Indonesia is a nation made up of thousands of islands that stretch in a long arc between the mainland of Southeast Asia and Australia. Indonesia is the largest country of Southeast Asia in both area and population. It ranks fourth among the nations of the world in population, after China, India, and the United States. Formerly a Dutch colony known as the Netherlands East Indies, Indonesia proclaimed its independence in 1945. It officially became an independent nation in 1949. Since that time, Jakarta has served as Indonesia's capital.


Most Indonesians are descended from Malay peoples who came to the islands from the Asian mainland thousands of years ago. Other ethnic groups include Chinese, Arabs, and people from India. Descendants of the earliest inhabitants of the islands live mainly in Irian Jaya (the western portion of the island of New Guinea). The native people of the island of Borneo are known as Dayaks.

Indonesia's large population is unevenly distributed among the islands. More than half the people live on the fertile island of Java. Since 1969, more than 5 million Javanese have been resettled on less populated islands in an effort to ease the overcrowding on Java, one of the most densely populated areas in the world.


Bahasa Indonesia was adopted as the national language when Indonesia declared its independence. It is closely related to Malay and is spoken throughout the islands. About 250 other languages and dialects are spoken in various parts of the country, including English, Dutch, and Javanese.


About 90 percent of all Indonesians follow the religion of Islam, making Indonesia the world's most populous Muslim nation. Most of the people on the island of Bali are Hindus. Many of the ethnic Chinese are Buddhists. Christians are found on several of the islands, especially the Moluccas. Some Indonesians, especially on Borneo and New Guinea, follow traditional native religions. Freedom of religion is guaranteed to all Indonesians under the constitution.


Indonesian children are required to complete six years of primary school education. Increasing numbers of children are attending secondary school, which consists of three years of junior high school and three years of senior high school. Indonesia has many colleges and universities. The largest include Gadjah Mada University in the city of Yogyakarta, the University of Indonesia in Jakarta, and the Institute of Technology in Bandung.

Way of Life

In the cities, Indonesian men wear Western-style clothing. Native influence is seen only in the black velvet caps some of them wear. Indonesian women often wear wraparound skirts of hand-printed batik cloth, long-sleeved jackets, and scarves called selendang over their shoulders.

More than 40 percent of all Indonesians are farmers who till small plots of land. In much of the country, rice is the main crop. But on the drier eastern islands, corn or cassava (a starchy root) is the staple crop. In addition to these crops, vegetables, fish, eggs, chickens, and spices make up the daily diet.

Farm families are generally larger than city families, and everyone must work. Young girls help their mothers sew and thresh rice in the afternoons, after they have finished school and religious training. Boys as young as 8 help their fathers weed and plow the rice paddies. On Muslim religious holidays, there are grand festivities in which all the families of a community can take part because normal work is suspended.

In the cities people may work in the construction industry or in factories making clothing, shoes, and textiles, such as the batik-styled fabric for which Indonesia is famous. Others have jobs in modern shopping centers, hotels, or office buildings, while many of the poor eke out a living driving taxicabs or selling food from small street stands. When economic times are good, people from rural areas often move to the cities in search of a better life. When times are hard, they may return home.


The islands of Indonesia extend for about 3,500 miles (5,640 kilometers) from the northern tip of Sumatra to the middle of the island of New Guinea. Indonesia shares New Guinea, the world's second largest island, with the nation of Papua New Guinea.

The country is usually divided into several island groups. The four major islands, Java, Sumatra, Borneo, and Celebes, belong to the group known as the Greater Sunda Islands. To the east of Java lie the Lesser Sunda Islands, which include Bali, Lombok, Sumba, Sumbawa, Flores, and Timor. Located between Celebes and New Guinea are the Moluccas, which include Buru, Ceram, Ambon, Halmahera, Morotai, the Aru Islands, and many other small islands. The easternmost part of Indonesia, Irian Jaya, occupies the western part of New Guinea.

