A culture that suppresses conflict disguises decades-long tensions in Balinese communities
Taman 65 works to ease tensions in Balinese society through study and discussion
The southern hall of Made’s family compound is usually filled with women making offerings while they gossip over their favourite soap operas and their never-ending struggles with debt. Today, however, the atmosphere is different. The hall is full of men, and there is tension and hostility in the air. A meeting has been called to try to resolve ongoing conflict over a contested plot of land. Made’s family claims that the land is rightfully theirs, but the certificate of ownership is in the hands of Made’s uncle, a respected elder known for his active membership of the village association (banjar) and his contributions to the temple. At issue is the status of a plot of land that once belonged to Made’s parents. His family accuses his uncle of having stolen the land after the bloody conflict that tore through Balinese communities in late 1965.
According to Made’s family, without permission or blessing from Made’s father, his uncle changed the name on the certificate of land ownership his father had recently inherited from his parents, claiming that he – not Made’s father – was the family member most worthy of inheriting the land. It was easy for him to do this without Made’s father’s knowledge, since his father had been taken into custody as a sympathiser of the Indonesian Communist Party, and was being held in prison at the time. Ever since then, Made’s family has had to stand by and watch his uncle’s family ride out times of financial hardship with the money they earn from renting out the land. For them, the tragedy of 1965 is an ongoing cause of resentment and misery.
Made’s family’s experience is not unique in present-day Bali. The tragedy of 1965 not only divided communities, it also created latent warfare between relatives living under one roof, sharing a family temple, and belonging to the same banjar. These tensions often lie buried, because social pressures demand that families live harmoniously. With their common ancestral lineage, different branches of the same family have obligations to the same family temple, so each time there is a family gathering associated with the performance of traditional ceremonies, any underlying tensions between family members have to be repressed. The cultural practices and rituals associated with family temples are entrenched by the state as ways of fortifying tradition and its role in the tourist industry. Under these circumstances, people who may be harbouring vengeful feelings towards one another will be brought together time and again, because they always need to work together on ritual occasions.
Traditional Balinese ceremonies that mark the cycles of human life, such as the celebration of a baby’s third month of life, teeth filing, marriage or cremations, always involve whole families. They cannot be avoided, because they are part and parcel of being a ‘normal’ Balinese Hindu, and they touch on the most personal and intimate of spheres of an individual’s life. In social spheres as well, it is risky for a Balinese to go against norms and cultural expectations. To do so would invite gossip, or even lead to anger being directed at a person’s loved ones, like a grandmother, grandfather or parents. Anyone who ignores social responsibilities suffers feelings of guilt, because to the rest of the community it seems as though they do not respect the dedication of their loved ones in maintaining traditional obligations. Socially, they are perceived as uncaring and arrogant, because their actions suggest that they think they can live independently, and survive without the blessings of their ancestors.
Observance of the rituals associated with family temples in Bali is also important for a person’s sense of security. The temple is the backbone of people’s hopes and dreams, making them feel safe and comfortable when the wider world betrays their sense of trust. In this context, any dark corners in family history continue to be suppressed. Hostilities do not disappear, but they are not expressed directly. Made’s family senses his uncle’s aloofness and poor manners when the families come together to clean the temple compound, but the conflict is always kept on hold so it does not have an impact on ceremonies or get in the way of receiving the blessings and thanks of the gods of the family temple. To an outsider, the level of suppression is practically unimaginable, considering the frequency of temple ceremonies and the tendency for the warring parties to live together in the same family compound.
State reinforcement and individual caution
Forces that suppress conflict are strengthened by issues that have had a devastating impact on contemporary Bali, such as terrorism and natural disasters. Responses to these issues often take the form of ceremonies to clean and purify Bali from evil spirits that threaten the safety and wellbeing of human kind. This ongoing parade of state-sponsored rituals is aimed at strengthening the belief in the minds of the people that Bali is safe because the Creator protects it, in response to the myriad ceremonies and continuous prayers of its citizens. In this situation, the circumstances that encourage the repression of conflict, rather than its resolution, are continually reinforced.
