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Review: Bali’s silent crisis

Review: Bali’s silent crisis
Published: Jun 05, 2010

A new book seeks to understand the contradictions and challenges facing contemporary Balinese

Brett Hough

Bali’s history is made up of many contradictions. Some of these are intrinsic to Balinese culture and society; others are due to the experience of colonisation by the Dutch and the result of incorporation into the nation-state of Indonesia. Others still stem from forces of modernisation, globalisation, tourism and consumerism. The authors of Bali’s Silent Crisis: Desire, Tragedy and Transition highlight these contradictions to reveal underlying problems that continue to shape, influence and in certain ways, haunt daily life in Bali. They contend that these forces and associated changes have resulted in deep psychological and cultural trauma that remains largely unacknowledged – hence a ‘silent crisis’ – and runs counter to the discourse of Bali as a paradise.

The authors have lived and worked in Indonesia over many years, with much of that time in Bali. With academic backgrounds in cultural studies and health promotion they bring an interesting perspective to their subject and display an obvious concern for the long-term psychological health of Balinese caught up in the profound processes of change, violence, and desire that are encapsulated in the subtitle of their book. From the outset we get a very strong sense of their motivation in researching and writing the book and their commitment to Balinese friends and colleagues. It is clear they have a great deal of affection for their subjects and come to their conclusions based on a long-term engagement with Bali.

The book consists of five thematic chapters, a conclusion and an introduction by Jeff Lewis. The introduction provides both an opportunity for Lewis to set out the main concerns of the book under the subheadings of ‘modernisation’ and ‘transformation’ as well as to reflect upon his own association with Bali since the 1970s.

The first chapter deals with the events of 1965-66, which ushered in the 30-year rule of Suharto and his so-called New Order. The authors focus on the legacy of killings, betrayals and terror that resulted in the deaths of approximately 100,000 Balinese. They find that traumatic memories of the period along with the economic changes introduced after Suharto’s rise to power ‘have created a crisis which is difficult to estimate or define’. Moreover, they contend that, ‘The Balinese feel overwhelmed by the recent decades. The ways in which the trauma has been treated and not treated, leaves them in a state of complex uncertainty, a condition clearly exacerbated by the velocity of social change.’

In the second chapter the authors explore aspects of Bali’s political economy during the New Order period. The focus here is on the extent to which the coalescence of interests around the development agenda of the New Order, the opening up of Bali to mass tourism, and the rapaciousness of those associated with Suharto, have led to a host of environmental and social problems.

The third and longest chapter develops the theme of desire – both in terms of Bali and Balinese as objects of desire by outsiders but, more importantly, the complexity and changing notions of Balinese sexuality in light of one hundred years of increasingly intense involvement with the West and external polities.

Chapter four returns to the wider political economy, this time to examine the post-Suharto context. The challenges of rebuilding civil society, reasserting a Balinese sense of identity, the problems of drugs and youth culture, the underlying culture of official corruption and the vicissitudes of the legal system, particularly as it has applied to cases such as Schapelle Corby, Michelle Leslie and the Bali Nine.

The final chapter deals with the relationship Hindu Balinese have had with the wider Islamic world, both in historical terms as well as more recently in the form of the two Bali bombings, attributed to Jemaah Islamiyah. The underlying concern is the effect that the physical and psychological violence inherent in this relationship has for Balinese and the implications for the future.

In the conclusion the authors return to the theme of crisis to evaluate its negative and positive outcomes and they are optimistic about the Balinese people’s response to this crisis. ‘Despite the intensity of this transition … the richness and creative dispositions that are intrinsic to Balinese culture are already providing the sort of psychocultural resources necessary for renewal and community recovery’.

The focus on the legacy of 1965-66 as a central concern underpinning other issues is a useful analytic strategy to make sense of later events

Overall the book is an ambitious undertaking in its attempt to synthesise and analyse such a wide array of topics and concerns. One of its strengths is the authors’ attempt to address both positive and negative aspects of Balinese culture and society, or as Jeff Lewis writes in his introduction, to acknowledge ‘the darkness that perpetually and necessarily adheres itself to the hyperbole of the island’s intrinsic marvels and its extraordinary beauty’.

It is refreshing to see a range of sources utilised that are not generally found in the more mainstream Bali studies literature. Moreover, the focus on the legacy of 1965-66 as a central concern underpinning other issues is a useful analytic strategy to make sense of later events. Other aspects to admire in their account are the extended discussions of gender and sexuality as important rubrics to understand ‘the radical transformations that have been taking place in Bali over the past century’. The authors provide us with insight into the urban youth culture of the Kuta-Denpasar area and a re-evaluation of the role of the hippie travellers of the 1960s and 70s in the making of tourist Bali. Their extensive personal experiences in the Kuta area over the last thirty years combined with their keen academic interest, highlight these themes as not only worthy of study, but as important for our understanding of the ‘silent crisis’.

Nonetheless, I also had a few concerns as I read the book. I was not always sure of the intended audience as, while in the main the writing style is lively and engaging, there is rather too much jargon for a purely general readership. On the other hand, the lack of substantiation of some claims and crediting of sources tends to undermine its usefulness as an academic source.

I was also unconvinced by the need to refer to the events of 1965/66 as genocide (‘Balinese genocide’ – ‘political genocide’ – ‘Balinese political genocide’). The term is emotive and tends in cases such as this to obscure the fact that the events encompassed a range of atrocities, not all of which were politically motivated or collectively orchestrated. Some were the settling of old scores, others opportunities to seize property and land, others still perhaps motivated by a desire for self-preservation. In the end it was not just about purging of the body politic, it became much more, which for many makes it all the more inexplicable.

Similarly, referring to former President Suharto as a ‘tyrant’ reduces him to a caricature, rather than illuminating the complexity of his thirty-odd year control of Indonesia. Throughout the text the authors are at pains to tease out the complexity and nuances of issues, yet the use of emotive language such as this tends to work against their aims.

My other main concern is the authors’ general lack of engagement with Balinese writings about many of these issues

My other main concern is the authors’ general lack of engagement with Balinese writings about many of these issues. Over the last decade a literature has emerged, written by Balinese attempting to describe and analyse their contemporary world. This work is readily available in bookstores, and the various daily newspapers are full of reports, opinion pieces, and letters to the editor highlighting problems and offering analysis. Yet there are very few Balinese sources cited in the list of references. Apart from interviews with friends and acquaintances in the Kuta area, the authors’ main Balinese interlocutors are academic Nyoman Darma Putra, the owner of the Bali Post Media Group Satria Narada, and current Governor Made Mangku Pastika.

The authors’ assertion, then, that it is a ‘silent crisis’ is in part belied by the fact that, at least for these Balinese commentators, it is a highly visible one and loudly broadcast on a daily basis. Although these accounts might not fit into the analytic framework of cultural studies they are nevertheless ones that require acknowledgement.

These concerns aside, the book represents an important and welcome scholarly contribution to our understanding of the challenges faced by Balinese in engaging with their contemporary world and their cultural and social resilience in dealing with the historical legacy of the last hundred years.

Jeff Lewis and Belinda Lewis, Bali’s Silent Crisis: Desire, Tragedy, and Transition. Lexington Books: Plymouth, 2009.

Brett Hough ( is a lecturer in Indonesian and anthropology at Monash University.

Inside Indonesia 100: Apr-Jun 2010

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