HISTORY by Jeffry Babb News Weekly
What is Indonesia? From Java man to Islam
, July 4, 2015
Indonesia is many things. When we think of Indonesia, we think first of “Republik Indonesia”, the political entity that came into being on August 17, 1949, remembered as Tuju Belas Agustus. After almost four centuries of Dutch rule, the people of Indonesia could control their own destiny.
The Hindu Prambanan temple in
Such an easy opening would not reveal the whole story. Indeed, many Indonesian historians of a nationalist bent would disagree violently with this beginning, because it would imply that Indonesia was a creation of the Dutch; that the nation of Indonesia was laid down on the bare bones of Dutch colonialism.
Certainly, it is surprising that an administration of almost four centuries left such a slim legacy. Almost no one speaks Dutch. Compare this with the fact that English remains a binding influence in India, where the population speaks a diversity of first languages. Although India gained its independence from Britain almost 70 years ago, English is a common language, at least among educated Indians.
The national language of Indonesia is Bahasa Indonesia, a form of Malay that gained acceptance as a trading language. Indonesians of mixed European race are rare, and they have never held strategic positions in areas of the economy, for example the railways, as Anglo-Indians have done in India. Quite frankly, what the Indonesians call kulit putih (white skins) are not liked. It is not uncommon for young men to yell out belanda! (an insulting term for a Dutchman, by extension any foreigner) to white people they see on the street.
If Indonesia is more than a former Dutch colony, what is it then?
Indonesia has been shaped by trade. Strung out from Sumatra to West Papua, it is composed of over 17,000 islands, a third of which are inhabited. This island chain is the barrier and transit route through which seaborne trade must find its way from the Indian Ocean to the rich markets of Asia. These choke points are a treasure in themselves.
One hears of 50,000 years of human occupation of the Australian continent, but Australia is newly settled compared with Indonesia. Indonesia was occupied by Java man, who lived at least 1.5 million years ago. The modern population of Indonesia is mainly an Austronesian people descended from an ethnic group that made its way from China via Taiwan to Indonesia around 2000 BC. The Filipinos and Polynesians also made their way from Taiwan to islands of the Pacific. The Austronesian peoples were among the greatest navigators and seamen the world has ever known. Their languages share common roots.
The common cultural roots of the Indonesian people were recognised long before “Indonesia” was so called. We are so accustomed to thinking of India as a British possession for most of its modern history that we neglect the profound cultural influence India had throughout Asia. Indo–China and Indo–Nesia are reflections of the culturally dynamic relationships India had with adjoining cultural and political entities.
What was known as the “Indian Archipelago” included not only Indonesia but also the Philippines. The term “Indonesia” was first used by British anthropologist J.R. Logan in 1850. Thus, the name “Indonesia” refers to a cultural entity which predates Dutch domination of the entire archipelago.
Dutch rule was never total. The Dutch East Indies was still in a process of evolution when the army of Imperial Japan overthrew Dutch rule at the beginning of World War II. Dutch rule encompassed little more than the island of Java and the Spice Islands for most of the colonial era. The Republic of Indonesia as a political entity, rather than a cultural entity, came into being with the intention taking in all the islands of Indonesia as a cultural entity, not necessarily only those which had been Dutch possessions.
The outcome has not been happy. Irian Jaya, now known as the Province of Papua (also known as West Papua), was absorbed into Indonesia after an “Act of Free Choice” in 1969 terminated Dutch colonial rule. A low-level insurrection has persisted in West Papua ever since. East Timor, occupied after the departure of the Portuguese colonial power, was a malcontent within the Republic of Indonesia until it asserted its right to self-determination, which it gained with the assistance of Australia, the United Nations and other concerned members of the international community.
So, despite some missteps, we can say that the Republic of Indonesia did more than supplant the Dutch as a colonial power.
Indonesia existed long before the Dutch came. By 800 BC, cultivators in Java began growing rice. Java is a very fertile, rainy island with rich volcanic soils. The development of wet-rice cultivation in such favourable climatic and geographical conditions meant that up to three crops of rice could be harvested each year. Wet-rice cultivation requires a high level of social and agricultural organisation. This fosters the evolution of sophisticated political systems. Combined with the development of a surplus of grain that can be stored, the political systems, particularly in Java, gradually evolved into sophisticated state-like structures.
