in The Act of Killing.[3]

Declassified documents found that the Western powers, in the middle of the Cold War, refused to prevent and sometimes even actively encouraged the killings, with British spies inciting military generals to take action against the PKI via propaganda[4], while the US embassy purposely withheld information which may hinder the killings, while providing lists of suspected PKI members to the death squads. One cable expressed glee at Indonesia's quick realignment to the capitalist world as a "fantastic switch which has occurred over 10 short weeks."[5] Nevertheless, a 1968 CIA report stated that the killings "rank as one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century, along with the Soviet purges of the 1930s, the Nazi mass murders during the Second World War, and the Maoist bloodbath of the early 1950s.

Suharto and The New Order[edit]

Suharto in 1983.

The rise of Suharto led to a thirty-two-year period of right-wing one-party rule under Golongan Karya (Golkar), which became known as the New Order (multiple political parties were allowed, but only if they had the same policies as the government). Suharto attempted to legitimize his rule by depiction himself as cult figure bringing order to a country wrecked by chaos, and crude propaganda films like Pengkhianatan G30S/PKIWikipedia and Janur KuningWikipedia were required viewing every September 30 and March 1, respectively. Suharto's rule was marked by widespread human rights abuses, an invasion and occupation of Timor-Leste in 1975 (which resulted in the deaths of over 200,000 East Timorese, including 250 via the notorious Santa Cruz massacreWikipedia in 1991), and the annexation of Netherlands New Guinea (renamed Irian Jaya and later renamed Papua) in a fraudulent "Act of Free Choice" in which Papuan tribal elders were forced to cede their territory at gunpoint in 1969. Over 100,000 Papuans are reported to have died under Indonesia's military occupation.[6] Due to dissatisfaction over the New Order regime, particularly its secularism, migration policies, and unequal distribution of oil profits, an insurgency campaign started in Aceh in 1976, which was backed by Libya. As expected, the Indonesia military responded with wide repression against the civilians of Aceh, which lasted until 2005.

However, seeing a need of an staunchly anti-communist ally in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the Western powers generally turned a blind eye to the invasion of East Timor. Henry Kissinger gave US blessings to the invasion, and Indonesian paratroopers landed in East Timor with US-supplied planes. A CIA officer in Indonesia wrote of the US's involvement: "None of that got out in the media. No one gave a damn. It is something that I will be forever ashamed of. The only justification I ever heard for what we were doing was the concern that East Timor was on the verge of being accepted as a new member of the United Nations and there was a chance that the country was going to be either leftist or neutralist and not likely to vote [with the United States] at the UN."[7] Successive Australian governments also provided aid to Indonesia, despite the murder of five Australian journalists by the Indonesian militaryWikipedia, and general sympathy among the Australian public for the East Timorese (which dated back their assistance to Australian troops during WWII campaigns against the Japanese) led to mass protests. Nevertheless, Australia also provided sanctuary for exiled East Timorese leaders like José Ramos-HortaWikipedia and Xanana GusmãoWikipedia.

The Transmigration ProgramWikipedia was a key policy of the New Order - in effect movement of people from densely populated areas of Indonesia to less populous areas of the country. This reduced the proportion of native populations in the target receiving regions and significantly weakened separatist movements. It remains a key cause of conflict and violence between settlers and indigenous populations.[8] The New Order, which blamed Chinese Indonesians for the alleged coup in 1965 and viewed them as potential traitors, introduced several discriminatory laws against themWikipedia, officially banning the usage of Chinese languages and characters, the celebration of Chinese holidays, as well as the forced "Indonesianization" of Chinese names. However, being the hypocritical dictator he was, Suharto had no problems keeping a cabal of ethnic Chinese business magnates around, in order to enrich himself[9].

Suharto's rule also enabled some of the most astonishing corruption that the world has seen. No head of state has ever leeched more off of his country's economy: Even the late Nicolae Ceauşescu of Romania (who devoted 40% of his country's GDP to building a hideous palace) and the late Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines (whose still-living widow Imelda is best described as a bad caricature of an 18th-century French princess mixed with a dash of Lady Macbeth) look like nickel ante amateurs next to Suharto. Just how much he and his (military and military-affiliated) cronies stole is unlikely to be known, as the Suharto clan still holds many assets. Still, the figure is estimated to lie somewhere between the GDP of a small African country and Bernie Madoff. That Indonesia survived his pilfering as well as it did--which is to say, not very well--is a testament to the country's sheer raw potential.[10]

Reformation era[edit]

Riots in Jakarta during the 1998 financial crisis.

