Indonesia is the largest archipelago in the world. It consists of five major islands and about 30 smaller groups. The total number of islands, according to the Indonesian Naval Hydro-Oceanographic office, is 17,508. The archipelago is at the crossroads of two oceans, the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean, and bridges two continents, Asia and Australia. This strategic position has always influenced the cultural, social, political, and economic life of the country.

The territory of the Republic of Indonesia stretches from 6.08' north latitude to 11.15' south latitude. The Indonesian sea area is four times greater than its land area, which is about 1.9 million sq km (including an exclusive economic zone) and constitutes about 81% of the total area of the country

The five main islands are: Sumatra, which is about 473,606 sq km in size; Java/Madura, the most  densely populated islands, 132,107 sq km; two-thirds of the island of Kalimantan measuring 539,460 sq km; Sulawesi, 189,216 sq km; and Papua, 421,981 sq km, which is part of the world's second largest island, New Guinea. Indonesia's other islands are smaller in size.

Located between these two shelves is the island group of Nusa Tenggara, Maluku and Sulawesi, where the sea depth reaches 15,000 feet. Coastal plains have been developed around the islands of Sumatra, Java, Kalimantan and Papua.

The land area is generally covered by thick tropical rain forests, where fertile soils are continuosly replenished by volcanic eruptions like those on the island of Java.

The country is predominantly mountainous, with about 400 volcanoes, 100 of which are active. Mountains higher than 9000 feet are found on the islands of Sumatra (Mt. Leuser and Mt. Kerinci); Java (Mt Gede; Mt. Tangkubanperahu, Mt. Ciremai, Mt. Kawi, Mt. Kelud, Mt. Semeru and Mt.Raung); Sulawesi (Mt. Lompobatang and Mt. Rantekombala); Bali (Mt. Batur and Mt. Agung); Lombok (Mt. Rinjani) and Sumbawa (Mt. Tambora). The highest mountain is the perpetually snow-capped Mandala Top (15,300 feet) in the Jaya Wijaya mountain range of Papua.

Many rivers flow throughout the country. They serve as useful transportation routes on certain islands, for example, the Musi, Batanghari, Indragiri and Kampar rivers in Sumatra; the Kapuas, Barito, Mahakam and Rejang rivers in Kalimantan; and the Memberamo and Digul rivers in Papua.  On Java, rivers are important for irrigation purposes, including  the Bengawan Solo, Citarum and Brantas rivers.

A number of islands are dotted with scenic lakes, like the Toba. Danau Toba, or Lake Toba as we know it, is the largest lake in Southeast Asia. It was created by the eruption of a super volcano 75 thousand years ago. It is still surrounded by the crater edge of that volcano, and in the middle of the lake, volcanic activity created Samosir an island as big as Singapore.

Other famous lakes are Maninjau and Singkarak lakes on Sumatra; the Tempe, Towuti, Sidenreng, Poso, Limboto, Tondano, and Matana lakes on Sulawesi; and the Paniai and Sentani lakes on Papua.


With an estimated population of around 237 million people, Indonesia is the world's fourth most populous country after China, India and the United States, and has the largest Muslim population in the world.  The work force (15-64 yrs of age) is 65.4 percent of the total population and consists of 76,743,613 males and 76,845,245 females.

A Diverse Nation

In its ethnic groups, languages, culture, and religion, Indonesia is a very diverse nation. This great diversity is reflected in the country's national motto Bhinneka Tunggal Ika which means "Unity in Diversity."


  1.   Ethnic Groups

There are about 500 ethnic groups in Indonesia spread from Sabang (the northernmost tip of Sumatra) to Merauke in Papua. The Javanese community is the largest number of Indonesia’s total population, followed by Sundanese, Madurese, Minangkabau, Buginese, Batak and Balinese. Other ethnic groups are among others, the Ambonese, Dayaks. Sasaks, the Acehnese and Papuans.

Apart from the indigenous communities, other sub communities of foreign descent are the Chinese, the Arabs and Indians.

  1.   Languages

There are more than 700 languages and dialects spoken in the archipelago. They normally belong to the different ethnic groups of the population. Some of the distinctly different local languages are: Acehnese, Batak, Sundanese, Javanese, Sasak, Tetum of Timor, Dayak, Minahasa, Toraja, Buginese, Halmahera, Ambonese, Ceramese, and several Irianese languages. To make the picture even more colorful, these languages are also spoken in different dialects.

Bahasa Indonesia is the national language. It is similar to Malay and written in Roman script based on European orthography. English is the most prevalent foreign language. Also, some Dutch is still spoken and understood in the bigger cities, while French is increasing in its popularity.

