Largely hidden from the eyes of the overseas visitor, Bali's beaches have become a cultural and environmental battleground. In 1994, protests against the Bali Nirvana Resort development at Tanah Lot signalled the first serious challenge to the direction of tourism development by the Balinese people.
Although government rhetoric still espouses earlier commitments to 'cultural tourism', in reality development policy for Bali has become almost entirely fixed on maximising tourist numbers, foreign exchange and opportunities for graft, irrespective of environmental and cultural impacts.
Open demonstrations against the Tanah Lot development project were soon brought to a halt by military intervention and a heavy hand on the press (See Inside Indonesia, June 1995). But opposition to the changing nature of tourism and the growing domination of the island's land and economy by powerful Jakarta interests continued to seethe beneath the surface as one after another luxury resort gobbled up Bali's beaches and padi fields.
Mounting popular anger again reached boiling point at the end of 1997 over a strip of beach about a kilometre north of the Bali Beach Hotel in the island's premier hotel area. As with the Bali Nirvana Resort development, the most recent source of the conflict was a sacred site - not this time one as recognisable to non-Balinese as the picturesque Tanah Lot temple at sunset. Instead it was construction at the confluence of the Ayung River and the sea at Padanggalak that once again made raw Bali's experience of 'development' in late New Order Indonesia.
At Padanggalak, surrounding villages carry out purification ceremonies necessary to the well-being of their communities. At first, only passing reference to Padanggalak appeared in the Balinese press, noting the location of one more among numerous impending proyek approved since the go-ahead at Tanah Lot.
But initially low-key media coverage became more strident when a newly elected member of the Golkar faction in the Denpasar assembly, Kusuma Wardana, boldly suggested that the governor resign because of his role in the case. Wardana was from the village of Kesiman, one of several communities with ritual responsibilities for the sacred site at Padanggalak. He was also a descendent of the ruling family of Kesiman, a powerful court at the time of the Dutch conquest of Bali.
The governor, as fate would have it, was also from Kesiman, and this gave the village strategic leverage like no other. Two days after Wardana's statement, the customary or adat community of Kesiman threatened the governor with expulsion, a sanction the anthropologist Clifford Geertz once described as equivalent to 'social death'.
Expulsion may entail loss of rights to live in the community, to participate in village temple ceremonies, or to use the cemetry for funeral rights. If political criticism could be easily ignored given the top-down style of executive government in Indonesia, adat sanctions could not. The governor promptly declared that he would turn the matter over to the villageadat council. It responded with demands that the beach be returned to its original state and that the development permit be withdrawn.
Like all of the other projects that have provoked public animosity and cynicism in the 1990s, the development at Padanggalak was characterised by numerous irregularities. Reclamation works proceeded without most of the permits and procedural requirements having been completed.
No Environmental Impact Assessment (Amdal) had been conducted; no location, building or investment permits had been secured by the investors. Only a permit in principle (izin prinsip) had been issued with the governor's signature. Public comment was never solicited, and concerns expressed by the local community to the provincial assembly as early as January 1997 were never addressed.
The status of land resumed for the project was also a matter of contention. The 100 meter coastal setback zone is officially classified as state land under Indonesian law, but local customary law and religious practice regard it as adat land belonging to the community.
In this case the governor had signed over rights to the Civil Servant's Cooperative (KPN Praja) to 'benefit from' what was described as a provincial government 'asset'.
The project is actually connected to an adjacent amusement park development, Taman Festival Bali. Shares in the hotel to be built at the site are said to have been contributed to the governor's family. The dozens of grotesque billboards advertising the theme park are also thanks to a concession allocated to the governor's son.
After reclamation at Padanggalak was finally halted, Public Works Department trucks rolled for days to remove the massive earthworks that had already been put in place. Yet the outcome of this contest over Bali's resources remains unclear. The permit-in-principle has not been withdrawn as demanded by the village adat council. His own Golkar party threatened Kusuma Wardana with 'recall' from his seat in the assembly. And the governor has called on investors to 'redesign' the plan for the site. The case is officially in 'cooling down' mode. The uneasy truce is reminiscent of tactics adopted in the earlier conflict over Tanah Lot. In that case an eight month suspension to reassess the Bali Nirwana Resort development simply bought time for vested interests. They used the powers of the state to suppress organised opposition and circumvent the decree of the national Hindu organisation which was intended to prevent such developments near significant temple sites.
The fallout from Padanggalak continues to reverberate across the island. Renewed criticism of the Tanah Lot resort, and of other developments at Benoa harbour, Serangan and Pecatu - all connected with family or close associates of President Suharto - have once again become the subjects of intense public debate. As has the entire development plan for Bali which established 21 tourism zones covering a quarter of the island's land-mass.
The clear public support for Wardana's ringing challenge to the governor, and the staunch determination of the Kesimanadat council, indicate a broader disenchantment with the New Order regime. Revolutionary idioms of struggle and heroism are reemerging in the language of dissidence.
The current economic crisis may curb some of the excesses of the investment binge in Bali and bring about a more transparent planning process. On the other hand, the crisis may induce a yet more voracious effort to sell off cultural and environmental resources across Indonesia.
Carol Warren teaches Asian Studies at Murdoch University, Perth, Australia.