Episode 127: Sumbawa, or

I Don’t Know Where I’m A Gonna Go When The Volcano Blows

I had a challenging time creating the podcast episode that I am releasing today. I was ill for much of April, and I had to take time out to work on my taxes, as most Americans have to do. Then my computer erased the script for this show, forcing me to take some more days off to re-write it. Finally, it looked like I was done with recording the episode on May 11, but when I listened to the finished work, it didn’t sound right. Among other things, I mispronounced the name of the island we are visiting here, so I ended up re-recording most of the work. Anyway, it is finished at last, so listen and enjoy! Today’s topic is the eastern Indonesian island of Sumbawa, which like Lombok, is home to a major volcano that changed the course of history when it erupted.



Let us begin with a few words about our sponsor. This episode is dedicated to Dante G., for making a donation to the podcast. If you have heard Dante’s name before, it is because he has made two other donations since this year began. Now that he has done it again, three episodes in a row have been dedicated to him. Dante, may you be in the best possible health for all of this year, for if you have your health, other forms of success are possible. And now I will return you to your regularly scheduled podcast.

Episode 127: Sumbawa, or

I Don’t Know Where I’m A Gonna Go When The Volcano Blows

Greetings dear listeners, for the 127th time, from the hills of Bluegrass country in Kentucky! If you listen to the episodes as soon as they come out, you know that lately it has taken me more than a month to produce one. The main reason is the research each one requires. Not only do I have less time each day for the research, but when you’re looking for obscure information, the process naturally takes longer. Of course, back before the Internet became available to ordinary folks like me, the research would have required more than one trip to libraries. And then, since podcasts did not exist in those days, whatever I produced would have taken another form, like a book or an article in a journal.

Anyway, this time it helped that I did the research for both the previous episode and the current episode together, when I thought the material for both was going into Episode #126. Then I decided such an episode would be too long, and for #126 I just used the material for Lombok. That meant I began working on this episode with most of the research already finished. The delays came after the research; I was sick with a nasty cold for two and a half weeks, and then it was time to do what every American is expected to do at this time of the year — complete the paperwork on my taxes.


For those listening to this podcast for the first time, and for those who listened to the past few episodes but forgot what was covered, this is the fourth episode in a mini-series about the islands of eastern Indonesia. I am doing this because the main narrative I had running about Southeast Asian history is finished, at least as far as the year 2021, and the most recent episodes have gone back to topics that deserved more attention, like when I devoted an episode to the Vietnamese refugees who fled abroad in the late twentieth century. One of my listeners wanted to hear more about eastern Indonesia, because when I talked about the whole country, we mainly looked at events on the three big islands in the west: Borneo, Sumatra, and Java. Therefore we are now giving equal time to the east. Episode #124 was about Bali, Episode #125 was about Sulawesi, and Episode #126 was about Lombok. When I worked on Lombok, I didn’t expect to say much about it, because it is not as well known to outsiders as Bali and Sulawesi; indeed, I remember when the only thing I knew about Lombok was that it was located next to Bali. Nevertheless, I found enough information about Lombok to justify giving it a whole episode. Now today’s episode is about the next island to the east of Lombok, Sumbawa. How far will we get here?



Like Lombok, Sumbawa is another large island in the Lesser Sunda chain; at 15,448 square kilometers, or 5,965 square miles, it is larger than Lombok, and the ninth largest island in all of Indonesia. It is known for sappanwood, a tree that is a valuable source of red dye. Other valuable resources from Sumbawa include honey, pearls, sandalwood, rice, and most of all, horses. In the 18th century, the Dutch introduced coffee plantations on the slopes of Mount Tambora, a volcano on the north side of Sumbawa, thus creating the Tambora coffee variant. The island’s extensive grasslands make it a good place for breeding horses and cattle.

1.56 million people live here, but I wouldn’t call them an indigenous population, because most of their ancestors arrived during the past 200 years. Those on the west side of the island are the desendants of immigrants from Lombok, and their main city is Sumbawa Besar, while the bulk of those living on the east side have ancestors from Sulawesi, and their main city is Bima. The island’s previous population was not of Malay ancestry, like most Indonesians, but a Melanesian tribe. The Melanesians mainly live in the southwest Pacific; I described them in Episode #102. In fact, the westernmost Melanesian community was on Sumbawa, and they spoke a language called Tambora. We will see what happened to them shortly.

Sumbawa is at the eastern limit for the part of Indonesia that is strongly influenced by the western islands. During the past two thousand years, missionaries from the western islands brought first Hinduism, and then Islam to Sumbawa, but there was not much of an effort to introduce those religions to the islands farther east than that. As we continue to the easternmost islands, you will see the local culture become less Southeast Asian, and more like the cultures of the Pacific. Today Sumbawa’s inhabitants follow Islam, but in remote areas, traditional law, traditional healing techniques, and various legends, together called adat, have survived.

Overall the population of Sumbawa is more conservative than that of the other islands we have visited. Horse-drawn carriages are a common sight; they are known as Ben-Hurs, from the chariots in the 1959 movie. Tourism is not as well developed as on Bali and Lombok; the two main sources of income are agriculture, and a large gold and copper mine that opened here in 2000. Both of the island’s main cities have airports, with regular commercial flights from Bali and Sulawesi, but many tourists will take a ferryboat from Lombok, travel across Sumbawa on the island’s one good highway, and then take another ferry to Komodo or Flores; they don’t even have to leave their bus if they don’t want to! The tourists who venture away from the highway are mainly surfers, because like Lombok, Sumbawa has some great surfing spots. One of my sources, the Lonely Planet website, declared that most of Sumbawa is the domain of surfers, miners and mullahs, or Islamic clergymen.

We don’t have much information about what was happening on Sumbawa before the 14th century. The oldest known state was Bima, on the east side of the island; originally it was a Hindu-Buddhist kingdom, like other Indonesian states in the Middle Ages, and it was probably founded in the 11th century. Its name comes from Bhima, a mythical hero from the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata; a local legend asserts the founders of the kingdom were two brothers, Indera Jambrut and Indera Kemala, who claimed descent from Bhima and a golden dragon woman, and this gave them supernatural powers.


There was an invasion from Java in 1357, and because of it, Sumbawa came under the control of the short-lived but mighty Majapahit Empire. Majapahit’s epic poem, the Nagarakertagama, mentions four principalities in the area that were dependencies of the empire: Dompu, Bima, and Sape on Sumbawa, and one on the Sang Hyang Api island, just off the coast of northeast Sumbawa. We believe the Javanese introduced horses and wet-rice cultivation during this time.

For a short period of time, around 1550, the Balinese kingdom of Gelgel ruled western Sumbawa, and temporarily prevented the spread of Islam here. In 1676 the Balinese returned to Lombok, and they tried to reconquer western Sumbawa as well, leading to an on-and-off conflict between Bali and western Sumbawa that lasted until 1789.

Meanwhile, the eastern part of Sumbawa converted to Islam wholeheartedly. There may have been Moslems here as early as 1440, but the offical conversion date is 1621, when a ruler who embraced Islam, Abdul Khair I, came to the throne in Bima; henceforth the Kingdom of Bima will be known as the Sultanate of Bima. In both conversion and in conflicts with its neighbors, Bima was supported by the Bugis and Makassar peoples of Sulawesi, and also conducted extensive trade with them. Unfortunately, because of the slave markets that I mentioned on Sulawesi in Episode #125, this meant that many people on Sumbawa were captured and sold as slaves on Sulawesi. The Sultanate of Bima, in turn, claimed authority over two places farther east, Sumba and the eastern tip of Flores, but was unable to enforce its authority there.

The Dutch first arrived on Sumbawa in 1605, but for a while afterwards, they were not very active here; other Indonesian islands, especially Java and the Moluccas, kept them busy. Their main activity in the Lesser Sundas was to limit Portuguese trade and missionary activity to the island of Timor; we will talk more about that another time. And the wars between the Dutch and Makassar, which we covered in Episode #125, were another distraction. Then in 1674, the nobility in six Sumbawanese states signed agreements with the Dutch that gave the Dutch East India Company some power over the island, like a monopoly over the sappanwood trade. In effect, the Dutch became a “foreign prince,” that oversaw and helped to resolve disputes between the native states, while limiting their presence in the area to their fortress at Makassar, on Sulawesi, and a small outpost at Bima. The main opposition to the Dutch at this point came from the Tambora Kingdom, which waged a violent, anti-Dutch struggle from 1695 to 1697. This conflict ended when the resources of that small kingdom were exhausted.


Sumbawa, like Lombok, has a major volcano that erupted within historical memory. This volcano, Mount Tambora, blew its top on April 10, 1815, and because that is more recent than the eruption on Lombok, this eruption is better recorded. Tambora’s eruption was the largest in modern history, releasing anywhere from 38 to 51 cubic miles of gases, dust and ash into the atmosphere. To give you an idea of how big the eruption was, Mount Tambora stood 14,100 feet high before the eruption, but today it is 9,400 feet high — the top third of the mountain was destroyed in the blast. And the caldera on top of the mountain, also created by the eruption, is three miles wide. Around ten thousand people were killed directly by poisonous gasses and lava flows, 49,000 to 90,000 died soon afterwards from famine or disease epidemics caused by the eruption, and 35,000 survivors fled the island. All vegetation on Sumbawa was destroyed, hence the famine, tsunamis were reported striking the neighboring islands, and for a few months afterwards, islands of pumice and vegetation as much as three miles across floated in the Indian Ocean; one was reported in the neighborhood of Calcutta, in India.

For the whole world, weather was colder than normal for the following year, thanks to the dirty atmosphere blocking much of the sun’s light, and 1816 came to be known as the “year without a summer.” We have reports of famine and epidemics in North America and Europe. In Europe, the weather following the eruption was a factor at the battle of Waterloo, which took place two months later. For America, 1815 and 1816 were listed as the coldest years in recorded history; some Americans dubbed 1816 as, quote, “eighteen hundred and froze to death.” Unquote. In the state of Vermont, there was frost in every month of 1816, and summertime freezes were reported as far south as Virginia. Thomas Jefferson, the retired former president, had such a poor corn crop in 1816 that he applied for a $1,000 loan. Thousands of New England residents moved west, looking for a warmer climate on the other side of the Ohio River; so many took part in this migration that Indiana became a new state in 1816, and Illinois became a state in 1818. The gloomy weather of 1816 may have even inspired Mary Shelley, the wife of the famous poet Percy Shelley, to write her classic horror story, Frankenstein. However, the ash falling on the earth also made the soil more fertile, so there were bountiful harvests after the weather warmed up again.

Thomas Stamford Raffles, the future founder of Singapore, was the acting governor of Java at this time, and here is what he wrote in his memoir about the eruption. Quote:

“The first explosions were heard on this Island in the evening of 5 April, they were noticed in every quarter, and continued at intervals until the following day. The noise was, in the first instance, almost universally attributed to distant cannon; so much so, that a detachment of troops was marched from Yogyakarta, in the belief that a neighboring post was being attacked, and along with the coast, boats were in two instances dispatched in quest of a supposed ship in distress.”

End quote. When Raffles found out that the explosions were not from cannon fire, but from the volcano on Sumbawa, he sent a British officer, Lt. Owen Philips, to go see the devastation up close. Here is what this chap saw. Quote:

“On my trip towards the western part of the island, I passed through nearly the whole of Dompo and a considerable part of Bima. The extreme misery to which the inhabitants have been reduced is shocking to behold. There were still on the road side the remains of several corpses, and the marks of where many others had been interred: the villages almost entirely deserted and the houses fallen down, the surviving inhabitants having dispersed in search of food. … Since the eruption, a violent diarrhoea has prevailed in Bima, Dompo, and Sang’ir, which has carried off a great number of people. It is supposed by the natives to have been caused by drinking water which has been impregnated with ashes; and horses have also died, in great numbers, from a similar complaint.”

End quote.

Of the three kingdoms nearest the volcano, Pepekat and Tambora were completely wiped out, while the third, Sanggar, lost more than half its population to the eruption or the hardships that followed. One of the survivors, the Raja of Sanggar himself, gave a unique eyewitness account of the devastating event to Lt. Philips. Quote:

“About 7 pm on the 10th of April [1815], three distinct columns of flame burst forth near the top of Tambora Mountain, all of them apparently within the verge of the crater, and after ascending separately to a very great height, their tops united in the air in a troubled confused manner. In a short time the whole mountain next Sanggar appeared like a body of liquid fire extending itself in every direction. The fire and columns of flame continued to rage with unabated fury until the darkness, caused by the quantity of falling matter, obscured it at about 8 pm. Stones at this time fell very thick at Sanggar – some of them as large as two fists, but generally not larger than walnuts; between 9 and 10 pm ashes began to fall, and soon after a violent whirlwind ensued, which blew down nearly every house in the village of Sanggar, carrying the tops and light parts away with it. In the part of Sanggar adjoining Tambora, its effects were much more violent, tearing up by the roots the largest trees, and carrying them into the air together with men, houses, cattle, and whatever else came within its influence (this will account for the immense number of floating trees seen at sea). The sea rose nearly 12 feet higher than it had ever been known to be before, and completely spoiled the only small spots of rice lands in Sanggar – sweeping away houses and everything within its reach.”

End quote. The British ruled Java from 1811 to 1816, because in Europe the Dutch homeland had been conquered by the French, and during the Napoleonic Wars, any territory claimed by the French, no matter where it was in the world, was fair game for the British to take. But after the wars ended, Britain returned control of Java to the Dutch. Thus, Raffles and Philips did not get to do much to help the victims of the eruption; they didn’t have time before they had to leave. Go to Episodes 22 and 23 to see what else I said about the career of Raffles. The Tambora culture was destroyed by the eruption; a few years later Tambora became a dead language, as the survivors learned the languages used on neighboring islands. Because of them, many of today’s residents on Sumbawa look like Melanesians. The people who moved to Sumbawa after the eruption mostly spoke two Indonesian langages, either Sumbawanese if they came from Lombok, or Bimanese if they came from Sulawesi. Even now, because of the different languages, the population of Sumbawa is divided into two basic groups.


The Dutch East India Company went out of business just before 1800, so when the Dutch returned to Indonesia, their government was in charge, rather than a corporation. Still, I don’t have much to say about the period of Dutch rule on Sumbawa. The local states and princes — those that survived the Mount Tambora eruption — were allowed to act normally for the rest of the nineteenth century, so much so that before 1900, an ordinary person on Sumbawa could go through his whole life without ever seeing a European. I mentioned earlier that Dutch priorities were in other parts of Indonesia, not Sumbawa, and the Netherlands was a small country, more than seven thousand miles away, so their manpower in this part of the world was limited. Nevertheless, over time the Dutch managed to transform their role from an allied superior to a sovereign power. The Dutch takeover came in 1905, with the declaration that the Sumbawan princedoms were now part of the Dutch colonial empire. We saw in Episode #125 how this was usually done; the Dutch authorities sent an agent to a local prince, with a paper that declared this prince had surrendered his powers to the Netherlands government. If the prince signed the paper, that was that; if he didn’t, a war of conquest followed. In this case, my research turned up no report of fighting on Sumbawa, so I am assuming this was a peaceful annexation, and afterwards the Dutch directly handled taxation, public works, the legal system and so on.

The period of direct Dutch rule over Sumbawa was relatively brief, only lasting thirty-seven years from the annexation until World War II. Thus, the Dutch did not have time to do much on Sumbawa. Then in early 1942 the Japanese arrived, and they occupied the island for the next three and a half years. I mentioned in other episodes that when the Japanese invaded Indonesia, the Dutch were unable to resist, because their homeland in Europe had been overrun by the Germans in 1940. On Sumbawa the natives made sure the Dutch would not resist, by showing how little respect they had for the Dutch authority. A mutiny among native soldiers and policemen made it easy for the Japanese, and Sumbawa’s two remaining sultans formally invited in the invaders. In Bima cheering crowds shouted “Hidup Nippon!”, meaning “Long Live Japan!”, and they set up a gate of honor bearing the words “2602 Anno Jimmu Tenno,” a phrase which counted the years from the traditional date of the first Japanese emperor. Soon afterwards, however, as with all of Southeast Asia, the Japanese brought hardship to the locals; men were put to work on labor projects, and women were ordered to serve in military brothels as “comfort women.” Still, this wasn’t enough to make Indonesians wish for the Dutch to come back. Where the Japanese made improvements was in education; the Dutch had cared so little for this part of everyday life that Sumbawa’s population was 99 percent illiterate at the beginning of the war.

Within a year after the war ended, the Dutch managed to regain control, and overall Sumbawa stayed quiet during the Indonesian National Revolution. The sultans tried to establish a place for themselves in Sukarno’s republic, but because they had cooperated with the colonial authorities before 1949, the people no longer had much respect for them, and as we saw in other episodes, time had run out for the traditional monarchs. Thus, the sultans were pensioned off in the 1950s. Muhammad Salahuddin, the sultan of Bima when independence came, died in Jakarta in 1951. His son Abdul Kahir was declared the head of a self-ruling territory, but then in 1958 the Sumbawan principalities were abolished by the Jakarta government and replaced by today’s bureaucracy; he died in 2001.

On the other side of the island, the sultan of Sumbawa Besar, Muhammad Kaharuddin III, played an active role after World War II. In previous episodes we saw that the Dutch tried to set up a state that was friendly to them in the eastern islands, which they called Negara Indonesia Timur, or the State of Eastern Indonesia. While that state existed, Sultan Kaharuddin served as the speaker of its parliament. He briefly served in the Senate during the eight-month period when Indonesia was a confederation of states, called the United States of Indonesia, then acted as regent of the Sultanate until his abdication in 1960. He died in 1975, at the age of 73. His family still claims the Sultanate’s throne, but no one was called sultan until 2011, and the current occupant does not have any governing authority. The former sultan’s house contains several artifacts from the time of the sultanate and has become a tourist destination. Incidentally, the two airports on Sumbawa are named after the last official sultans from each royal family, Sultan Muhammad Kaharuddin III Airport and Sultan Muhammad Salahudin Airport, respectively.


