Look at the league table in any league unfamiliar to you and you tend to see similar club name suffixes and prefixes. But it is in the Indonesian Liga 1 & 2 that the names are perhaps most similar. Persegres, PSS Sleman, PSIM, PSM, Persija, Persela, Persib, Persiba, Persibat, Persebaya, Persipura, Perseru, Persis. Confusing, right? One Indonesian club with a more distinct name is Sriwijaya FC.
Sriwijaya FC is the club of Palembang, the large inland port city in South Sumatra, one of the largest of Indonesia’s 17,000 islands. Of all the major islands in the Indonesian archipelago, it is the most Westerly, lying diagonally North West to South East, almost running parallel to the Malaysian Peninsula. Between the Malaysian mainland and Sumatra lie the Straits of Malacca, one of the world’s most important shipping lanes, which will become relevant shortly. Sumatra is astonishingly diverse in terms of language, religion and culture, and is the home of the majority of the world’s remaining tiger population outside of captivity.
Ugly Palembang itself however offers little for backpacking, casual-sexing Australians and hipster, alternative German bloggers. A white boy like myself gets a lot of attention from friendly Indonesians across the country, but even more so in Palembang where inhabitants are not familiar with people with pale skin and big noses. The drab, industrial city lacks tourism, a fact that presumably contributed toward the decision to award Palembang the status of host city of the 2018 Asian games, beginning in August. Athletes and sports fans from over 40 countries are due to congregate in the city (though Jakarta will share the games) which will be a welcome boost to the local economy. Palembang is predictably in a current state of development to accommodate thousands of continental neighbours, demonstrated by the major city-wide Metro engineering project playing havoc with the traffic each morning. Quite a lot is riding on the success of next year.
Based on the description above, you would be forgiven for imagining Palembang to be a modern city based on industry with little historical and cultural importance in the world. This is 100% not the case. The area around Palembang, the banks of the Musi river and the South East Sumatran coast was home of one of the most powerful empires South East Asia has ever seen, an empire whose reign lasted around 800 years (from the 500s to the 1300s) and whose influence spread from the Arabian Peninsula to inland China. The name of that empire was Sriwijaya, after which the contemporary Football team of the region’s largest city is named.
Time for a brief history lesson. Be patient, it is worth it to understand the context of Sriwijaya FC and its fans.
Throughout the centuries prior to direct European contact with South East Asia, trade existed between East Africa, Arabia, Persia, India, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), the Malayan and Indonesian lands and China. Valuable goods and commodities were spread out across these lands and wealthy individuals, usually royalty and nobility, would pay ocean-faring merchants to transport wealthy goods such as pepper, nutmeg, spices, timber, silk, porcelain, timber and fabrics from one place to another. Transporting goods by sea in this region was favourable to doing so by land for 2 reasons:
- ships can carry goods in bulk while camels and donkeys cannot
- the Indian Ocean and South China Sea are home to predictable, seasonal monsoon winds that make transportation by sea more efficient than by caravan.
Merchants transporting valuable goods for example from China to Persia had to wait for the right time of year to make certain passages of the voyage. If you went at the wrong time, the seasonal monsoon winds would blow against you and continuing the journey was practically impossible. But if you waited for the right time, you were assured a far easier journey. The Straits of Malacca was a popular route for these merchants. South Sumatra-based Sriwijaya was perfectly positioned to capitalise on this maritime trade. The leaders of the Sriwijayan Empire realised that building relations with the wealthy powers such as China instead of pursuing military aggression facilitated opportunities to increase wealth and power. The Swirijayans would either allow merchants to dock ships in their land while waiting for the correct sailing conditions and monsoon winds as long as they paid a tax, or more commonly would use their skills as actual merchants taking the risk and carrying valuable goods and commodities from one place to another, marking up prices as they went. Although for decades archaeologists and historians were unable to locate the former capital of Sriwijaya, recent discoveries have concluded that the site of the Sriwijayan capital for the longest period of its history was close to, you guessed it, Palembang.
In this era, Sriwijaya benefited from favourable political connections to the ruling Chinese dynasties. The fact that Sriwijayan power and dominance in the region arose partly by blessing from the ruling Chinese is something modern residents of South Sumatra and Palembang omit when they speak of Sriwijayan history. For millennia, China has been the world leader in industrial output and manufacturing. The current resurgence of the country’s economy is exactly that: a resurgence after decades of poor economic policies. China has long been the country that manufactured the best of everything and it did not depend on other Kingdoms, Empires and States for goods it wanted. Instead, China sold its manufactured goods to gain prosperity, prestige and power. As such, China rarely needed to conquer new lands to become wealthier, as conflict and aggression would only reduce foreign interest in purchasing Chinese manufactured goods. So the Chinese avoided involving themselves in internal political affairs of neighbouring states, instead choosing to bestow favourable trade conditions with a regional maritime trading empire who could do the hard & dangerous work of exporting Chinese goods across the sea for them (as long as they did not act contrary to Chinese interests). The regional maritime trading empire that several Chinese dynasties chose was Sriwijaya.
This was the catalyst for Sriwijaya’s rise to dominance in South East Asia. Sriwijayan merchants were heavily involved in the bulk of valuable Chinese trade, putting other would-be maritime empires at a disadvantage, as they had little access to Chinese protection and wealth. Sriwijayans became the go-to guys for Arabs, Persians, Africans and Indians wanting to buy high-quality Chinese goods. However, such a happy relationship was not to last. The arrival of the Yuan Empire in China in the 1200s sparked a series of political shifts throughout East and South East Asia. The Yuan leaders saw less benefit in collaboration with Sriwijaya, instead favouring overland trade through Central Asia. Sriwijaya lost protection and access to discounted Chinese goods and were eventually overthrown by the armies of Javanese Kingdoms. But it should come as no surprise that the Yuan Dynasty were more interested in overland trade: they were Mongols, with a vested interest in preserving the Mongol Empire, which itself benefited from trading caravans that passed through Central Asia. Yuan Dynasty loyalties changed the course of South East Asian history.
Back to Football. The fact that Sriwijaya FC elected to name themselves after the former empire of their land over 800 years ago instead of picking a club name similar to many others across Indonesia is very telling. It shows you where local pride lies; their humble land was once of major importance to Kings, Sultans and Emperors across Asia and Africa. Many supporters demonstrate what they feel is their identity by getting behind Sriwijaya FC, and also by wearing elegant fabric headwear (deep ruby-red with intricate artisan designs) during games similar to those worn by the ruling elite of Sriwijaya in its heyday. It is a small tradition, but it still represents modern fans looking to the past and taking pride in their heritage.
The legacy the Sriwijayan Maritime Empire lives on in the Football club of the city of Palembang, Sriwijaya FC.