“Indonesia Puzzles Indonesians Themselves”


          This quote from Theodore Friend’s book Indonesian Destinies is a good place to start.[1] My wife and I lived in Indonesia most of the time from 1965-1998, when we moved back to Virginia. Since then, Soeharto has fallen and four presidents have succeeded him. The country collapsed economically and has begun to recover. Islamic extremists have decimated traditional Christian areas in Eastern Indonesia. Terrorists have bombed Bali, Jakarta, and other places. The Sumatran province of Aceh has boiled under martial law, suffer a tsunami, and has made peace with the central government. Much has happened in Indonesia, but things still stay essentially the same. Indonesians, as well as outside observers, find this difficult to explain. Perhaps this is why so few people outside of Indonesia are knowledgeable about this extraordinary and important country.


    Bhinneka Tunggal Ika

         The Indonesian coat of arms bears the motto Bhinneka Tunggal Ika which means “Unity in Diversity.” Friend’s narrative emphasizes that Indonesia is not a homogeneous unit. A map of Indonesia shows a vast stretch of islands between Asia and Australia. Over 200 million people in this country live on some 6,000 of the total 13,667 islands and about half of them are on the island of Java. [2] Indonesia has the 4th largest population in the world. The tropical weather has both wet and dry seasons with few severe weather conditions such as typhoons or hurricanes. The land is very fertile in many areas. The rich volcanic soil of Java provides the bread basket (rice bowl) of Indonesia. Many experts estimate that Indonesia ranks third in the world in natural resources.


     Despite these natural blessings, reports indicate that 35% of the children are malnourished.[3]  The 70% of the population in rural areas live mostly on subsistence levels. In 2004, a report by a prestigious newspaper claimed that 37.8 % of the population in the province of West Java have completed only elementary education and 33.5% have not finished six years.[4]  This shows why education in Indonesia ranks 160th  among the world’s nations.[5]


     Though Friend is not Indonesian, he covers most of the significant political events of the past 30 years in a provincial way. The book models a type of historical record based on all sorts of reminiscences and information. It seems as though Friend has included all the notes he has ever made and all the people he has ever met, and all the stories he has ever heard during his time in Indonesia. The story line jumps around chronologically and shoots off into various unrelated trails, but it connects emotionally and experientially with those of us who call Indonesia our adopted country.


     Books about Indonesia are generally about the city people who comprise only 30% of the population. One has to go to anthropological studies to learn much about rural people, and even then we are usually just given statistics. However, the urban dwellers create the throb that most westerners call Indonesia. Even village boys such as Soeharto was must move to the cities if they are going to affect the nation. Rural people have little hope of a significant change in their lives or of making a change in their communities. The effect of nation building on village life during the past 40 years in Indonesia has primarily pushed people to the cities.


     Jean Gelman Taylor seeks to describe this kind of transition in a historical framework through  the vignettes in her book, Indonesia: Peoples and Histories.[6] Her series of essays intends to touch on the “real conflict between and within Indonesian communities” (p.xvii). However, “real” is a questionable word to use when writing about Indonesia because “real” takes on mysterious meaning for everyone who has lived there. Indonesians have learned much of their moral ideology by way of the shadow puppet play (wayang), and they have difficulty settling on a definition of “real.” One picks and chooses between the world of the shadow puppets and the world of the puppet master.


     But I think Taylor means “real” in the sense of histories that actually happened. Her approach reflects Eric R. Wolf’s theory of an analytic history. The subtitle of her book indicates the presence of many histories at work in Indonesia. Taylor has produced a very scholarly but readable description of Indonesia in its pre-twentieth century history. The twentieth century receives less attention in her book. Her bibliography is extensive and interesting in itself. If you want to have a book explaining early Indonesian history, this is a good one.


     “Indonesian culture manifests a complex, multilayered diversity of ethnic groups, indigenous cultures, economic strata, world religions, and modern influences.” [7] When we talk about Indonesia, we need to clarify which Indonesia we mean. Is it the sophisticated marble and steel malls with elite shoppers arriving in BMWs and Mercedes where everyone uses cell phones, or it the horse drawn cart making its way to the city filled with carrots for the fly-infested muddy markets where the majority shop?


     In addition to urbanization, hundreds of ethnic groups speaking over 500 languages and dialects continue to live in their traditional areas and affirm their unique cultural patterns. Since independence, the government has promoted the use of Indonesian as the national language. It is the glue that binds every one of these groups into a single communication cycle. But that does not mean that they use the national language with the same conceptual meanings. Many misunderstandings occur because people use the language in different ways. For example, experts say that the 30 million Sundanese people of West Java tend to structure the grammar of the Indonesian language to fit the grammar of their own regional language. They find it hard to give up their way of communicating ideas and feelings. Indonesians from different ethnic backgrounds do not easily understand one another, nor do they necessarily appreciate and respect one another. to top


Leadership Problems

     Indonesia resembles Mexico in that it shows great economic promise but does not achieve it. Corruption, collusion, and nepotism (the three blights of Indonesian life) prevent the promise from being realized. Although Indonesia has riches, its natural resources have been exploited for generations by a small group of ruling elite. Profits are siphoned off and little goes to the benefit of the people. The Political and Economic Risk Consultancy in Hong Kong rates Indonesia as the second most corrupt government in Asia.


