On August 17th, Indonesia celebrated its 70th year of independence. Here’s why you should care:
First of all, you know more about Indonesia than you think. It’s likely you’ve heard of Java and Sumatra from your local coffee shop. Then there’s Borneo (Indonesia calls it Kalimantan and shares the landmass with Malaysia and Brunei), one you probably know for its jungle and subsequent monkeys. And of course Bali, the island famous for its vacationing hippies, surfers, and Australians. Well, all these places and a whole lot more comprise Indonesia.
It’s okay to admit you hadn’t put all that together, not many Americans or Europeans (apart from the Netherlands) know much about the Archipelago. And even if you’ve been here, it’s hard to grasp the sheer enormity of the country. There are upwards of 250 million people that live on some 17,000 islands stretched across a distance roughly equal to that of Lisbon to Tehran. There are hundreds of ethnic groups and an equal diversity of local languages and dialects. It’s a huge, complex, and increasingly important place, which should be enough to pique your interest but here’s why you should really care that Indonesians just celebrated their country’s 70th birthday.
Prior to declaring independence from the Dutch in chaotic days immediately after World War II ended, Indonesia wasn’t much of a country, let alone a nation. It was a vast stretch of resource-rich islands that for nearly 400 years, until it was was conquered by Japan in early 1942, had been controlled by the Dutch. In its 70 years of nationhood, Indonesia has lived in a kind of international purgatory. It’s a country that is too big to ignore but one that has never quite lived up to its potential; a country that is incredibly proud of its heritage, both ancient and modern, while harboring deep insecurities about its history and national identity. In its paradoxes, Indonesia is the embodiment of the forces and failures that have shaped the post-war world.
It’s not enough to say that Indonesia is “important” because its home to the fourth largest population in the world or because it is the most populous Muslim-majority country in the world. These are factoids that are useless without context.
With the additional knowledge that Indonesia’s 220 million-plus Muslims are trending toward social conservatism – headscarves are becoming more popular, the country’s Islamic political parties have recently pushed through laws restricting the sale of alcohol while planning measures to ban it completely, and Aceh, a semi-autonomous province at the northern tip of Sumatra, has instituted a form of Sharia law- it not only becomes clearer who Indonesians are and what they believe, but global patterns are easily recognized.
Islam is only part of Indonesia’s story. The country has a growing middle class whose thirst for traditionally Western images of success – things like cars and shopping malls – has already left indelible marks on both the landscape and culture. Capitalism, the consumer-is-king kind that defined the American economy of the last century, has taken hold as more Indonesians find themselves with disposable income (or debt). But in a time when many in the West are looking for alternatives to the environmental devastation caused by that consumerism – things like reducing the use plastic, investing in public transport, and reducing carbon emissions come to mind – Indonesia seems a crucial step behind. Greater Jakarta, the world’s second largest megacity and home to 30 million people, does not have a mass rapid transit system and recycling plastic is nearly non-existent. How Indonesia’s middle class adjusts (along with the exploding middle classes of China and India) to sustainability will be a key barometer to how the so-called ‘developing world’ responds to climate change.
Indonesia also finds itself at the in a unique and important position geo-politically. The location of the archipelago and its maritime chokepoints between China and the Indian Ocean have always been central to the country’s identity and geo-strategic importance. Indeed current-President Joko Widodo promised in his election campaign to make Indonesia a “global maritime axis” and has set about tightening the country’s maritime security and expanding diplomacy to its neighbors. Over the next decade, its neutral relationship between the China and the West and its ASEAN allies in the region (Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam) combined with a lack of skin in the South China Sea game, could place the country squarely in the much-needed role of intermediary if and when tensions rise.
Finally, what Indonesians actually celebrated on Monday was 70 years of nationhood. When Sukarno (the country’s first President who ruled for nearly 20 years before being deposed in a military coup) declared the Republic of Indonesia on August 17, 1945, the modern idea of “Indonesia” was only a couple decades old. Like much of the nationalism that has drawn the world’s current borders, Indonesia’s strain does have some historical basis, a concept called ‘Nusantara’. But like many other nations, this heritage, alongside a bloody and often heroic origin story (much like the American Revolution), was co-opted, crafted, and fueled by successive dictators and their elites in order to further a strong central government.
Indonesian patriotism is alive and well and – much like its American counterpart – is often convoluted with an inability to admit sin. As American “patriots” ignore racial prejudices and the wrongs of slavery, Indonesia has started the painful process of recognizing (if not yet reconciling) some of its own. This most notably means the genocide of hundreds of thousands of communists, their sympathizers, and ethnic Chinese in 1965-66. This oft-forgotten and/or misremembered tragedy was only introduced to Western and Indonesian audiences through the brilliant documentary companion pieces, “The Act of Killing” and “The Look of Silence”, by Joshua Oppenheimer. Yet despite the films’ widespread acclaim, knowledge of the events both in the country and outside, remains marginal.
Understanding Indonesia’s past, studying its present, and looking to its future – all three of which its citizens celebrated on Monday – are no longer activities reserved for scholars of South East Asia. As its 70th birthday passes, the country’s growing global importance and ability to act as a global weathervane should be marked as well. The news coming from the archipelago is more important than plane crashes and volcanoes and we’d be smart if we started watching.