The islands of the Indonesian archipelago stretch almost 5000km (3100mi) from the Asian mainland into the Pacific Ocean. Richly endowed with natural resources and hosting a phenomenal array of distinct cultures, for centuries they have been a magnet to Chinese and Indian traders, European colonisers, proselytising missionaries, wayward adventurers, mining companies, intrepid travelers and package tourists. The islands are inhabited by 300 ethnic groups with distinct cultures, speaking 365 languages and dialects. Despite the national motto `unity in diversity’, these cultures are under threat from Indonesianisation as the islands are gradually unified under centralized Javanese rule. The multicultural concept of strength in difference has been a hard one to maintain in the face of such geographic and cultural fragmentation, and the Indonesian government has opted for strong, centralized and undemocratic rule.

The consolidation of the Indonesian empire has met with resistance and insurgencies but these have largely been ignored by the international community. The country was stable until the recent economic crisis, mainly because political opposition was repressed and government authority rested squarely on the foundation of military power. After Suharto’s downfall, second guessing the direction Indonesia would take became every foreign correspondents’ favorite pastime.

Increasing tensions between Muslims and Christians, ethnic tensions in Kalimantan, and independence movements in Aceh and Irian Jaya certainly don’t augur well for the new Habibe government but it is the East Timorese situation which buries any notion of a free and democratic Indonesia. East Timor’s vote for independence lit a match to the inflammatory emotions of Indonesian nationalism. Patriotic militia went on a scorched earth rampage around East Timor and the country descended into chaos and martial law. An ugly brand of jingoism swept across most of Indonesia and westerners became the brunt of much wounded pride.

If you wish to visit Indonesia, we suggest going to Yogyakarta in Java and the island of Bali. Both areas are very safe for tourists and are full of many wonderful sights. Just be aware of the violence and strife occurring in the rest of the country and don’t needlessly display your wealth!


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