The Greater Sunda Islands (Sunda Besar)

Indonesia's most heavily developed and densely populated island is Java (Jawa), which lies south of the equator. Java covers about 49,000 square miles (127,000 square kilometers). In the north is a low coastal plain. Inland there are volcanoes, mountain ranges, and plateaus. Some isolated plains are found in the south. The longest river in Java is the Solo. Other rivers are generally short and broken by many rapids. On an island in the Sunda Strait, which separates Java from Sumatra, is the volcano known as Krakatau (Krakatoa). In 1883, a terrible eruption of this volcano caused great destruction and loss of life.

Indonesia shares the island of Borneo with the nations of Malaysia and Brunei. Borneo is the third largest island in the world.

The Indonesian part of Borneo, known as Kalimantan, covers most of the island. Many people in Kalimantan live in the coastal areas. The interior is rugged, with mountains, swift rivers, and dense rain forests and jungles.

The island of Sumatra (Sumatera) covers more than 163,000 square miles (422,170 square kilometers). Along the eastern coast are high swamps. The Barisan Mountains, with many active volcanoes, stretch along the southwestern coast. Most of the rivers—including the Musi, Hari, Indragiri, and Kampar—begin in these mountains and flow eastward and northeastward.

Four peninsulas make up the island of Celebes (Sulawesi). They branch out from a mountainous area in the center of the island and are separated by three gulfs—Bone, Tomini, and Tolo. Celebes covers about 69,000 square miles (179,000 square kilometers). Most of the people live on the southwestern peninsula.

The Lesser Sunda Islands (Nusa Tenggera)

To the east of Java stretches a chain of mountainous islands known as the Lesser Sunda Islands. Their total area is about 28,000 square miles (72,500 square kilometers).

Bali, the best known of these islands, is famous for its scenic beauty, temples, sculpture, and crafts. Hindu customs and the Hindu religion are widespread on the island.

Timor is the largest island of the group. In 1976 the eastern part of the island, formerly a Portuguese colony, was declared part of Indonesia. East Timor achieved full independence in 2002.

The Moluccas (Maluku).

The Moluccas, also known as the Spice Islands, lie between Celebes and New Guinea. They consist of hundreds of islands, covering a total area of about 33,000 square miles (85,500 square kilometers). The largest one, Halmahera, covers 6,870 square miles (17,790 square miles). Spices from the Moluccas, such as cloves, nutmeg, and mace, have been valued throughout the world for hundreds of years.

Irian Jaya.

This part of Indonesia, on the western part of New Guinea, covers approximately 160,000 square miles (414,000 square kilometers). In the interior, the peaks of the Maoke (Snow) Mountains rise to great heights. Parts of Irian Jaya have never been explored.


In general, the climate of Indonesia is tropical, meaning high temperatures, much rainfall, and a year-round growing season. Indonesia's climate is determined by its location on and near the equator and by the two different seasonal winds known as monsoons—the dry monsoon and the wet monsoon. Throughout the year temperatures average about 27°C (80°F) in the lowlands, although some relief from the humidity can be found in the mountains. Western Indonesia receives the heaviest rainfall. Rainfall in the east is more moderate.

Natural Resources.

The most agriculturally productive areas of Indonesia are generally found in regions with volcanic soil and in river valleys. These are found in Java and in parts of Sumatra and Celebes.

Many of the islands have valuable mineral deposits. Petroleum is found on Java, Sumatra, Borneo, and Irian Jaya, and there are extensive natural gas fields in Sumatra and Borneo. Tin is found on Bangka and Belitung, and copper and nickel on Celebes. Diamonds, gold, and silver are found on Borneo and Sumatra. Coal is also found on Sumatra.


Indonesia is one of the world's leading producers of tin, natural rubber, palm oil, copra (dried coconut meat), and petroleum and natural gas. It is also a major source of nickel, coffee, and tea. Manufacturing has increased greatly since the 1980's, although agriculture (including forestry and fishing) remains the single most important economic activity. Tourism is a growing source of income.