  1.   Culture

Indonesia's active history has encouraged the growth of many unique cultures. On Java, the Javanese of Central and East Java are known for having several layers of formality in their language. In Javanese, to speak to an elder and then to a child is like speaking two different languages. The Toraja of Sulawesi are famous for their elaborate funeral ceremonies. Often several days long, these ceremonies bring the whole village together in a feast, a procession, and a hillside burial. And the Minangkabau of Sumatra still maintain a matrilineal society. Everything from houses to animals is inherited from mother to daughter.

Today, the country maintains this cultural richness, even as it expands into new areas. The traditional music of the gamelan and angklung coexist with new dangdut and rock and roll! The ancient art of wayang kulit, or shadow puppetry, complements the modern Indonesian film industry. And, while the themes and story from historic epics like the Ramayana persist, newer literature like that of the author Pramoedya Ananta Toer has become an irrevocable part of Indonesian culture.

  1.   Religion

While Indonesia is home to the largest number of Muslims in the world, its constitution guarantees religious rights to all people. At least six world religions find their adherents in  Indonesia: Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Confucianism, Hinduism and Buddhism. Nevertheless, other faiths can be found, especially in isolated societies. These religions, called traditional faiths, are also accepted. According to recent counts, approximately 85 percent of the population are Muslim, 11 percent are Christian (Protestants and Catholics), around 4 percent are Hindu, Buddhist, Confucian, or traditional.


Ancient Times

Historians believe that Indonesia was linked with the Asian mainland during the Pleistocene period (four million BC). This period was also related to the first appearance of the Hominids; what is today called 'Java Man' inhabited Indonesia as early as two million to 500,000 years ago. 'Java Man' is a short name for Pithecanthropus Erectus, a human-like species whose fossilized remains were discovered by the scientist Eugene Dubois on the island of Java.

Buddhist and Hindu Kingdoms

Much later, Indonesia developed many well-organized kingdoms. Ruled by indigenous Rajas who embraced the Hindu and Buddhist religions, these kingdoms grew very civilized. Today, this time in history is called the period of Buddhist-Hindu Kingdoms. It lasted from ancient history to the 15th century.

The first Buddhists arrived in Indonesia from around 100 to 200 AD from India. One of the most famous Buddhist kingdoms in Indonesian history is Sailendra (750-850 AD). During this period, the famous Buddhist temple at Borobudur was built. The dynasty's replacement, the Hindu kingdom of Mataram began the era of Hindu kingdoms. The mightiest Hindu kingdom in Indonesia's ancient history was the Majapahit Empire. Under the reign of King Hayam Wuruk (1331-1364 AD), the empire enjoyed tributary relationships with territories as far away as Vietnam, Cambodia, and the Philippines.

Islam Arrives

Gujarati and Persian merchants who embraced Islam started to visit Indonesia in the 13th century. Along with trade, they introduced Islam to the Indonesian Hindus, particularly in the coastal areas of Java. Islam then spread further east to the Bone and Goa Sultanates in Sulawesi, Ternate and Tidore in the northern part of Maluku, and the eastern part of Lombok. Besides those areas, Islam also expanded into Banjarmasin, Palembang, Minangkabau, Pasai, and Perlak.

European Period

European influence in Indonesia began when the Portuguese, in search of  spices, landed in 1512. Both the Portuguese and the Spanish spread Christianity in Indonesia. Meanwhile, the Dutch established an organized merchant trade through the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in 1602 to tap the rich spice territories. After the seizure of Ambon in Maluku (1605) and Banda Island (1623), the Dutch enjoyed a trade monopoly in the "Spice Islands."

In 1814 the British came to Indonesia. During the Napoleonic wars in Europe, when Holland was occupied by France, Indonesia fell under the rule of the British East India Company. After the fall of Napoleon, the British and Dutch signed a convention in which they agreed that Dutch colonial possession dating from 1803 onwards should be returned to the Dutch administration in Batavia (present-day Jakarta). Thus, the Indonesian archipelago once again became a Dutch possession in 1815.

Throughout the period of colonization, Indonesians fought for their independence. This struggle, begun in the 1600s, climaxed with a proclamation of independence in 1945, and continued for a few years more.


When World War II broke out, the Japanese occupied the Dutch East Indies after the surrender of the Dutch colonial army in March 1942. Three years later, on August 14, 1945, the Japanese surrendered to the Allied Forces. To Indonesia's leaders, the power vacuum in Jakarta looked like an open window of opportunity to proclaim their independence. On 17 August 1945, Indonesian national leaders Soekarno and Dr. Mohamad Hatta proclaimed Indonesia's independence on behalf of the Indonesian people. The proclamation took place at Jalan Pengangsaan Timur No.56, Jakarta, and was heard by thousands of Indonesians nationwide through a secret radio broadcast from a captured Japanese radio station, Jakarta Hoso Kyoku. An English translation of the proclamation was broadcast overseas soon afterwards.


Indonesia is a republic, with an elected legislature and a president. The nation's capital city is Jakarta.  The Government of Indonesia is based on the 1945 Constitution, as amended in 1999, 2000, 2001, and 2002. Article I of the Constitution establishes a republican form of government that recognizes the sovereignty of the people.

