The exhibit made no mention of what followed the deaths of the generals

Tuesday, June 11th, 2019

Jared Diamond explores the recent history of the world’s fourth most populous country, Indonesia (in Upheaval):

My first trip to Indonesia was in 1979, when I began my visit by staying in a hotel whose lobby walls were decorated with paintings telling the story of Indonesian history. In the United States a similar exhibit might display paintings of the American Revolution, the Civil War, the California gold rush, the transcontinental railroads, and other such subjects from 150 to 250 years ago. But in that Indonesian hotel lobby, all of the paintings showed events of just the previous 35 years. The event that was the subject of most paintings was termed the 1965 Communist Revolt. Paintings, and explanatory text below them, vividly depicted how communists tortured and killed seven generals; and how one of the generals that the communists tried to kill managed to escape from his house over a wall, but his five-year-old daughter was shot by accident and died a few days later. The exhibit left the impression that the torture and killing of those generals and the young girl were the most horrible act that had ever happened in Indonesian history.

The exhibit made no mention of what followed the deaths of the generals: the murder of about half-a-million other Indonesians at the instigation of the Indonesian armed forces.


British control eventually became confined to parts of Borneo, and the only Portuguese colony that survived was in the eastern half of the island of Timor. The most successful colonists were the Dutch, concentrated on the island of Java, which had by far the largest native population (more than half of the population of modern Indonesia).


But it was only around 1910, more than three centuries after their arrival in the Indonesian archipelago, that the Dutch gained control of the whole far-flung island chain. As an example of how long much of the archipelago remained unexplored by the Dutch, it wasn’t until that year of 1910 that a Dutch governor discovered that the eastern Indonesian island of Flores and the nearby small island of Komodo are home to the world’s largest lizard, the so-called Komodo dragon. Although it’s up to 10 feet long and weighs up to several hundred pounds, it had remained unknown to Europeans for four centuries.

It should be emphasized that the word “Indonesia” didn’t even exist until it was coined by a European around 1850. The Dutch called their colony the “Indies,” the “Netherlands Indies,” or the “Dutch East Indies.” The archipelago’s inhabitants themselves did not share a national identity, nor a national language, nor a sense of unity in opposition to the Dutch. For example, Javanese troops joined Dutch troops to conquer the leading state on the island of Sumatra, a traditional rival of Javanese states.


But those efforts of Dutch ethical policy produced limited results—partly because the Netherlands itself was too small to put much money into Indonesia; and partly because the efforts of the Dutch, as well as of subsequent independent Indonesia, to improve people’s lives were frustrated by rapid population growth, creating more mouths to feed.


Indonesians with those beginnings of a wider identity formed many distinct but often overlapping groups: a Javanese group that felt culturally superior, an Islamic movement seeking an Islamic identity for Indonesia, labor unions, a communist party, Indonesian students sent to the Netherlands for education, and others.


  1. Lu An Li says:

    And don’t forget Bali. Still Hindu in a predominantly Muslim nation.

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