     Perhaps the biggest problem Indonesians face is the ongoing legacy of 1,000 years of leaders who took instead of giving. A culture of exploitive leaders has kept Indonesian people impoverished while they live in the midst of natural riches. The people know that they are being exploited but their culturally conditioned respect for leadership keeps them from revolting. The government also keeps them pacified by minimally subsidizing just about every aspect of the economy so that people will not starve. The patron-client model functions in society because those with money make up most of the basic survival needs of the rest of the community. Although very few people starve to death in Indonesia, most stay on a below subsistence living standard. Welfare concerns operate much as they did in the U.S. in the early part of the 20th century.


     Frances Adeney emphasizes the slow pace of leadership change in Christian Women in Indonesia. This book depicts her study of women who are seeking leadership roles in the church. She tries to describe the struggle of Indonesian women in terms of what she calls a contextual-relational theory of social change. Through ethnographic studies she explores a significant issue in the Christian church which reflects the larger one in society. She believes that women are making slow progress in Indonesian leadership roles. This issue, like everything in Indonesian society evolves slowly, if at all. to top


Loss of Tolerance

     While Americans might talk about the loss of innocence, the problem for Indonesians has been the loss of tolerance. Although inter-ethnic and inter-religious animosity has long characterized Indonesian relations, a culture of tolerance had developed which seemed to work. Tolerance was one of the few things for which Indonesia had been praised by world leaders. However, that also has disappeared under the policies of former President Soeharto. His desire to maintain power by wooing the Muslim leaders led him to make a scapegoat of the Christians and create fear among the religious groups. The response of the Javanese to the gospel gave him his opportunity.


     When several million Javanese became Christians in the late 1960s,  Muslim leaders petitioned the government to stifle Christian evangelism. Ministerial decrees beginning in 1969 restricted the Church in communications and in social activity. Continuous harassment of Christian workers, combined with the military and police support of systematic violation of human rights and persecution when people wanted to become Christians, created an atmosphere of fear.


     With the installation of the Third Development Cabinet in 1978, Soeharto began more emphatic moves to gain Muslim support by curbing Christians’ freedom to publicly share their faith. His first step was to elect a former army general to be the Minister of Religious Affairs. He was Haji Alamsyah Ratuprawiranegara, the man who did the most serious damage to the Church in Indonesia of anyone before him or since. The key to the strategy to close down Christian evangelism throughout Indonesia by force was the issuance of two directives in August, 1978 which curtailed all public media evangelism such as tracts, films, and house visitation. They were commonly referred to as SK 70 & SK 77. [8]


     During the decade of the 80’s Soeharto took specific steps to pacify the factions of the Islamic politicians who were increasingly negative about the direction of Indonesian politics. However, in doing this Soeharto exacerbated the distrust between the religious communities and created the atmosphere for the rise of terrorism. Soeharto’s actions were the immediate predecessor to the attacks on Christian churches and property which occurred in the late 90’s. Nine hundred churches were damaged, destroyed, or burned between 1995 and 2004. Before this, such attacks were not allowed or tolerated throughout all of Indonesia’s history. The devastation of communities beginning in 1999 in the traditional Christian areas of Maluku and Sulawesi has resulted in about 10,000 deaths and ¼ million displaced persons. The only person imprisoned as a result of the Sulawesi conflict was pastor Rinaldy Damanik. Although he is a major peacemaker in the province, he was arrested on trumped-up charges. The government’s inability to stem Muslim terrorism has created an instability which could lead to another military coup. to top


The Push for an Islamic State

     In addition to this, or perhaps as a result of it, factions such as those who want to establish an Islamic state have traumatized Indonesia. Ever since independence and the creation of a Department of Religious Affairs, continual efforts have been made to install a government which would support Muslim law (shari’a). The province of Aceh succeeded in getting shari’a established in March, 2003. Some of the results have been the damaging of many churches, forbidding Christians to worship in places they formerly used, and arresting others in home meetings. Other provinces have since gotten some measure of the same privilege of shari’a.


     One of the primary strategies in controlling the vote has been to establish Muslim majorities in every province through the transmigration of Javanese and other Muslim populations to all the non-Muslim areas. As a result, Muslims have gained political leverage in many traditional Christian or animist areas of Indonesia such as Papua (formerly Irian Jaya). With few exceptions, the ethnic conflicts in Indonesia during the past few years have occurred as a consequence of transmigration policies.