Beginning in 1997, after a decade of rapid economic growth, Indonesia was affected by an economic crisis that began in Thailand and soon spread through much of Southeast Asia. Millions of workers lost their jobs, the value of the currency fell, and prices for basic goods such as sugar, cooking oil, and rice increased dramatically.


Petroleum and natural gas, textiles, cement, chemical fertilizers, plywood, food products, and rubber are among the nation's most valuable products. Clothing, paper, shoes, and electrical and electronic products also are made in Indonesia. Much of the country's manufacturing activity is centered in Java, although the government is encouraging industrial development on other islands.

Agriculture, Forestry, and Fishing.

Besides growing crops such as rice, cassava, and corn for food, many Indonesians work on plantations specializing in products for export. These include rubber, copra, palm oil, spices, and sugarcane. Chickens are the most widely found livestock, but goats, cattle, and sheep are also raised.

Indonesia's forests yield many resins, medicines, fibers, and fruits. Bamboo is a plant with many uses, and rattan is made into wicker products, such as furniture. The waters surrounding the islands provide ample quantities of fish for local consumption.

Many illegal fires are set to clear thousands of acres of tropical rain forest for farming and logging. In 1997 and 1998, when the normal monsoon rains did not arrive, the fires raged out of control, causing severe air pollution and health problems.


Indonesia is the world's largest producer of liquefied natural gas and a leading producer of tin. Bauxite (aluminum ore), nickel, copper, gold, and coal are also mined.


Indonesia's leading exports include natural gas and petroleum, textiles and clothing, wood products, shoes, and electrical and electronic products. Leading imports include machinery, transportation and electrical equipment, chemicals, and foods. Indonesia's chief trading partners are the United States, Singapore, and Japan.


A road and railway network connects cities in Java and Sumatra. Sea and air transportation services link the various islands. The nation's largest airport, the Sukarno-Hatta International Airport, is located outside Jakarta. Garuda Indonesia, the national airline, provides both domestic and international service.

Major Cities

Jakarta, (also known as Djakarta) in western Java, is the capital of Indonesia and the economic center of the nation. Home to approximately 7 million people, Jakarta is by far the most populous city in Indonesia.

Surabaya, Indonesia's second largest city, is located in eastern Java. A major port, Surabaya was the primary naval base of the Dutch East Indies before 1942. The city remains a major point of export for Indonesian sugar, coffee, and spices. Also a center of manufacturing, Surabaya's industries include fishing, shipbuilding, textile manufacturing, and petroleum refining.

Cultural Heritage

Many of Indonesia's arts developed as a result of foreign contact. Hindu and Buddhist influences are seen in many temples, such as those found on the island of Bali and in the Borobudur shrine in central Java.

Drama is often in the form of puppet plays called wayang. In these plays, puppets are used to enact stories from such ancient Hindu epic literature as the Mahabharata and Ramayana. The wayang are accompanied by music played by a gamelan, an orchestra of mostly percussion instruments.

On the island of Bali, girls from the age of 5 learn dances that tell old Hindu stories.


From 1949 until 1959, Indonesia had a parliamentary form of government. It proved unsuccessful, and Indonesia returned to the government of its 1945 constitution. Under this constitution, which was revised in 1999, the president is the head of state, the head of government, and the supreme commander of the armed forces. The president is elected for a 5-year term by the People's Consultative Assembly. This assembly includes the 500 members of the national legislature and an additional 200 representatives of various organizations and regions. The president is assisted by a cabinet of ministers.

The legislature, called the House of People's Representatives, consists of 38 members appointed by the armed forces and 462 additional members elected by the people. Governors are appointed by the central government to administer Indonesia's many provinces. Supreme court justices are appointed by the president.


