The fourth most populous nation in the world, Indonesia encompasses 6,000 inhabited islands and an extraordinarily diverse mix of cultures and landscapes.
The far-flung islands of Indonesia span an impressively broad spectrum of world history and human civilisation – from ancient Hindu-Javanese temples to modern luxury resorts, Stone Age Papuan tribes to the immense metropolis of Jakarta. The country’s motto, Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, or Unity in Diversity, is no mere slogan. The population of 238 million people is derived from more than 300 ethnic and perhaps several hundred sub-ethnic groups who speak 700 distinct languages. The common elements are a central government and a national language, Bahasa Indonesia, a derivative of Malay.
The fourth most populous nation in the world, Indonesia straddles two geographically defined racial groups, the Asians to the west and the Melanesians in the east. The majority are Asians, particularly in the western part of the archipelago. Over the centuries, Indians, Arabs and Europeans have mingled with the indigenous people. The largest non-indigenous ethnic group is the Chinese, who control a significant share of the nation’s wealth while comprising only three per cent of the population. Eighty-eight per cent of Indonesians are Muslim, eight per cent are Christian and there are small Hindu, Buddhist and Confucian minorities. In most cases these beliefs are augmented by indigenous, centuries-old animistic traditions.
Indonesia’s people are unevenly distributed across the archipelago and more than half inhabit Java and Bali alone, which cover only seven per cent of the total land area. With more than 120 million people living in Java – approximately 58 per cent of the Indonesian population – demands on land and resources are considerable.
The archipelago is the world’s largest. Its 17,508 islands are strewn across some 5,120km (3,200 miles) of tropical seas, straddling the equator. When superimposed on a map of North America, Indonesia stretches from Seattle to Bermuda. On a map of Europe, it extends east from Ireland to beyond the Caspian Sea.
Four-fifths of this vast area is occupied by ocean, and many of the islands are tiny – no more than rocky outcrops populated, perhaps, by a few seabirds. About 6,000 are large enough to be inhabited, and New Guinea and Borneo (Indonesia claims two-thirds of each) rank as the third- and fourth-largest islands in the world (after Australia and Greenland). Of the other major islands, Sumatra is slightly larger than Sweden, Sulawesi is around half the size of Germany, and Java is a little smaller than England. With a total land area of 1.9 million sq km (733,647 sq miles), Indonesia is the world’s 15th-largest nation in terms of size.