Indonesian Independence Day

Hari Merdeka and Panjat Pinang in Indonesia

Men climb poles during panjat pinang on Indonesia Independence Day
Teamwork is the only way to win at panjat pinang on Indonesian Independence Day. Ed Wray / Stringer / Getty Images

Indonesian Independence Day, known locally as Hari Merdeka, is observed annually on August 17 to celebrate their declaration of independence from Dutch colonization in 1945.

Using a combination of both diplomacy and revolutionary fighters, Indonesia was finally granted independence in December 1949. Amazingly, it wasn't until 2005 that the Dutch finally accepted the date for Indonesia's Independence Day as August 17, 1945.

Hari Merdeka in Indonesia

Hari Merdeka means "Independence Day" in Bahasa Indonesia and Bahasa Malaysia, so the term is used for both countries' independence days.

Not to be confused with Malaysia's Hari Merdeka on August 31, Indonesia's Independence Day is a completely separate, unrelated holiday on August 17.

Celebrating Indonesian Independence Day

Indonesian Independence Day is observed from Jakarta to the smallest towns and villages across the more than 16,000 islands in the archipelago.

Vibrant parades, formal military processions, and lots of patriotic, flag-waving ceremonies take place across the country. Schools begin training weeks in advance with marching practice to fine tune the military-like processions that later clog all main streets. Special seasonal sales and celebrations take place in shopping malls. The markets get even more chaotic than usual.

The President of Indonesia delivers his State of the Nation Address on August 16. To begin the Hari Merdeka celebration, the flag is hoisted at the National Palace amidst lots of formal ceremonies and military pageantry.

Then everyone cuts loose. Each village and neighborhood sets up small stages and holds their own outdoor music, games, races, and eating contests (often krupuk, the ubiquitous shrimp cracker seen throughout Indonesia). A festive atmosphere permeates the air. Later, determined boys and men will entertain everyone with their best attempts during panjat pinang, a traditional—and messy—game of skill and teamwork.

What to Expect While Traveling

Transportation can slow to a halt during Indonesian Independence Day as many roads and town centers are closed down. Traffic gets rerouted and clogged. Bus companies may be shorthanded on staff while drivers enjoy vacation. Flights to some destinations in Indonesia get more expensive as people travel home for the holiday. Plan ahead: find a nice place to stop moving for a day or two and enjoy the festivities on August 17.

The Indonesian Proclamation of Independence

The Indonesian Proclamation of Independence was read in Jakarta at the private home of Sukarno Sosrodihardjo—the future president—on the morning of August 17, 1945, in front of a crowd of around 500 people. Japan had just announced its surrender to the Allies two days earlier.

Unlike the American Declaration of Independence, which consisted of over 1,000 words and contained 56 signatures, the 45-word (when translated to English) Indonesian proclamation was literally drafted the night before and contained only two signatures chosen to represent the future nation: Sukarno's—the new president—and Mohammad Hatta's, the new vice president.

The Proclamation of Independence was broadcast secretly across the archipelago, and an English version was sent overseas.

The actual text of the proclamation is short and to the point:

We the people of Indonesia hereby declare the independence of Indonesia. Matters which concern the transfer of power and other things will be executed by careful means and in the shortest possible time.
Djakarta, 17 August 1945 in the name of the people of Indonesia.

Panjat Pinang Games

Perhaps one of the messiest and most entertaining parts of Indonesian Independence Day is the observing of panjat pinang, a tradition that began during colonial times.

The rowdy game consists of heavily greased poles, usually nut trees that have been stripped and erected in the main squares of towns and villages. Various prizes are placed on top just out of reach. Contestants—often organized into teams—push, slip, and slide up the pole in a chaotic free-for-all to grab the prize. What starts as a vicious, comical competition usually turns into a heroic display of teamwork as people realize just how difficult the seemingly simple climb really is.

The keys to a shiny new motorbike may be just out of reach!

Prizes in small villages can be simple household items such as brooms, baskets, and cooking supplies, while some televised events have vouchers for new TVs and cars at the top!

Although generally good fun for all, panjat pinang is considered controversial by some because it began as a way for Dutch colonists to enjoy themselves at the expense of impoverished locals who desperately wanted the goods placed at the tops of poles.

Broken bones are still common during the competitions. Sometimes the poles are erected in mud or water to provide a safer—and messier—landing for men who fall from near the top.

Despite the colonial origins, advocates argue that panjat pinang teaches the rewards of teamwork and selflessness to young men who compete in the events.

Traveling in Indonesia

Travel in Indonesia, particularly around Indonesian Independence Day, can be a lot of fun. The fourth most populous country (and the largest island nation) offers a lot of choices for travelers. You could spend years exploring Indonesia and never run out of new discoveries!

Although a majority of Indonesia's international visitors flock directly to Bali, there are plenty of other great places to visit in the archipelago.

From Sumatra in the west to Papua in the east (where numerous uncontacted tribes are still thought to hide in the rainforest), Indonesia brings out the inner island adventurer in all intrepid travelers.

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