All right, that takes care of Sumbawa. Now it’s time to get on the figurative ferry boat again, and continue to the next major island on our eastward journey, Flores, with a stop on the small island of Komodo. Join me again next time as we visit the islands that gave us real-life dragons and hobbits. You’ll have to go all the way back to Episode 1 to find out what I meant by that!

Do you like listening to podcasts without ads? If you do, and can afford to financially support the show, I will greatly appreciate it. This podcast is free to listen to, but not free for me to make. Because of this, only a few listeners are motivated to make a donation. If you are one of them, that means you are a special person. One-time donations are made through Paypal, or you can sign up to make a small monthly donation through Patreon; I have included links to both on the Blubrry.com page that hosts this episode. And even if you cannot make a financial contribution at this time, you can still help by telling others about the show. So spread the word to anyone who might be interested. Like always, thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!


Episode 126: Lombok and the Volcano

Hello! As you have been expecting, here is the next episode in the podcast mini-series on eastern Indonesia. Today we visit Lombok, a little-known island just east of Bali. Lombok is home to a volcano that erupted in 1257, possibly changing the course of world history. Unfortunately I have had a bad cold this week, so hopefully I don’t sound too congested in this recording.



This episode is dedicated to Louis E., Karen L., Louis C., Dante G. and Jouke C., for the donations they made to the podcast. You probably remember Louis E., because this isn’t his first donation. He has given for the past three years, and thus has won the Water Buffalo icon and the Shwe Dagon pagoda icon, on the podcast Hall of Fame Page. Now that he has given again, veteran listeners will know what that means; Louis has just won the highest honor created previously, the OUTRAGEOUS Merlion icon! Karen is a first-time donor, so welcome to our happy family! As for Louis C. and Jouke C, what can I say? They have made donations in every year since 2019, and they already have the three icons I created for multiple donations. Therefore I am creating a new icon just for them; I will tell you about it at the end of this episode. Finally, this is the second time Dante made a donation this year, so let’s all applaud him again!

Spring is beginning in the northern hemisphere as I record this, and a lot of new things begin with spring. So may this new season be the beginning of a great time of success and prosperity for all of you. And now, on with the show!

Episode 126: Lombok and the Volcano

Greetings dear listeners, for the 126th time, from the hills of Bluegrass country in Kentucky! And new events continue to happen while I work on the podcast. On February 9, 2023, a 5.4 magnitude earthquake struck the city of Jayapura, in eastern Indonesia. Jayapura is the most important city in western New Guinea, and it is right on the border of Papua New Guinea. Go back to Episode #102 if you want to learn more about western New Guinea. Several houses and buildings were destroyed, and four people were killed when a floating restaurant collapsed into the sea. Fortunately the earthquake did not generate a tsunami.

For those who didn’t know already, Indonesia is an earthquake-prone country. Its location next to the geologic fault separating Asia from Australia puts it on the famous Pacific “Ring of Fire,” meaning there are plenty of volcanoes here, and where you have volcanoes, you have earthquakes as well. And this earthquake was expected. The Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency said it recorded 1,079 earthquakes in Jayapura and nearby areas during the first six weeks of 2023, with 132 of them strong enough to be felt by residents. Almost three months earlier, on November 21, a magnitude 5.6 earthquake killed at least 331 people in western Java. And you may remember in the previous episode, I told you about a major earthquake on Sulawesi in 2018.

Then on February 24, a 6.2 magnitude earthquake occurred north of Halmahera, an island we will visit in a future episode. It originated at a depth of 99 kilometers, or 62 miles for American listeners, and it did not generate a tsunami. So far I have not heard of any casualties from this one.

And here is an event relevant to this episode. On March 11, Mount Merapi, a volcano located in eastern Java, erupted, sending a column of hot clouds 100 meters into the air that blotted out the sun, and dropping ash on eight nearby villages. I have mentioned this volcano in the podcast before, since the ancient Borobudur temple is close enough to be affected by the eruptions. Merapi’s last big eruption was in 2010; it killed more than 300 people and forced the evacuation of some 280,000 residents.

Now for a happy news story. In mid-February there was a wedding held in the Philippines, at Iloilo City in the central islands, and they did something different. Instead of having the bride and bridesmaids carry the usual flower bouquets, they carried bouquets of red onions! In recent months the price of onions in the Philippines has gone up tremendously. Now onions cost seven times what they did in mid-2022; the price can run more than $5 a pound in US dollars, so they are expensive even by American standards, and in the Philippines, onions have become a symbol of wealth. Now that onions cost more than chicken or beef, they have been nicknamed the “new gold.” Here in the United States, eggs have gotten ridiculously expensive, so my American listeners can compare Philippine onions to American eggs. And if you have ever eaten Philippine cuisine, you know that onions are a critical ingredient. Anyway, the families involved in this wedding set aside 15,000 pesos to pay for the flowers (which is $284 in US dollars), but then found out that they could buy a bag of onions for 8,000 pesos, or just over $150 in US dollars, so they actually saved money by going with the onions. Finally, they gave a practical reason for the choice in onions: flowers wither away after a few days, and you can’t eat them. And sure enough, they gave away the onions to the guests at the end of the wedding.


If you are new to this podcast, here’s a quick description of where we’re at. This podcast started out as a general historical narrative, covering all eleven countries between India, China and Australia. In case you don’t consider yourself good at geography, the eleven countries are Myanmar (formerly Burma), Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia, the Philippines, and East Timor! Those are the eleven, and no others. When I explain the podcast to the people I meet, it’s amazing how many think Korea is included. No, I consider Korea part of Northeast Asia, along with Japan and the nearest parts of China and Siberia.

Now the historical narrative finished with Episode #119. At that point I had brought the story of each country up to the year 2021. I’m waiting for some more news stories before I record an episode on events that have taken place since 2021. So far the topics I have to talk about are the new president of the Philippines, the renewed civil war in Myanmar, and a Thai princess who was almost killed by a COVID vaccination. What will happen over there next?

In the meantime I am taking on what I call “loose ends,” subjects that you the listeners felt I didn’t talk enough about in previous episodes. The first loose ends were the refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos that settled in the rest of the world during the late twentieth century, and the story of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Now I am giving equal time to the islands of eastern Indonesia, after one listener suggested that in previous episodes, I spent too much time talking about the three big islands in western Indonesia: Borneo, Sumatra, and Java. Well, when I got into the research for eastern Indonesia, it turned out this would require not one episode, but a mini-series of episodes, to give suitable coverage for this region. The first two episodes of this mini-series each covered a single island; first came an episode on Bali, then came an episode on Sulawesi. Now for today’s episode, we are going to begin a tour of the Lesser Sundas.

At this point, some of you may be asking, “What’s a Sunda?” If you have listened to the previous episodes I did about Indonesia, you will have heard the word before. “Sunda” is a term that has been used extensively by geographers and scientists, applied to anything having to do with the islands of Southeast Asia in general, and to west Java in particular. I couldn’t find anything on the origin of the word; my guess is that Sunda comes from Suvarnadvipa, the ancient Sanskrit name given to Southeast Asia’s islands, when ships from India began to explore here.

To start with, the waterway between Java and Sumatra is called the Sunda Strait. The continental shelf between the islands is called the Sunda Shelf, and the deepest part of the Indian Ocean, located just south of Sumatra, is called the Sunda Trench. There was a prehistoric supervolcano, now extinct, on western Java, that geologists call Mount Sunda, and during the ice ages, lowered sea levels turned the Sunda Shelf into dry land. That joined the islands of Southeast Asia to the mainland, as a subcontinent geologists now call Sundaland. And geologists use the name “Sunda Arc” for the string of volcanoes that runs through the islands of Sumatra, Java, the Sunda Strait and the Lesser Sunda Islands.

But wait, there’s more! There are people named Sunda! The Sunda are Indonesia’s second largest ethnic group (the Javanese are the largest). Today there are 38 million Sundanese living on western Java, and three million on neighboring Sumatra. They have their own Sundanese language, and western Java was the location of the Sunda kingdom, which existed from the 7th to the 16th century. I mentioned the Sunda kingdom way back in Episode #6 of this podcast, because it was the last state to be conquered by the Majapahit Empire, in the 14th century. The name also appears in Sunda Kalapa, the main port of the Sunda kingdom; later on, Sunda Kalapa would be called first Jakarta, then Batavia, and finally Jakarta again.

All right, so what does that have to do with today’s episode? Well, to finish off our list of people, places and things named Sunda, there are two major groups of islands within Indonesia, the Greater Sunda Islands and the Lesser Sunda Islands. You have already met the Greater Sunda Islands. Those are four of the big islands: Borneo, Sumatra, Java and Sulawesi. I have already talked enough about them in previous episodes, so I hope to say no more here. The Lesser Sundas are a string of 975 small to medium-sized islands, extending east of Java. According to Wikipedia, there are fifteen airports in the lesser Sundas, if you include Bali, so book your tickets and let’s go there!


The modern Indonesian name for the Lesser Sundas is Nusa Tenggara. This comes from two words in the Old Javanese language: Nusa, meaning “island,” and Tenggara, meaning “southeast.” So the Indonesian name literally means “Southeast Islands,” because these islands are on the southeastern edge of the country, facing Australia. The modern Indonesian government divides the Lesser Sundas between four provinces: Bali, West Nusa Tenggara, East Nusa Tenggara, and Maluku. For Maluku, only the Barat Daya Islands count here; the rest of the islands in that province will be covered in another episode.

The Lesser Sunda chain contains nine islands or archipelagoes worth remembering, and we will concentrate our attention on them. Here they are, from west to east: Bali, Lombok, Sumbawa, Flores, Sumba, Timor, the Alor Archipelago, the Barat Daya Islands, and the Tanimbar Islands. For this episode and those that follow, we are not going to have much of an historical narrative, the way we did for the episodes on Bali and Sulawesi. The main issue is that, over the course of history, not much has happened in this part of the world. To start with, compared with the rest of Indonesia, the Lesser Sundas are sparsely populated, with a bit more than 20 million people altogether. And nearly all of Indonesia’s population growth happened in recent history; two hundred years ago, before the Dutch introduced modern medicine, the Lesser Sundas probably had between 1 million and two million people. Keep in mind that 20 million is a small population compared with Indonesia’s big islands, especially Java, and you don’t hear about many events in places that are not crowded with people. That’s why in the United States, you will hear more news stories from California and Texas than you will from North Dakota. And 1 million isn’t that large, when you’re talking about Asian populations. As Zhou Enlai, the former Chinese premier, once put it, quote, “In China, one million is not a large number.” Unquote.

Second, for most of history each island was on its own. No important state got started here, nor did any important state rule the Lesser Sundas for long, before the nineteenth century. In fact, the only state that ruled all of the Lesser Sundas before modern times was the Java-based Majapahit Empire, in the late fourteenth century. For recent history, the Dutch ruled in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Japanese ruled briefly during World War II, the Dutch came back after the war ended, and aside from East Timor, the present-day Indonesian government has ruled the whole area since 1949. For most of the islands we visit, I think I will just cover the events that happened there, like major volcanic eruptions, and point out interesting features like the Komodo dragon.

As I said before, we already covered Bali in Episode #124, so we’re not going to stop there in this episode. Instead, we will make our first stop at the next island to the east, Lombok.


In the very first episode of the podcast, the introduction, I mentioned an imaginary line called the Wallace Line. To refresh your memory, the Wallace Line was drawn in 1859 by a British naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace. In the previous episode, we noted that the Wallace Line runs between Borneo and Sulawesi, and among Indonesia’s southern islands, it runs between Bali and Lombok. Wallace noted that the wildlife on the east side of the line is quite different from wildlife on the west side of the line, and today’s ecologists use the line to designate the boundary between the realms of Asian and Australian animals. Likewise, other scientists have noted that birds in the Philippines are different from the birds in eastern Indonesia. The main difference in wildlife is that the mammals indigenous to the islands west of the line are all placental mammals. East of the line you can also find placental mammals, like the Celebes crested macaque, but you will also find some marsupials, the kind of mammals that dominated Australia before Europeans settled on that continent. So expect to meet some exotic animals on this journey!

At 1,824 square miles, or 4,500 square kilometers if you prefer the metric system, Lombok is one of the largest of the Lesser Sunda Islands. Lombok is separated from Bali by the Lombok Strait, and from the island of Sumbawa by the Alas Strait. It also has one of the largest populations in the Lesser Sundas, at 3.81 million people. The main city is Mataram, with 495,000 people, and as far as I can tell, the name has nothing to do with a kingdom called Mataram, that used to exist on Java.

The local economy is largely dependent on tourism, but because its western neighbor, Bali, gets so much attention, fewer tourists visit Lombok. Therefore Lombok has been promoted as an “unspoiled alternative” to Bali, and when terrorists set off bombs on Bali in 2002 and 2005, tourism to both islands plummeted; it took until 2009 for tourism to return to pre-2000 levels. Today Lombok offers hikes through mostly intact tropical forests; there are also plenty of attractive beaches, and the south shore of the island has many great spots for surfing. Whereas on Bali the best time for surfing is during Indonesia’s dry season, from April to October, the waves on Lombok are at their best during the rainy season, from November to March.

For those of you with an Islamic persuasion, you might like to know that in 2019, Lombok received a score of 70 for halal tourism, the highest score for any tourist destination in Indonesia. Thus, according to the country’s Tourism Ministry, Lombok has done more than the other tourist spots, to keep their attractions halal, or compatible with the teachings of Islam. To score well on the halal tourism rating system, an attraction must have the following:

1. Hotels that have no alcohol or gambling, and each room should have a Koran, prayer mats, and arrows pointing the direction to Mecca.

2. Halal transportation. That means cleanliness, non-alcoholic drinks, and publications considered agreeable with Islam.

3. Halal food is available.

4. Islamic-themed tour packages.

5. Halal finances, meaning the hotels, restaurants, travel agencies and airlines have to follow Islamic rules, like no charging of interest.

The reason why Indonesia is rating tourist destinations this way is because the goal of the Tourism Ministry is to attract as many Moslem tourists as possible to those destinations.


Lombok’s main feature of interest is the volcanic complex near the center of the island. Today it is the site of Mount Rinjani, Indonesia’s second tallest volcano, with an elevation of more than twelve thousand feet above sea level. At the top of the mountain is an enormous caldera containing a lake, called Segara Anak, or “Child of the Sea.” The volcano is active, with the most recent eruption taking place in 2016. However, there used to be a larger volcano on this spot, called Mount Samalas. Centuries ago Samalas exploded, in one of the greatest eruptions in recorded history; the lake and Mount Rinjani come from what was left over after the eruption. We now know the eruption happened in the year 1257 A.D., because some people who witnessed the eruption wrote about it on dried palm leaves. Dried palm leaves were a common writing material in Southeast Asia, before Southeast Asians learned about paper, and here the leaves were put together, to form a document called the Babad Lombok. Likewise, we have contemporary documents from England, which report that the winters of 1257 and 1258 were unusually dark, cold and dry, causing a castrophic famine. Here is how the English chronicler Matthew Paris described this time. Quote: “The north wind blew without intermission, a continued frost prevailed, accompanied by snow and such unendurable cold, that it bound up the face of the earth, sorely afflicted the poor, suspended all cultivation, and killed the young of the cattle to such an extent that it seemed as if a general plague was raging amongst the sheep and lambs.” End quote.

In the 1990s, archaeologists discovered more than 10,000 skeletons in a mass burial pit in east London. At first they assumed these bones came from victims of the Black Death, the terrible pandemic that would sweep across Europe in the mid-fourteenth century, but now it appears more likely that this is the mass grave of those who died during the famine of 1257 and 1258. In more recent history, Southeast Asian volcanoes like Tambora and Krakatoa have spewed thousands of tons of ash and dust into the atmosphere, and that pollution spread around the world, blocking part of the sun’s light, altering air circulation patterns, creating brilliant red sunsets, and lowering temperatures everywhere. I personally remember Mount Pinatubo erupting in the Philippines in 1991, and as a result, 1992 was a cooler than average year. Therefore we think that thousands of miles away in the tropics, Mount Samalas caused the famine that Europe experienced in the thirteenth century.

If you regularly read, watch or listen to the news, you know that climate change is a hot topic, and we mention it when discussing various events, from melting glaciers and icebergs to unexpected severe storms. Well, over the past few decades we have also learned that climates are not constant; temperatures have gone up and down over the ages. During the past 4,500 years, there have been four prolonged periods, each lasting more than a century, when temperatures around the world were a few degrees higher than they are today. And because most people were farmers before the industrial revolution, the warm periods were a blessing for them; higher temperatures meant longer growing seasons, and fewer killing frosts, so it was easier to grow abundant harvests. The most recent warm time is called the “Medieval Warming Period”; it began around 800 A.D., and lasted until the 1200s; the Dark Ages ended in Europe as a result of this warm spell. And between the warm periods came colder times, when most people did not do as well; crops failed and people starved. Such a cold spell happened after the Medieval Warming Period, from 1300 to 1700; sometimes we call this the “Little Ice Age.” Now it looks like the transition from the Medieval Warming Period to the Little Ice Age was caused by the volcano on Lombok in 1257, so you can say that volcano changed the course of history!


We will be able to go through Lombok’s history quickly. To start with, we don’t know much about what happened on the island before the 1257 eruption, and like the rest of Indonesia, it was ruled by the Majapahit empire for a generation or so in the 14th century. Then Bali ruled the island briefly around 1550. Because of the Balinese conquest, today there are 300,000 Balinese on Lombok, making up 10 to 15 percent of the population. By 1600 the island’s indigenous population, called Sasaks, were independent again, but divided into several minor states, and the princes of those states feuded constantly. This allowed Bali to conquer the western part of Lombok again, while the Makassarese from Sulawesi and Sumbawa invaded eastern Lombok. The Balinese managed to conquer the whole island by 1750, but then the island split into four kingdoms, each ruled by a Balinese aristocrat. One of those states, Mataram, managed to bring the others under its control in 1838.