For many decades scientists believed that the earliest human beings lived on Java. In 1891, skull and bone fragments of "Java Man," who lived about 1 million years ago, were found there. But fossil remains of humanlike beings found more recently in eastern Africa predate those in Indonesia.

The Hindu Era.

Indian traders and priests from Asia began to settle in parts of Sumatra and Java around the AD 100's. They later introduced both the Buddhist and Hindu religions and founded several kingdoms. The most important of these were Sriwidjaya, which flourished on Sumatra from the 600's to the 1200's, and Majapahit, which was dominant on Java from the 1200's to the 1500's. Islam was first introduced to the islands around 1100. It eventually replaced Hinduism as the major religion.

The Arrival of Europeans.

The Portuguese who captured Melaka, in Malaysia, in 1511 were the first Europeans to come to the islands. Dutch traders founded the Dutch East India Company in 1602. It lasted until 1798, when the government of the Netherlands took over its functions. Several other European countries, including the United Kingdom, France, and Spain, developed commercial interests on some of the islands. They were soon barred by the Dutch, who gradually established a full colony in the region called the Netherlands East Indies. From the 1600's to the 1800's, the Netherlands slowly spread its influence over the islands.

The Dutch Colonial Period.

In the early 1800's, the United Kingdom temporarily occupied Java and some of the other islands. The Netherlands, previously interested only in trade, then moved to establish strict political control, which it maintained for the next century. In 1918, a limited voice in government was given to Indonesians with the formation of the Volksraad (People's Council).

The Road to Independence.

During World War II (1939-45), Japan's early military successes inspired Indonesian nationalists. The Japanese also encouraged self-government after they occupied the Indonesian islands. On August 17, 1945, after Japan surrendered to the Allies, a revolutionary government was set up by nationalist leader Sukarno (1901-70) to resist reoccupation by the Netherlands. Indonesia was declared a republic with a presidential form of government. The Netherlands refused to recognize the self-proclaimed nation, and fighting continued. Finally, on December 27, 1949, Indonesia officially gained its independence.

Since Independence.

Sukarno served as president of Indonesia from 1949 to 1967. In 1960, he dissolved the legislature and appointed a new body to set in action a policy referred to as Guided Democracy. In 1965, he withdrew Indonesia from the United Nations. Later that year, Indonesian Communists attempted a coup against the government. About 500,000 people died in the fighting before the revolt was put down by the army. A new government was formed, led by General Suharto (1921- ). Sukarno was stripped of power, although he retained the title of president until 1967. Indonesia rejoined the United Nations in 1966. The former Dutch colony of West New Guinea remained under Dutch rule until 1962. In 1969, the United Nations officially gave Indonesia control of the vast territory, which was renamed Irian Jaya.

During the 1970's, the Indonesian government put down revolts on Irian Jaya and other outlying areas. When civil war broke out on Portuguese East Timor in 1975, Indonesians occupied the colony and declared it a province of Indonesia the following year.

After officially becoming president in 1968, Suharto strengthened the central government, and the economy flourished. But by 1998, riots sparked by rising prices and widespread unemployment forced him to resign. His successor, B. J. Habibie, proved unable to unify the country.

In 1999, in the first democratic transfer of power in Indonesia's history, Abdurrahman Wahid was elected president and Megawati Sukarnoputri, Sukarno's daughter, was elected vice president. The new legislature placed East Timor under the transitional authority of the United Nations. Wahid was unable to end economic hardships or ethnic and religious violence and was impeached by the legislature in July 2001. Megawati then became president. East Timor achieved independence on May 20, 2002.

In 2002, the government took steps to control militant groups, but terrorist bombs later ripped through a nightclub in Bali, killing more than 200 people. Changes in government included constitutional amendments that would allow for direct presidential elections by the people and the elimination of a reserved bloc of parliamentary seats for the military beginning in 2004. The government also signed a short-lived peace agreement with rebels in Aceh province, who had long sought independence.