Bali: Trouble in Paradise

Hindus, Muslims work to keep a lid on tensions on a fabled island


Kuta, Bali – The Bali bombs of 2002 and 2005 confirmed local conventional wisdom: bad things on the island come from Java. The 2005 bombings not only revived the slump in tourism, which accounts for at least 40 percent of Bali’s economy, but exacerbated ancient animosities as well.

But while other parts of Indonesia have descended into savage violence, partly because of the discredited and deposed Suharto regime’s transmigration policy—the world’s largest resettlement project, which moved Javanese, Balinese, Madurese and others to outlying islands—Bali has remained mostly peaceful. When the Suharto regime fell in 1998, hundreds, perhaps thousands were killed on other islands as Muslims and Christians, incited and supplied by enemies of the new, reform government, fought pitched battles seeking to drive the interlopers from their homelands. Not so in Bali.

Nonetheless, concern is rising today among the Balinese and other religious minorities over increasingly bold conservative Muslims, including religious vigilantes who have attacked Christian churches, bars, and even the offices of the new local, nudity-free edition of Playboy. A proposed anti-pornography law smeared with hardline Muslim fingerprints proposes enshrining conservative Islamic dress codes and other extremist values into the criminal code. The Balinese, with traditions including erotic dancing, lingam-yoni statues, topless portraiture, and—far more important these days—bikini-clad tourists on beaches, have demonstrated against the bill. Bali’s Hindu populace fears that this new Islamic assertiveness will spell the beginning of the end of their laid-back culture.
For centuries Bali has stood apart from Indonesia’s other 17,000 islands, retaining its Hindu roots and dodging the Islamic wave of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

As Islam overwhelmed neighboring regions, Hindu clergy and artists retreated to Bali to preserve and advance their culture. That turned Bali into the island of a thousand temples and covered the island in a colorful tapestry of dance, music, chanting, painting, carving and sculpture unique in the archipelago.

However, in an accelerating transformation, Javanese beggars, prostitutes, sandal sellers and others have made their way to the 5,650 sq km island. A formal registration system for outsiders exists at the village level but there are no apartheid style controls to prevent Javanese coming to Bali. Today Javanese and Indonesians from other islands work throughout Bali’s tourism business, most noticeably at the high and low ends. Outsiders dominate female prostitution and its male counterpart, the Kuta Kowboy trade. They also tend to rise farther than Balinese in less seedy occupations, such as international hotels. The Balinese calendar’s steady diet of elaborate festivities may be good for tourists, but frequent absences are bad for career advancement.  

Immediately after the 2002 attacks, some Balinese wanted to eject Muslims from the island and close mosques in retaliation, but cooler heads prevailed. Provocations in the wake of the 2005 bombings of a central Kuta restaurant and popular beach cafes at Jimbaran Bay to the south have included the smearing of feces in temples or the washing areas outside mosques.

However, two men exemplify the attitudes that have kept Bali together and relatively peaceful. They are Made Wendra and Bambang Prasetyo, a Balinese and Javanese whose friendship reaches across decades and religious differences, working to keep Kuta Beach, the hardest hit tourism area, together.  

Haji Bambang—as Prasetyo is known to all—was born in the government-owned Kuta Beach Hotel that his Javanese father managed. As tourism grew, more Balinese like Made Wendra’s family turned rice fields or Kuta’s sand dunes into hotels. The expanding economy brought Javanese and others ready to work. That trend accelerated when the 1997 economic crisis eliminated opportunities elsewhere in Indonesia and, with the rupiah declining far more steeply than other Asian currencies, Bali became a real bargain for tourists.

Bali could logically have been expected not to hold together. For instance, despite the fabled, mystical demeanor that outsiders assign to the Balinese, islanders rose up and massacred an estimated 100,000 alleged communists during the aftermath of military takeover in 1965 that ushered in Suharto’s New Order. In some cases, goon squads did the killings, but often it was villagers turning on neighbors in a slaughter that even today remains incomprehensible to most Balinese. Other occasional dustups occur between Balinese of different villages, as well as with outsiders.
Ajeg Bali, translated as Let Bali Stand Strong, a Balinese pride group associated with the local media mogul Satria Naradha, is another potential source of friction. Some observers see Ajeg Bali as a Bali-for-Balinese movement. A craze for bakso babi, or pork dumpling soup, grew from its commercial arm. Bakso is a Javanese specialty, while pork is a Balinese innovation forbidden to Muslims. But one Balinese insists Ajeg Bali is about “preserving Balinese tradition, not trying to monopolize Bali.” Other supporters say Ajeg Bali encourages Bali to work as hard as the outsiders and to understand the concept of competition within a free market: just because your neighbor has a shop doesn’t mean you can’t open one, too.

“Balinese welcome people from outside as long as they follow rules of Bali traditions and the village,” according to Wendra. “We learn from each other.”

“Kuta is the prime example of Balinese culture strengthening in reaction to large numbers of outsiders in the community,” author Jeremy Allan says. “A Balinese never really feels Balinese unless there is a non-Balinese in the room.” Allan’s book Bali Blues tells how Kuta saw off violence between Balinese and Muslims in the wake of the 2002 bombs by Islamic extremists from outside Bali.

“Unfortunately, the two attacks were from the same group and religion and that created a lot of tension between Muslims and Hindus,” says Prasetyo, whose heroics transporting wounded from the October 2002 attacks earned him a medal from Australia, which had 88 citizens die in the bombing.

Immediately after the bombing, some Balinese wanted to eject Muslims and close mosques in retaliation, but cooler heads prevailed. In Kuta, the neighborhood organization, the banjar, open to all residents including outsiders, was a focal point for averting violence. “All religions are welcome at the banjar,” Wendra says. “If people have a problem, they go there. People talk things out and resolve them.”

“Local leaders in Bali understand that the bombs are from a small group that’s not representative of the Muslim community,” Prasetyo says. “The leadership created the Inter-Religious Forum that reaches from the regions and cities down to local banjars and mosques. That’s been very successful in diffusing tensions.” Programs include youth activities that mix all religions and invitations to all for ceremonies, “people to people contact in religious settings,” Prasetyo calls it.

“After the bomb, the relationship between Muslims and Hindus became stronger,” Wendra, an Inter-Religious Forum member along with Prasetyo, says. That may be so, but it’s also true that the differences are almost always on display and noted. With tourist arrivals down 20 percent this year, the third lean year out of the past four, there’s a greater chance tensions can erupt. The conflict in Lebanon has brought intensified efforts to preserve harmony and calm Muslims rage. Prasetyo has asked imams to remind the faithful that while the Middle East’s tradition is to settle disputes by the sword, “In Indonesia, our tradition is to resolve conflicts by talking and compromise.”
To help keep the peace, Prasetyo wants the government to create jobs to prevent idle youth from becoming fodder for troublemakers. But the most important thing is getting tourists back to Bali. And indeed, when it comes to tourism, Hindu and Muslim worship at the same altar.

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