On the west side of Lombok, lengthy contact between the Sasak and Balinese meant the two groups got along well, and there were often marriages between them. However, that wasn’t the case in the east; there the Balinese manned forts to keep control, and used the chief of each village as a tax collector.

You should remember from the other episodes of this podcast that by the end of the nineteenth century, all of Southeast Asia except Siam had come under foreign domination, from the Western nations. With Indonesia, the primary foreign invaders were the Dutch. Because the Netherlands is a small country, while Indonesia is a huge archipelago of 17,000 islands, spread across an area the size of the continental United States, the Dutch conquest had to advance slowly, one island at a time, or in the case of the big islands, one piece of an island at a time. With Lombok, their opportunity came when a peasant rebellion broke out against the Balinese, and the Sasaks invited the Dutch to take over. The initial invasion went well in June 1894, with the Balinese raja quickly surrendering, but a counterattack by the younger princes against the Dutch army meant it took until 1895 to take the whole island. Afterwards, the Dutch were able to rule over a local population of half a million with a force of only 250, by cooperating with local aristocrats. Unlike most of Indonesia, today the residents of Lombok see the Dutch as liberators, from the Balinese rulers they had previously.

Podcast footnote: From the royal palace of Lombok, the Dutch made off with a fabulous treasure haul in 1894 — 507 lbs. of gold, seven and a half tons of silver, and three chests of jewels. Part of this treasure, but not all of it, was returned to Indonesia in 1977. On Wikipedia I saw a photo of a 75 carat diamond from Lombok, that is still in a museum in Leiden. End footnote.

And that’s Lombok. The island’s history in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is the same as the history for all of Indonesia: Dutch rule until World War II, Japanese rule for three and a half years, a brief period where the Dutch regained control after the war, and from 1949 onward, the present-day Indonesian state. Of course I have already covered all this in previous episodes.


Originally my plan was to cover all of the Lesser Sundas in one episode, but now I can see that if I do even two of the main islands, this episode will last for more than an hour, and it will take much longer for me to do the research and record it. Therefore I will break off here after just doing Lombok. Join me next time as we continue our journey eastward by visiting the next island in the Lesser Sunda chain, Sumbawa.

Most podcasts do not last as long as this one has. This podcast has been active for nearly seven years, thanks to determination on my part, and your willingness to support it. If you appreciate this podcast and would like to support it, the easiest way to do so is by spreading the word about it. Tell your family, your friends, and anyone you know who is interested in history. And if you can financially support the podcast, you can really make a difference with a donation. For a one-time donation, you can do that through Paypal. To do that, go to the Blubrry.com page that hosts this show, and click on the link; it will either be a gold button or a text link that says “Support this podcast!” Now I know that Paypal does not work everywhere; I have seen your messages that say Paypal does not accept currency from Taiwan, Singapore or Malaysia. Rest assured, I have started looking into alternatives to Paypal for you. Or click on the link to Patreon, if you want to become a Patron and make a small donation each month. Either way, thank you for your support.

Long-time listeners know I have created the Podcast Hall of Fame page to give recognition to the donors, by putting their first names on it, and I have posted links to that page from Blubrry.com and the podcast’s Facebook page. In addition, if you donate in more than one year, a special icon, featuring something associated with Southeast Asia, is put next to your name, to mark your exalted status. Those who donate in two different years get the coveted water buffalo icon, also known as Walter the Water Buffalo. Being a thoroughly useful farm animal, the water buffalo is a common sight, all over Southeast Asia. I even have a photo from the Philippines, where a farmer used a cart pulled by a water buffalo to take his family to the drive-thru lane of a fast food restaurant! Those who donate in three years get the ever-popular Shwe Dagon Pagoda icon, which represents the most famous building in Myanmar. How famous is it? Well, when the Burmese government moved the nation’s capital from Yangon to Naypyidaw, they felt compelled to build a fullsized copy of the Shwe Dagon in the new city. And that’s not all; those who donate for four years get the OUTRAGEOUS Merlion icon next to their names. If you have visited Singapore, you know the Merlion is that city-state’s national symbol. In 2022 the OUTRAGEOUS Merlion was the highest award I gave to donors, but not anymore.

Now we have two donors who have given for five years in a row, Louis C. and Jouke C. To both of you I say, thank you from the bottom of my heart, for doing your part to keep the lights on here. I had to think for a little while about what icon would be appropriate here, and then the current subject matter decided it. Because this episode and the next one talk about the awesome power of volcanoes, both of you will be honored with an awesome volcano icon! In Southeast Asia, volcanoes are mainly found in Indonesia and the Philippines, but there are also a few in the mainland countries, so the volcano is an appropriate symbol for the whole region. Congratulations to both of you! Now we will watch to see who else follows the example you set.

And that’s all for today. Like I’ve been saying, thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!


Mini-Episode: It Must Be the Mystery Factor

This is a special mini-episode. It has nothing to do with Southeast Asian history. In a recent conversation I had, the subject of ancient aliens came up. For the record, here is my opinion on that subject. Listen and enjoy, while I work on the next regular podcast episode!


And here is a photo of the statue of Hemiunu, the real builder of the Great Pyramid in Egypt. I talked about the statue in the middle of this episode.


A Mini-Episode: It Must Be The Mystery Factor

An unexpected greeting, dear listeners! This episode is not about Southeast Asian history. This is to give you something from me to listen to, while I am working on the next actual podcast episode. Here I cover a special topic tied into history in general — the idea that aliens came to earth long ago. As far as I know, there is not much speculation regarding aliens in Southeast Asia, except maybe for a few people who might believe that aliens helped build Angkor Wat, the spectacular temple complex in Cambodia.

I am recording this because of the reaction I often get when I tell people I record a podcast about Southeast Asian history. Not all of them know what I mean by Southeast Asia; I have told you about the folks who think Korea is included, and then ask me what I think about the Korea situation. Others ask about Taiwan and the South China Sea, because those places have been in the news recently, and that makes a bit more sense. Well, this week I met a person who is a fan of the History Channel, and when I told him about the podcast, his response was to ask me what I thought about ancient aliens!

For those of you outside the United States, the History Channel is a popular cable TV station, much like MTV, CNN, Animal Planet, and the Discovery Channel. I used to like the History Channel; when it got started in 1995, it had great programs about different historical subjects, from ancient civilizations to Napoleon to American history. But over time it changed its programming, just as MTV switched from broadcasting music videos to airing reality shows. For a few years after 2000, the History Channel ran a nonstop schedule of programs about World War II; you could have called it the Hitler Channel at that time. But finally that stopped; either they ran out of World War II-related subjects to talk about, or the veterans they needed to interview for those shows all died of old age. Since then they have run a good show about the Vikings, but otherwise the topics have been mostly redneck activities, pawn shops, trucks driving on ice, Doomsday prophecies, Bigfoot documentaries — and ancient aliens.

I have never been a fan of the ancient aliens theory. It seems unfair to think our ancestors could not have been smart enough to build impressive monuments, and it is possibly racist, too. A few years back, I wrote a short essay expressing my views on the subject, entitled “It Must be the Mystery Factor.” Most of you probably did not see it, so here I will read it for your benefit, starting now. Quote:

This topic has to do with the idea that UFOs came here long ago. The success of TV shows like “Stargate SG-1” and “Battlestar Galactica” suggests that the ancent aliens theory is still popular, more than half a century after Erich von Daniken proposed it.

Let’s think about it: if aliens really came here in ancient times, why would they be so fascinated with Egypt? During the Bronze Age the Egyptians were ahead of everybody else in culture and political organization, but they were behind Mesopotamia and India in technology. For example, Egypt didn’t start using bronze tools until the end of the Old Kingdom, nearly a thousand years after the Sumerians got them.

I think it has to do with the fact that an air of mystery surrounds Egyptian civilization, and it doesn’t completely disappear when folks like us study it. We don’t know exactly how the pyramids were built because they did not write any books on how to do it, nor did they give us any pictures showing them building one; therefore some people get the idea that aliens built the pyramids for them.

At this point in my essay, I shared a photo of an ancient Egyptian statue. The statue is a life-sized stone depiction of a middle-aged, slightly overweight man, sitting on a chair. His only clothing is a kilt that stretched from his waist to his knees, and a cap covering whatever hair he had on his head — Egypt is a hot place, after all. I saw this statue in 1996, when it came to a museum in St. Petersburg, Florida.

The person represented by the statue is Hemiunu, the real architect of the Great Pyramid. He wasn’t a space alien, or even from some non-Egyptian nationality. In fact, he was Pharaoh Khufu’s vizier, and probably a relative; just the sort of person you would expect to be in charge of building Pharaoh’s great memorial. I thought he even looked a little bit like me!

<laugh track>

Now take a look at the other civilizations the Von Daniken crowd concentrates its attention on. They talk a lot about possible alien visits to Iraq, where much has been learned over the past two hundred years, but we still have gaps stretching for at least a century through ancient Mesopotamian history. Then they talk about Peru, where the natives built cities without knowing how to write; Mesoamerica, where archaeologists are in a race to learn all they can about tribes like the Maya before graverobbers and smugglers steal the artifacts; and Easter Island, where only recently have we figured out how those giant statues got there. In all these cases we are dealing with civilizations we don’t know much about, so extraterrestrials pop in to fill the gaps in our knowledge. Have you noticed that people don’t talk much about ancient astronauts going to the civilizations we know the most about, namely China, Greece and Rome? That gearbox found in a shipwreck in the Aegean Sea is the only case I can think of where a classical-era artifact was used to suggest alien visits. To sum it up, I’ll venture that the more we know about our ancestors, the less likely we are to think that aliens helped them get started.

An online friend of mine pointed out something else worth considering: if extraterrestrials came to earth and used it for a base, where is all the infrastructure? Our two busiest spaceports, Cape Canaveral in Florida and the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, don’t launch rockets every day, but still they have a huge complex of support buildings that stretch for miles. We’ve heard the suggestion that the Nazca lines in Peru could be an ancient landing strip, but if that’s the case, where are the passenger terminals, the warehouses, the hangars, the control towers, the landing beacons, the radar stations and the fuel tanks? Where are the roads and the ground vehicles needed to transport people and cargo to and from the spaceships? Why don’t we even have electric or fiber optic cables? Can these aliens have been so much neater than us that they left no litter anywhere? Where is the alien equivalent of lost coins and discarded beer cans? (See “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” one of my all-time favorite movies, for the kind of culture shock an unidentified piece of trash can cause. In this case, it was a glass Coke bottle dropped near a Bushman tribe in southern Africa.) So far the only hard evidence for extraterrestrials that I’ve heard about are a few out-of-place artifacts (sometimes called ooparts), and elsewhere I have made the case that they can be explained as relics from an advanced human culture. Therefore, it appears to me that if we ever had visitors from another planet, they didn’t stay here very long; they just came and went, the way the Apollo astronauts did on the moon.

End Quote. I suppose it is only a matter of time before somebody looks at the great cathedrals built in Europe during the Middle Ages, and that person will say aliens built the cathedrals, because the ancestors of today’s white people were too dumb to raise such masterpieces. Anyway, thank you for listening. Now, with the next episode, we will return to the regularly scheduled podcast.


Episode 125: Sulawesi and the Way of the Ancestors

Happy Groundhog Day, if you are in the United States! But seriously, after nearly three months of researching, recording, editing, and fighting off the challenges that kept me from working on the podcast, Episode 125 is now available! Today we take a close look at Sulawesi, the largest Indonesian island between Borneo and New Guinea. To compensate for the long time you waited, this is the longest episode I have made so far, at one hour and 23 minutes. So grab some refreshment (food or a drink), get comfortable, listen and enjoy!



This episode is dedicated to Flavio M, Cameron P., Evan S., David H., Charles B, and Dante G. All of them have made donations to the podcast. And that’s not all! Cameron P. made a donation in 2021, so on the Podcast Hall of Fame page, Cameron has won the coveted water buffalo icon. Evan S. has also won Walter the Water Buffalo, because he made two donations, one in December and one in January. In the past, I suggested that the quickest way to win an icon on the Hall of Fame page was to make a donation near the end of a year, and then make another donation after the new year begins. Well, Evan has gone and done it. Way to go, Cameron and Evan!

Since I started working on this episode, a new year has begun on more than one calendar, so may this year be the beginning of the best time in your lives so far. We now return you to your regularly scheduled program.

Episode 125: Sulawesi and the Way of the Ancestors

Greetings dear listeners, for the 125th time, from the hills of Bluegrass country in Kentucky! If you are listening to this close to the time of recording, we made it through 2022, so Happy Belated New Year!

First and foremost, I’m sorry to have kept you waiting, nearly three months since the last episode went online. As with the other times when an episode was delayed, the cares and concerns of the real world got in the way of my work. I don’t record a podcast to talk about my troubles, so I will just mention one of the challenges I faced: I am in the part of the United States that got hit by a blizzard in December 2022, the one meteorologists called “Winter Storm Elliott.” What a predicament, for a podcaster who talks about a part of the world that is always hot! And why are we now giving names to winter storms, anyway? I thought only coriolis storms (hurricanes, typhoons and cyclones) deserved that honor. Then after the blizzard ended, and December became January, my wife showed me photos of the destruction inflicted by major flooding, in her home province of the Philippines.

Another factor has been the research. I think I warned you that giving equal time to eastern Indonesia would take a lot of research. Well, all too often I came upon webpages that didn’t have the information I am looking for. For this subject we are getting into some really obscure material, on a par with what I said about the Kingdom of Arakan in Episode #18. In the end I had to say I couldn’t find some of the information I am looking for. Well, the record show I am going to have these episodes done right, to the best of my ability, no matter how long it takes. Thank you for hanging in there!


All right. If this is your first time listening to this podcast, for the last few episodes I have been tying up “loose ends,” talking about subjects that weren’t covered enough, the other times we got together. Along that line, we are now in a mini-series of sorts, about the islands of eastern Indonesia, because at least one listener felt that when Indonesia was the country under discussion, I talked mostly about events on the three big islands in the western part of the country: Java, Sumatra and Borneo. Fair enough. Now here is what I found, I hope you like it.

In the previous episode, we started the mini-series with a look at the island of Bali. Today, we will look at a larger island, just to the north of Bali, and just to the east of Borneo — Sulawesi. If you haven’t listened to Episode #124 yet, I recommend you pause this episode here, and go listen to #124, to find out how we started this mini-series; it includes a refresher course on Indonesian geography. Don’t worry, I’ll wait until you come back.

All right, are we ready to continue? Good!


Sulawesi is the largest island we will visit in this mini-series. In fact, it is in the group of islands geographers call the Greater Sunda Islands; the other Greater Sundas are Sumatra, Borneo and Java, which as I said, got enough attention in the episodes that talked about all of Indonesia, not just the eastern islands. This island has an irregular shape, with four peninsulas; to me it looks like a hand. Well, maybe a frog hand, if not a human hand. Some of my sources compared the shape with an orchid flower, or a lower-case letter “K.” The present-day Indonesian government has divided the island into six provinces. The latest census, conducted in 2020, put Sulawesi’s population at almost 20 million people. If you want to compare that with the population of Bali, the island we visited in the previous episode, Bali has 3 million people. The largest city is Makassar; it has 1.3 million people and rests near the southwest corner of the island. Likewise, the narrow waterway on the west side of Sulawesi, separating it from Borneo, is called the Makassar Strait.

If you want to complete the geographical picture, small seas surround the other sides of Sulawesi. The sea on the island’s north side, between Sulawesi and the Philippines, is called the Celebes Sea; more about that name in a minute. On the south side, separating Sulawesi from the Lesser Sunda Islands, we have the Flores Sea. And separating Sulawesi from the Moluccas and Banda Islands are two more small seas: the Molucca Sea to the northeast, and the Banda Sea to the southeast.

Like most of Southeast Asia, much of Sulawesi’s land is rugged with mountains, which include some volcanoes. The whole island used to be covered by jungles, but unfortunately, like in the rest of the tropics around the world, deforestation is a serious problem. 80% of the forests have been cut down, either to extract the hardwoods, a valuable resource, or to make room for farms and human communities. Intruders have also cut away part of the forest to mine the island’s metal resources, such as nickel, gold and copper. The good news is that just about all the land fit for farms and cities has already been cleared, so it doesn’t appear likely that the forests remaining will be cut down. One of my sources put the forests in seven categories, called mangrove, montane, monsoon, ultrabasic, limestone, peat swamp, and freshwater swamp forests. To protect the island’s many unique plants and animals, six national parks and nineteen nature preserves have been set up. Examples of Sulawesi’s special wildlife include the tarsier, a bug-eyed, rarely seen prosimian primate, built to leap from tree to tree; the hornbill, a toucan-like bird that uses mud and trash to seal itself up in a hollow tree, so it can raise its eggs and young in privacy; the maleo; a bird that incubates its eggs in the hot sands near volcanic vents; and the Celebes crested macaque, one of the world’s largest monkeys. Finally, I will remind you of something covered in the very first episodes of the podcast: the “Wallace Line,” a line drawn by biologists to distinguish between the animals of western and eastern Indonesia, runs through the Makassar Strait, between Borneo and Sulawesi.

