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Ritual, politics and tourism

Published: Jul 29, 2007

Graeme MacRae

Most Balinese of my acquaintance, a few urban intellectuals aside, have until recently believed deeply in a view of their island as a haven of unique peace and tranquility in a world apparently racked by disorder, conflict and violence. Much of this, in their view, is caused by (non-Hindu) religion and/or lack of religion altogether. Their own uniquely privileged position they see as blessings bestowed on them by the gods of Bali, which are in turn a result of their own unique devotion to the correct forms of ritual. This belief in ritual causation is perhaps related to their distrust of human political endeavour, and this distrust has emerged in locals' recovery efforts in a post-bomb Bali. These efforts have focussed on restoring spiritual balance through ritual purification ceremonies, which reinforce an inherently apolitical Balinese self-image.

Collective amnesia

Bali has a long history of political conflict and violence. Understandably, older generations of Balinese, whose early lives were lived in frequent fear and real danger, prefer not to remember too much of this history. But the present generation - those born since about 1960 - know little of it, and subscribe to a sanitised, secondhand version of their own culture and history, in which 'politics' (politik) is a dirty word. What they know as 'Balinese culture' is built on images of the island as a place apart from the troubles of the world, a place of natural beauty, artistic creativity, spectacular dance and ritual performance. These images have roots in political expediencies of the Dutch colonial state in the aftermath of their bloody invasion of Bali a century ago, and have flourished and developed in close symbiotic relationship with the world tourism industry since. Contemporary Balinese culture has been built on a kind of collective amnesia about certain aspects of its own history.

Balinese responses to the many recent instances of political violence in Indonesia are revealing of this amnesia. Balinese I spoke to immediately after the turbulent events leading to the downfall of Suharto in 1998 and the electoral riots of 1999, were deeply shocked by such violence so close to home and insisted that it was an aberration nothing to do with them: it was the fruits of politik from elsewhere - Jakarta, or Java generally, or if it happened in Bali, the work of outside provocateurs from places more inclined to the 'political'. Their own (and by implication 'Balinese') priorities by contrast, were on two things only: their livelihoods, which were dependent to varying degrees on tourism, and their religious practice, on which both tourism and their livelihoods ultimately depended anyway. They believed that they were being unfairly punished for the inevitable consequences of the political activities of other people.

Familiar pattern

So far, local reactions to the Kuta bombing seems to have followed a very similar pattern. That is, Balinese people's responses to the bombing reveal that this apolitical self-image endures.

In media reports and personal communications with friends and acquaintances in the aftermath of the bomb, the following pattern emerges. Firstly, locals' horror at the sheer human tragedy was followed quickly by a chorus of outrage that such an atrocity could have been perpetrated in Bali, and an insistence that it must be the work of outsiders. People also insisted that the bombing must have been motivated by jealousy and a desire to damage the reputation and economy of Bali, and that it was the result of political machinations of non-Balinese origin.

As acceptance of the awful reality set in, reflections on deeper causes of the tragedy emerged. Many began to see it as a result of deficiencies in their own performance of ritual, and a kind of punishment for allowing the kind of immoral and 'un-Balinese' development that the nightclub strip of Kuta represented.

Certainly, there have been many practical responses, including efforts to assist in both the immediate relief effort and ongoing assistance to the many and under-reported local victims. But the main priorities for Balinese seem to have remained the need for massive investment in ritual purification at a range of sites. This is indeed normal Balinese practice in response to death and/or misfortune of any kind, but it was intensified in proportion to the magnitude of the disaster. There has also been a deep concern for the economic consequences and the future of tourism, ranging from the direst of predictions to assurances of imminent recovery and the need for immediate reconstruction.

Some Balinese people have suggested the bomb may present an unwelcome but perhaps valuable opportunity to rethink the kind of future the people of Bali want. It remains to be seen whether these questions will remain on the agenda for public debate or be submerged beneath the familiar tides of tourist industry rhetoric and associated religious fervour.

Graeme MacRae ( teaches Anthropology at Massey University in New Zealand.

Inside Indonesia 74: Apr - Jul 2003

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