Indonesian Ethnic Groups

Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.

One of the world's most populous countries, Indonesia also has plenty of ethnic groups. In this lesson, we'll look at some of the largest, as well as two of the smaller ones that make a big impact on Indonesian society.

Many Ethnicities

As is not surprising for a country with more than 200 million people and more than 14,000 islands, there are hundreds of different ethnic groups in Indonesia. Despite this, they are able to, for the most part, coexist peacefully in one of the most stable regions in the world, built on a national ideal instead of different ethnic groups. In this lesson, we're going to look at the largest ethnic groups of Indonesia, as well as two that have had a significant impact on the country despite their relatively small size. Along the way, we'll also note how Indonesia continues to build institutions that are open and fair to all.

Map of Indonesia

The Javanese

While there may be hundreds of ethnicities in Indonesia, one dwarfs the rest. The Javanese, found on the island of Java, make up more than 40% of the population of Indonesia. As this is well over 90 million people, that means that the Javanese are used to living in tight quarters! Accordingly, Java is one of the most densely populated islands on earth. Their language has heavily influenced the Indonesian language, while like many other Indonesians, they follow a heavily adapted version of Islam that is dependent on local adat customs, which are various local practices observed by Muslim communities. In many ways, these replace certain Islamic legal rules.

Jakarta is at the center of the Javanese population of Indonesia

Significant Minorities

The next largest group in Indonesia are the Sundanese people. More than 35 million of them live here, mostly to the west of the Javanese on Java, making a crowded island even more crowded. They are less likely to follow 'adat', focusing more on traditional Muslim norms. Further, Sundanese people speak Sundanese natively, not Javanese.

More than 5 million Malays live throughout many of the islands of Indonesia. They are important to note because of their influence on the language that was adopted by Indonesia as Indonesian. Because of the status of the Malays as merchants, their language provided the basis for Indonesian.

While not a large group, the Balinese (who live on the island of Bali) are particularly telling when it comes to Indonesian attitudes towards other religious traditions. They form only around 2% of the population of Indonesia, but are overwhelmingly Hindu. Despite this difference, the freedom of Balinese people to practice Hinduism is guaranteed by the Indonesian state.

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