And now a few words about the island’s name. We’re not dead sure what Sulawesi means, but it appears to be a combination of two words from the Indonesian language: sula, meaning island, and besi, meaning iron. The iron may refer to the rich iron deposits around Lake Matano, which the natives mined as early as the 13th century. So to Indonesians, Sulawesi’s name appears to mean “Island of Iron.” However, that is not the first name I learned for the island. When I was a kid, the island appeared on maps with the name “Celebes.” That name comes to us from the Portuguese explorers who visited the island in the 16th century, and “Celebes” appears to be a Portuguese attempt to say”Sulawesi.” Celebes remained the official name throughout the Dutch colonial era, but after Indonesia became independent in 1949, the Indonesians began promoting their own name for the island. It was only in 1978 that I first heard the name “Sulawesi,” so until I hear otherwise, I will assume it was in the late 1970s when the rest of the world switched to using the Indonesian name.


Like other Southeast Asian islands, Sulawesi is home to several tribes that speak many languages, but most of the young people prefer to use Bahasa Indonesia, the national language. When it comes to religion, the majority of the local population follows Islam, and there is a significant Christian minority. This is also typical for most of Indonesia. Nevertheless, one tribe living in the middle of Sulawesi is famous for practicing a form of animism, a religion which believes there are spirits in animals, plants and even non-animate objects in the world all around. These are the Torajas, who have built an elaborate funerary cult around the veneration of their ancestors. Those of you who follow the podcast’s Facebook page may remember that one or two years ago, I shared a video about the Torajas; that came from a documentary I saw on TV, back in 1978. Today the Toraja population is estimated at 1.1 million, of which 450,000 live in their ancestral homeland, which is called Tana Toraja, near the center of Sulawesi.

When researching this episode, I learned that the 44-year-old documentary I shared on the Torajas is out of date. Since the 1970s, anthropologists have come to study their culture, missionaries have come to convert them, and tourists have come to visit. In fact, the Toraja homeland is the second most visited place by tourists in eastern Indonesia, after Bali. All this exposure to the outside world has encouraged many Torajas to move away to seek better jobs, either to other parts of the island, or in some cases, off the island completely. Consequently their financial status is getting better. Remember when I told you about Filipinos who work abroad and send part of their paychecks back to their families? The Torajas are doing the same thing. And thanks to the missionaries, most of today’s Torajas are Christian; only 6 percent of them still follow the old-time religion, which the Indonesian government has named Aluk To Dolo, the Way of the Ancestors.

In the Toraja country, the houses are built on stilts, to minimize the effect of flooding, and are shaped like giant boats to look like the water craft their ancestors used to come to the island from China, the Philippines, or wherever. One of my sources was a travel guide that said, if you visit where the Torajas live, you should see one of their funerals, strange as it may sound. Some cultures in ancient times spent an extravagant amount on funerals — the ancient Egyptians and the Incas come to mind — but in today’s world, I can’t think of anyone who outdoes the Torajas on funerals. Whereas most of us see death as something to be dreaded and avoided, Torajas following the old religion see it as just another rite of passage, and will spend days, weeks, even years preparing for a funeral. When one of them dies, instead of removing the body right away, they will keep it at home for however long it takes, until enough money has been saved for the funeral and every relative has been notified of it. During that time, the body is simply called a “sick person,” while their loved ones apply formaldehyde to embalm the body, change the clothes, give them food and water daily, and swat any flies that land on them. It is only when all conditions are right that the funeral can take place.

The funerals are important status symbols for Torajan families, costing anywhere from $50,000 to $500,000 in US dollars, depending on the social rank of the family. And here, as in most of Southeast Asia, $50,000 to $500,000 is worth much more than that to the locals. Thus, people can go into debt to provide a proper funeral for their loved ones, and a man may even postpone his wedding if he knows that his would-be bride has a relative who may die soon. The best time of the year for funerals is August or September, and they can last from a few days to several weeks, again depending on the social status of the individual. Of course some mourning happens during the funeral, but overall the event is treated like a great send-off party for the deceased. There are prayers, singing and dancing, while the main events are cockfights, the slaughter of pigs, and the ritual sacrifice of one or more water buffalo. The animal killings make sure there is enough food for the festival, and I don’t recommend they be watched by tourists, unless they have strong stomachs!

On the last day of the funeral, the deceased are finally taken to their resting places. Babies get coffins placed in hollow trees, while cliffside burials are preferred for full-sized corpses. The coffins for these burials can go into caves carved into the faces of cliffs, or the coffins might be fastened to the sides of the cliffs. Either way, a fancy wooden statue called a tau tau should be placed nearby, made to look as much like the deceased person as possible. Nowadays, some Toraja families will build a wooden mausoleum above ground that looks like one of their boat-houses. The mausoleum will have a single sealed chamber that can hold several bodies, though only photographs of the most important occupants are placed on the outside. Also, in recent years many tau tau statues have been stolen and sold to tourists, so some families have chosen to keep them in their homes.

Whatever form the burial place takes, it has to be sturdy, because even after the body is put away, the Torajas are not done taking care of it! Every one to three years afterwards, usually in August, they hold a refreshing ritual called ma’nene. At this time, they return to the tombs, remove the dead, clean off any bugs, place a fresh set of clothes on them, and spray them from head to toe. If the dead body has stayed in good shape since they last saw it, this is seen as a blessing. More importantly, this “second funeral” gives younger generations an opportunity to bond with their ancestors. It’s not unusual to see young Torajans share a cigarette with their dead great-grandfathers, or take selfies with the great-grandmothers they never met in life. Then they do maintenance on the tomb if necessary, and put the bodies back — until next time. Supposedly this custom started when a Torajan man named Pong Rumasek found the body of a deceased person under a tree while hunting in the mountains. Rumasek dressed him in his own clothes and buried him with all honors, believing this would bring him prosperity. Yes, among the Torajas, you can be the afterlife of the party!


Next, we will take a look at Sulawesi’s history and prehistory. The oldest evidence of humans inhabiting the island comes from cave art. From 2014 to 2021, archaeologists announced the discovery of paintings in the island’s caves, which they estimate are anywhere from 35,000 to 45,000 years old. These paintings may be the oldest examples of art in the world, and mainly depict outlines of hands, hand stencils in effect, and local animals like the Celebes warty pig. The artists may have arrived during the part of the ice age when land bridges connected the Indonesian islands to the Asian mainland, so they could have gotten there by simply walking — later on people would have needed boats, of course. The ancestors of today’s population, the Malays or Austronesians, arrived around 1500 B.C. They spread rapidly and split into various tribes, among which the largest group were called the Bugis.

The Bugis lived by hunting, gathering and growing rice. Their chiefs traded women in peacetime and battled each other during times of conflict. Head hunting was commonly practiced, and because they had boats, they would trade with neighboring islands. In addition, more than 400 granite megaliths, shaped like pots, plates or people, stand in central Sulawesi; we believe the Bugis carved these stones and placed them in their present locations. Finally, a few images of foreign gods have turned up, pointing to contacts with foreign merchants and missionaries during the early years. A bronze Amaravathi statue was discovered in South Sulawesi in 1921, which was dated to between the 2nd and 7th centuries A.D., and in 1975, small locally made Buddhist statues from the 10th or 11th century were discovered on Selayar, a small island off Sulawesi’s southern shore. However, it doesn’t look like the whole local population had been converted this early.

Above the family level, the simplest social unit is the tribe, and after the tribe, groups of people founded first villages, then city-states, communities surrounded by tracts of land. I mentioned earlier that Sulawesi’s residents began digging for iron ore in the 13th century, but aside from knowing some permanent communities existed, in the neighborhood of present-day Makassar, we don’t have any details on those permanent communities before 1400. This means the Bugis and other local tribes were still in a relatively primitive state when the Majapahit Empire invaded from Java and conquered Sulawesi in the 14th century. Unfortunately I could not find a date for the Majapahit conquest, but we know it must have happened before 1365, because Majapahit’s epic poem, the Nagarakertagama, mentions the city of Makassar as being part of the empire in that year.

The city of Makassar claims to have had three dynasties of kings, going back to sometime before the year 1000. According to a myth that appears to have been made up by Hindus, the first dynasty was established when a celestial princess descended to Sulawesi from Paradise. Whatever happened, the oldest king we know anything about besides his name is Batara Gowa Tuniawanga-ri Parang Lakenna. Try saying that name three times fast! He ruled from 1405 to 1425. Presumably this was when Makassar gained its independence from Majapahit. After this, we know that Makassar belonged to a small kingdom named Gowa, while another kingdom named Tallo stood next ot it.


The ninth king of Gowa was Tumaparisi Kallonna, and he ruled from 1511 to 1546. He forged an alliance with the neighboring state of Tallo, and that partnership would last until the Dutch took over in the next century. Over the next few years, an international port and fortress were built at Somba Opu, about ten kilometers south of present-day Makassar, and it would serve both states.

Also, in the same year that Tumaparisi came to power, 1511, Portugal conquered the Malay state of Malacca. Now Makassar took Malacca’s place as the principal trading center among Southeast Asia’s islands. First Malay traders, expelled from Malacca, settled here, and then the Portuguese themselves showed up. We think the first Portuguese expedition arrived in 1523. Like other European explorers at this time, the Portuguese looked for gold, since as we noted earlier, there was some gold available on this island. By the 1540s, they were using the port of Somba Opu as their base to stop and refit, on the way to and from the Spice Islands.

In Episode #12, we saw that religious extremists in Indonesia, especially the kingdom of Aceh, tried to expel the Portuguese from the entire region, and the Portuguese survived these onslaughts because they got along with more moderate islanders. Chief among the moderates was Makassar, and it gave the Portuguese shelter in their waters because Makassar wanted to do business with everybody. Besides the Portuguese and Malays, Chinese, Arabs, Siamese, Indians and Javanese also came here, to trade their manufactured goods, especially fine textiles, for spices from the islands to the east.

The next important ruler after Tumaparisi was Aladdin Tumenanga-ri Gaukama, who ruled from 1593 to 1639. You probably noticed that his first name, Aladdin, is an Arabic name. Well, during his reign both the Gowa and Tallo rulers converted to Islam, and Makassar’s Islamic history officially began on November 9, 1607, when the first congregation Friday prayer was performed in the Tallo mosque. This was also when another player, the Dutch, entered the game; the first Dutch ship to arrive at Makassar came in 1605.

The Dutch signed a treaty with Sultan Aladdin in 1609, which allowed them to have a warehouse, what was called a factory in those days, for nine years. Back in Episode #17, I mentioned that one of the ways the Dutch East India Company made money was by collecting rice from areas that grew it, and transporting it to rice-deficient areas; well, Makassar was one of those places where rice was available. The factory was evacuated, though, later re-occupied, and torn down in 1615. In 1616 fifteen Dutch sailors were massacred, after the Company took several Makassar nobles hostage in order to force the sultan to pay the debts he owed them. When the treaty expired in 1618, the Dutch were not allowed to renew it or build a new factory, though Portugal, Denmark and England all had permanent trading posts at Makassar by this date.

The Dutch returned to Makassar in 1633, and tried to blockade the harbor with a fleet, in an unsuccessful attempt to stop smuggling to the Moluccas; that violated the Company’s monopoly over the spice trade. That issue was settled in 1636, when the Company’s man on the spot, Anthony Van Diemen, concluded a treaty with the sultan of Gowa. The sultan would stay out of Moluccan affairs, in return for the right to trade with Malacca and one of the Moluccan islands, Ceram. However, the sultan would continue to support an anti-Dutch rebellion on Amboina. The next sultan, Muhammad Malik us-Said, expanded the state by conquering some neighboring territories: the Bugis kingdom of Bone in 1640, the island of Hitu in 1645, and part of Ceram in 1653. This expansion was considered an act of defiance by the Company, because the Company now wanted a monopoly over the spice trade, and when the Company ordered the sultan to destroy the clove trees in his realm, he did not do so.


A new sultan, Muhammad Bakr Hasanuddin, came to power in 1653, and under him relations with the Dutch went from bad to worse. The Dutch issued an order forbidding the people of Makassar to sail the seas, and Hasanuddin believed that it was not the will of God to allow only European commerce around the islands, so he continued to oppose the Dutch by smuggling and giving aid to enemies of the Dutch on Amboina. The Dutch responded by sending a fleet to take Ceram in the 1650s. By now the Dutch had proven they could manage everything more efficiently than the Portuguese had, and they decided that they wanted to rule Makassar directly. Because the sultan was a cruel monarch who was willing to abuse his power, and was very unpredictable, while the Dutch wanted a monopoly over the spice trade at any cost, it was only a matter of time before war broke out between them. That happened in 1660; a large fleet of 31 ships, commanded by Johan Van Dam, bombarded Makassar and destroyed six Portuguese merchant ships in the vicinity, and Dutch troops came ashore to capture one of the sultan’s forts.

Sultan Hasanuddin sued for peace and agreed to give up trade to the Moluccas, pay an indemnity and expel Portuguese citizens from his realm. But he took so long in carrying out these terms, that the Dutch felt compelled to resume hostilities. This time Dutch forces were commanded by Admiral Cornelis Speelman, the Company’s future governor-general, and he brought with him a native ally, Arung Palakka, heir to the throne of Bone. This prince wanted revenge against Hasanuddin, because for one of his atrocities, the sultan killed Arung Palakka’s father and grandfather; he had both of those unfortunates placed in a trough used for shelling the hulls off rice grains, where both were pounded to death by wooden clubs. Previously, Arung Palakka had proven himself worthy of Dutch support, by joining a Dutch military expedition to the west coast of Sumatra.

The combined Dutch and native force first sailed to Buton, a small island southeast of Sulawesi. This is where refugees from Bone had fled, and they had called on the Company for help. Speelman quickly defeated the force from Makassar on that island in January 1667. 6,000 enemy soldiers were captured; of those, 500 were sold as slaves, and the rest were dropped on an inhospitable island. Next, they went to Sulawesi; Arung Palakka was dropped off near Bone so he could liberate the city, and then he marched to Makassar, where Speelman’s fleet was waiting. The sultan could not defeat them, and in November 1667 they forced him to sign the Treaty of Bongaya, which re-established the monopoly of the Dutch East India Company in the area, under these terms:

  1. A monopoly on Chinese-made wares like porcelain.
  2. A ban on trade with all other European nations.
  3. A ban on trade between the Sultanate of Gowa and the Moluccas.
  4. Duty-free trade for the Company.
  5. Gowa had to pay a war indemnity and give up a thousand slaves.
  6. The fortifications in Makassar had to be torn down, except for the sultan’s residence and the fort already occupied by the Company.
  7. While the states of Sulawesi were independent, they recognized the Dutch as the ultimate authority over the surrounding seas.
  8. Bone regained independence, with Arung Palakka as its ruler. Henceforth, Bone would be the strongest native-ruled state on the island.

So do you think the sultan kept these terms? If you do, you haven’t been paying attention; he didn’t know when to quit. Within a few months he renounced the treaty, and Speelman came back to attack again; Arung Palakka raised an army of 10,000 native troops to help. This time, the fortifications of Makassar proved they were worth keeping, because the Dutch fleet exhausted all its ammunition in a useless bombardment, failing to breach Somba Opu’s defenses. The Company and its allies besieged the city for nearly two years, with diseases taking such a toll on the attackers that at one point only 250 European soldiers were fit for service. Finally, sappers were sent to dig under the local defenses, and Makassar surrendered on June 12, 1669. Those natives who refused to accept defeat fled to other parts of Indonesia, or to even more distant places like Siam, to join fights against the Dutch there. As for Arung Palakka, he ruled Bone until his death in 1696. Still, the Indonesians did not forget the sultan. In the 1930s, the Dutch would build an airport for Makassar, and fifty years later, in 1985, the Indonesians renamed it, so today it is called Sultan Hasanuddin International Airport.


Because Makassar and Somba Opu had been destroyed in the 1669 conflict, the Dutch designed a new, smaller city to take their place. They called the part of the city which mattered to them “Fort Rotterdam,” and the areas surrounding it became “Vlaardingen.” They also used Dutch architecture, laid out the roads intelligently, and placed parks in several locations, giving the city a modern, European look. As for Vlaardingen, it served as living quarters for slaves and other Indonesians who worked for the Europeans. Gradually, in defiance of the Dutch, Arabs, Malays, Bugis and Chinese returned to conduct their own business outside Fort Rotterdam’s walls. The commodities they traded were locally made — copra, rattan, pearls, trepang or sea cucumbers, and bado nuts, the oil of which can be used for men’s hair dressing.

The next thing I say will probably offend some of you, in these politically correct times. Makassar was also a notorious slave-market. Slaves were collected from everywhere, but they were mainly caught on the the coasts of Sulawesi, though hunting for them caused the destruction of local societies. Because there were so many tribal wars (and so many prisoners captured in those wars), there was always an abundant supply of slaves. The native aristocracy of Sulawesi in those days had done a lot to promote slavery and the abuses that come with it. Slavery was abolished by the Dutch in 1860, but it took until around 1930 for the Dutch colonial authorities to stamp it out completely, because of the inaccessible interior of some parts of their empire.

So far on Sulawesi, the Dutch only had a man on the spot in Makassar, but in 1699 they claimed the whole island as a colony, calling it Dutch Celebes. In 1739 Kareng Bontolangkasa seized the throne of Gowa and besieged the Dutch in Fort Rotterdam. The Dutch defeated him, destroyed much of Makassar and Somba Opu again, and installed their own candidate for sultan, Abdul Khair al-Mansur Shah. There was another unsuccessful revolt in 1778, and this time the rest of old Makassar was destroyed. Then in 1830, when the Dutch defeated Diponegoro, a prince who opposed them on Java, they exiled Diponegoro to Fort Rotterdam until his death in 1855.

