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No. 9, September 2000
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Modern Indonesia since c. 1300
a book by M.C. Ricklefs, second edition 1993, 392 p.

Indonesia has been at the center of international attention for several years now. In order to understand the archipelago's complex present, one needs to have a look at its history. M.C. Ricklefs, Director of the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies at the Australian National University, explores precisely this theme. The second edition of his book was published in 1993. It is not very substantial on what happened after 1975, but it offers a clear chronology and "a basic but detailed narrative of Indonesian history since c. 1300". The book covers the time from the emergence of the modern era with the coming of Islam until the country's independence in 1950, its guided democracy of 1957 to 1965 and the creation of Suharto's "New Order".
 
Ricklefs introduces the reader to the major issues of the different periods and the most important published secondary sources. The earliest inscriptions of the Indonesian archipelago are on seven stone pillars from Kutai in East Kalimantan, which on palaeographic grounds are dated to c. AD 400. Also very early Chinese sources are available. "Indigenous sources and Chinese records have enabled scholars to reconstruct much of the history of the pre-Islamic states of Indonesia, which included some major empires of the ancient world. One of the greatest of these, Majapahit, is discussed briefly in Chapter 2 [...]", which concentrates on the struggle for hegemony in the years 1630-1800.
 
The pre-Islamic states were Hindu-Buddhist. They not only left major literary and artistic legacies, but they continued to be influential long after the coming of Islam, as Ricklefs discusses in his chapter on the destruction of the colonial state (1942-50). "The social, administrative and political traditions of these states also had an abiding influence."
 
For Ricklefs, the period since c. 1300 appears "to make a coherent historical unit, which this book calls Modern Indonesian history". There are of course sub-periods, but three fundamental elements give it a historical unity. Firstly, a cultural and religious one: the Islamisation of Indonesia began in c. 1300 and continues today. Secondly, a topical element: the interplay between Indonesians and Westerners began c. 1500 and still continues. Thirdly, a historiographical element: primary sources throughout this period are written almost exclusively in the modern forms of Indonesian languages such as Javanese and Malay (rather than Old Javanese and Old Malay) and in European languages. All these elements emerged between 1300 and 1500 and have remained ever since.
 
The author opted for a detailed narrative which gives students and other readers a lot of information from which to build their own generalisations or to question those of others. Ricklefs does not give space to broad interpretive themes and does not try "to impose any new synthesis upon Indonesian history, although of course [his] views are implicit throughout the volume."
 
The author gives the history of Java a greater precedence: because is has received more historical study than any other island and is therefore better known; because its people represent over half of the population of the archipelago; because Java has been the center of much of the political history of both colonial and independent periods, has exerted an influence over other areas and thus has greater significance for the history of Indonesia as a whole; and because Ricklefs' own research has concentrated on Java which has colored the book. Outer islands still need to be further researched.
 
Until the establishment of Suharto's "New Order" from 1965 to 1975 and the revolution of oil prices following the Arab-Israeli war of 1973 which transformed Indonesia, the book is very valuable. But of course, further readings, especially starting with Indonesia's independence, should complement Ricklefs study. The years since 1993 are summarized on six pages. The second edition of 1993 ends with words Suharto's "New Order" gave: despite a middle class created through the economic success which "might demand more political involvement in the affairs of the state, an end to corruption and a more just society", the strongest impression of the "New Order" on Ricklefs is of its durability. "There were grounds for thinking that its political, social and economic structures were so deeply rooted that they could survive even the retirement or death of the President." History has shown at the end of the 1990s that this is not the case. Still, Ricklefs' book remains valuable for what happened before these events.

www.cosmopolis.ch
No. 9, September 2000
current edition & archives
Art  Film  Music  History  Politics  Archives
Links  For Advertisers  Feedback  German edition  Travel

Copyright 2000  www.cosmopolis.ch  Louis Gerber  All rights reserved.