The Government of Indonesia is organized into seven organs of the state and three branches of government.

State Organs

  1. The People's Consultative Assembly (Majelis Permusyawaratan Rakyat)
  2. The Presidency
  3. The People's Representative Council (Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat)
  4. The State Audit Board (Badan Pemeriksa Keuangan)
  5. The Supreme Court (Mahkamah Agung)
  6. The Constitutional Court (Mahkamah Konstitusi)
  7. The Regional Representative Council (Dewan Perwakilan Daerah)

Branches of Government


The executive branch of government is headed by the president and vice president. The president is the head of government, the chief of state, and the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Together with the vice president, he is elected for a five-year term and can serve a maximum of two consecutive terms. The president appoints the members of his cabinet, who are responsible for the Government's ministries.



The legislative branch is based on the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR), or Indonesia's parliament. The MPR is made up of two bodies: the People's Representative Council (DPR) and the Regional Representative Council (DPD). Together, these groups have the power to pass laws, amend the Constitution, conduct formal inquiries, oversee the state's budget, and dismiss the president and vice president in accordance with the Constitution.

The People's Representative Council, or DPR, is made up of 550 representatives elected by the people. The Regional Representative Council, or DPD, is made up of four representatives from each province, as elected by the people. As of the 2004 election, there were 128 representatives in the DPD.




The Supreme Court is the final court of appeals, and oversees all lower courts. These include general, military, administrative, religious, and commercial courts. To safeguard its impartiality, it is independent of the executive and legislative branches of government.




The two state organs not under these three branches of government exist on their own. Both the State Audit Board (BPK) and the Constitutional Court (MK) are independent government organizations. The BPK ensures the responsible use of tax revenue throughout the government. The MK makes final, binding decisions on the constitutionality of laws and disputed election results.


Local Government


Indonesia has 33 provinces (For more information about the provinces, click here). Through a process of decentralization, these provinces have been granted greater power. In addition to decentralization, the provinces of Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam and Papua also govern under a status of Special Autonomy.


Decentralization has given both provinces and regencies (municipalities) greater authority. In fact, the central government has retained control over just five areas: foreign affairs, defense, justice, monetary policy, and religion. Local governments are responsible for providing all other services.


As part of this ongoing reform, Indonesia began a process of direct local elections in 2005. Prior to these direct elections, citizens voted for political parties instead of candidates.

National Symbols

The Garuda



Indonesia's official coat of arms is centered on the Garuda, an ancient, mythical bird from the country's historical epics. Like the Bald Eagle in the United States, the Garuda is often used to represent Indonesia.

A great deal of symbolism runs through the Garuda. The eagle is a symbol of creative energy. Its principal color, gold, symbolizes the greatness of the nation. The black color represents nature. There are 17 feathers on each wing, 8 on the tail and 45 on the neck. These numbers stand for the date Indonesia proclaimed its independence: 17 August 1945. The shield symbolizes self-defense and protection in struggle. The five symbols on the shield represent the state philosophy of Pancasila. The motto Bhinneka Tunggal Ika ("Unity in Diversity") is enshrined on a banner held in the eagle's talons, signifying the unity of the Indonesian people despite their diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

The Flag


The Indonesian national flag is called Sang Saka Merah Putih or "the red and white treasure." As provided for in Article 35 of the 1945 Constitution, the flag is made up of two colors, red on top of white. By law, its width must be two-thirds of the length.

Like the country's coat of arms, its flag is also symbolic. The flag's red stripe represents bravery, and its white stripe stands for spirituality.

The National Anthem

The national anthem is called Indonesia Raya, which means "Great Indonesia." The song was composed by Wage Rudolf Supratman at the second All Indonesian Youth Congress in October 1928 in Batavia, now Jakarta. It was at this moment when Indonesian youth of different ethnic, linguistic, religious, and cultural backgrounds resolutely pledged allegiance to:

One native land, Indonesia; One nation, the Indonesian nation;
One unifying language, the Indonesian language.



Pancasila is a creed that Indonesia's first leader, President Sukarno, presented on June 1, 1945. To this day, it remains the philosophical basis of the Indonesian state.

Pancasila is based on two Sanskrit words: panca, or "five," and sila, which means "principles." It stands for the five inseparable and interrelated principles at the heart of Indonesia.

  1. Belief in the one and only God
  2. Just and civilized humanity
  3. The unity of Indonesia
  4. Democracy guided by the inner wisdom in the unanimity arising out of deliberations amongst representatives
  5. Social justice for the whole of the people of Indonesia

These are often generalized to refer to religious devotion, humanitarianism, nationalism, consultative democracy, and social justice.

* The information provided here is primarily taken from Indonesia 2002: an official handbook by the National Information Agency of the Republic of Indonesia

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