The southern Malay Archipelago has been known for its trading activity since the early centuries AD, when resins, hardwood and spices were traded. Slowly, small estuarine kingdoms started to emerge, on Sumatra, Borneo, and above all on Java. From the 5th and 6th centuries, Indian Brahmans started to spread their influence in the archipelago. Hinduism, which happened to chime well with indigenous beliefs, became highly influential in terms philosophy and religious thought. Buddhist influence was also present, leading to great devotional buildings such as the great 9th-century stupa of Borobudur on Java, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Larger trading kingdoms emerged, the largest of which was Srivijaya on Sumatra, which had trade routes with India and China. Later, from the late 13th century, the Majapahit kingdom spread from eastern Java to much of the southern Malay Archipelago. From around this period, Islam started to spread from northern Sumatra, and by the end of the 16th century it had become the largest religion in the area. From the early 16th century, the Portuguese, followed by the Dutch and the British, sought to dominate trade links in the area, wanting above all to acquire spices such as cubeb, nutmeg and cloves. Following the establishment of the Dutch East India Company, the Dutch became the dominant force in the East Indies, and the territory formally became a colony in 1800. It was the linchpin of the Dutch global commercial empire, though there was considerable unrest and also wars during the colonial period.
In World War II, Japan occupied the islands and, as they had interned the Dutch, used locals for administration. This gave them more power and the clamour for independence grew. When news of the Japanese surrender reached the islands on 17 August 1945, two revolutionaries, Sukarno and Hatta, declared Indonesia to be independent. The Dutch, however, had other ideas. War broke out, and, after a protracted struggle, independence was finally recognised in December 1949.
Sukarno was appointed President and imposed authoritarian rule. He was ousted in 1965 by Suharto, who encouraged trade with the United States, though his rule also authoritarian and increasingly corrupt. After the dire effects of the Asian Financial Crisis, Suharto was forced to resign in 1998, since when more democratic institutions have been introduced.
In 1975, Indonesia invaded newly-independent East Timor and proceeded to massacre the popuation. The East Timorese regained independence in 1999. However, West Papua, the western half of New Guinea, has not been so fortunate. Also a former part of the Dutch East Indies, it was invaded by Indonesia in 1962 and has suffered a brutal occupation ever since.
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