Sunday, July 31, 2011

Country of the Week: INDONESIA

On the left is Sukarno (d. 1970), Indonesia's first president. He is talking with Suharto (d. 2008), the military leader who would later oust him and rule the country for more than thirty years. [The kind of cap worn by Sukarno is called a "peci" by Indonesians].

Japan occupied Indonesia for most of World War II. Independence from the Netherlands was achieved in 1949.

By 1965, with the encouragement of Sukarno, the Communist Party was becoming more and more powerful, and showing its influence at all levels of government. The army was deeply split. In late September there was a coup attempt in which half a dozen senior generals were kidnapped and killed. General Suharto led the fightback, eventually taking the governmental reins of power, and had more than half a million leftists executed. "As a result of the purge, one of Sukarno's three pillars of support, the Indonesian Communist Party, was effectively eliminated by the other two, the military and political Islam."

As America ramped up the war in Vietnam, the evidence was clear that one of the biggest dominoes was not going to fall... The march of scientific socialism turned out to be a bit less inevitable than the Soviets and Chinese claimed.

[When Suharto came to power, all Indonesian students studying overseas were called home. Among them was the stepfather of Barack Obama -- so from age 6 to 10 he went to school in the capital city of Jakarta, before returning to Hawaii in 1971.]

Indonesia is the world's largest archipelago, with more than 17,000 islands straddling the equator -- about a third of which are inhabited. The two largest are Java (the world's most populous island) and Sumatra. Indonesia is roughly halfway between Australia and Vietnam.

Indonesia has the world's largest Muslim population (over 200 million of 245 million total). Its northern neighbor Malaysia is also Muslim but had a British colonial history. Its most eastern neighbor East Timor is one of Asia's two majority-Catholic nations. In late 1975, East Timor declared its independence; but later that year was invaded and occupied by Indonesia, and was declared Indonesia's 27th province the following year. In 1999, East Timor became independent. The war for independence was bloody. The active Catholicity of the island owes more to the role of the Church in that conflict than its Portuguese history.

Though Indonesian Chinese make up just 4 percent of the population, they have traditionally dominated the economy. In recent years they have been subjected to many violent attacks.

Indonesia is the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas.

There are more active volcanoes in Indonesia than any other country. The most famous is Krakatoa, which in August 1883 exploded with such a bang that people heard it three thousand miles away.

The Komodo dragon -- the largest species of lizard -- is found on several islands of Indonesia. The males can grow as long as ten feet. They eat wild pigs and buffalo, deer, snakes, and dead fish.

Muslim traders worked their way eastward across Asia, journeying from India -- but there were no large conversions to Islam until the end of the 13th century in northern Sumatra. The Islamization of Indonesia was very slow, with much adaptation and syncretism. By the time the Dutch arrived at the start of the 17th century, though, most of Indonesia was Muslim (the only Hindu area was the island of Bali; east of Java, it is today the most popular tourist destination in the nation).

'La Serenissima' -- the serene Republic of Venice -- enjoyed a stranglehold over the spice trade in Europe from 1200 to 1500. (They were supplied by Arab traders who never revealed the exact source.) Everyone else of course was irascible at having to hand over so much lucre to the Venetians, which finally led to the Age of Discovery: "We'll find our own bloody route to the Spice Islands!" In 1512 Europeans began making contacts with Indonesians. The Portuguese explorer, Francisco Serrao, tried to take over the control of nutmeg and other spices in the Maluku Islands (Moluccas). [At the time, the small Banda Islands there were the world's only source.] Serrao's letters to his cousin, Ferdinand Magellan, helped persuade the Spanish king to finance the famous circumnavigation. In the 17th century the Dutch forcibly took control of the spice trade.

Today Indonesia still produces 75 percent of the world crop of nutmeg. The nutmeg tree provides both mace and nutmeg (slightly sweeter.)

UPDATE -- From a George Will column years ago on the subject of Krakatoa's 19th-century explosion: "Three months after the eruption, firemen in Poughkeepsie, New York, scrambled in search of what they thought was an immense conflagration that caused the sky to glow. Actually, the glow was light refracted by Krakatoa's debris."

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