Can Bali Be Bali Anymore?

News Abroad

Mr. Thompson is adjunct professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, and visiting professor, Asian Institute of Management, the Philippines, in residence in Bali.

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Mr. Thompson divides his time between the states and Bali. The following article arrived along with his Christmas card.

Four great events in the modern history of this small island--twice Rhode Island's size--are essential to an understanding of its direction. The first, by present methods of historiography not yet pinned down to a year, was the emigration and asylum of the entire ruling apparat of Majapahit, the Hindu empire based near present day Yogyakarta in Java. As Islam swept over the populous island, about the same time as Ottomans drove Byzantium from the horn, the Pedanda-high Brahmanic priests and scholars, the ruling nobility, and apparently countless dancers, artisans and musicians--imposed themselves on an already Hinduised population.

Half a millennium later Bali is still absorbing that wave, which made the smaller island one of the most culturally dense societies on earth. The effect was more like the move of the Kuomintang to Taiwan in 1949, from large to small, than that of Byzantium throughout all of Italy, smaller to larger-though even that helped spark the Renaissance.

By 1906, when the Dutch had largely either conquered or made deals with the ruling sultans of Bali's regencies, the island was for all intents and purposes a fused society, despite the clarity of its four kasta (castes), which are still highly compelling. Balinese moved--and still move--together. When it became clear to the nobility of Badung, where the present capital Denpasar is located, that further resistance to the Dutch was futile, and convinced that this humiliation betokened proof of deeply rooted evil within the society, the entire nobility bathed at length, clothed themselves in white gowns, and marched into the Dutch cannon. Those not immediately felled finished the job with their own Kris, or ever present decorated short swords.

The Dutch were so overwhelmed by their own barbarity that thereon they treated Bali with a sensitivity hardly present anywhere else in the archipelago. Missionaries were barred, the rajas' powers were in large measure restored, and schools and roads were built at a faster pace than anywhere else in Indonesia. Paradise was able to make its second great adjustment to modernity at its own pace. European painters popularized Bali with paintings and photos of the fabled and usually half-naked women, walking so nobly from long experience of ceremonial offerings on their heads--though most of those artists came, it would seem, not for the girls.

Then the third. All Bali looks to the great volcanic mountain Gunung Agung. Indeed if you live to its north, 'north' is still the mountain's direction, even though it is to the south. Our upper house temples are oriented to Gunung Agung. It violently erupted in 1963, killing twenty-five thousand people in the path of its lava. It was universally taken to be the Gods' displeasure; they dwell on the mountaintop, after all, as all Balinese know and any visitor can readily understand.

The balance in Bali had been progressively destabilized by the growing strength of the PKI, the communist party, and its allies in Bali, including the Sukarno-appointed governor. So when all Indonesia was shaken by Suharto's progressive seizure of power in the late months of 1965, the consensus of Bali was overwhelming: the evil must be extirpated. Sixty to eighty thousand Balinese, mostly PKI members, donned white again, and walked peaceably to their execution, by gunfire, drowning, torture, or the noose. 'The dark side of Paradise,' in the words and title of the defining book about those events.(1)

For better or worse the 'balance' of Bali was restored and a new deal could be negotiated with the Gods--and with Jakarta. Bali would work to preserve its culture, which was appealing to tourists and natural to its citizens, Jakarta would interfere as little as possible, and the island paradise would bring in great tourist revenues to be shared with the country as a whole. The culture would--and did--remain intact. Indeed it has been official policy on the island to encourage precisely this, right down to the study of the differing languages of the kasta. Because it is good for business--and because it is right.

For thirty-seven years that balance was preserved. True, about 300,000 Muslims settled in Bali, and many more came in and out to perform the duties that Balinese prefer to avoid. Or to fill in during the hundred plus days the average Balinese devotes to ceremonies of one sort or the other. But there was no tension apparent, and until very recently no sign of terrorism.(2)

A week before the Kuta bomb, a prominent Singaporean coming to Bali to see the Upacara, or ceremony, of my new house--along with more than three hundred fellow villagers from Pekuwudan, our banjar-village--about six km from the coast and in an artisan's town, lost his briefcase and passport. It disappeared from my car while we repaired a flat tire on the road out from the airport.

