October 23, 2002
As well as the lives of many, the nightclub bombs destroyed any lingering illusions that Bali was a tranquil haven somehow isolated from Indonesia’s current malaise. Eric Ellis reports from Kuta Beach……
IT didn’t take long for the bile in South-East Asia to rise. And it came from Malaysia, hardly Australia’s best friend in the region. Writing in the government-controlled New Straits Times four days after the Kuta bombings, Kuala Lumpur-based writer and self-styled intellectual Rehman Rashid informed his mostly Muslim countrymen of what he knew of the Sari Club and its mostly Australian clientele.
“Yes, I knew the Sari Club,” Rashid admitted. “It had been there about 15 years, sopping up the dregs of the Kuta night, where the carousing begins in the early evenings at the chi-chi Legian end of the strip, then cascades down the drag in seven waterfalls of deepening drunkenness to debouch onto Kuta Beach and sprawl snoring at the dawn, or sink into the strip’s last sump, the Sari Club.”
Rashid (who didn’t respond to The Bulletin’s inquiries) was presumably only familiar with the Sari Club in the broader sense of research. As he got up his literary head of steam in the NST, he didn’t exactly say the victims of Australia’s biggest terror attack, our September 11, were Asia’s white trash. But he may as well have.
“Reeking of beer and sweat; the air thick with smoke and jagged with Strine; packed out and heaving into the night at the scummy end of the Legian-Kuta strip … the slimiest, sleaziest dive of them all.
“If you couldn’t score anywhere else, you could score at the Sari Club. To that rickety firetrap would lurch the last of the night’s purblind drunken foreigners.”
True, a river of VB flowed down Jalan Legian and true too that the Sari Club and its mostly Australian crowd of young party animals wasn’t the Amandari, the $1100 a night resort an hour away in bohemian Ubud favoured by the beau monde.
And perhaps harsh words such as Rashid’s have to be aired if Australia and Asia are ever to reconcile the accident of their geography. Others have certainly expressed these views privately. But his rant is hard to read if you are a parent whose son or daughter was struck down.
Or, if you were the four young teens who wandered aimlessly around Kuta for days, wondering when their still-missing parents would come home from their big Saturday night out. Or the Coogee Dolphins. Or the people of Forbes.
What Rashid didn’t mention was that the foreigners-free/Indonesians-$10 entry policy at Sari Club operated with offical connivance. Nor did he mention that the Indonesian government allows such bigotry in a country that touts itself as secular and non-discriminatory.
Rashid didn’t report that the ecstasy and dope available at the Sari Club and in myriad clubs like it around Kuta probably enriches corrupt Indonesian army officers and police, and their compradores in the Balinese-Chinese underworld. That very corruption – and for Bali read any region of Indonesia and Rashid’s own Malaysia – is a big reason why firetraps such as the Sari Club, with their not-so-Balinese thatched roofs and exposed gas cylinders, are allowed to exist.
It’s also why it took almost two hours to ferry injured from chaotic Kuta the 10km to the charnel house that was Denpasar’s Sanglah Hospital. And why poorly constructed and poorly resourced medical facilities caused more foreigners and Indonesians to perish than is acceptable.
It’s also why kilos of explosives can fall into terrorist hands and why militant groups of any persuasion can fester. And why three million Balinese are very angry that all this has been allowed to happen on their Island of the Gods.
BALI’S Hindus take their spiritualism very seriously, even at places such as the massive Grand Bali Beach Hotel in Sanur. It’s not far from where Australians such as the artist Donald Friend lived, loved and painted lithe young men and began a great tradition of Australian hedonism on Bali, which by generational osmosis somehow now expresses itself via footballers in fleshpots such as Kuta.
Before October 12, Bali’s last great fire was at the Bali Beach Hotel, or the “Bali Bitch” as it’s known here, in 1993. There were no fatalities and the hotel, completed in 1966 in the blocky International style of the era, opened by Sukarno and financed by Japanese war reparations, re-opened post-fire as a national treasure. But as every Balinese of an era – and Sukarno’s daughter Megawati Sukarnoputri – knows, room 327 is special. It’s the room the Balinese believe that Loro Kidul, their mythical Goddess of the South Seas, allocated to Sukarno, independent Indonesia’s father. The hotel was gutted in the 1993 blaze but room 327 was the only one of 600-odd that survived wholly intact.
Even today, the room is maintained in the vernacular of the era even though Sukarno never stayed in the hotel. His trademark black peci and white trousers lay on the bed. No one stays in the room but it’s cleaned daily. On August 17, Indonesia’s Independence Day, Balinese deliver cakes coloured the red and white of the national flag. It’s part of the complex relationship that connects Megawati to Bali and Bali to Indonesia which October 12, and her inability to prevent it, threatens to unravel.
IT didn’t take long for the patrols to start up in Penestenan village, near the cultural retreat of Ubud, one hour north of ground zero Kuta.
But it wasn’t the police or the military on the job. And that was the point. Many Balinese have lost confidence in the ability of the central authorities in Jakarta to protect them, and in their once beloved part-Balinese president, for whom they voted 96% in 1999′s elections, a landslide that propelled her to the presidency last year. Bali is Muslim Megawati’s political heartland and such has been the reciprocal attachment that her political opponents led a whispering campaign that she is a secret Hindu. But there is widespread disgust that Ibu Mega – Mother Megawati – seems to be taking them for granted, appeasing Muslim factions elsewhere in the archipelago and not reining in the Islamists who now seem to have rained terror on Bali. “It’s criminal neglect,” says Made Wijaya, an Australian designer and culture critic once called Michael White who came to Bali 30 years ago and is one of the few foreigners to learn Balinese. “The Balinese are horrified at this,” he says. “It has effected them very deeply.”