We saw previously in the podcast that during the 17th and 18th centuries, when the Dutch East India Company controlled Dutch activities in Asia, the Company’s resources were limited, so the Company concentrated its efforts on Java and the Spice Islands. Over the rest of the islands, Dutch control was patchy and incomplete; the Company would work with natives who wanted a share of the profits. Well, near the end of the 18th century, two things happened. First, France conquered the Netherlands in 1795, and would rule it for the period of the Napoleonic Wars. Second, the Company went bankrupt. This meant the Dutch-ruled parts of Indonesia were now under the control of a government: first the French, then the British, when they conquered Java in 1811, and finally the Dutch government, when the Dutch regained their independence at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, and returned to Java in 1816. During the next few years, the industrial revolution made the Netherlands richer and stronger than it had been before, and the invention of the steamship and the digging of the Suez Canal made Asia much more accessible to Europe. Now the Dutch could directly rule a territory almost fifty times the size of their homeland, more than seven thousand miles away. Since they didn’t need native middlemen anymore, they launched a series of campaigns to remove them. Bit by bit, between 1816 and 1908, the Dutch took over the whole Indonesian archipelago, one campaign at a time.


For the Dutch campaigns, the standard procedure was to first send an agent to the targeted native ruler, with a document called the Korte Veklaring, meaning Short Statement or Declaration. This was a standardized form that said the native ruler agreed to accept Dutch sovereignty. Some Dutch historians have said these expeditions were an “obligation,” because the Dutch had the responsibility to maintain law and order. If the ruler signed the form, well and good; there would be no war, because the ruler was considered to have abdicated. The Dutch called this the Pacificatie politiek, or the “Peace Policy.” If the ruler refused, Dutch troops were sent in, and the campaign usually ended with the troops forcing the ruler to sign the Short Declaration.

I said a few minutes ago that up to the mid-nineteenth century, the only part of Sulawesi that the Dutch ruled directly was Makassar. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find much about how they gained direct control over the rest of the island. Maybe if I could read the Dutch or Indonesian languages, there would be more information available. For all I know, most of the island’s conquest could have come about through the “Peace Policy” that I just described. I did find that there was a military expedition in January 1860, where the Dutch occupied Watampone, the capital of Bone, and the king of Bone was forced to flee that mini-state, but again there were no details besides that.

One campaign that I did find details about is now called the South Sulawesi expeditions of 1905. One Indonesian historian, Hari Budiarti, has argued that this campaign had a strategic purpose: south Sulawesi was the “key” to controlling the rest of eastern Indonesia, which the Dutch called the “Great East.” There was also an economic motive: to extend the tax-collecting powers of the Dutch government in Makassar to the whole island. The goal was to depose the native rulers of three kingdoms: Bone, Luwu and Wajo. The Dutch governor of Sulawesi, Alexander Kroesen, wrote a letter approving the expedition on February 11, 1904. Still, negotiations were tried first, and when they failed, Governor-General Johannes Benedictus van Heutsz wrote a letter to Governor Kroesen, declaring that his intention was to occupy all of south Sulawesi by force and compel the local rulers to sign the Short Declaration. By the way, we met van Heutsz once before in this podcast; in Episode 22 he carried out the winning strategy for the longest war in Indonesia, the Dutch conquest of Aceh, on Sumatra.

The South Sulawesi expeditions were really two conflicts, the Third Bone War and the Gowa War. The Dutch went after Bone first, sending twenty-five warships and one transport to the harbor of Bajoe in July 1905. They delivered a letter containing the Dutch demands to La Pawawoi Karaeng Segeri, the king of Bone. These demands called for the king to turn over policing duties in his ports of Bajoe and Pallima to them, and that he accept compensation for giving up his right to tax imports and exports passing through the harbours. The king was given twenty-four hours to respond; he rejected the demands and declared war.

The Dutch came ashore at at Ujung Pattiro, at an estuary of the Cenrana River, where the first battle took place. The king’s son, Baso Abdul Hamid, commanded the defending force; he was defeated in every battle, and eventually killed in action. Ten days after the Dutch landing, it was all over, and Bone was completely occupied. The king fled to Toraja country, and offered peace terms after the death of his son. He was captured and exiled to Bandung, on Java, in December. There he died in 1911, and the Indonesians gave him the posthumous title Matinroe ri Bandung, meaning “who died in Bandung”.

Gowa’s turn came in October 1905. Governor Kroesen sent a letter to the king of Gowa, I Makkulau Karaeng Lembagaparang, inviting him to negotiate at Ujung Pandang. With the letter came an ultimatum that if he did not respond in three days, Gowa would be besieged. The king ignored the ultimatum, and fortified his fortresses instead. Needless to say the Dutch attacked, and the royal family fled to various locations.

Two months later, believing that the king of Gowa was in a kingdom named Barus, the Dutch sent a delegation to re-open negotiations with him, but the king had really gone to a third kingdom, Sawitto. The Dutch tracked him there, and besieged the fortress of Alitta, killing all the Gowan soldiers inside, including the king’s son, I Pangsuriseng, and capturing the king’s wounded brother, I Mangimangi. The king himself escaped, was surrounded, escaped again, but them fell into a ravine and died. Another son of the king, I Mappanyukki, took refuge with his forces among the Torajas. After fifteen months of resistance, he was persuaded to seek peace with the Dutch, but during the negotiations, he was captured and exiled to Selayang Island with his followers. He was allowed to return in 1908, when his uncle, I Mangimangi, was in turn exiled to Bima, a city on the east coast of the island of Sumbawa. After that, the entire island was directly ruled by the Dutch until the Japanese invaded during World War II.


There isn’t too much to report about Sulawesi for the World War II years. Japanese troops landed on the north side of the island on January 10, 1942, and staged a second landing near Makassar on February 9. From these points they conquered the island easily, because the only defenders were 2,300 Dutch troops, and the fall of their homeland to the Germans in 1940 meant they were leaderless and poorly equipped. A US air raid bombed Sulawesi, along with Timor, on June 30, 1942, and that’s it. There were no more battles here for the rest of the war, meaning there were still Japanese troops occupying Sulawesi when the Allies won the war elsewhere. Unlike Java and Sumatra, which were occupied by the Japanese Army, the Imperial Japanese Navy administered Sulawesi and most of eastern Indonesia. There were some nationalists active on Sulawesi, who made it through the whole war despite Japanese attempts to suppress them.

When the war ended, Australian troops came to Borneo and the eastern islands, to disarm and remove the Japanese, and to maintain order until the Dutch could return. Meanwhile, the Sulawesi nationalists started working with Sukarno’s nationalists on Java. One of the nationalists, Sam Ratulangi, was in Batavia when Sukarno proclaimed Indonesian independence, on August 17, 1945, and the Javanese appointed him the first governor of Sulawesi, under the new Indonesian republic. However, he was only able to serve in that position for two brief periods, each less than a year long. Dutch forces arrested Ratulangi in April 1946 when they returned to Sulawesi, and exiled him to a small island near Western New Guinea until March 1948, when the signing of the Renville Agreement compelled the Dutch to release him. They arrested Ratulangi again in December 1948; this time, because he was in poor health, they kept him under house arrest until his death on June 30, 1949. Thus, he did not live to see the final victory in Indonesia’s war for independence. Today on North Sulawesi, the airport for the city of Manado has been named Sam Ratulangi International Airport in his honor.

For more information about World War II in Indonesia, go back to Episodes 39 and 58. For more about the Indonesian war for independence, also called the Indonesian National Revolution, go to Episode 60.


There was a campaign specific to Sulawesi during the Indonesian War for Independence, and since you probably don’t remember it from Episode 60, with all the other things happening at the time, I’ll mention it again here. A Dutch officer, Captain Raymond Pierre Paul Westerling, also nicknamed “The Turk,” led the South Sulawesi Campaign, which lasted from December 1946 to February 1947. During World War II he had received commando training from the British, but was never sent to the front line. Now he took charge of a commando unit called the DST, or Depot Special Forces, which contained 130 Dutch and Indonesian soldiers. They were sent to Sulawesi, where Indonesian guerrillas had spread from Java, to assist, quote, “their brothers on Celebes,” unquote, by bringing enormous amounts of smuggled weapons. This was in violation of the recently signed Linggadjati Agreement. The local rebels were organized into several units, which included criminal gangs. One group was called the Badjeng Centipedes Army, another was called the Red Ant. Because the conventional tactics used by the Dutch armed forces had not worked, Westerling’s unit specialized in counter-insurgency warfare and interrogation.

Whereas the Dutch often released captured enemy fighters after interrogating them, Westerling argued that if they wanted to pacify Sulawesi, without losing thousands of innocent lives, they needed to apply summary justice. Typically Westerling’s unit would surround a suspected village at night, go in, drive the residents to a central location, and separate the men from the women and children. Those villagers who were identified as terrorists or murderers were usually shot immediately, without further investigation. Westerling also ordered the registration of all Javanese arriving in Makassar to identify those participating in the resistance. He also infiltrated villages with scouts to find enemy fighters. Afterwards Westerling forced communities to stop supporting guerillas by swearing on the Koran, and established local self-defence units by recruiting former guerrillas considered “redeemable.”

Westerling directed eleven operations during the South Sulawesi Campaign, which successfully restored Dutch rule in southern Sulawesi. However, word soon got out concerning Westerling’s controversal methods. In April 1947 the Dutch government instituted an official inquiry, and Westerling was never given another command assignment. In November 1948 he was relieved of his duties. Current estimates of the number of Indonesian civilians killed range from 1,500 to 3,500. The Indonesian government used to claim the number of victims was anywhere from 15,000 to 40,000, but this is now seen as fiction, wartime propaganda.

After leaving the army, Westerling married and moved to Pasundan, a state the Dutch created in Western Java. He tried to keep this area from joining Sukarno’s republic, by launching a coup against Sukarno in January 1950. The coup attempt failed, and the Dutch helped him escape from Indonesia completely. Eventually he settled down in the Netherlands.

Because the 1949 Dutch–Indonesian agreement on transfer of power stipulated that neither country would extradite war criminals to the other, Westerling never had to worry about standing trial in Indonesia, while the Dutch government refused to prosecute him. He did not admit to any war crimes until 1969, when he gave an interview on TV. No TV station showed the interview at the time, partly because of threats the Dutch stations received. The interview wasn’t broadcast until 2012, 43 years after it was filmed, and 25 years after Westerling’s death (from natural causes).

In 2013, the Dutch ambassador in Indonesia apologized on behalf of the Dutch government. This prompted widows and children of the Sulawesi victims to file a lawsuit against the Netherlands. A Dutch court then ruled in 2015 that the Amsterdam government was liable for the damage done because Indonesia was Dutch territory back then, and its people were citizens of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The latest on this case comes from March 2020, when The Hague District Court ordered the Dutch government to pay damage compensation ranging from €123 to €10,000, to the relatives of 11 men executed in the South Sulawesi Campaign. Also in 2020, a Dutch movie was made about the Indonesian National Revolution, called “The East.” Captain Westerling’s part was played by actor Marwan Kenzari.


Podcast footnote: Whoops! I made an error in the previous episode. There I reminded you that from 1946 to 1950, the Dutch had a plan to make all of eastern Indonesia a separate state from Java, Sumatra and Borneo, and call it Negara Indonesia Timur, or N.I.T., meaning the State of Eastern Indonesia. That was correct; my mistake was in saying that the capital of that state was on Bali. Well, I looked on the website of Encyclopedia Britannica, and it says the capital of the N.I.T. was really Makassar! It turns out this whole thing was an outgrowth of Dutch colonial policy. In 1938, just three years before World War II and the Japanese invasion of Indonesia, all of the Dutch-ruled islands east of Borneo and Java, including Western New Guinea, were merged into one province or governorate, and its administrative capital was Makassar. The Dutch name for this huge collection of islands and seas was simply the Great East. I don’t know where I got the idea that the capital was on Bali, but it may be because the first and only president of Eastern Indonesia, a gentleman named Cokorda Gde Raka Sukawati, came from Bali. Now if you can remember that name, you’re a real trivia expert! After the Dutch granted independence, Mr. Sukawati negotiated the merger of Eastern Indonesia with the western islands, because it was clear that a majority of his subjects wanted a unified Indonesia. Sorry for the inconvenience. End footnote.


I couldn’t find much to report on, for events that have happened on Sulawesi since Indonesian independence came. The main events occurred in the first decade after independence, starting with an uprising in Makassar, during April 1950. You may remember that when the Dutch agreed to independence in 1949, they created not one state, but a confederation of sixteen Indonesian states, called the United States of Indonesia, and within eight months, all the other states were absorbed into the state Sukarno led from Jakarta (formerly Batavia), to form present-day Indonesia. In the case of Makassar, 700 troops were sent from Jakarta on April 5, 1950, to persuade Eastern Indonesia to join Sukarno’s republic, and there were still 200 pro-Republican guerrillas around Makassar, left over from Westerling’s campaign. Opposing them were 350 troops that had previously served in the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army, led by Captain Andi Aziz. This force seized control of Makassar, and prevented the 700 Republican troops from entering the city by firing artillery at their troop transports, forcing them to retreat. Aziz defended his actions by claiming to uphold the Federal Constitution which guaranteed the autonomy of all of Indonesia’s states. He also claimed that he had discovered documents alleging that Sukarno was collaborating with the Indonesian Communist Party and the Soviet Union to destroy the “capitalist and upper classes” and establish a unitary state, which would pave the way for a communist take-over.

However, most of the East Indonesian government refused to support this coup. Within a week, Sukarno sent more troops, this time under Lieutenant Colonel Suharto (yes, the future President Suharto) and Colonel Alexander Evert Kawilarang. When they arrived at Makassar, they found only light resistance. Thus, the uprising only lasted for two weeks. Eastern Indonesian President Sukawati convinced Aziz to come to Jakarta and negotiate with Sukarno’s government; this was backed up with a safe-conduct pass from Sukarno and the United Nations Commission for Indonesia. However, after he stepped off the plane in Jakarta, Aziz was arrested. He spent the rest of his life on Java, so he is done in this story.


Indonesia’s separatists weren’t done, though, and they launched more uprisings later in the 1950s; I covered them briefly in Episode 97. On Sulawesi, a group called Permesta declared itself in 1957; the name is Indonesian for Universal Struggle Charter. Originally they were based in Makassar, but when they failed to take that city, they moved to Manado, a city on the northeast side of the island. In February 1958 they teamed up with the Revolutionary Government of the Republic of Indonesia, or PRRI, a like-minded movement in central Sumatra, and that triggered the central government’s response. On February 22, 1958, the Indonesian air force bombed Manado, as well as Padang on Sumatra. This generated support for the rebels in north Sulawesi, and 2,000 former soldiers from the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army quickly joined Permesta. These soldiers were old — they had joined the Dutch army more than a decade earlier, before Indonesia became independent — so they were mainly used to train the younger, inexperienced enlistees who joined Permesta after that. With the help of arms and B-26 bombers, supplied by the US Central Intelligence Agency, Permesta captured the island of Morotai in the Moluccas, then Jailolo airbase on Halmahera, while on Sulawesi they captured the cities of Donggala and Palu, and in other parts of Indonesia they bombed the cities of Ambon, Balikpapan, Makassar, and Ternate. But aside from that, and controlling the airspace over eastern Indonesia, that was as far as the rebels got. In mid-May of 1958, the CIA decided to end its support for Permesta, and ordered its personnel to get out of Indonesia, and later in the same month, government troops struck back on both the Halmahera islands and north Sulawesi. It took until late July to reconquer north Sulawesi, but that did not end the uprising completely. Some Permesta rebels continued to resist, fighting a guerrilla campaign until the last of them surrendered and were given amnesty in 1961. Overall the uprising killed 4,000 government soldiers and 2,000 Permesta rebels.

No discussion of the Permesta uprising would be complete without mentioning the capture of Allen Lawrence Pope. Allen Pope is a US Air Force veteran, who flew bombing missions during the Korean War. After that war ended in a cease-fire, he transferred to the CIA, went to Vietnam, and flew transport missions to supply the French at the battle of Dienbienphu; see Episode 68 to hear what else I said about that battle. Fifty-one years later, in 2005, Pope said this about his Vietnam experience. Quote:

“I’m a communist fighter. I was born and raised to be against the communists.”


During the 1958 Permesta uprising, or as the CIA called it, the “Indonesian crisis,” Pope flew bombing missions in a B-26, until he was shot down over Ambon by government forces. Captured and held under house arrest on Java, Pope was put on trial, found guilty of killing 17 members of the Indonesian armed forces and six civilians, and sentenced to death. However, the US government intervened at this point. Over the next two years, there were extensive negotiations behind closed doors between American and Indonesian officials. Robert Kennedy, the US attorney general and brother of President Kennedy, met with Indonesian President Sukarno, and so did Pope’s wife, mother and sister; all of them pleaded for the pilot’s release. Finally in 1962 the two nations worked out a deal; Indonesia would release Pope in exchange for ten Lockheed C-130 Hercules transport planes. On July 2, 1962, Pope was quietly driven to the airport and put on a U.S. plane leaving Indonesia. Here is what Sukarno told Pope at the time. Quote:

“I want no propaganda about it. Now go. Lose yourself in the USA secretly. Don’t show yourself publicly. Don’t give out news stories. Don’t issue statements. Just go home, hide yourself, get lost, and we’ll forget the whole thing.”


In the US Pope joined Southern Air Transport, a cargo airline used by the CIA, and with them he flew more covert missions in Southeast Asia. Remarkably, Pope is alive; as I record this, he is 94 years old, and living in Miami, Florida.

The latest event I will mention is the 2018 earthquake and tsunami. On September 28, 2018, a magnitude 7.5 earthquake stuck the narrowest point of Sulawesi’s Minhasa peninsula, the island’s northern peninsula. The earthquake, with the tsunami and landslides that followed, inflicted considerable damage on the central part of the island, worth an estimated $1.5 billion in US dollars, especially in the city of Palu. Casualties were 4,340 dead, 10,679 injured, and 667 missing. 206,524 became refugees because of the destruction of their homes; many of them were still without homes and hospital facilities when the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020.


And that does it for Sulawesi. If you are still here, still listening at this point, you deserve a double pat on the back: one for having the patience to wait until this episode was produced, and two for listening to all that I had to say in it. Next time, we’ll look at some more islands in Eastern Indonesia; join me to find out which ones, and have a good life until we meet again.

