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Australians still have a lot of misconceptions about Indonesia. Here are some of them

ABC News - July 5, 2020

Erwin Renaldi – While more than one million Australians travel to Indonesia annually, a recent poll shows this hasn't necessarily enhanced people's knowledge of one of Australia's closest neighbours.

The Lowy Institute has been measuring Australians' general knowledge about Indonesia since 2005, and the 2020 poll published last week suggested most Australians still have fundamental misconceptions about the country.

Only 39 per cent of about 2,400 survey respondents thought Indonesia was a democracy, which was an improvement on previous years (34 per cent in 2019 and 24 per cent in 2018).

"There has been a slight increase in the number of Australians agreeing that Indonesia is a democracy," Ben Bland, the Lowy's Director of the South East Asia Project, told the ABC.

"In a way [it] suggests, hopefully, people are getting to know things a bit better."

Mr Bland, author of the upcoming book "Man of Contradictions: Joko Widodo and the Struggle to Remake Indonesia", said although Indonesia is a democratic country, the young democracy is facing its own challenges.

In the 22 years since the inception of Indonesian democracy, there have been many teething issues in establishing democratic traditions across the archipelago of more than 267 million people.

Mr Bland previously noted Indonesia's Parliament continues to be beset by corruption and remains under the influence of political party cartels and billionaire oligarchs.

He believes these problems might have contributed to the perception that the country was undemocratic. However, the recent poll shows this perception is less prevalent among younger Australians.

"If you look at the age breakdown among younger people, aged 18 to 29, there's an even higher proportion of Australians... that [think] Indonesia is a democracy," he said

Non-existent democracy isn't the only misconception Australians have about their northern neighbour.

"Many Australians still think that Bali is an independent nation," Ross Taylor, president of Perth's Indonesia Institute, told the ABC.

"As much as Australians express their love of Bali, equally, they express their suspicion and ignorance about the rest of Indonesia."

Indonesia is diverse both ethnically and geographically

Modern Indonesia is one of the most linguistically and ethnically diverse nations globally, spreading across at least 17,000 islands, of which only 6,000 are inhabited.

It's also home to about 10 per cent of the world's languages, with more than 700 predominantly Austronesian languages still widely spoken among Indonesia's 600 ethnic groups.

Alfira O'Sullivan, an Australian dancer of Indonesian and Irish descent, has run Indonesian dance workshops at several Australian schools to showcase the archipelago's diversity.

"The kids at school are often intrigued by the variety of dances being performed, the songs being sung and costumes they see," Ms O'Sullivan, the founder of Suara Dance said.

The dancer, who is based on New South Wales' mid-north coast, said it was "an absolute joy" to share the dances and songs from Aceh, West Sumatra, West Java, and Central Java with people who haven't been exposed to the culture.

"We deliver a message that... Indonesia can be different for different people."

Jakarta has attempted to unify the country's disparate communities since Indonesia's independence from the Dutch in 1945.

But according to Vannessa Hearman, an Indonesian-born senior lecturer in Indonesian Studies at Charles Darwin University, state-sanctioned unity was hard to apply in practice.

"There's a very deep history of conflict, whether it's across race, class, or ethnicity," Dr Hearman told the ABC.

She said this "deep history of conflict" had prevented the country from fully realising its national motto, 'unity in diversity'.

Indonesian authorities have been accused of rampant discrimination against citizens of West Papua province which has repeatedly sparked violence between West Papuans and police.

Jakarta has also used violent tactics to suppress the province's independence movement, which has flared up in recent years.

Similar tactics were also allegedly used against Timor Leste during its bid for independence.

Dr Hearman said Eastern Indonesians often felt marginalised, particularly because of fights over resources, combined with the region's distinct cultural diversity.

One of the most common misconceptions about Indonesia is that it is an Islamic state. "Officially [Indonesia is not] an Islamic country, there is no state religion," Dr Hearman explained.

Indonesia is constitutionally a secular state and the Government recognises six official faiths, including Christianity, Buddhism, and Confucianism. There is no recognition of atheists or agnostics.

On a bright blue day, you look down at a small red-roofed Church from behind as blue waters are seen beyond it.

Islam is overwhelmingly Indonesia's largest faith, with up to 87 per cent of the population identifying as Muslim, according to the CIA World Factbook.

The country is also home to South-East Asia's largest number of Protestants, a tradition that has its origins from Indonesia's Dutch colonial period.

In recent years, the rise of fundamentalist forms of Islam in Indonesia has made global headlines, particularly in the conservative province of Aceh, which implements Islamic or 'Sharia' Law.

Is conservative Islam on the rise?

A string of controversial events highlights the rise of Islamic conservatism across Indonesia.

But for most Indonesians, Islam is quite moderate, which was by historical design. Indonesia's second president, Suharto, restricted the movement of Islamic organisations as he feared that Islam could challenge his military regime's dominance over Indonesian politics.

"That's why Islam [in Indonesia] has really not been the kind of harder form of Islam that you see in other countries," Dr Hearman said.

She added that Indonesian Islam has allowed for syncretism – a process that describes the blending of indigenous philosophies and practices with another faith.

"Indonesian Islam has taken on local beliefs and practices – and used them very well – to convince Indonesians to embrace it," Dr Hearman said. "That's been one of the strengths of Islam in Indonesia."

Indonesia's ties with Australia pre-date British colonisation

For almost two centuries from 1700, traders from the port of Makassar on Sulawesi island visited northern Australia's coast regularly.

This established profound cultural exchange between Australia's Yolngu people and the ethnic Makassan-Malayan traders.

The Makassans came to the Northern Territory's islands and coast in search of trepang (sea cucumber), turtle shells, and pearl shells, which they sold in China.

Tobacco, alcohol, calico, fabrics, rice, and knives were among the items introduced to Arnhem Land through the trading partnership.

During that time, language between the cultures evolved to include hundreds of shared words, such as rupiah (money) and balanda (white man).

Dr Hearman told the ABC this cultural exchange was abruptly stopped under British colonisation.

"The room to move was also restricted under increasingly tight colonial restrictions on movements in the northern part of Australia," Dr Hearman said.

Gathapura Mununggurr, a senior ranger from Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation in Yirrkala, in north-east Arnhem Land, told the ABC in 2018 that trade and contact with the Makassans left an enduring legacy.

"That history, and the trade to Yolngu people and history of life during that time is still there," Mr Mununggurr said.

"And people dance, people sing about them, and it's very important in these days for Yolngu people to remember them – that they came, and they were the first contact for Yolngu people."

Source: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-07-05/everything-you-wanted-to-know-about-indonesia/1241227