Land and People
Consisting of the territory of the former Netherlands East Indies, Indonesia's main island groups are the Greater Sunda Islands, which include Java, Sumatra, central and S Borneo (Kalimantan), and Sulawesi; the Lesser Sunda Islands, consisting of Bali, Flores, Sumba, Lombok, and the western part of Timor; the Moluccas (Maluku), with Ambon, Seram, and Halmahera; and the Riau Archipelago. After years of dispute with the Dutch, W New Guinea (now Papua and West Papua) was formally annexed by Indonesia in Aug., 1969. The most important islands, culturally and economically, are Java, Bali, and Sumatra.
All the larger islands have a central volcanic mountainous area flanked by coastal plains; there are more than 100 active volcanoes. Earthquakes are frequent and, although not usually severe, can sometimes cause devastation. The islands of W Indonesia are subject to heavy rains during the rainy season (Dec.–Mar.), which often cause flooding and landslides. The animal life of Indonesia roughly forms a connecting link between the fauna of Asia and that of Australia. Elephants are found in Sumatra and Borneo, tigers as far south as Java and Bali, and marsupials in Timor and New Guinea. Crocodiles, snakes, and richly colored birds are everywhere. The tropical climate, abundant rainfall, and remarkably fertile volcanic soils permit a rich agricultural yield.
The population falls roughly into two groups, the Malayan and the Papuan, with many of the inhabitants east of Bali representing a transition between the two types. Within each group are numerous subdivisions, and cultural development ranges from the modern Javanese and Balinese to traditional tribes in Borneo, Sumatra, and New Guinea. The complex ethnic structure is the result of several great migrations many centuries ago, largely from Asia. The Chinese constitute by far the greatest majority of the nonindigenous population; they number about 2 to 3 million and play an important role in the country's economic life. There are smaller minorities of Arabs and South Asians.
More than 300 languages are spoken in Indonesia, but an official language, Bahasa Indonesia (a form of Malay), was adopted after independence and is now understood in all but the most remote villages. English is considered to be the country's second language, and Dutch is also spoken. Almost 90% of the population is Muslim, making Indonesia the largest Islamic nation in the world. Slightly less than 10% of the population is Christian, and about 2% is Hindu and 1% Buddhist. Hindus are concentrated principally on Bali, which is known for its unique culture. Animism, sometimes combined with Islam, is common among some groups.
Indonesia is an archipelago in Southeast Asia consisting of 17,000 islands (6,000 inhabited) and straddling the equator. The largest islands are Sumatra, Java (the most populous), Bali, Kalimantan (Indonesia's part of Borneo), Sulawesi (Celebes), the Nusa Tenggara islands, the Moluccas Islands, and Irian Jaya (also called West Papua), the western part of New Guinea. Its neighbor to the north is Malaysia and to the east is Papua New Guinea.
Indonesia, part of the “ring of fire,” has the largest number of active volcanoes in the world. Earthquakes are frequent. Wallace's line, a zoological demarcation between Asian and Australian flora and fauna, divides Indonesia.
The 17,000 islands that make up Indonesia were home to a diversity of cultures and indigenous beliefs when the islands came under the influence of Hindu priests and traders in the first and second centuries Muslim invasions began in the 13th century, and most of the archipelago had converted to Islam by the 15th century. Portuguese traders arrived early in the next century but were ousted by the Dutch around 1595. The Dutch United East India Company established posts on the island of Java, in an effort to control the spice trade.
After Napoléon subjugated the Netherlands in 1811, the British seized the islands but returned them to the Dutch in 1816. In 1922, Indonesia was made an integral part of the Dutch kingdom. During World War II, Japan seized the islands. Tokyo was primarily interested in Indonesia's oil, which was vital to the war effort, and tolerated fledgling nationalists such as Sukarno and Mohammed Hatta. After Japan's surrender, Sukarno and Hatta proclaimed Indonesian independence on Aug. 17, 1945. Allied troops, mostly British Indian forces, fought nationalist militias to reassert the prewar status quo until the arrival of Dutch troops.