When I record an episode, there are no advertisements in it. If you are getting ads when you listen, those are not my doing. They are added by the website where you get your podcasts, I receive nothing for the ads, and I don’t even know which ads you are receiving. Alas, I have never been good at getting this podcast to pay for itself. And if you listen to other podcasts, you’re probably tired of hearing ads for products that aren’t relevant to the subjects of those podcasts. I know these are financial hard times for many people, so if you can’t afford to financially support the show, that’s all right. However, if you can give some support, I will greatly appreciate it. One-time donations are made through Paypal, or you can sign up to make a small monthly donation through Patreon; I have included links to both on the Blubrry.com page that hosts this episode. Lately I have lost a few patrons, so I am hoping that is just because some credit cards expired. Finally, there’s a way you can help that costs nothing — spread the word about the show! Just say something to a friend, relative or acquaintance like this. Quote: “I want to tell you about a neat podcast. You may or may not be interested.” Unquote. Thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!


Almost There with Episode #125

Hang in there with me for a little longer, dear listeners!  Though I’m done with the research, and working on the next episode of the podcast almost every day, it is taking longer than expected!  First I thought I would get it done in December, then I thought I could do it by early January.  Now I am aiming for finishing it next week.  As compensation for making you wait, this is going to be my longest episode yet, even longer than the 71 minute episode I did to finish covering the Vietnam War.  Hopefully my next announcement will be about the uploading of Episode 125.  See you again soon!

What I Have Been Up To

Hello, everybody! I just popped in to say that your friendly neighborhood podcaster is alive and well. Unfortunately, the cares and concerns of the real world are getting in the way of me publishing episodes again. I won’t bore you with the details, except to give you one: I am in the part of the United States that got hit by last week’s blizzard, what meteorologists are calling “Winter Storm Elliott.” What a predicament, for a podcaster who talks about a part of the world that is always hot! And why are we now giving names to winter storms, anyway? I thought only coriolis storms (hurricanes, typhoons and cyclones) deserved that honor.

Another factor has been the research. I think I warned you that researching the current mini-series would be tough. Well, all too often I am pulling up webpages that don’t have the information I am looking for. Let the record show I am going to have these episodes done right, to the best of my ability. It is just taking longer than expected.

All things considered, for a while I was confident I could get Episode 125 of the podcast done in December, but now it looks like it will be finished in early January. Oh well, I wasn’t planning to make Episode 124 the last episode for 2022. Here’s hoping you had a Happy Hanukkah, Christmas, Festivus, or whatever holiday you celebrate in December, and until we meet again, Happy New Year!

Episode 124: Another Look at Bali

One of my listeners requested I give equal time to eastern Indonesia, because in the past when I talked about this vast island nation, I concentrated on the big western islands: Java, Sumatra and Borneo. Well, it turns out I’m going to need more than one episode to fulfill that request, so here’s the first part in a mini-series on eastern Indonesia. Today we will look at the “Island of the Gods,” Bali.



This episode is dedicated to Louis C., Ethan P., and Claudia G.; all of them have made generous donations to the podcast, since the previous episode was uploaded. Louis has donated multiple times before, so of course his name is on the Podcast Hall of Fame Page. Those donations were in 2019, 2020, and 2021, meaning Louis received the appropriate icons of recognition, the coveted water buffalo icon for two years of donations, and the ever-popular Shwe Dagon Pagoda icon for three years of donations. Now that he has made a donation for 2022, Louis has become the third person to win the newest icon on the Podcast Hall of Fame Page, the OUTRAGEOUS Merlion! As for Ethan and Claudia, these are their first donations, so we’re glad to have them join the small fraction of listeners who support the podcast. The few. The noble. The generous. The donors. And I also liked the nice comments they included with their donations. Needless to say, Ethan and Claudia’s first names are now on the Podcast Hall of Fame Page, too. As I record this, the Western world’s lengthy holiday season is approaching, so may the days ahead for all three of you be filled with unexpected blessings. And now lets hear the episode your contributions helped make possible.

Episode 124: Another Look at Bali

Greetings dear listeners, for the 124th time, from the hills of Bluegrass country in Kentucky! Unless you are new here and listening to the podcast for the first time, you know that we finished the historical narrative for Southeast Asia with Episode #119. At least for events up to 2021. Now I have just learned that Myanmar has descended into a civil war, following last year’s coup, and the armed forces, who are called the Tatmadaw in Burmese, are losing. One of these days I will have to do an episode on that, but it won’t be today. For now, I will just say I got this news from an Australian podcast. That’s not really a surprise, since I use a Latvian podcast to keep up with the war in Ukraine, and I don’t trust the American media to report either conflict accurately. Heck, our news networks don’t even seem interested in reporting foreign conflicts, presumably because they haven’t yet found a way to blame the troubles in Ukraine or Myanmar on former President Trump. At least with podcasts I already know where the podcaster’s biases are, and can tune them out if I think they are affecting the story.


Also, while I was working on this episode, one of the world’s worst football tragedies occurred in Indonesia. Or if you are American, it’s one of the world’s worst soccer tragedies. Whatever your name for the sport, it happened in the Malang region of east Java, on October 1, 2022. According to what I heard, when the game ended, fans of the losing team charged onto the field, and the police fired tear gas to disperse them, though FIFA, the international soccer governing body, has regulations against using tear gas in stadiums. In response to this, the fans stampeded toward the exits, and in the crush that followed, at least 132 were killed and 580 were injured, because some of the stadium doors were locked. Two weeks later the FIFA president, Gianni Infantino, visited Java, to meet with Indonesian President Joko Widodo and other officials. Afterwards, Widodo announced that the stadium would be torn down, to be replaced by a new stadium that complied with FIFA standards. About this, Infantino said, quote, “This is a football country, a country where football is a passion for over 150 million people. We owe it to them that when they see a match they are safe and secure.” Unquote.

Now where were we? Oh yes, since Episode #119 I have been answering questions that you the listeners sent in, and have been covering topics that you requested. I call these “loose ends,” because I am mainly going into more detail on subjects that you felt didn’t get enough attention in the historical narrative. For example, the narrative finished discussing the Second Indochina War, what we Americans usually call the Vietnam War, with Episode #96, but it wasn’t until Episode #122 — almost two years later in real time — that I devoted an episode to the refugees who fled Indochina in the war’s aftermath.


That being said, today we begin a deeper look at eastern Indonesia. One of you said I gave too much attention to the big islands in the west — Sumatra, Java and Borneo — and thus requested an episode that would give equal time for the eastern islands. Yes, I did concentrate on the west, and there’s a reason for that. For just about all of history, the western islands were the place where the action was. When the ancestors of today’s Malayo-Polynesians settled in the islands, roughly 4,000 to 2,000 years ago, they found that Java and Sumatra had the most land suitable for growing rice. Then when commerce between India and the Far East became important, two key waterways were next to these islands — the Malacca Strait between Sumatra and the Malay peninsula, and the Sunda Strait between Sumatra and Java. Therefore the most important Indonesian states were based here; Srivijaya had its capital, Palembang, on Sumatra, close to both straits, while Majapahit was based in a city by the same name on Java. Then when the Dutch made Jakarta, also on Java, their base of operations, they almost guaranteed that Jakarta would become a future Indonesian capital, too. And today, most of the cities in Indonesia are still on the western islands. The eastern islands are not only without big cities, they have never produced a major state, and before the Dutch took over the whole archipelago in the nineteenth century, the only time the eastern islands were ruled by one government was during the period in the late fourteenth century when Majapahit was at its peak, under the king Hayam Wuruk and his multi-talented chief assistant, Gajah Mada. Go to Episode #6 if you want to refresh your memory concerning the Majapahit Empire. Finally, I will remind you that when independence for Indonesia was discussed in the late 1940s, the Dutch proposed putting all the eastern islands under their own government, separate from the governments ruling Java, Sumatra and Borneo, and calling that state Negara Indonesia Timur, or the State of Eastern Indonesia, with the capital on Bali. I mentioned that proposal in Episode #60, and because it turned out to be unworkable, Indonesia came together as a single state just a few months after independence.

I think we need to start with a short refresher course on Indonesian geography. To start with, Indonesia is the world’s biggest archipelago. For those who don’t know what that is, an archipelago is a fancy word meaning a group of islands. Other examples of archipelagoes include the Philippines, the Caribbean islands, Japan, and the state of Hawaii. The Indonesian islands are spread out across a stretch of ocean three thousand miles miles wide, covering an area the size of the continental United States.

My sources don’t agree on how many islands Indonesia has. The number ranges from 13,466 to 18,307; the most often cited figure is 17,508 islands, and it comes from the CIA World Factbook. The larger numbers came from surveys that included the rocks and temporary islands, the tiny bits of rock, sand and coral that are visible at low tide, but become submerged at high tide. Most of the smaller islands do not have names or permanent residents. Three of the world’s largest islands — Sumatra, Borneo and New Guinea — are included in the archipelago.

This is one of the most geologically active places on Earth. Indonesia sits on the edge of one of the earth’s tectonic plates, the Asian plate, and it grinds against the Australian plate, causing frequent earthquakes. If an earthquake occurs in the surrounding ocean, this can lead to a tsunami, like the devastating one that struck all around the Indian Ocean on December 26, 2004. Because of this, and because the earth’s crust is unusually thin in this area, there is also a lot of volcanic activity. No country has more volcanoes than Indonesia; there are at least 400 volcanoes in these islands, of which 150 are active. On that note, let us end the refresher course.


Because the Indonesian islands have not been united for most of their history, I have decided that the best way to discuss the eastern islands is to divide them into specific regions and cover each region separately, until we get to the date where the Dutch rule them completely. From there we can go back to the episodes in this podcast that were about Dutch rule of the islands, World War II, and the on-and-off war for independence. Therefore, here are the regions I am defining for eastern Indonesia. To start with, three single islands, Bali, Sulawesi and Timor, will each be considered a region. The fourth region will be the long string of islands running from Bali to Timor; we call these the Lesser Sunda Islands. Some of the islands you may have heard of in this chain are Lombok, Sumbawa, Sumba, Komodo, Flores, and Alor. Komodo and three neighboring islands are the home of the Komodo dragon, the world’s largest lizard. Flores was mentioned in Episode #1, because here is where the bones were found of homo floresiensis, a remarkable stone age man that was only three feet tall. Bali and Timor are also considered part of the Lesser Sundas, but as I already mentioned, we will deal with them separately. And two small island groups, the Barat Daya and the Tanimbar Islands, are part of the Lesser Sundas, but the Indonesian government has put them in the province of Maluku, so whatever I have to say about them will be covered there.

Podcast footnote: Now that I have described the Lesser Sundas, you may be wondering where the Greater Sunda Islands are. “Greater Sunda” is a collective term for Indonesia’s four largest islands: Sumatra, Java, Borneo and Sulawesi. Of those only Sulawesi will be discussed in this series; the others have gotten enough attention already, as we noted. Madura, a medium-sized island on the east side of Java, is considered part of the Greater Sundas as well, because it has been under Java’s influence for as long as anyone can remember. End footnote.

Finally, there are the Moluccas. Before the twentieth century, these were usually called the Spice Islands, because Europeans in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries couldn’t get enough of their primary product. Spices were probably the most sought-after commodity for trade until the 18th century, when Caribbean sugar was grown in large enough amounts to make Europeans go for that instead. Today the two provinces of Indonesia next to western New Guinea are called Maluku and North Maluku, after the Moluccas. Besides the southern part of the traditional Spice Islands, Maluku includes the Banda Islands; the Leti, Babar, Kai and Aru Islands; and the previously mentioned Barat Daya and the Tanimbar Islands. All this will be the fifth region covered in this episode. Western New Guinea won’t be covered here, because it got its own episode already, Episode #102.

When I was researching the material, “mission creep” set in. This is a common thing with history podcasts; you find out you have bitten off more than you can chew with one episode. At first I thought two episodes of the usual length would be enough to cover the subject of eastern Indonesia. Now I expect it will take more than two, so let’s start with Bali and see how far we can go in 40 minutes or so. If you are ready, let’s get into the content.


<say yeah>

I thought so.


What you just heard was a gamelan from Bali. A gamelan is Indonesia’s most famous contribution to music; it’s an orchestra where all the instruments are metal percussion; bells, gongs, xylophones, what have you. There are also styles of gamelan music from east Java and west Java, but the Balinese gamelan is the most energetic.

Anyway, we are starting with what is probably eastern Indonesia’s most famous island, Bali, the so-called “Island of the Gods.” Today it has a reputation as a beautiful island paradise, like Tahiti and Hawaii, and is a popular tourist destination for that reason. And that reputation has crept into our pop culture. Some thirty years ago, I read some novels written by Alan Dean Foster. In his “Humanx” series, Foster imagined a future earth that was run by one government, with its capital on Bali. Personally, I don’t think that would work the way Foster portrayed it; knowing how today’s governments require lots of buildings and are constantly buzzing with activity, I don’t see how you can put all that on Bali without ruining the scenery. But then, these are science fiction stories, where anything the author thinks of can happen.

Because Bali is next to Java, it has been inhabited since the stone age; perhaps even Pithecanthropus, also known as Java Man, lived here. We know this because stone age tools, like hand axes, have been found here. Arrowheads and tools made of animal or fish bones have also been found, and we think they came from more modern cave men who moved in at a later date, such as the Australoids, the ancestors of today’s Aborigines, migrating on their way from Asia to Australia. Most recently, the Malays arrived between 3000 and 600 B.C., and because they knew how to grow rice, they could support a larger community than the previous groups; in fact, they are the ancestors of the people living on Bali today. See Episode 2 for more about that migration. Between 600 and 200 B.C., the Balinese traded with the Dong Son culture of northern Vietnam, and thus learned how to mix tin and copper to make bronze. We know this because Dong Son-style artifacts, like bronze ceremonial drums, have turned up on Bali as well.

Throughout Southeast Asia, the prehistoric era ended around 250 B.C., when Indian merchants found their way across the Bay of Bengal and began trading with Southeast Asians. I say the prehistoric era ended because the Indians brought ideas as well as merchandise. From them, Southeast Asians learned to write in Sanskrit, the old language of India; later they would develop other alphabets to use with their own languages. Missionaries soon followed, converting the Southeast Asians to Buddhism and Hinduism. Even so, more centuries would go by before we can report on actual historical events; the oldest inscriptions found are religious texts. For Bali, the oldest inscription that has historical value was carved in 914 A.D. This was the Belanjong Pillar Inscription; it is written in two languages, Sanskrit and Balinese, and it mentions a local king named Sri Kesari. Over the next few centuries, there were marriages between the royal families of Bali and Java, and some of Java’s 12th century kings claimed to rule both Java and Bali. Kertanagara, the last ruler of the Singosari kingdom on Java, invaded and conquered Bali in 1284, but when he was overthrown in 1292, Bali regained its independence. Singosari was replaced by the Majapahit Empire, and it conquered Bali in 1343. Bali stayed part of Majapahit until 1478, when that empire in turn fell to an Islamic invasion. For more about all this, go back to Episodes 6 and 11 of this podcast.

With the fall of Majapahit, Islam swept across most of Indonesia, but this also marked the beginning of Bali’s best years. When Bali became independent from Majapahit, a kingdom named Gelgel was established. Around the same time, there was a massive exodus of aristocrats, priests, artists and intellectuals who didn’t want to convert to Islam, and they fled from Java to Bali. Over the next generation, the rulers of Bali built dozens of Hindu temples to accomodate the new arrivals. As for the rulers themselves, they claimed to be descended from members of the Majapahit royal family who fled there, and so would all of Bali’s kings, up until the Dutch took over.


The kings of Bali in the 16th century are poorly documented; we don’t have exact dates on the first five of them. One of those kings, Sri Aji Baturenggong, ruled around 1550, and he was powerful enough to rule not only Bali, but also Lombok, west Sumbawa and the eastern tip of Java. East Java at this time was the last part of the island where the inhabitants were predominantly Hindu, and from at least 1598 onwards, Bali defended the Hindu state there, Blambangan, from attacks by its Moslem rivals. This went on until 1639, when Blambangan surrendered to Sultan Agung of Mataram, but after the Mataram troops withdrew, Blambangan managed to regain its independence and survive with the southern part of the territory it held previously, because after the death of Sultan Agung in 1645, Mataram lost interest in campaigning in this area.

The culture now established on Bali was apparently so strong that Islam bypassed the island. In fact, today the island’s population is still 86.9% Hindu. However, the chief god for Balinese Hindus is not a god imported from India, like Brahma or Shiva, but a local deity, a sun-god named Acintya. Acintya is portrayed as a naked man surrounded by flames, and the other Hindu gods are often seen as avatars or manifestations of him. This is an outgrowth of the government’s nationalist ideology, which calls for all religions in Indonesia to be monotheistic, having one god.

Podcast footnote: Despite what I have just said about Majapahit culture being preserved on Bali, the island is not a perfect time capsule of what Indonesia used to looked like. One of the most popular tourist attractions on Bali is the Ramayana Monkey Chant, called the Kecak by natives. This is a dance performed every evening, where 50 to 150 men imitate the chattering of monkeys, like this:

<kecak sound clip>

However, this isn’t an ancient ritual. While the dance is dedicated to Hanuman, the monkey king from Hindu mythology, it was invented in the 1930s, and has been performed since then because the tourists will pay to see it. So did you think you could avoid tourist traps by traveling to a Third-World country? Think again! End footnote.


We now believe the first Europeans to visit Bali arrived in 1512. This was a Portuguese expedition led by Antonio Abreu and Francisco Serrão; they went on to discover the location of the Spice Islands in the same year. Over the course of the next century, Portuguese ships traveling to the Spice Islands got there by following the coasts of the Lesser Sunda Islands, meaning they would go past Bali. The Magellan expedition, now led by Sebastian del Cano because Magellan was killed in the Philippines, may have sighted the island, but we don’t think they landed there. The second expedition to sail around the world, led by Sir Francis Drake, made a brief stop on Bali in 1580.