In Bali, the ritualisation of worldly problems detracts from belief in individual strength and discourages Balinese people from straying from the pack. It also serves to silence those voices wanting to reveal the ugly side of the nation’s past. The scars of past conflicts never appear on the surface, and the ghosts of family histories only appear in gossip and rumours. Witnesses to that dark history only tell their stories with great caution. They are riddled with internal conflict because they know that their testimonies would threaten the solidarity that is fundamental to the ceremonies of Balinese people. Opening up the past could stand in the way of their family’s receiving the Creator’s blessings.
Balinese culture is not lacking in a philosophical underpinning for the avoidance of conflict. The philosophy of karma phala, or ‘fruits of past actions’, is a trusted way of coping with histories of conflict between people who are obliged to meet face-to-face in the performance of traditional obligations. It became part of a powerful discourse in post-1965 Bali, where the state did not defend the interests of those who lost relatives, and people were discouraged from holding the nation to account for the disappearance of their loved ones. Karma phala reassures those who follow its law that justice will be upheld and sinners cannot escape the due punishment that will come to them in time. The oppressed and weak have faith in this philosophy, and find solace in the knowledge that someday, the oppressors will get their just deserts. Families of victims of the 1965 tragedy have their belief in karma phala confirmed when they see misfortune befall the butchers of that time of savagery.
Karma phala gives hope to those who are powerless because it assures them that time is not blind. Though it may be too risky for them to fight the powerful, they do not completely surrender. They are able to maintain their desire for revenge in the hope that time will eventually bring fairness. Conversely, it can be argued that karma phala has protected the oppressors, because it deflects any attempt to hold them accountable, or denounce or destroy their power. Yet the universal belief karma phala attracts from Balinese people means that the philosophy also has an impact on society’s powerful. They too have to live with the knowledge that their sins will one day catch up with them and they will need to find redemption. Many people believe that the donations made for ceremonies by powerful people is a form of ritual contrition, rather than an expression of gratitude for blessings they have already received.
Belief in karma phala enables Balinese people to suppress feelings of anger and the need for revenge. It helps those who harbour these feelings to appear as though nothing is wrong when they come together for a wedding, cremation or tooth filing ceremony. It is also one source of the profits government and private investors draw from the image of the Balinese as good, friendly people who value community solidarity in an age when people living in the modern world are seen as individualistic and selfish. Cultural tourism is a gold mine for land owners and investors, so it’s no wonder the tourist industry would like to see the dark sides of domestic history erased from the collective memory of the Balinese people. Optimistic slogans that encourage people to forget these memories, like ‘Continue going forward with optimism, don’t look back’, are not only promoted by the greedy and powerful people at the ‘top’, but also by the people living at the ‘bottom’ of Balinese society.
From the perspective of modern-day Bali, it is hard to believe that tragedies as terrible as those of 1965 actually took place. But the tensions those tragedies have bequeathed are never far from the surface, and there is always the possibility that vengeful feelings could one day explode. Made’s family appears ready to take the risk of confronting their feelings of injustice, but when it comes to the crunch, some of them are unwilling to disturb the appearance of family harmony. Why risk alienating an uncle who regularly lends them his car when a family member falls ill and needs medical care, or who is known to be one of the most generous donors for ceremonies at the family temple? In Bali, it is risky to express what one truly feels. It is almost as though one has to wait to go insane, or go into a trance before expressing oneself honestly. Stories of the tragedy of 1965 in Bali remain in the dark, partly because revealing them could lead to a battle amongst relatives that might ultimately be of benefit to no-one. But the suppression of conflict cannot last forever, and a question still remains. What will happen if one day karma phala is no longer enough to contain the anger of those victims of past events?
Gde Putra is a member of the Taman 65 community, a group of individuals focused on the study of the1965 tragedy and its implications for contemporary society.