A neighbor, who happens to be an Intelligence expert with the Balinese police, along with the local police, quickly established that this was no accident. The nail was a sophisticated metal tube inserted and set to create the flat tire at a chosen place. At the Upacara, this smart Brahman, Ida Bagus Agung, noticed that there was a rising trend of such incidents. Deep murmurs of impending disaster were voiced, echoing in their own manner the more specific warnings coming out of the American embassy in Jakarta--which in Bali was much less pertinent, though for different reasons from the indifference shown to them by Jakarta's elites.

The powerful bomb that went off late Saturday night 12 October 2002 is the fourth event defining Bali. It takes little arithmetic to establish the enormity of its impact on the island, all too little of the international reporting on which has centered. Half of Bali's revenue was tourist generated. There are casual losmens, sort of an Indonesian bed-and-breakfast; and there are five star hotels charging $3000 a room, offering private pools for each guest, and in good times having no trouble filling them with the likes of Mick Jagger and Barbra Streisand. In such circumstances, of course tourists could see (for example) all manner of the dances that are at the center of its culture, performed on hotel stages or even in more traditional venue. But it was that surplus that made it possible for the Balinese to continue the real dances as they wished them: often spontaneous--and extraordinary--performances that start when the spirit moves, and often last all night, the whole banjar sitting on the ground and some of them as much in a trance as the young male performers in their final dancing death throes.

It is hard to believe that tourism will return in any significant amount for several years, until the 'war on terrorism' has spent its course--and eliminated in large measure the threat worldwide therefrom.

But the impact of a change on that scale must be contemplated. Bali cannot be Bali as it had evolved. The prolific ceremonial life in its intensity existed for centuries both because the rice surplus and rich soil made it affordable, and the surplus of the nobles and priests from Majapahit made it necessary. It got its new lease on life in the prosperity of the New Order. The question now is, can Bali be Bali?

In recent times even the existing ceremonial life was coming under subtle challenge. Every thirty years a house must be rededicated. Two senior workers employed in the construction of my villa for all intents and purposes disappeared for a month in preparation for their family's Upacara. The younger had to hawk his scooter to pay his share of the costs, and the older ended up in physiotherapy with spiritual healers in Bali's north, so great had been the strain. For several hundred people had involved themselves in the Upacara, carving little temples, concocting offerings of cake or pig, and in the end, it lasted several days. Visually it was dominated by Pedanda pouring holy water in appropriate places, but behind the scenes the real work had occurred-the killing of animals to propitiate the Gods and drive away all possible demons. The cost to the family was about forty million Rupiah, or roughly forty-four hundred dollars, in a country whose per capita income is about a fifth that. Little could I complain when I had to shell out the same amount to ensure that my house was similarly protected from evil spirits, the more so as it is located on a river, where these bad spirits dwell in abundance.

But it is not just houses that must be dedicated and rededicated. There are ceremonies for a baby's three month celebration, and my houseboys, earning in a month less than what a maid makes in a day in England or America, were required to spend several months' income for that celebration of their new children. Cremation requires almost endless preparations, and weddings are magnificent. Temples have six-month Odalan, or rededication.

A week before Kuta, I had an audience with the governor, a member of the small Wesia caste, commercial or metal workers historically. But a cut well above the Sudra, the 90 percent commoner caste. He is elegant, a life-long mandarin appointed by Jakarta from within the Balinese elite, and committed to Bali's development. Given the intensity of hierarchy in Bali it was no surprise that the meeting resembled in structure an audience with a sultan or raja. He talked of his two primary concerns, the security of tourism, with the obvious threat that existed, and the inability to anticipate with any precision where a strike might occur; and the preservation of the culture.

Preservation of the culture was an option when the hotels were bustling and tourist dollars jangled all over the island. It will now be a hard fought thing. The governor had little idea, on that bright September day, how hard his job was soon going to be on both fronts.

(1)Geoffrey Robinson, The Dark side of Paradise.
(2)The present writer, building a villa over the past two years in a rice paddy, had to import up to eighty Muslim construction workers to do the tough labor of wall and foundation building. They coexisted peaceably and amicably with the Hindu locals-though of course the Hindus looked down on their fellow Indonesians from across the channel.

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