In 1585, the Portguese sent a ship from their outpost at Malacca to establish a fort and a trading post on Bali, but it ran aground on a coral reef, and only five survivors made it to shore. The king of Bali recruited them into his service, and gave them wives and homes. Then when the first Dutch expedition to Indonesia, led by Cornelis Houtman, came to Bali in 1597, the king let them meet one of the Portuguese who worked for him, Pedro de Noronha. I talked about the Houtman expedition in Episode #17. Listen to it if you haven’t already; that expedition was a special kind of disaster!

Then in 1603 the newly formed Dutch East India Company sent its first ship to Bali. The king of Bali allowed the Dutch to freely trade on Bali, but this turned out to be a mistake. Soon Bali was exporting slaves, rice and various animals, in return for opium from the French and Dutch. Yes, the Dutch East India Company was one of the original drug cartels.

Also in the 17th century, an era of instability began; by 1651, internal wars caused the kingdom of Gelgel to break up into smaller states. In 1686 the king abandoned the village of Gelgel and built a new palace at Klungkung, two or three miles to the north. From 1686 to 1908 there were eight kings of Klungkung, called by the title of Dewa Agung, but now they were only ceremonial rulers. In practice, Bali was now split into nine kingdoms, named Klungkung, Buleleng, Karangasem, Mengwi, Badung, Tabanan, Gianyar, Bangli and Jembrana. The Dewa Agung was regarded as the first among equals, and was allowed to keep calling himself the king of Bali, but that was it; the rulers of the other states had the real power now. Petty wars between those rulers would allow Dutch invaders to get a foothold on Bali in the 19th century.

I already talked about the Dutch conquest of Bali in Episode 22. Here is a sound clip from that episode, recounting what happened. Let me apologize in advance for the sound quality; remember, I recorded this five years ago, and I am using a different computer now! Episode quote:

Most of the outer islands were conquered without much resistance. The main exceptions were Bali and Aceh. I’ll admit Bali surprised me, because of its reputation as a real-life paradise; before the 2002 terrorist attack on it, anyway. It took three campaigns, in 1846, 1848 and 1849, to subjugate northern Bali. The first two expeditions were defeated, and when the third succeeded, one of the local rajahs and 400 of his retainers committed ritual suicide, or as the natives called it, puputan. In 1894 the Dutch intervened in a local war between the rajahs of southern Bali and the neighboring island of Lombok, and that gave then an excuse to conquer Lombok. The Dutch waited until 1906 to move against southern Bali; they brought modern warships and launched a naval bombardment before landing their troops, so the natives had no chance of winning. The battle ended with another puputan, as another rajah and 4,000 men, women and children either killed themselves or each other, choosing death instead of surrender.

As you might expect, the news of the puputan raised a big stink when the outside world heard about it. Some believe that the last king of the mighty Majapahit empire fled to Bali when Majapahit was overthrown in the early sixteenth century, so if that is true, the Majapahit dynasty was wiped out not by Indonesian syltans, but by the Dutch invasions of Bali. For that reason, a member of the Dutch Upper House of Parliament labeled the mass suicide (quote) the “extermination of a heroic race” (end quote), and public opinion became increasingly critical of the colonial administration. To other Western nations, the Netherlands no longer looked like a responsible and evenhanded colonial power. That was a major motivator in the so-called “Ethical Policy” which was introduced in the early twentieth century to replace the Liberal Program; we’ll talk more about that in a future episode.

However, the was one independent rajah left on Bali, and there would be one more puputan when Dutch troops went for him in 1908. The rajah came out to meet them armed only with a kris, a wavy-bladed dagger that was believed to have magic powers. He was brought down with one bullet, and when his six wives saw this, they killed themselves, too, and then their retainers followed them in death. Although the Dutch had finally won, it was a hollow, morally empty victory, and the Dutch governors who took charge after that felt it was best to leave the culture of Bali alone.

End of the sound clip. The rest of Bali’s history is closely tied in with the history of all Indonesia, so I don’t see the need to talk about Bali separately after this. If you want to listen to the episodes about Indonesia in the 20th and 21st centuries, those episodes are 32, 39, 60, 97, 102, 103, and 115. I’m going to end the episode here, so as not to keep you waiting any longer than you have already waited for this one. Join me next time as we continue our deep dive with a look at more of Eastern Indonesia.


Do you like listening to podcasts without ads? If you do, and can afford to financially support the show, I will greatly appreciate it. I said at the beginning of the episode that only a small fraction of a podcast’s listening audience are motivated to make a donation, so if you are one of them, that makes you a special person. One-time donations are made through Paypal, or you can sign up to make a small monthly donation through Patreon; I have included links to both on the Blubrry.com page that hosts this episode. And even if you cannot make a financial contribution at this time, you can still help by letting others know about the show. So spread the word to anyone who might be interested. As I have said on the other episodes, thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!


Episode 123: The Association of Southeast Asian Nations

Thank you for your patience! This shows that despite all the little things life has thrown at me since the last episode, I was able to get another one done. Today’s episode covers another topic that a listener requested, an in-depth look at ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Again, listen and enjoy!


This episode is dedicated to Alexei K., who made a donation to the podcast last month. Alexei has also donated in two previous years, and that puts him in the elite of podcast donors. In recognition of this achievement, I have not only put Alexei’s name on the Podcast Hall of Fame page, I have also added the ever-popular Shwe Dagon Pagoda icon next to his name. I am recording this right after a devastating hurricane struck Florida, my former home state. I still have friends in Florida, and my brother lives there as well. So Alexei, may the seasonal winds in your part of the world always blow in your favor. And everyone else, thank you for your patience. Now on with the episode!

Episode 123: The Association of Southeast Asian Nations

Greetings dear listeners, for the 123rd time, from the hills of Bluegrass country in Kentucky! If you have listened to the other episodes, I’m glad to have you here again, and thank you for waiting! It has been two and a half months since the last episode, the longest I have kept you waiting so far. I said a little bit about it on the podcast’s Facebook page. The past spring and summer have been a struggle to make enough money to make ends meet, and if that hasn’t been enough, there have been computer problems, phone problems and car problems. Consequently days went by when I couldn’t get anything done on the podcast. Well, this episode shows I finally prevailed. As the saying goes, good things come to those who wait.

If this is the first episode you listened to, none of what I just said will matter much, but welcome to the show nonetheless. We hope you like what you hear, and that you will go listen to the more than a hundred episodes recorded before this one. I know, asking you to listen to all those episodes is a big demand, but’s it’s not too difficult if you have a place where you can set aside time for listening. Some people listen to podcasts to pass the time, if they have a job where they are doing nothing for long periods. Myself, I do it while driving, especially on out-of-town trips. I remember the time when I was driving home after midnight, going more than 200 miles, and I was drinking coffee and listening to podcasts to stay awake. The longest episode I listened to was from Daniele Bolelli’s “History on Fire,” where he talked about a little-known World War II battle in the Philippines. I had also covered that battle, in either Episode #52 or #53, so of course I was interested to hear Daniele’s version of the story. And the next time I saw Daniele on Facebook, I thanked him for keeping me awake that night. Now if you commit yourself to listen to one episode a day, you’ll go through them all in four months, and be done before you know it!

Before we go on, let me apologize for an error I made four years ago. Back in Episode #53, I mentioned that during the Second Battle of Corregidor in the Philippines, the 503rd Regimental Combat Team made an airborne landing on that famous island. The first time I mentioned this unit, I called it the 503rd Regimental Command Team. One listener served in the unit more recently, and he set me straight on the mistake. Sorry about that, I did put “Combat Team” in my script, but for some reason I said “Command Team” instead. It was definitely a slip of the tongue.

Also, I believe a small correction is needed for the previous episode. I gave you the names of the most important refugee camps, for the refugees who fled Vietnam in the late twentieth century, and I told you which countries they were in. For the Philippines, I said the main refugee camp was the Philippine Refugee Processing Center, on the Bataan peninsula. That was true, but I may have misled you into thinking that was the only refugee camp in the Philippines. Since finishing that episode, I have found out there was also a camp at Puerto Princesa, on Palawan Island. Being the westernmost island in the Philippines, Palawan is also the closest island to Vietnam; I suggested in one of the early episodes that the ancestors of the Chams, the people of an ancient kingdom in present-day Vietnam, came from Palawan. Therefore Puerto Princesa became a convenient place for a refugee camp; 2,700 Vietnamese refugees went there. Some of them were temporarily settled in a town next to Puerto Princesa called Santa Lourdes; today it has become a tourist attraction called Viet Ville. When the refugees found permanent places to live, some chose to stay in the Philippines, because they had married Filipinos in the meantime.

And here is something else I wish I knew when I recorded the previous episode. Last week I was directed to a podcast about obscure news stories, called Under-Understood. The third episode for this podcast, recorded in July 2019, tracks down a story about an attempt in 1975 to build a theme park called “New Vietnam” in — where else — central Florida! Yes, the park would have gone up near Cape Canaveral, about 50 miles east of where I was living at the time, and it would have re-created the Vietnam War experience. The plan was to build a fake village like the ones that were common in Vietnam during the war, and hire some of the Vietnamese refugees coming to America at the time, to act like “peasants” in the village. I’m guessing some of the refugees would have also played the part of Viet Cong guerrillas for the battle re-enactment. This project was the dream of Carl McIntire, a right-wing evangelical pastor, and the more I hear about the project and the pastor, the stranger it gets! Mind you, I never heard about the New Vietnam park when I lived in Florida — it wasn’t big news at the time — and the whole project was scrapped just after the pastor acquired the land for the park. It looks like the hired Vietnamese quit their jobs after they realized they were being exploited; good for them. If you want to check it out, go to Under-understood.com. That’s the real name of the website; I wasn’t stammering.

And now for the tying up of a loose end from other previous episodes. While I was working on this, the big news was that the long reign of Queen Elizabeth II finally came to an end. I am mentioning this because more than once, when I was talking about Thailand’s King Rama IX, I compared him to the British Queen, because she is the only head of state in our time with a reign as long as the Thai King. Now that both are gone, who ruled the longest? Well, Rama IX became king on June 9, 1946, and died on October 13, 2016, so he had a reign of 70 years, four months and four days. As for Elizabeth II, she became queen on February 6, 1952, and died on September 8, 2022, so her reign lasted 70 years, seven months and two days. The question is now settled; Queen Elizabeth won the conteast by almost three months, if you can call it a contest.

All right, what topic have we got for today? Starting with the previous episode, we have been looking at items that were short-shifted, when I was giving you the general historical narrative. Last time I stepped back to give an overview on the Vietnamese refugees in the late twentieth century. This time we have an organization that has been mentioned in several of the recent history episodes, but has never been covered in depth — ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Podcast footnote: Before we jump in, I should clarify how I am pronouncing the organization’s name. The first time I mentioned it in the podcast, I pronounced it “a-SEE-in,” with emphasis on the second syllable. But later on, after watching videos that mentioned the organization, I learned that “A-se-An” seems to be the more popular way to say it, so I went with that. End footnote.


Now where did people get the idea to form a club of Southeast Asian nations? It certainly didn’t happen during the colonial era, when Thailand, previously called Siam, was the only completely independent nation in the region. This was part of a world wide trend by nations to find safety in numbers, and to explain that, we will go back to the beginning of the twentieth century.

The twentieth century began with nine important nations. In no particular order, the Big Nine were the United States, Britain, Germany, France, Japan, Russia, Austria-Hungary, Italy and the Ottoman Empire, also known as Turkey. World War I knocked four of them out of the game (Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary and Turkey), but a few years later Germany came back under the Nazis, and Russia came back as the Soviet Union. That meant seven major powers were available to participate in World War II.

World War II ruined Germany, Italy and Japan. Britain and France were on the winning side, but not much better off than the defeated powers. By contrast, the USA and USSR came out of the war stronger than before. They faced each other in a world-threatening standoff, the so-called Cold War, for nearly half a century, which ended with the downfall of communism in the Soviet Union and its satellites.

That left the United States as the last superpower. For a few years after the Cold War, at least under the Bush and Clinton administrations, the USA used the United Nations to bring their values, meaning freedom, the rule of law, and capitalism, to the rest of the world, with the ultimate goal being to create a “Pax Americana” of sorts. Then came 9/11 and the War on Terror, and the United States got bogged down in that. The War on Terror came to resemble a game of Whack-A-Mole; for every terrorist or terrorist group the Americans got rid of, another would appear; the biggest example was how after Osama bin Laden was killed, ISIS rose up to replace Al Qaeda. Today the United States has fallen on hard times economically, its leaders are promoting other values, like green energy and LGBT rights, and the US armed forces are mainly used for social experimentation, rather than being organizations designed to kill people and break things.

What I was trying to say with all those words is that since the end of World War II, it has not been fashionable for one nation to attempt world domination; all those that tried in the twentieth century eventually failed. Instead, nations have often promoted world unity on a smaller scale, by forming regional “clubs” or blocs. Some of these clubs are defensive alliances, while others promote cooperation, especially economic cooperation. One of the first, and definitely the largest, of these organizations is the United Nations; almost every country belongs to it. After the UN, the first organization to have much success was the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which contained Soviet expansion in Europe. After the Cold War, NATO remained active; now it serves as the de facto armed forces for another organization, the European Union.

Because NATO did so well, the Western nations founded two more organizations like it in the 1950s: the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, or SEATO, and the Central Treaty Organization, or CENTO, in the Middle East. Neither amounted to much. I mentioned in a previous episode that only two of SEATO’s eight members were really Southeast Asian, and that after it failed to defend South Vietnam in the Second Indochina War, it was dissolved by the mutual consent of the members. As for CENTO, it started with five members: Britain, Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan. Iraq withdrew from the organization after a revolution toppled its conservative monarchy in 1958. The rest of CENTO fell apart in 1979 when the Iranian Revolution took away two more members, Iran and Pakistan, leaving only Britain and Turkey to announce that the organization was going out of business. And these weren’t the only organizations that pro-Western nations tried. Other pro-Western blocs include the OAS, the Organization of American States, in Latin America; ANZUS, the Australia- New Zealand- United States pact in the South Pacific; the British Commonwealth of Nations; the EEC, the European Economic Community, better known as the Common Market; and NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Meanwhile, the Soviet Union produced COMECON, the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, to unify the economies of its satellites, and the Warsaw Pact to unify the armed forces of the same countries; both collapsed when the USSR did, in 1991. As for the Third World, it produced its share of blocs, chief of which are the Arab League; OPEC, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries; the OAU, the Organization of African Unity; and the one we will concentrate our attention on, ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Many of these organizations have political unity as their ultimate goal; Europeans, in particular, talked about the Common Market being the first step in forming a United States of Europe. For that reason, Common Market members established a European Parliament in 1981, and signed the Maastrict Treaty in 1992. Maastrict changed the name of the Common Market to the European Union, and it called for the unification of its members into a single economy, starting with the issuance of a new currency, the Euro, in 1999. The road to unity has been a rocky one, though; Europeans have far more languages and cultures than America’s thirteen ex-colonies had when they fused to form the United States, leading to disagreement and misunderstanding every step of the way. Likewise, the OAU became the African Union in 2002. Both the African Union and the Arab League promised future unity, but have been less successful than the European union; in fact, they have seemed like contradictions of their very names. In the case of the Arabs, there were proposals to unite Arab nations, like Gamal Abdel Nasser’s United Arab Republic, and they seemed like good ideas at first, only to abruptly disappear when the involved parties argued over something. After an attempt to unite Syria and Iraq failed in 1979, a Damascus editorial lamented that, quote, “Trying to unite the Arabs is like nailing jelly to a wall.” Unquote. Likewise, nearly ten years later a retired Egyptian diplomat expressed his scorn for other Arabs by saying, quote, “Egypt is the only real nation-state in the Middle East. The rest are just tribes with flags.” Unquote.


But I digress. In the 1950s and 1960s, most Southeast Asian nations were mainly concerned about communism. Communists conquered mainland China, and fought a war in Korea where they broke even. In Southeast Asia there were the Indochina Wars, an “emergency” involving communist guerrillas in Malaya, and communist uprisings in Burma and the Philippines. I talked about those conflicts in Episodes 62 through 69 of this podcast, so that’s where to go to refresh your memory on them. The governments in the region considered forming an anti-communist alliance, but SEATO already existed for that purpose, so when their leaders got together, economic cooperation was the main goal. In other words, they wanted to create an Asian version of the European Common Market. Accordingly, three nations — Thailand, the Philippines and the Federation of Malaya — formed an economic alliance on July 31, 1961, called the ASA, the Association of Southeast Asia. It wasn’t a very successful organization; ministers from the participating nations met periodically, but otherwise didn’t get anything done. Even more disturbing, Indonesia did not join the ASA, because the Indonesian president, Sukarno, didn’t think communism was so bad. Indonesia noted that Malaya was an ally of Britain, and the other two members were allies of the United States, while Indonesia wanted to stay neutral, and sit out the Cold War completely. Here is what the Indonesian foreign minister, Sumitro, said about the ASA. Quote: “The spirit behind the proposal is anyway anti-this and anti-that . . . and Indonesia does not want any part in a negative policy in international affairs.” Unquote. Because Indonesia is the largest Southeast Asian nation, in land area, population and resources, a Southeast Asian alliance without Indonesia would not work very well.

The ASA was discredited by the Malaysian crisis that began in 1963. The transformation of Malaya into Malaysia caused a series of problems that the ASA couldn’t handle, showing that a stronger organization was needed. We covered this crisis in Episode #98. As a refresher, the British gave up the two territories they had ruled on Borneo, Sarawak and North Borneo, also called Sabah. Instead of making them independent countries, the territories were handed over to Malaya; hence the new name of Malaysia. However, Indonesia and the Philippines had claims to those territories as well. The Philippines proposed creating a federation called “Maphilindo,” which would unite Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia into one super-state, while Indonesia launched a guerrilla war, the so-called Konfrontasi, in an attempt to take the Borneo territories. In addition, Singapore was part of Malaysia for a while, but then it declared independence; who could be sure that Singapore would be able to stand on its own? And what about Brunei, the last British protectorate in the region?