After the 1998 Asian Financial Crisis weakened the Indonesian economy, resulting in large capital flight and rapid inflation, the people became angry, and student protests were met with violence from the military, resulting in the deaths of four studentsWikipedia, and the later widespread Jakarta riotsWikipedia which saw the deaths of over a thousand people. Provocateurs allegedly from the military also incited violence against ethnic Chinese establishments. All of these led to Suharto realizing that he lost command of the military, and he quickly resigned from office. His successors ushered in the Reformation Era to re-establish democracy in Indonesia, such as having open legislative and presidential elections, lifting restrictions on political parties and Chinese Indonesians, end of most New Order-era propaganda, and devolution of powers to the provinces. With that said, the Indonesian military which oversaw Suharto's rise and fall still has disproportionate control of the society today, and thanks to them, attempts to properly reevaluate the 1966 mass killings and hold truth and conciliation commissions lay dead in its tracks, and the PKI is still officially blamed.[11]

The also culminated in a referendum in Timor-Leste, where was formulated by the new Indonesian government to legitimize its rule, but backfired after 78% of the population voted for independence. In a sore loser moment, local pro-Indonesian militias, encouraged by the Indonesia military, engaged in a scorched earth campaign to wreck all of Timor-Leste's infrastructure. In response, the US and Australia changed their decades long pro-Indonesian foreign policy, enacted weapons sanctions, and sent in a peacekeeping force to restore order.

The 2000s were marked by various terrorist acts by homegrown extremist Islamist group Jemaah Islamiyah (affiliated with Al Qaeda), the most notorious being the 2002 Bali bombingsWikipedia targeting Australian tourists which resulted in 202 deaths and hundreds of further injuries.

In 2004, Indonesia was devastated by the Boxing Day TsunamiWikipedia, which saw 130,000-167,000 dead in Indonesia, particularly in Aceh, leading to a permanent ceasefire in the Aceh insurgency. The result of a negotiated peace in Aceh Province in Sumatra has been the elevation of many Free Aceh Movement leaders to positions of power in the provincial government. Consequently, a form of sharia law is now enforced in Aceh with regular public whippings. It is considered lenient because there are no stonings.[12] The Free Aceh Movement has also inspired Islamic political groups in Indonesia to take a harder line on crime and punishment.

Joko Widodo was elected president in October 2014 on a populist platform of law reform, including enforcing a compulsory death penalty for drug trafficking.[13]

In 2015, Indonesia's military budget was increased to US$8.1 billion,[14] despite the country receiving substantial foreign aid from Australia (A$606 million) and New Zealand (NZ$48 million).

Religious extremism[edit]

The Ritz-Carlton hotel after the 2009 bombingsWikipedia

Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim nation, with Islam accounting for 87% of the estimated 255 million population, except the island of Bali, where the majority are Hindu. Of that, some 99% are thought to be Sunni Muslims.[15] The province of AcehWikipedia is under sharia law, as a result of the agreement that ended the Aceh insurgency. Between 1999 to 2002, a small sectarian conflictWikipedia also erupted in Malaku between Christian and Muslim militias alongside criminal elements, resulting in 5000 deaths and 700,000 being displaced.

The Islamic Defenders Front or Front Pembela Islam (FPI) was a radical organization notorious for thuggish hate crimes. It used to be the radical Islamic group most likely to be encountered by local Indonesian communities, and prior to its ban, FPI thugs have attacked various churches, popular culture events such as a Lady Gaga concert, minority non-Sunni Muslim communities, and bars, clubs, and retail outlets, and organized protests against Western embassies and the former Christian governor of Jakarta, Ahok, for alleged blasphemy.[16][17] There have been loud calls by Indonesians, including moderate Muslims, for the group to be officially banned, which it eventually did in 2020 after a police raid and footage of FPI's leader pledging itself to DAESH.[18] FPI's leader Rizieq Shihab was jailed in 2021, ironically, for lying about contracting COVID-19 and disregarding legislation to hold mass events. [19]

