Despite the popular belief that Indonesia = Bali, there is actually much more to the country than an island with hoards of Austalian tourists. If Bali’s traditional culture has been sunken by tourist anarchy, Java on the other hand is relatively tourist free in comparison. This includes Jakarta.

The time had finally come to drag myself away from the charming landscapes and assortment of other fascinating things on Java and to embrace what the capital city had to offer — both its angels and demons.

Flying over North West Java.

My time in Indonesia was running out, a train and bus journey from Yogya would lose me a whole day, so I flew to Jakarta, which took only an hour. En route to finding a bed for the night I stumbled across the stark contrasts in wealth and prosperity in the city.

Louis Vuitton pillowcase.

I’d travelled to dozens of cities and places in Indonesia before Jakarta, but had become more curious about what made Indonesia the way it is today and hoped that a visit to the capital city would help me to answer some of those questions. Here is the story of what I found.

Jakarta is the most populous city in Indonesia and by some calculations has the second largest metropolitan area in the world after Japan’s Tokyo. In this case it is the so-called ‘Big Durian‘, named after the thorny, smelly fruit native to the region, Asia’s ‘Big Apple’.

After WWII, independence was eventually secured and Jakarta was once again the nation’s capital. The founding president Sukarno, foresaw Jakarta as a great international city, and instigated large government-funded projects and a programme of modernist architecture.

Local people participating in early morning health initiatives.

Projects included a clover-leaf highway, a major boulevard with shopping centres and parliament buildings and monuments, such as the National Monument of Indonesia.

Military car with soldiers at The National Monument which is a 132m tower in the centre of Merdeka Square symbolising the fight for Indonesia and the struggle for Indonesian independence.

For President Sukarno, leading Indonesia became a more challenging task than that of defeating the Dutch. The country’s fragmented archipelago of more than 17,500 islands had become a hotbed of tension between the different ethnic groups. They spoke hundreds of languages and dialects and hostilities had existed between them for centuries. Sukarno started solving these problems by banning the frequent and violent conflicts and set out to build what is considered today as the modern Muslim Indonesia, by introducing Bahasa Indonesia (the Indonesian language). Sukarno understood that to unite a population scattered across the archipelago and speaking some 350 different languages and dialects, a common language was needed. An international team of linguists created an easy to learn language, based on the Malay language, the result of which was – Bahasa Indonesia.

He built a country based on nationalism and religion, which was supposed to unite all the people of Indonesia.

In another nationalistic move, the state founded institutions to create an education system that was anti-discriminatory, elitist and capitalist. Religion was also given a formal place within the new republic, resulting in increased support for Islamic educational institutions such as Pesantren and Madrasah.

School girls recording lectures on their phones in the National Monument. It houses the Indonesian National History Museum. Within the large marble-lined hall there are a total of 51 dioramas on the surrounding walls. The dioramas display scenes of Indonesian history from the earliest days of Prehistoric Indonesia up to President Suharto’s New Order.

Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country in the world, while also being home to the world’s largest Buddhist temple and Southeast Asia’s biggest mosque, with a capacity of 120,000 people.

Southeast Asia's Largest Mosque
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Istiqlal Mosque, Jakarta. The biggest mosque in Southeast Asia with a capacity of 120,000, located near Monas Square and designed by Frederich Silaban.

Sukarno insisted that the mosque be built near Jakarta Cathedral and Immanuel Church, in order to symbolise religious harmony and tolerance, as promoted in the Indonesian national philosophy.

I met this man in the park, he told me: “I am a Muslim, but not a terrorist”.

The difficulties he faced in transforming a multicultural archipelago in to one united country, soon saw Sukarno suspend parliamentary activities and declare himself as President for life. As the leader of a new and fragile country, Sukarno felt he also needed the support of more powerful ideologies, which led him to enter alliances with communist governments around the world in exchange for arms and military training.

When the Communist Party of Indonesia became popular Sukarno sent troops into neighbouring Malaysia in an attempt to spread communism throughout Southeast Asia and to gain the approval of the world’s Socialist leaders. After a rapid growth in opposition he was overthrown by a military coup, and new the so-called ‘Asian Hitler’ came to power — President Suharto.

Suharto did not only eliminate the opposition; in the first three years of his reign he killed somewhere between 400K—1m people (mostly ethnic Chinese and landless peasants). The General and his army killed any people considered to be communist, or potential future threats to the regime. Vast swathes of people in Sumatra, East and Central Java and Bali were slaughtered, casting Suharto in the role of the ‘Prince who is to be feared rather than loved’, to coin Machiavelli’s turn of phrase.

For centuries the people of Indonesia were subjected to violence at the hands of the Portuguese, Dutch, British, Japanese, but after finally achieving independence the biggest bloodbath of all came at the hands of its own government.

Local trader sells fast food in the metro.
Despite the three years of genocide heavily impacting the Indonesian Chinese population, their community has grown large within Jakarta and made the most the the opportunity to trade goods in Indonesia.

President Suharto continued Sukarno’sSearch for National identity’, while Sukarno’s communist ambitions saw him move in to Malaysia, his successor instead invaded the small neighbouring country of East Timor, bringing with him a wave of devastation and terror.

Suharto invited more investment into Indonesia, while international corporations flooded the country. He overhauled roads and bridges, encouraged the arts, built several hospitals, and a large number of new schools.

He clamped down on migration to the city to stem overcrowding and poverty. He attracted foreign investment that contributed to a real estate boom and ultimately changed the face of the city. He also cleared the city centre of slum dwellers for new development projects — some of which were built for his own benefit. Through his son he built successful resorts in Kuta, Bali and not so successful ones too. Clearing the way of all obstacles and any rivals, his power and influence spread across the country with supersonic speed.

Women's only cars, just like those in Tokyo, are situated at the end of each train to fight against sexual harassment. Unlike Japanese trains these have a PKD officer to make sure passengers follow the rules.

Suharto was an autocrat surrounded by corrupt advisers and family members. He ruled the country to serve the interests of the rich and powerful only, until eventually the country, and a big part of the Southeast Asia, was hit by a financial crisis and Suharto was forced to make some tough decisions. The country’s currency lost 80% of its value and the economy went into free fall. On the instruction of foreign banks, Government subsidies were removed. Prices soared and within months 15% of the male workforce, in a country of 200m people, lost their jobs. Economic output fell drastically, riots and lootings spread across the country and it seemed on the verge of anarchy. Suharto was eventually overthrown at a very high cost — as the economy collapsed and ethnic and religious strikes began.

Today Indonesia is still very much in its teenage years. It can’t decide which way to go, whether to position itself as a maritime country, an agricultural country, an industrial country or even a tourist-driven country. It isn’t sure of how it should be identified; as an Islamic nation or a country of diversity. Whichever way it goes it seems to be another distraction or opportunity for some people to get rich, for those who come to power to continue to divide the Indonesian people.

Jarkarta’s slums span miles
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