Many of the nations we visit in music class have been inhabited for a long, long time, but very few have ever been able to legitimately call themselves “the birthplace of humanity.” Indonesia was able to stake that claim for about 80 years. In 1891, on the banks of the Solo River in East Java, paleoanthropologist Eugene Dubois discovered the fossils of “Java Man,” who lived more than 1.5 million years ago. For many years scientists believed Java Man to be the oldest guy around, at least until 1974, when a set of older bones appeared in Kenya. (darn.) Still, people lived in Indonesia quite a while ago.

Today anthropologists believe that the bulk of Indonesia’s early population came from Taiwan and joined Java Man’s grandkids about four thousand years ago. Because of the
islands’ geography early Indonesians were predominantly involved in ocean-related work and trade with India and China; by 700s, most Indonesians who practiced a non-animist religion had become Buddhist or Hindu. The islands’ religious makeup changed when Muslim traders arrived in the 1200s. By the time the first European explorers arrived from Portugal in the 16th century, Islam had become the archipelago’s dominant religion.

In 1602 Dutch traders established the Dutch East India Company and in 1800 established “the Dutch East Indies” as a nation. The Dutch occupied the Dutch East Indies for nearly 450 years before World War II, when Japan invaded and replaced them. During the War Japan actually encouraged Indonesia’s independence movement and in 1945 movement leader Sukarno became the president of a newly independent nation. After the War the Dutch tried to reassert their authority but the Indonesians fought back. An intense armed and diplomatic struggled ended with the Dutch recognizing Indonesian sovereignty and with all the republics of Indonesia unifying by 1950.

Sukarno started his rule by declaring the Indonesia State Philosophy, called Pancasila (politics), which Indonesian school children had to memorize for decades afterward.

  1. Belief in one God, with obligation for Muslims to observe Islamic law. (this principle has since been modified to include religions other than Islam.)
  2. Civilized and just humanity
  3. Unity of Indonesia
  4. Democracy through representative consensus-building
  5. Social justice for all Indonesians

Unfortunately for Indonesia, Sukarno’s government didn’t live up to the high standards
set out in the Pancasila. The immediate post-Independence period seemed to be an endless series of struggles between the national government and Islamists in places like West Java, South Sulawesi and Aceh, while the national government also fought pro-federalism groups in Bandung, Makassar and Ambon.

Sukarno believed Western-style democracy wasn’t right for Indonesia and instead proposed making national decisions not with political parties but through a system of “guided democracy” based upon a collection of “functional groups” that would come together to form a National Council that would ultimately come to national consensus on important decisions. Elements within his government didn’t like this scheme and, with the help of the CIA which saw “guided democracy” as a code phrase for Communism, tried to remove him from power (and, through assassination attempts, from life).

Sukarno eventually consolidated his government; in 1960 disbanded and replaced the parliament, and in 1963 became President for Life. He also strongly squelched popular uprising and dissent, all the while balancing the power of the Communist party with that of the non-Communist military. During this time Indonesia’s economy went into a tailspin. When the U.S. offered food assistance, Sukarno, accusing the U.S. of supporting his opposition and therefore, he thought, at the root of his nation’s problems, famously told U.S. officials “To hell with your aid!”

On the 30th of September, 1965, a Major General named Suharto led a failed coup. In the following weeks of instability the military and Islamic parties, with alleged support by the U.S., “purged” the Communists, as well as an estimated half million other Indonesians. Weak and weary, Sukarno stepped down in 1968 and Suharto became president and declared “the New Order,” which established a false veneer of democracy, consolidated military and bureaucratic rule, squashed political dissent and received a substantial amount of support from the U.S. Under Suharto’s rule Indonesia’s economy grew, but so did the
pocketbooks of many of its leaders; after the Indonesian economy collapsed in the 1997 Asian economic crisis and a 1998-9 revolution ousted Suharto, he and his family were
estimated to be worth $15 billion. (His response to the accusation that he robbed the Indonesian people? “I’m just a good saver.”)

Today Indonesia is apparently more stable than it was at any point during either Sukarno or Suharto’s rule. The country has moved to a system of multiparty representative democracy and its economy is growing, even though the per capita yearly income for the average Indonesian is $600. (They should all save as well as Suharto…)Â Despite a 2002 bombing in Bali and a series of devastating natural disasters, specifically the 2004 tsunami and the October 2010 volcanic eruption of the Mt. Marapi, tourists continue to flock to Indonesian resorts to surf, soak in sun and to explore its thousands of islands, its hundreds of cultures and its recent ability, despite its diversity, to stay whole.

More information:
Wikipedia on Indonesia Reconsidering Sukarno as a hero | The Sukarno years:
a photo and text documentary | The NYTimes’ Suharto File | A little more about Guided Democracy | (this link for grown-ups) Covert Action Quarterly accuses CIA of supporting Suharto | Indonesia requires every citizen to declare a religion on his/her official ID card | Indonesia’s disastrous occupation of East Timor | Indonesia’s equally
calamitous occupation of Aceh ended soon after the tsumani

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