And so they’ve retreated to the surety of pecalang, the traditional security of the village banjar, or committee of Hindu elders, where real power resides on Bali. So in villages across the island, a day or so after the bombings, young men in sarongs, black waistcoats, headbands and bearing kris daggers were moving traffic, closely checking village comings and goings. The ethos of the pecalang is persuasion not aggression and, so far, the banjars have dissuaded young hotheads from seeking revenge. But dangerously for Bali’s delicate relationship with a Jakarta desperately trying to avoid becoming Asia’s Yugoslavia, they form the basis of what is essentially a Balinese militia.
That worries people such as Luh Ketut Suryani, one of Indonesia’s leading academics who has seen her island steadily eroded by generations of foreign hedonists. Although gladdened her fellow Balinese didn’t loot shops, trash mosques and kill Muslims as her fellow Indonesians have done elsewhere in recent years, she neverthless believes the bombings were a “good thing”, divine retribution for the louche paradise lost that Bali has become.
“This is the punishment of God,” Suryani told The Bulletin. “We now have prostitution, gambling, paedophilia, drugs, [plans for a] casino. These things are not Balinese …
“It is good for us that Australians will not come to Bali. Our people can go back to their land, to their [rice] padi.”
Ibu Suryani reckons such “pollution” is imported by foreigners, by which she also includes the non-Balinese Indonesians who have flocked to the island since Soeharto’s 1998 ouster and the subsequent collapse of the Indonesian economy. In the past five years, Bali has been Indonesia’s Switzerland. As much of Indonesia burned, Bali has enjoyed a relative boom, becoming the second-richest place in Indonesia after Jakarta, its economic prop and a magnet for jobless non-Balinese.
This has tilted the delicate cultural blend. The guidebooks say Balinese is 95% Hindu, a religious redoubt in the sprawling country’s Islamic sea in which Javanese such as Jemaah Islamiyah’s spiritual leader Abu Bakar Bashir want to place the core of a Muslim superstate stretching from Burma to Timor. But local activist Putu Suasta, who hosts a weekly radio talkback show, reckons the split today is more like 75%-20%-5% Hindu-Muslim-Christian. He notes that Muslim families who’ve arrived on the island since 1998 are more fundamentalist than during the iron-fisted Soeharto’s moderate transmigrasi era. They also have more children – five or six to the two or three of the average Hindu family. “Bali will have a Muslim majority within two generations,” Suasta predicts.
Like the academic Suryani, the radio presenter Suasta would like Bali to turn introspective for a while. He doesn’t want a proposed bridge between Hindu Bali and Muslim Java. He’s angry about the “rape of Bali” at places such as the Bali Golf and Country Club where Hindu temples are hazards (free drop, nearest point of relief) and north-east of Denpasar at the stunning Tanah Lot, probably Bali’s holiest Hindu temple.
Here, Greg Norman turned rice padi into a golf course owned by the Jakarta-based Bakrie family, who then employed the rice-farmers as caddies. The complex is called Nirvana.
Before October 12, the saddest place of many on Bali was Pecatu Graha, a planned extension of the Nusa Dua tourist enclave where Tommy Soeharto (recently jailed for the murder of a Jakarta judge) was given a 650ha Indian Ocean beachfront by his father’s cronies and planned to build a massive condominium, golf and marina complex. An Australian design firm was its master planner, conceiving a Balinese Sanctuary Cove for wealthy foreigners and Indonesians like, well, like Tommy Soeharto.
That was 1996-97, when Soeharto power and corruption was so rampant the first family summoned the Indonesia military to clear 200 families from the site by bulldozing their temples, their fruit farms and their rice padi. Some were given jobs as gardeners, busboys and cultural performers at Tommy’s nearby Bali Cliff Hotel. He still owns the massive complex with its glass lift chute carved into the cliff connecting the hotel to the beach below.
In 1998, the Soeharto regime collapsed, and today, Pecatu Graha is a white elephant. Wind whistles through a dismal cluster of half-built condos and a golf clubhouse with no course. Nearby a temple lies in ruins. The wretched families have returned to their now barren home, earning a living by extracting a pathetic $1 toll from foreign fun-seekers careering down the estate’s potholed road in rented Vitaras to one of the best surfspots in Asia. The beach is called Dream Land.
VIGNETTES from Australia’s – and Indonesia’s – worst terror attack will stay with me forever; the unidentified girl with the purple belly-button ring; the stray cats and dogs lapping at the icy red-black rivulet that streamed from the Sanglah morgue; Qantas’ heartstring-tugging I Still Call Australia Home playing repeatedly on satellite TV in every hotel in Kuta; the bizarre Ray White (We’re All Right) Bali real-estate signs in familiar yellow and black.
Then there was the unclaimed luggage piled high at the Bounty flophouse, where scores of partying guests didn’t make it home; the wreaths of fake frangipani strewn island-wide; the traffic jams caused by myriad mecaru, the Balinese cleansing ceremony; in bohemian Ubud, a poleng – the ubiquitous black-and-white check skirt Balinese enrobe their temples in – symbolically spattered with chicken blood; the grieving family wailing as they repeatedly touched the photos of victims blue-tacked to the impromptu cross at the Australian consulate. This family – Australian wife, Muslim Balinese husband, three mixed-race kids in Islamic headscarves – hadn’t lost anyone. They grieved for hundreds of innocent families, for Bali, for Indonesia and for Australia. They grieved for all of us.