Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Indonesian Contexts

Indonesia is the world's fourth most populous country (after China, India and America), encompasses the planets largest Archipelago, and constitutes its largest Muslim country, which makes me wonder why I know so damn little about it. Maybe it's just me, but it sometimes seems like the world forgets about the Indonesians. Whatever that case, I'll try to shed light on what I've learned since arriving.

Indonesia officially came into being as a modern nation state in 1949. Previously a Dutch colony, it declared its independence in 1945, three days after the Japanese surrender. The Dutch retook their colony by force, but international pressure, particularly from the US, which questioned the use of Marshall Plan investment for violent warfare. Shortly thereafter, the Republic of Indonesia came into being. Its initial years were disastrous, with widespread corruption, inflation and mismanagement. The situation worsened under the rule of Sukarno, who established his position with increasingly authoritarian policies. A miliary coup in 1965, though unsuccessful, resulted in a weakened Sukarno, who fell prey to the head of the military, General Suharto. Suharto was to rule for thirty years, from 1968 to 1998, and his reign was a mixed bag. The benefits of his policies of courting foreign investment, curbing inflation and re-entering the world economy (significantly bolstered by the countries abundance of natural resources), were curbed by his suppression of political opposition. The situation remained stable, aided by an unspoken social contract in which Indonesians saw their prosperity rise as long as they did not oppose Suharto's rule. However, the scales tipped in the Asian financial crisis of the late nineties, and Suharto was forced to resign. Shortly thereafter, Suharto's party lost badly in general elections. Since then, Indonesia has witnessed a gradual return to democracy.

Presently, Indonesia finds itself slowly crawling the ladder of economic development, while tackling endemic problems of corruption, terrorism and poverty. Although 16% of the country lives below the poverty line, I'd have to say that what I've seen thus far is better of than India. The roads are better, nobody looks like they're starving, and it's less polluted.

However, like India, Indonesia finds itself challenged to forge a national identity where there was none. The archipelago is vast and culurally very diverse, prompting the use of "Unity in Diversity" as a national motto. However, that has entailed an identity that is often dominated by the largest ethnic group, the Muslim Javans. Understandly, this causes tensions in places like Bali (which is Hindu majority). As such, the little news one often receives of Indonesia is reports of separatist violence and ethnic tensions.

I can't comment too much more on the political situation, but I can add a little based on personal impressions of Bali:

Balinese Hinduism: not Hinduism in its Indian sense, but more a blend of Indian Hinduism, Buddhism, and local animist beliefs. Balinese devotion is very tangible, as even the most touristed locales see the setting out of small devotional offerings on practically every door step every morning (they consist of cute little banana leaf boxes containing food and flowers). The temples are also ubiquitous, and very beautiful. Aesthetically, they balance the over-exuberance of Indian temples with the over-minimalist east Asian layouts, consisting of courtyards showered with stone statutes and covered with lush green moss and tropical vegetation. Finally, to add to the mix, almost all temples feature regular performances of dance and drama.

Indonesian Food: While it lacks the sophistication and exuberance of food found elsewhere in Asia, it's respectable, and VERY cheap (you can get a huge plate of food for less that a dollar). Mostly fried rices, and noodles, but some good soups as well.

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