The rise of kingdoms whose reach encompassed an area beyond a few villages was consistent with the extension of Indian influence. Indian influence was co-extensive with the evolution of Hindu and Buddhist religious practices. Proof of the religious fervour that Indian religions induced can be found in a number of impressive monuments. Prambanan, one of the largest Hindu complexes in South-East Asia, within easy reach of Yogyakarta in Central Java, was raised by the King of Mataram (eighth to 10th centuries). The Sailendra dynasty (eighth to ninth centuries), which dominated central Java, constructed Borobudur, also in the vicinity of Yogyakarta, which is the largest Buddhist structure in the world.
Srivijaya was a trading confederacy that dominated trade in the Strait of Malacca from the eighth to the 12th centuries. It was responsible for spreading Buddhism and to an extent Hinduism. As with most successful maritime kingdoms, its prosperity came from trade. Srivijaya’s navy controlled trade that moved through the Strait of Malacca, which gave it considerable wealth and influence. Srivijaya is described as a thalassocracy: that is, a state whose wealth is derived from control of maritime trade routes. Srivijaya’s territorial holdings were not great; it was a maritime power, similar to Great Britain before it became encumbered by territories. The kingdom, which was officially Buddhist, proselytised widely among its trading partners and was a centre of scholarship.
Majapahit is said to be the most dominant of all the Indonesian pre-Islamic states. Prime Minister and Regent Gajah Mada spread Majapahit’s influence far and wide. It flourished in the 13th to 15th centuries.
We should note here that these kingdoms flourished before the coming of Islam spread Indian culture over the Indonesian Archipelago. The kingdoms took in the Malay Peninsula and parts of the Philippines. Malaysia speaks Bahasa Malaysia, or Bahasa Melayu, which not much different from Bahasa Indonesia.
Religions in Indonesia radiate from the syncretic Javanese heartland to a more rigorous adherence to the Muslim religion in the outer islands. Syncretism is the process of mixing opposing, or even contradictory, religious beliefs in one belief system. Islam in Java, the heartland of Indonesia, is syncretic; while in the outer islands it is often very strict.
Take Brunei. Brunei is on the island of Borneo, or Kalimantan as it is called in Indonesia. It is not part of Indonesia, but it belongs to the Malay world. Brunei has recently adopted sharia, the strictest form of Muslim religious law. The separation of the Malay world into separate nation states occurred only after the arrival of the colonial powers. The “Malay states” include Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and parts of southern Thailand.
One consistent element binding these states together is Islam. In the Middle East, the first several centuries of Islam revolved around conquest and conversion. Conquered peoples were usually given the option of conversion to Islam or dhimmitude, which requires the payment of extra taxes. Some areas of the Malay world, such as southern Thailand and the southern Filipino island of Mindanao, have been in armed rebellion against the central authorities for centuries.
Indonesia’s experience of Islam is quite different, and it accounts for the very different manner in which the practice of Islam has evolved in Indonesia. The first Muslim missionaries were traders, mainly from Gujarat in northwestern India, to the north of Mumbai (formerly Bombay). Apart from proselytising, they also married into the local ruling families. The first missionaries were the Wali Songo (“the Nine Saints”). Missionary activity was deliberately syncretic, using such props as the wayang kulit (shadow play).
Unlike in the Middle East, armed conquests did not aim at mass conversions. The Muslim lords did, however, eventually quash the Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms in Java. Only Bali remains Hindu. The outer islands often resisted conversion by the Muslim missionaries and indeed many have remained Christian for centuries.
Some islands host both Muslim and Christian populations; such is Sumatra. In northwestern Sumatra, the Acehnese have resisted both Dutch and Republic of Indonesia armed interventions for several centuries. The Acehnese have recently reached a settlement with the central power in Jakarta. The final aim of the Acehnese is to establish sharia. The Bataks, who share the same island, are Christians.
The arrival of the Wali Songo signaled the end of Indonesia’s prehistory. These missionaries were more than likely preceded by Arab and Indian evangelists, but given the influence of Hinduism and Buddhism – both Indian religions – it should come as no surprise that the origins of the most significant Muslim missionaries were in India, even though Islam is a Middle-Eastern religion.
There is rivalry between the great monotheist faiths of Christianity and Islam, but outright hostility is not common.