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new internationalist
issue 240 - February 1993

Country profile: Indonesia

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Where is Indonesia? [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
photo by DEXTER TIRANTI [image, unknown]
[image, unknown] photo by DEXTER TIRANTI [image, unknown]

The film The Year of Living Dangerously captured the events that led to the 1965 toppling of Indonesia's left-leaning President Sukarno and his replacement by the iron-fisted army general, Suharto.

Indonesia has had only these two presidents since Independence. Sukamo withdrew from the United Nations and told the US 'To hell with your aid!' He also skirmished with the British in trying to prevent the north Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak from joining Malaysia.

After his overthrow in 1965 the Communist Party was destroyed. As many as half a million people are thought to have died in the frenzy of killing that engulfed Java in the months following the coup.

The rise of an obscure general, Suharto, who happened to command a key army unit, ushered in the 'New Order' government which has been in power ever since. He is credited for implementing sensible economic policies, but criticised for his opulent lifestyle, clique of favoured business men and brutal treatment of opponents - as in Irian Jaya, Aceh, and East Timor where soldiers killed unarmed mourners at a cemetery in Dili in 1991.

The country's origins as a nation state lie in the Dutch East India Company's efforts to secure a monopoly in the spice trade and the subsequent 350 years of Dutch colonial rule. Indonesia s size and diversity are such that until recently inhabitants had no sense of belonging to one country.

But since Independence in 1949, national identity has been fostered. The state ideology 'Pancasila' (Five Principles) is vigorously promoted: belief in God, 'guided democracy', nationalism, justice and humanity - the last two ringing an ironic note in the light of the country s poor record on human rights.

Indonesia is reckoned to have good prospects - by International Monetary Fund standards that is. Levels of exports and income are rising. Other challenges lie ahead, including the smooth transition of power to Suharto's successor. Recent elections reinstalled the incumbent Golkar party, but it is hard to tell whether 70 year-old Suharto will be re-elected this year.

Another question mark hangs over how the country will act as custodian of the world's second largest tropical forest (after the Amazon). The State will have to walk the tightrope between people's need for land and cash and the conservation of natural resources.

Indonesia is a beautiful country with native animals such as the orangutan and Javan rhinoceros. Some forests have more than 3,000 tree species (the UK has 40). Borneo has twice the plant species of all of Africa.

The world's fifth most populous nation, rich in resources and well as in its people, may soon play a wider role in world affairs - even if it continues to live dangerously at home.

S Carr


LEADER: President (ex-General) Suharto

ECONOMY: GNP per capita US $500 (US $20,910)
Main exports: Oil, gas, hardwood, plywood, textiles, palm oil, coffee and minerals such as coal, copper, tin, gold, bauxite, and magnesium.
Main imports: Machinery, electrical equipment, chemicals, food.

PEOPLE: 184 million

HEALTH: Infant mortality 71 per 1 000 live births (US 9 per 1,000)

CULTURE: Previous colonizers: pre-1816 Portuguese, Dutch and British. 1816-1942 Dutch; 1942-45 occupied by Japanese. The people are mainly Malayo-Polynesians (originally from South China), and Melanesians. There are over 300 distinct groups, each with their own language. Chinese descendants of coolie labourers brought in by the Dutch make up 3 per cent of the population and control 75 per cent of the private domestic capital.
Languages: Bahasa Indonesia is official language.
Religion: Muslim 85 per cent; Christian 10 per cent; some Hindus and Buddhists.

Sources: The State of World Population 1992; The State of the World's Children 1992 and information supplied by the author.

Last profiled in September 1981



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INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Economy dominated by Chinese and Suharto's family.

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LITERACY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
62% women; 84% men. School attendance lower than official claims.

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SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Reduced need for aid; oil, gas and timber all in demand.

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FREEDOM [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Political prisoners remain from the 1965 coup. Media shackled by government.

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POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Women have the vote and are less disadvantaged than in other Muslim countries.

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LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
63 years (US 76 years). Progress in health care.

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Politics now

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Military dominates; elections give
legitimacy to ruling party.


NI star rating

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New Internationalist issue 240 magazine cover This article is from the February 1993 issue of New Internationalist.
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