A fragmented equatorial archipelago of about 17,000 islands, Indonesia is populated with a diverse array of cultures that have been influenced to varying degrees by Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and indigenous beliefs.
The archipelago is first exposed to the West in the 16th Century when the Portuguese attempt to monopolise the lucrative spice trade and spread Christianity. Among the bases they establish is the enclave of Portuguese East Timor.
The Portuguese are supplanted by the Dutch in the first half of the 17th Century, with the Dutch-based United East India Company (VOC) achieving the Portuguese dream of monopolising the spice trade, although not without resistance from the British and Spanish.
The Dutch establish Batavia (modern Jakarta) as their Indonesian capital and are ruthless in their determination to secure absolute control of the spice trade in the region. When the VOC is abolished in 1799 its territories become the property of the Dutch Government.
In 1811 the British seize control of the territories but in 1816, following a peace settlement at the conclusion of the Napoleonic wars in Europe, they are returned to the Dutch.
During the 19th Century the Dutch extend their colonial rule across the archipelago, bringing all the land area of modern Indonesia, with the exception of Portuguese East Timor, under their control. Aceh, a fiercely independent Islamic state in westernmost part of Sumatra, is one of the last provinces brought into the Dutch sphere, and then only after a bloody war lasting from 1873 to 1903. The western half of New Guinea is subjugated only after the First World War.
In the early years of the 20th Century the movement for independence begins to gain pace, aided by improvements to the education system and the growth of political organisations, including the Indonesian Communist Party (Partai Komunis Indonesia, PKI), formed in 1924. In 1928 future president Sukarno emerges as a charismatic political leader.
The Japanese occupy the archipelago during the Second World War and allow the movement for independence to grow. On 17 August 1945, three days after Japan's surrender, Indonesia proclaims its independence.
When the Dutch attempt to reimpose control a war for independence breaks out, the 'National Revolution', lasting until December 1949 when the Republic of the United States of Indonesia (RUSI) is established with Sukarno as president. Though Sukarno boasts that Indonesia will stretch "from Sabang to Merauke" neither Portuguese East Timor nor West New Guinea is included in the republic.
The RUSI is subsequently consolidated as the Republic of Indonesia, with Jakarta as its capital. Sukarno achieves mass public support and the backing of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Indonesia (ABRI) and the PKI. However, his rule becomes increasingly more capricious and destabilising and the involvement of the PKI is increasingly seen as a threat.
When the PKI supposedly attempts a coup d'état in September 1965 the army steps in. Sukarno is deposed. Major-general Suharto rises to power, establishing a 'New Order' (Orde Baru).
- Indonesia - A Country Study - Library of Congress Country Studies Series