After Bali, can we still live with our modern Myths?

Farish A. Noor

Posted Oct 14, 2005      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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After Bali, can we still live with our modern Myths?

By Farish A. Noor

Writing against the current of popular opinion these days is an unceasing struggle against the current of stale cliches and platitudes. Immediately after the recent bombings on the Indonesian island of Bali the familiar refrains were heard: destruction of the paradise islandђ, loss of a tourist havenђ, etc, etc. While it is true that Bali has indeed been seen (and sold) as a tourists paradise, we forget that the island has a darker side to its history.

Bali, like the rest of Southeast Asia, inherits at best a troubled past. The 1950s and 1960s witnessed some of the bloodiest conflict ever seen in Southeast Asia. The Vietnam war led to the deaths of millions, and contributed to the destabilisation of the region as a whole. The capitals of Southeast Asian countries like Bangkok and Manila became known as flesh pots where brothels and bars flourished to keep AmericaҒs soldiers entertained while they were on leave. The support of Western governments also meant that pro-Western dictators including Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines and General Soeharto of Indonesia were allowed to rule the roost with impunity.

Indonesia was one country where the battle for the hearts and minds of the people was fought in earnest. Following a failed coup by the Indonesian communists in 1965, the right-wing nationalists of the country, with the active support of the Indonesian army, began a nation-wide purge that led to the massacre of hundreds of thousands. Bali, the island paradise visited by millions of tourists every year, was not spared.  Across the island right-wing mobs, with the support of the army and local officials, went hunting for leftists to maim and murder.

Bali was later sold as a tourist paradise; an idyllic retreat that was a sanctuary from the troubles of the world, like some modern-day consumerist Shangri-La of infinite promise. But the myth of Bali rings hollow when contrasted to the realities of Indonesia and the rest of Southeast Asia.

Which brings us to the present. And life in present-day Indonesia is depressingly hard for many.

Should it be proven that religious militants were indeed responsible for last weeks attack on Bali, it would certainly not come as news to the Indonesians themselves. IndonesiaҒs brush with religiously inspired militants goes all the way back to the 1960s. During the anti-Communist purge of 1965, right-wing religious movements including Muslim, Christian and even Hindu ones ֖ were allowed to destroy the offices and homes of leftist sympathisers. The mobs that burned down the offices of the Indonesian Communist party, and who killed suspected Communists all over the country, were given a free hand by the security forces who conveniently looked the other way. No-one raised questions about the potential danger of politicised religion then.

In the late 1970s a mysterious group calling itself the Komando Jihad appeared. The Komando Jihad was the first group of its kind. Its members were from the disaffected youth of the big cities, notably Jakarta. In 1981 it staged the countrys first ever hijacking of a plane when it took control of a Garuda Airlines DC-9. The hijackers were caught and many of them killed by the Indonesian security forces, but word soon got out that the very same group had been under the control of maverick elements within the Indonesian army itself.

Two decades on, the spectre of clandestine militant groups still haunts the country. In the late 1990s groups like Laskar Jihad emerged, making the headlines when they sent their hot-headed members to fight a holy war against the Christians in Ambon in the Moluccan islands. Following WashingtonҒs declaration of the global war on terrorђ the Indonesian government felt compelled to come down hard on groups like Laskar Jihad, but not before its leader embarrassed the government by stating to the press that his organisation had been supported by elements in the Indonesian army all along!

So Indonesians can be forgiven if they seem less than convinced about the stories they hear and read about the Jamaah Islamiyah and the Bali bombings. For a nation brought low by the East Asian economic crisis of 1997, the Bali bombing of 2002, the Jakarta bombings of 2003 and 2004, and the tsunami of last year; there are other bread-and-butter issues to consider.

The violence we see in Indonesia today is the culmination of a grand experiment that has gone disastrously wrong. For nearly three decades the dictators of Southeast Asia were supported by their Western allies as long as they remained on the right side: the Western bloc. Tarted up as she was, Bali was and remained a painted mask for many. For carefree foreign tourists with money and time to spend, a trip to Indonesia meant a holiday in Bali, with perhaps a few hours of waiting in the Jakarta airport lobby along the way. The realities of life in other parts of the country: from the terrible atrocities that were being conducted in East Timor and West Papua, to the crackdown on democratic opposition groups in the countryҒs universities and inner cities were kept at bay. Bali was not merely a tranquil oasis in Indonesia; it became an asylum from the realities of Indonesia under military law as well.

The blasts in Bali have tore off that mask and laid bare the realities of this country of two hundred and forty million souls. Indonesia remains a country in search of its destiny and its struggle towards democracy remains a difficult and painful one. The myth of Bali was a distraction that averted our eyes from the complexities and painful realities of the country itself, and for too long it served as a convenient diversion for those who preferred to entertain the polite fiction that life is a bed of roses.

Can we, living in the turbulent world we live in today, still entertain the myth of a tropical paradise that is removed from the rest of the world? If we have grown wise enough to know that free tradeђ is never free; that holy causesђ have been used to justify the unholiest of crimes; and that fantasies are just a form of escapism; then perhaps we should all grow up and see through the mask of Bali, to realise that behind the smile of the Balinese waiter is the simple desire to live a dignified life, without remaining forever on his knees to serve the whims of rich tourists with too much money on their hands. Perhaps in the wake of the Bali bombing the ones who should really be asking these questions are the tourists themselves. If the myth of Bali has been irreparably shattered, then whose myth was it in the first place? No, there are no safe havens in this world of ours, and perhaps the human race is not entitled to a little piece of paradise on earth after all.