It was changes in Southeast Asia’s political situation in the mid-1960s, that made ASEAN’s creation possible. First, there was a general cooling of tensions, as the war between Malaysia and Indonesia ended, and the surrounding nations came to accept Malaysia’s right to exist. Second, Sukarno had been overthrown, and General Suharto, who was pro-Western, took his place as president of Indonesia. This made Indonesia more willing to join an organization where all the other members were pro-Western. In fact, it was while Thailand was overseeing the negotiation of the disputes between Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines that they all realized that this was the time to set up a permanent organization promoting regional cooperation. Here is how the Thai foreign minister, Thanat Khoman, later described how a conversation with Adam Malik, the Indonesian foreign minister, led to ASEAN. Quote: “At the banquet marking the reconciliation between the three disputants, I broached the idea of forming another organization for regional cooperation with Adam Malik. Malik agreed without hesitation but asked for time to talk with his government and also to normalize relations with Malaysia now that the confrontation was over. Meanwhile, the Thai Foreign Office prepared a draft charter of the new institution. Within a few months, everything was ready. I therefore invited the two former members of the Association for Southeast Asia (ASA), Malaysia and the Philippines, and Indonesia, a key member, to a meeting in Bangkok. In addition, Singapore sent S. Rajaratnam, then Foreign Minister, to see me about joining the new set-up. Although the new organization was planned to comprise only the ASA members plus Indonesia, Singapore’s request was favorably considered.” End quote.

The next time the foreign ministers got together was in early August of 1967, at a relatively isolated and laid-back spot: Bang Saen, a beach resort 100 kilometers from Bangkok. Those foreign ministers were Adam Malik of Indonesia, Narcisco R. Ramos of the Philippines, Tun Abdal Razak of Malaysia, S. Rajaratnam of Singapore, and Thanat Khoman of Thailand.

Podcast footnote: If the name Ramos sounds familiar, it is because Narcisco Ramos was the father of someone else mentioned in this podcast, Fidel Ramos, the former general and president of the Philippines. Though Narcisco Ramos was in his 40s when World War II arrived, he joined the guerrillas to fight the Japanese. Then when the Philippines became independent, he was given the job of founding the country’s foreign service. Now with the negotiations to create ASEAN, he was 66 years old, making him one of the first elder statesmen of the Philippines.

As for the younger Ramos, I discussed his achievements in Episodes #110 and #116. While researching this episode, I learned that Fidel Ramos died recently, on July 31, 2022. He was 94 years old, and had suffered from heart disease and dementia, but it was COVID-19 that finished him off, though he had received at least two vaccinations. He was buried in the military cemetery of Manila, near the graves of three other former presidents: Elpidio Quirino, Carlos Garcia, and Ferdinand Marcos Sr. Rest in peace, General; we are thankful for what you did to save democracy in the Philippines. End footnote.

Anyway, the five Foreign Ministers spent four days at Bang Saen, negotiating over the document they were writing to create a new organization. They did it in an informal manner which they would later delightfully call “sports-shirt diplomacy.” Still, it wasn’t an easy process; among the countries, only Thailand had been independent for more than twenty years, and the rest were struggling to find their place in the modern world. Each country had a very different historical and political perspective from the others, and the men brought those perspectives to the conference. Every time they met at the conference table, they expressed goodwill and good humor, but as it turned out, they reached more agreements when they played on the golf course, where they also traded jokes on each other’s game. This style of diplomacy would become the ASEAN ministerial tradition.

Next, the ministers went to Bangkok, where on August 8, 1967, they sat down together in the main hall of the Department of Foreign Affairs building, and signed the document they had written at Bang Saen. With that event, ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, was born. Because all three members of the ASA were represented here, the new organization superseded the ASA; we won’t have to talk about the ASA anymore.

The document they signed would be known as the ASEAN Declaration. This was a short, simply-worded document containing just two pages and five articles. It declared the establishment of an Association for Regional Cooperation in Southeast Asia, that would be known as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN for short, and spelled out the organization’s aims and purposes: cooperation in economic, social, cultural, technical, educational and other fields, the promotion of regional peace and stability through abiding respect for justice and the rule of law, and adherence to the principles of the United Nations Charter. All Southeast Asian states would be eligible to join once they accepted the organization’s aims, principles and purposes. It was the Malaysian minister, Tun Abdal Razak, who first expressed the wish that someday all Southeast Asian states would belong to the new organization. Finally, the Declaration proclaimed ASEAN as representing, quote, “the collective will of the nations of Southeast Asia to bind themselves together in friendship and cooperation and, through joint efforts and sacrifices, secure for their peoples and for posterity the blessings of peace, freedom and prosperity.” End quote.


The original ASEAN logo was a white flag; in the middle of the flag was a yellow circle with a blue border. In the circle were five golden-brown rice stalks, tied together in a bundle, representing the union of the five original member nations, and the name “ASEAN” appeared under the bundle. For ASEAN’s 30th anniversary in 1997, the flag was revamped, to better reflect the nations and the values ASEAN promotes. The five rice stalks were increased to ten, because the organization now had ten members, and their color was changed to yellow. The yellow circle became a red circle with a white border, and the flag’s white field became a blue field. As for why those colors were chosen, blue represents peace and stability, red represents courage and dynamism, white represents purity, and yellow represents prosperity. In addition, those four colors can be found in the national flags of all ten member nations. The only colors missing are black and green; Brunei’s flag has a diagonal black bar, while the flag of Myanmar has had a horizontal green bar since 2010. Finally, usage of the word “ASEAN” has become optional; it no longer appears in the flag, but it still appears in emblems featuring the ASEAN bundle of rice stalks. The purpose of all these symbols is to make ASEAN and Southeast Asia appear as one and the same, the way its founders intended. These days, at the embassies of Southeast Asian countries, it is common to see both the country’s flag and the ASEAN flag flying outside the building.

For its first years, the organization was quiet. Remember how I mentioned that it took the end of the Malaysian Confrontation to make ASEAN possible? Well it also appears that it could not accomplish much until 1975, when the wars in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos ended. I am saying that because it was in the next year, 1976, when the next event worth mentioning happened. That event was ASEAN’s first summit, held on Bali in Indonesia. Previously, the foreign ministers of the participating countries had dominated the meetings, but from here on, their bosses, each country’s president, prime minister or monarch, would be the most visible people at ASEAN events. At the Bali summit, the members expressed a desire to “develop fruitful relations” and mutually beneficial co-operation with other countries of the region, and they signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia. The organization’s second summit was held a year and a half later, at Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 1977, and Japan attended the meeting. That showed another future trend for the organization, its willingness to cooperate with countries outside of Southeast Asia. After that, summits were held irregularly for the rest of the twentieth century. It was in 2001 when the summits began to take place every year, and in 2009 when the organization started to hold two summits per year.

Probably the most important summit was the 9th one, held on Bali in October 2003. Here the leaders of the member states signed a declaration known as the Bali Concord II, in which they agreed to pursue closer economic integration by 2020. According to the declaration, “an ASEAN Community” would be set upon three pillars, which are, quote, “political and security cooperation, economic cooperation, and socio-cultural cooperation; For the purpose of ensuring durable peace, stability and shared prosperity in the region.” Unquote. The plan talked about ASEAN becoming a region with a population of 500 million and annual trade of US$720 billion. Also, a free trade area would be established among the members by 2020. Finally, ASEAN’s leaders talked about setting up a security community alongside the economic one, though without any formal military alliance.

During the same meeting, China and ASEAN also agreed to work faster toward a mutual trade agreement to create the world’s most populous market, with 1.7 billion consumers. Japan also signed an agreement pledging to reduce tariff and non-tariff barriers with ASEAN members. Well if I am doing the math right, ASEAN, China and Japan now have a combined population of more than 2 billion consumers, maybe even 2.2 billion.


In 1990, Malaysia proposed that a free trade zone be created between ASEAN and China, Japan and South Korea, and called it the East Asia Economic Caucus. The purpose of this proposal was to counterbalance the growing influence of the United States on Pacific trade. Both the United States and Japan opposed it, Japan because it was suffering from the collapse of its stock market in the early 1990s, so the proposal was shelved. However, after the Asian financial crisis of 1997, everyone agreed that ASEAN should work more closely with China, Japan and South Korea, to prevent this kind of crisis from happening again. When representatives of ASEAN and these three northeast Asian nations meet, the forum is appropriately called ASEAN+3. Because this arrangement has worked well at promoting economic stability, there have also been summits where three more regional powers, India, Australia and New Zealand, take part, changing the name of the forum to ASEAN+6. Sometimes ASEAN+6 is also called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. This is a fine example of how interdependent today’s nations have become.

China is ASEAN’s largest external trading partner. In 2017, 14.1% of ASEAN’s exports went to that country. The European Union came in second place at 12.0%, followed by the United States at 10.8%.

From its original five members, ASEAN started to grow when Brunei joined in 1984, immediately after the British protectorate over that sultanate ended. Like the original members, Brunei is pro-Western, but by now there was a general consensus that communist Indochina and socialist Burma should be allowed to join as well, if, like I said, they accepted the organization’s aims, principles and purposes. Accordingly, Vietnam was admitted as a member in July 1995, Laos was admitted in July 1997, and Burma, now renamed Myanmar, was also admitted in July 1997. That left Cambodia, which had to wait until its civil war and political instability ended; it finally joined in April 1999. With these additions, ASEAN went from being a group promoting an ideology (namely capitalism), to a group promoting the interests of all Southeast Asians.

I can hear some of you now saying, “What about East Timor?” Don’t worry, I didn’t forget them. That half of an island only became independent in 2002, and in Episode #117 I talked at length about why East Timor, also called Timor Leste, hasn’t been accepted as a full member yet.

Speaking of that, two potential members, Papua New Guinea and East Timor, have been granted the right to attend ASEAN meetings with observer status. This means they can take part in discussions at the meetings, but they are not allowed to vote. In the question and answer session we had a few episodes back, I got a question about Papua New Guinea’s status in ASEAN, and here is why they are only observers. Papua New Guinea’s leaders have said more than once that they are interested in becoming a full member, and Indonesia and the Philippines have announced they would support that country’s bid to join. However, the Papuans have never applied for membership. Why? Because history and geography makes Papua New Guinea different from the countries of Southeast Asia. It’s pretty much the same factors that make the people of Western New Guinea desire independence from Indonesia. The people of Papua New Guinea are Melanesian, not Asian, and their location on the Pacific means they pay more attention to Australia and the island nations of the Pacific. Furthermore, unlike Southeast Asians, the Papuans have no heritage of a grand kingdom with an advanced culture, from the years before the Europeans colonized them; you won’t find the ruins of ancient cities like Angkor if you visit New Guinea. So like their South Pacific neighbors, New Guinea’s history begins when European explorers discovered their island.

Several key nations from beyond Southeast Asia, like China and the United States, have also been invited to send their leaders to the summits, as observers. I think I told you in previous episodes that US President Barack Obama attended the 2016 summit in Laos, and that his successor, Donald Trump, went to the second 2017 summit in the Philippines. Incidentally, this was a turbulent time for Philippine-US relations, thanks to the mercurial personality of the Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte. Though Duterte’s term in office spanned the administrations of three US presidents, it was only at the 2017 summit that he got to meet with one of them.


Each year a different country acts as host to the summits. Most of the countries have hosted the summits multiple times by now, except for Myanmar, which has shown it still has an isolationist tendency by only hosting the summits once, in 2014. The most recent summit where the leaders met in person was held in Bangkok in 2019, and Thailand acted as the host. Here the main issues discussed were the trade war between the US and China, and the dispute over who owns the South China Sea. The members warned US President Trump that US protectionism is not good for them or international trade in general. Regarding the South China Sea, that issue is important because China has claimed that whole body of water and is building islands with a military base in the middle of it. In addition, half of the world’s merchant fleet tonnage goes through the South China Sea, and the area is a rich source of oil, natural gas, and fish.

Since 2019 the summits have continued, but because of the COVID pandemic, the meetings have been held online, turned into a big videoconference. The Vietnamese prime minister was chairman of the 2020 meetings, while the sultan of Brunei filled the same role in 2021. For this year, 2022, Cambodia will host the summits, but I have not heard a date for when they will take place, or if these will be online meetings as well.

Since 1976, ASEAN has been led by 14 secretary-generals. Each secretary-general is appointed to serve for a five-year term. The current secretary-general is Lim Jock Hoi; he comes from Brunei, and has held office since January 1, 2018. Since the countries go in alphabetical order regarding which one the secretary general comes from, I believe Lim Jock Hoi’s successor will come from Cambodia, and he or she will take charge at the beginning of 2023.


No member of ASEAN has ever quit or been expelled, but Myanmar chose not to take part in the 38th and 39th ASEAN Summits, after its military leaders were barred from attending, because of the February 2021 coup in Myanmar, and the military leaders’ response to the protests that followed. This is the most recent event concerning ASEAN that I talked about in the podcast; it’s in Episode #118. It is also the most severe punishment given to an ASEAN member, because ASEAN has an official policy of, quote, “non-interference in the internal affairs of member nations.” Unquote. For example, in 2018, when Myanmar’s state counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi, asked ASEAN for help with her country’s Rohingya crisis, ASEAN’s chair refused, saying it was an “internal matter.” In fact, for this issue, the organization’s members split along religious lines, with Moslem nations taking the side of the Rohingya, while Buddhist nations initially sided more with Myanmar’s government, until the outside world started condemning the persecution of the Rohingya minority.

An invitation was extended for Myanmar to send a “non-political representative” to the 2021 summits, but none was sent. On the podcast’s Facebook page, I shared a screen shot from the second 2021 summit. It shows a TV screen split into several panels, one for the representative of each nation, and a big panel in the center for whoever has the floor at any given time. In the panel for the Myanmar representative, all you see is an empty desk. At the time of this recording, I have not heard if Myanmar will take part in the next summit.

ASEAN’s main goal regarding the economy is to establish a single market based on the “Four Freedoms” declared by the European Union. Those four freedoms are: the free movement of goods, free movement of capital, freedom to establish and provide services, and free movement of persons. For this purpose, a committee called the ASEAN Economic Community, or AEC, was set up in 2015. The original deadline for the single market was also in 2015, but there was not enough trade between the nations at that date to declare the goal had been met, so a new deadline has been set for 2025. There is also a plan to unite the currencies of the ASEAN countries, China, Japan and South Korea, replacing them with a single Asian monetary unit, much like the Euro, should the single market be successfully established.

I said earlier that ASEAN would not just be about economic cooperation; it would also promote cooperation on social, cultural, technical, and educational issues. Accordingly, an Ad-hoc Committee on Science and Technology met in Jakarta in April 1970, and this led to the establishment of an ASEAN Permanent Committee on Science and Technology in 1971. In 1978, the committee was renamed the ASEAN Committee on Science and Technology, or ASEAN COST. Once every three years, this committee gives away the ASEAN Outstanding Science and Technologist Award, to a Southeast Asian scientist or technologist whose achievements have been nationally and internationally recognized.

To promote cooperation in education, the ASEAN University Network, or AUN, was founded in 1995; currently it has thirty participating universities. In addition, the governments of Singapore and Australia offer scholarships, which cover accommodation, food, medical benefits, accident insurance, school fees, and examination fees for promising students in secondary schools, junior colleges, and universities.

ASEAN’s efforts to promote Southeast Asian culture include media promotions, and contests in sports, educational activities and writing. The main sporting event is the Southeast Asian Games, which are held every two years and feature the meeting of athletes from the ten member-states. One non-member state, East Timor, also participates in the games. On top of all the other activities mentioned, a group called the ASEAN Center for Biodiversity, or ACB, has declared 51 national parks in the region ASEAN Heritage Parks; these parks are known for their unique biodiversity and ecosystems, and are outstanding in their scenic, cultural, educational, research, recreational and tourist values.

And finally, as the twenty-first century began, ASEAN began talking about environmental agreements on air pollution, trash dumping, deforestation, threatened or endangered species, and changes in energy production to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.


And that’s where ASEAN stands, as we bring this episode to a close. Over the next few months, I plan to record two, maybe more episodes, on overlooked topics that you requested, so join me next time to hear something else that’s special concerning Southeast Asia.

I will finish by asking for donations, because we have really gone through the summer doldrums, when it comes to financial support. I want to thank all of you who made pledges on Patreon, and are still with me there, but with the one-time donations, only one, that of Alexei K., has come in over the past four months. As always, this podcast is free for you the listeners, but not for me the podcaster; whereas it shouldn’t cost you anything to download and listen to the episodes, it costs me some money, and more than a little time, to produce them. To make a one-time donation, follow the Paypal links I posted, on the Blubrry.com page where this episode is hosted, or on the podcast’s Facebook page. After you click on the link, follow the instructions. You can also support the podcast by going to the Patreon page and becoming a Patron, where you pledge to give a small amount at the beginning of each month, $1 or more. If you want to do that, there is also a Patreon link on the Blubrry page.

Those who make a one-time donation will get their first names added to the Podcast’s Hall of Fame Page. And if you donated in previous years, there’s more. Those who donate in two different years will get special recognition with the coveted water buffalo icon added, next to their name. Those who donate in three years will get the ever-popular Shwedagon Pagoda icon added next to their name, as we saw with Alexei K. And early this year I made the OUTRAGEOUS Merlion icon. If you donate in four years you will get the OUTRAGEOUS Merlion icon next to your name! So far two of you have won that honor; who will be the third?

Now it’s time to get started working on the next episode. To everyone who is still here, thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!