Particularly since the election of Joko WidodoWikipedia as President in 2014, Islamic political parties are pushing to have the consumption of alcohol banned throughout Indonesia, but this move has received little support.[20]

Extremists also exist in the secular variety. The Pancasila Youth, as shown in the documentary The Act of KillingWikipedia, is a collection of organized criminals masquerading as a far-right nationalist paramilitary in North Sumatra. During the New Order era, it ran death squads with the Indonesian military against PKI supporters and Chinese Indonesians in during Suharto's purges, and helped crush pro-democracy protesters in the tail end of Suharto's rule. Today it is three million strong, and has a habit of extorting local businesses, running illegal gambling parlors, and harassing left-wing activists and supporters of West Papuan independence.


While Indonesia is generally (and correctly) regarded as a moderate Muslim nation,[note 1] there are extreme local groups that have perpetrated acts of terror. Jemaah IslamiyahWikipedia (JI) is a transnational militant terrorist group led by Indonesian national Abu Bakar Bashir, dedicated to establishing a regional Islamic caliphate. Terrorist atrocities committed by JI include two bombings of tourist areas in Bali, the Marriot Hotel and Stock Exchange building in Jakarta, and the coordinated bombing of Christian churches across Indonesia on Christmas Eve 2000. In 2013, JI called for the deaths of all Australians living in Indonesia after it was revealed by Edward Snowden that the Australian government had hacked the mobile telephones of Indonesian politicians, and Australian teachers living in the country were being used to spy on Indonesia.[21][22]

On 14 January 2016, six explosions rocked Jakarta resulting in the death of two bystanders and five of the perpetrators. DAESH claimed that its "crusader alliance" was responsible for these attacks. Indonesian police confirmed that at least one of the attackers was a known local radical who had previously served 7 years in jail for attending militant training camps in the Province of Aceh.[23][24]

Human rights[edit]

Indonesia's House of Representatives.

LGBT rights[edit]

Indonesian law does not prohibit private, same-sex relations between consenting adults. A national bill to criminalize homosexuality, cohabitation, adultery, and the practice of witchcraft, failed to be enacted in 2003, and no subsequent bill has been reintroduced.[25]

Despite condemnation by right-wing religious groups and/or individuals, Indonesia has had a homosexual Minister of Tourism (Joop Ave), traditional entertainment such as Kuda Lumping (traditional Javanese dance), which is rumored to have homosexual screening, and several successful transgender celebrities in the entertainment industry.

In the larger cities of Java and especially in Bali, the LGBT community is quite visible and can even appear to be loud and proud. However, conservative Islamic social mores tend to dominate within the broader society, and periodically LGBT people become the targets of local religious laws or fanatical vigilante groups. For example, in 2015, the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) issued a Fatwa that stigmatized the LGBT population by declaring them “deviant” and an affront to the “dignity of Indonesia.”[26]

In 2002, the semi-autonomous Aceh Province was given permission to introduce Sharia Law, albeit only to Muslim residents. This resulted in a local regulation that punishes any Muslim caught having gay sex with 100 lashes.[27]

Prisoners and disappearances[edit]

Under former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the Indonesian government failed to implement the House of Representatives (DPR) recommendations on cases of enforced disappearances that occurred from 1997 to 1998. On 30 September 2009, the DPR recommended that the government:

  • Establish an ad hoc human rights court.
  • Investigate the disappearance of the 13 missing activists and pro-democracy students.
  • Provide compensation and rehabilitation to the victims’ families.
  • Ratify the ICPPED.[28]

Indonesia’s third Universal Periodic Review took place in Geneva on 3 May 2017. During the review, Indonesia received 225 recommendations. The Indonesian government accepted 150 recommendations and said it would examine and provide a response to the remaining 75 by the 36th session of the UN Human Rights Council, to be held in September 2017. Among the critical recommendations accepted by the government were those that called on Indonesia to ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED); criminalize torture and ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OP-CAT); protect human rights defenders; ensure that anti-terrorism laws and policies comply with international human rights standards.

