Indonesia’s geography is an integral part of its history. A sprawling archipelago straddling the equator, Indonesia has more than 13,500 islands, ranging from tiny areas that not so long ago were merely atolls to the huge island of Sumatra. In the mid 1990s it has over 185 million people, spread very unevenly across these islands. At one extreme, about 100 million live on densely populated Java; at the other the large resource-rich island of Kalimantan is sparsely populated. Indonesia is a tropical country with a volcanic spine running through its islands. Many volcanos are still active, every so often wreaking destruction on surrounding peoples and crops. But the volcanic soil and the tropical climate have made most of Indonesia extremely fertile, nowhere more so than the river valleys of Java where prosperous kingdoms have waxed and waned over more than a thousand years.
The Indonesian coat of arms bears the inscription ‘Unity in Diversity’. The diversity of Indonesia is apparent to even the most casual observer. There are over 300 socio-linguistic groups in Indonesia, each with a distinct culture and heritage. Only about one in six Indonesians speaks the national language at home. Even fewer speak Indonesian as their first language. The mother tongue of the vast majority is a regional language, for example, Javanese, Balinese, Minangkabau or Acehnese. Nursery rhymes, childhood stories, myths, legends and cultural mores are as diverse as the languages. Not surprisingly, most Indonesians first develop a regional identity, only learning the national language, Indonesian, when they begin school and with it an Indonesian identity.
In the major cities of Jakarta, Surabaya, Bandung and Medan there are significant numbers of people who speak Indonesian in the home and identify themselves as Indonesians from childhood. The diversity of Indonesia is an enormous challenge to the modern State. Nation building in Indonesia is no mere slogan, nor is it merely a euphemism for economic development. The Indonesian government is acutely aware that national unity and a national cultural identity have to be created. The regional identity that most Indonesians acquire automatically, together with the country’s cultural and linguistic diversity, makes nation building and the development of social cohesiveness a long–term and difficult task.