Indonesia’s population can be roughly divided into two groups. The west of the country is Asian and the people are mostly Malay, while the east is more Pacific and people on New Guinea are Papuan, with roots in the islands of Melanesia. There are, however, many more subdivisions, which is logical given the fact that Indonesia spans an area the size of Europe or the USA and that it consists of many islands that to a large degree had their own separate development. Many Indonesians identify with a more specific ethnic group that is often linked to language and regional origins; examples of these are Javanese, Sudanese, or Batak. But there are also quite different groups within many islands, such as Borneo, with its Dayak and Punan, who have different lifestyles and skin tones.

Most Indonesians speak a local language (bahasa daerah) as their first tongue, but the official national language, Indonesian (locally called Bahasa Indonesia) is almost universally taught in schools and is spoken by nearly every Indonesian. Originally a lingua franca for most of the region, including present-day Malaysia (and thus closely related to Malay), it was accepted by the Dutch as the de facto language for the colony and declared the official language after independence. The formerly large, influential Eurasian community (locally known as Indos) has largely left the country for the Netherlands, California and Australia, although a few still remain in Indonesia and are highly esteemed models and soap opera stars.

There are also serious ethnic tensions in Indonesia, predominantly between Indonesians of Chinese ethnicity and the Pribumi peoples, who are considered as natives of Indonesia (the implication, of course, being that “non-Pribumi” people are not always considered to be entirely Indonesian). The riots in Jakarta in 1997 and 1998 highlight this recurring tension. Ethnic relations are strained mostly due to a perception that the Chinese community is too rich relative to the Pribumis, and that this is unfair. That the Chinese community is on average wealthier than the Pribumis is indisputable, and positions of power and influence in the business sphere are indeed held by a relatively small number of very wealthy ethnic Chinese Indonesians. However, much of the community occupies the same kinds of roles as shopkeepers and creditors that they occupied under Dutch rule (when Chinese people were treated as second-class citizens, as opposed to the third-class citizens; the Pribumi peasants and laborers; and used as middlemen), and it would not be unreasonable to surmise that some of the resentment is against the proprietors of these businesses, too. It is pertinent to note that it was precisely these types of shops, and the families living and working in storefront dwellings, who were the target of much of the mobs’ wrath. The Indonesian government is attempting to remedy problems which helped trigger the rioting, but due to widespread corruption and discontent experienced by the poorer citizens of Indonesia, ethnic harmony is slow in coming. Corruption, collusion, and nepotism which characterized Suharto’s presidency clearly define the origins of Indonesia?s ethnic tensions today.

Islam is Indonesia’s main religion, with almost 88% of all Indonesians declared as Muslim according to the 2000 religious census, making Indonesia the most populous Muslim-majority nation in the world. Prior to the arrival of the Abrahamic faiths of Christianity and Islam in the Malay Archipelago, the popular beliefs in region had been thoroughly influenced by Indic religious philosophy through Hinduism and Buddhism. After independence syncretism and intermarriage has decreased somewhat and religious divides sharpened, leading to communal violence in many of the eastern islands as well as in Java. Although Islam was once mainly practiced in Java and parts of Sumatra, the transmigration program has increased the number of Muslims living in Bali, Borneo, the Celebes, the Moluccas, and Papua. The remaining population is 8% Christian (of which roughly three quarters are Protestant, with the remainder mainly Catholic, and a substantial charismatic minority), 3% Hindu and 1% Buddhist with small communities of Jews. Although only about 3% of Indonesian population is officially Hindu, Indonesian beliefs are too complex to classify as belonging to a single world religion. In Java in particular, a substantial number of Muslims follow a non-orthodox, Hindu-influenced form of Islam known as Abangan, while across the archipelago the Hindu legacy, along with the older mystic traditions, influences popular beliefs. Indonesians are required to declare themselves as one of these official religions. As a result, many Indonesian “Muslims” are non-practicing, follow Indonesia’s animist traditions (a fact that the government strenuously denies), or are entirely secular.