Regarding the death penalty, Indonesia received 12 recommendations, most of which urged the government to abolish capital punishment for drug-related offenses, establish a moratorium on executions, and ratify the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR-OP2), aiming at the abolition of the death penalty. During the interactive dialogue, Indonesian Law and Human Rights Minister Yasonna Laoly said that Indonesia had “always applied the necessary safeguards based on international standards” in applying the death penalty. Yasonna labeled drug offenses as the “most serious crimes” in line with the interpretation of Indonesia’s Constitutional Court. However, this interpretation is clearly inconsistent with the UN Human Rights Committee (CCPR). The CCPR has repeatedly stressed that capital punishment for drug-related offenses is a clear violation of Article 6 of the ICCPR, to which Indonesia is a state party.[29]


Indigenous Sumatran religious ceremony, 1915.

The country officially recognizes 6 (six) religions: Islam, Protestant, Catholic, Buddha, Hindu (which was uniquely monotheist in the 18th century), and lastly, Confucianism, which was officially recognized in 2011. Woo has a strong presence, despite what religious statistics may infer. In rural areas especially (but by no means only), all manner of woo is accepted and practiced, usually unique to each tribe.

Despite Indonesian law requiring each citizen to declare adherence to one of the six accepted state religions, animism, ancestor worship, and other ancient beliefs are practiced. This manifests itself in witchcraft, specifically shamanism, traditional healing practices, psychic powers, personality cults, etc.

Many Indonesians, including the well-educated, believe in the peculiar concept of masuk angin (literally "entered wind"). In essence, wind entering the body makes you sick. It must be expelled by burping, farting, or the rather scary practice of kerokan - drawing a coin across the back or chest of the victim so firmly that it leaves red welts reminiscent of the aftermath of a whipping. Masuk angin is truly the national illness of Indonesia.[30] Of course, this is just stomach gas or catching a cold.[31]

The Indonesian island of Bali has become something of a Mecca for western practitioners of woo. You name the brand of woo; Bali has it entrenched in its expat community. Any rational human entering an expat cafe in the central Balinese town of Ubud could be forgiven for imagining they had arrived in woo-tastic pseudoscience hell.[32] It was bad before Eat, Pray, Love. Since then...


See also[edit]


  1. For instance, Jakarta, an 80% Muslim city of 10 million, recently elected a Christian governor (now imprisoned due to made-up charges of religious blasphemy laws).


  1. Indonesia. Wikiquote.
  2. Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia
  3. Joshua Oppenheimer’s ‘The Act of Killing’. The Monthly. Retrieved September 2, 2015.
  4. Revealed: how UK spies incited mass murder of Indonesia’s communists
  5. US knew about 1960s mass killings of communists in Indonesia, declassified documents reveal
  6. Welcome to West Papua's War with Indonesia
  7. Hidden Agendas
  8. Transmigration in Indonesia: Lessons from its environmental and social impacts
  9. Indonesia Alert: Economic Crisis Leads to Scapegoating of Ethnic Chinese, February 1998
  10. Politicians Are Rewriting the History of Indonesia's Most Corrupt Dictator
  11. Indonesia unwilling to tackle legacy of massacres
  12. Gay in Aceh? Brace for 100 lashes in front of a jeering crowd
  13. Siagian, Sandra (March 2015). "Indonesian President Unyielding on Death Penalty". Inter Press Service. 
  14. Grevatt, John (17 August 2014). "Indonesia increases defence budget 14%". IHS Jane's Defence Industry. 
  15. Sensus Penduduk 2010
  16. Garut Police Take a Stance Against FPI
  17. Indonesia's Islamo-Fascists
  18. Indonesia bans hardline Islamic Defender's Front group
  19. Indonesia jails cleric for four years over spread of false COVID-19 information.
  20. Danubrata, Eveline (14 April 2015). "Indonesian Islamic parties seek ban on alcohol consumption". Reuters. 
  21. Australia spied on Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, leaked Edward Snowden documents reveal
  22. Jemaah Islamiyah (JI)
  23. Jakarta attacks: Islamic State militants claim responsibility – as it happened
  24. Jakarta attacks: Convicted militant named as attacker
  25. Indonesia Seeks to Imprison Gays
  26. [ In response to anti-LGBT fatwa, Jokowi urged to abolish laws targeting minorities]
  27. Strict Shariah Forces Gays Into Hiding in Aceh.
  30. How to expel wind when you have masuk angin.
  32. Changing Lives and Perceptions in Ubud