     Most of the religious conflicts between Muslims and Christians have also occurred because of transmigration. However, the underlying factor in these conflicts is the Muslim reaction to the large number of Javanese who have become Christian. Many Muslim leaders are determined to staunch the flow of Javanese into the Christian church and their efforts have been enhanced by Soeharto’s policies. The Muslim-Christian encounter is certainly one of the major histories in Indonesia during the second half of the 20th century. to top


Indonesia in the Future

     In 2004, the balance of the legislature shifted and a new president was elected. On April 5, 2004, the electorate voted directly for its representatives to fill 16,000 seats in national, provincial and district legislatures. In a spectacular revival Golkar, the party of former President Soeharto, received more votes than any other party. The following July witnessed the first ever direct presidential election when people voted for the individual they wanted. Unexpectedly, Susilo Bambang Sudhoyono won that election over the incumbent president. Another election will take place this year and Sudhoyono is expected to retain the office. But below the surface of everyday life, change takes place in small increments.


     Indonesians do not understand what is happening in their country and the idea of democratic elections introduces a totally new concept in their experience. They know that their leaders cannot be trusted but they have no one they trust who can replace those leaders. Most of them are puzzled by the high level of corruption, violence, and social chaos. These are not ideal standards for Indonesians. But the public seems impotent to change anything.


     When prolonged violence occurs as it has in the Maluku islands and in Sulawesi, Indonesians look for an agenda. Despite the transition taking place in the military from what is called a “dual function” of both military and civilian security to simply a function of national defense, the killing could not take place without the tacit agreement of the military. In the case of the 10,000 lives lost in the Christian-Muslim conflict in Maluku, some factions of the military played an active part in supplying Laskar Jihad forces with modern weapons. As a result, entire villages were decimated and many thousands of Christians forced to become Muslims. The common people can define the issues but they cannot facilitate solutions. to top



The Institutional Church Has Lost its Voice but Christians are Winning Hearts

     The weak public voice of the Church leaders contrasted with the strength of the believers to draw non-Christians to faith in Jesus represents one of the greatest paradoxes in Indonesia today. By western standards the Church has little social conscience. They have a few hospitals, orphanages and other charity organizations, but these are primarily the result of foreign initiatives. The homeless choose to wander the streets rather than participate in the government’s unpalatable programs. The Church does practically nothing to help them. There are few other volunteer charity organizations such as we have in the U.S. Despite this, the Church considers that it does care for the lame, the poor, and the aged though its own unique family networks and alms giving. Change comes as slowly in the Church as it does in the rest of society.


     Despite this, the influence of individual Christians on their neighbors is undeniable.  Many common people perceive of the gospel as an answer to their spiritual questions. In nearly every part of Indonesia, the Church is adding converts. Even in the areas where persecution is most intense churches are filled on Sundays. Although the Muslim people are pressured by local mosque teachers not to fraternize with Christians, the gospel continues to draw them. This is one of the few really encouraging signs in Indonesia today. When I visited Indonesia in 2004, a Muslim told me that he is ashamed to belong to a religion that kills and harms others. He is considering following Jesus, whom he is able to see as a God of love through the faithful witness of individual Christians he knows.


     Christians say that they know Islamic terrorists plan to obliterate Christianity in Indonesia. However, in 1965, the Communist Party of Indonesia planned to overthrow the government and kill all the religious leaders. Christians believe that God intervened then and they trust he will act again. They have nowhere else to turn. This is Indonesia- hardship and struggle with a cry for freedom and glory. Despite this seemingly mind boggling mystique of Indonesia, we must continue to try to understand the 4th largest nation in the world which has the potential of controlling all the sea lanes between Asia and Australia, and, more importantly, become a center for outreach to the Islamic world. to top


                                                                      Roger L Dixon, 2004 (Revised 2009)





1  Friend, Theodore (2003) Indonesian Destinies. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.


2  Indonesia 1990: An Official Handbook. Department of Information Republic of Indonesia.


3  Kalender Jaringan Doa Nasional ,  Maret 2004


4  Kompas, 11 Feb.’04  p.40


5  Kalender Jaringan Doa Nasional ,  Maret 2004


6  Taylor, Jean Gelman, (2003). Indonesia: Peoples and Histories. New Haven: Yale University Press.


7  Adeney, Frances S. (2003). Christian Women in Indonesia: A Narrative Study of Gender and Religion. Syracuse: Syracuse

         University Press.


8  For more information on this development see website www.sunda.org  Political

        Situation “Initiatives By The Soeharto Government Leading Up To Present Persecution

       Of Christians In Indonesia - 1999.” by Roger L. Dixon, PhD.














[1] Friend, Theodore (2003) Indonesian Destinies. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of

   Harvard University Press.


[2] Indonesia 1990: An Official Handbook. Department of Information Republic of



[3] Kalender Jaringan Doa Nasional ,  Maret 2004.


[4] Kompas, 11 Feb.’04  p.40


[5] Kalender Jaringan Doa Nasional ,  Maret 2004.


[6] Taylor, Jean Gelman, (2003). Indonesia: Peoples and Histories. New Haven: Yale

   University Press.


[7] Adeney, Frances S. (2003). Christian Women in Indonesia: A Narrative Study of

   Gender and Religion. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press. Page 31.


[8] For more information on this development see website www.sunda.org  Political

   Situation “Initiatives By The Soeharto Government Leading Up To Present Persecution

   Of Christians In Indonesia - 1999.” by Roger L. Dixon, PhD