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For sheer size, scale and variety, Indonesia is pretty much unbeatable. The country is so enormous that nobody is really sure quite how big it is; there are between 13,000 and 17,000 islands. It's certainly the largest archipelago in the world, spreading over 5200km between the Asian mainland and Australia, all of it within the tropics and with huge areas of ocean separating the landmasses. Not surprisingly, Indonesia's ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversity is correspondingly great - the best estimate is of 500 languages and dialects spoken by around 200 million people.

The largely volcanic nature of the islands has created tall cloud-swept mountains swathed in the green of rice terraces or rainforest, dropping to blindingly bright beaches and vivid blue seas, the backdrop for Southeast Asia's biggest wilderness areas and wildlife sanctuaries. The ethnic mix of Indonesia is overwhelming: this is the world's largest Muslim country, but with a distinct local flavour, and there are also substantial populations of Christians, Hindus and animists, whose forms of worship, customs and lifestyles have been influencing each other for centuries.

Worryingly, it is this very religious and racial diversity that in recent years has threatened to unravel the very fabric of Indonesian society. Riots in many parts of the country have pitched Muslims against their Christian neighbours, with two of these battles - in the Maluku Islands and in Poso in Central Sulawesi - developing into full-scale civil wars. On Java and other islands, deep-rooted anti-Chinese sentiment surfaced in particularly bloody fashion in 1998 and continues to smoulder to this day. More localized ethnic violence has its source in the transmigration policies of the Indonesian government, whose aim was to settle far-flung areas such as Kalimantan with migrants from overpopulated regions including Java and Madura, often without local consultation and with little heed given to traditional land rights. Unsurprisingly, resentment and violence have sometimes boiled over. However, with a new and popular president, Megawati Sukarnoputri, in power, and the economy finally showing signs of recovery, it is hoped that - while further bloodshed is perhaps inevitable - the fury and frequency of these internecine battles may start to subside.


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