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Indonesia: It's not Disasterland

Analysis: Natural disasters are all the media tells us about Indonesia. But there's so much more.

Consider the facts. Indonesia is the fourth most-populous country in the world. From east to west, it’s as long as the continental United States, with a fraction of the landmass. It has more Muslims than anywhere else in the world. It’s a thriving democracy (for the most part) and is coasting atop an explosive economy (even more explosive than Merapi) — making it a prime candidate to join Brazil, Russia, India and China in the elite BRIC group of emerging economies.

The country is home to more than 17,000 islands at last count, the vast majority of which are so beautiful they make the Caribbean look like an urban water park. Bali is one such Indonesian island, and it’s far from the most picturesque.

But perhaps most significantly, it is home to an incredibly diverse population, which speaks hundreds of different languages and embraces countless traditions.

While Mt. Merapi is a disaster zone for the foreign media, for Indonesians the perfectly shaped cone of a volcano is something far more sublime. It is one of the most important symbols in all of Javanese culture — a fascinating mishmash of Hindu, Buddhist, animist and Muslim tradition that is a confluence of culture and identity found in few other places around the world.

There is so much more to Indonesia than its location atop earth’s most tectonically active region. But few will notice if everyone pays attention only to the country’s latest disaster.

Peter Gelling is a deputy editor at GlobalPost. He reported from Indonesia between 2005 and 2010.