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The Asian side of the world

Jean-François Sabouret

Part two. National challenges and their strategies to overcome them

A year after the Bali attacks

Michel Picard

Texte intégral

1November 2003

2On 12th of October, a ceremony was held in Bali commemorating the attack that had cost the lives of 202 people last year, a severe blow to the island, which is well-known for showcasing Indonesia in terms of tourism, in addition to being a Hindu enclave in the largest Muslim country in the world.

3While this commemoration topped the headlines in the Balinese newspapers, its media coverage was minimal in the rest of the country. It was seen more as an Australian event than an Indonesian or even Balinese affair. The attendance of the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, who had travelled to Bali to attend the funeral of 88 of his nationals, pointed out the absence of the Indonesian President, Megawati Sukarnoputri, who thought it unfit to travel, as well as the Governor of Bali, Dewa Made Beratha.

4Analysts assumed that Megawati was afraid that her Muslim political allies were going against her. She was always ready to blame the attacks on an American conspiracy and its Australian accomplices, whose anti-terrorist struggle would only have been the pretext for an attack against Islam. With regard to the regional authorities, their discretion was more due more to the Balinese attitude to death than any political concern. The Balinese had ended their mourning period on 15th November 2002 by organising a solemn purification ceremony that aimed at restoring cosmic order. This was challenged by the attack, and the ceremony served to liberate the souls of the dead from their earthly attachment. In so doing, they had been able to ensure the fateful event and exorcise the trauma from it by integrating their own cultural references into the ceremony.

5Shocked by the horror of the massacre, their first reactions were to question themselves why this had happened. The Balinese had had, of course, neglected their religious obligations to incur the wrath from their gods in this way. In their frantic race for money that tourism was bringing, they had allowed some practices to spread in their island of which morality and religion disapproved – drug, prostitution and paedophilia – particularly in Kuta, the tourist resort hit by the attack. Proof of this was seen in the reactions of the famous medium and Balinese psychiatrist, Luh Ketut Suryani, who pointed the finger at the tourists’ influence for her island’s pollution and for having introduced such strange vices to the Balinese people. It is disturbing to note that these reactions are not so different from the contempt expressed by the perpetrators of the attack who were against the immoral behaviour of the tourists in Bali.

6The fact remains that if the purification ceremony had consoled the Balinese people and had pacified their gods to some extent, it had hardly resolved the problems caused by the attack. At the forefront of the problems was an economy in ruins founded on tourism and the serious social crisis that this ensued. This was a situation that was to worsen in the months following the American war in Iraq, the outbreak of the SARS epidemic and the attack on the Marriott hotel in Jakarta.

7Until then, tourism and activities linked to it account for nearly 40% of Bali’s manpower and provid almost 70% of its GDP. However, if tourism had contributed to the wealth of the island, it was at the cost of worsening social inequalities and regional imbalances, a worrisome degradation of the environment as well as the Balinese expropriation by foreign investors and the elites of Jakarta. Faced with this threat of dispossession, the Balinese shielded their identity, not against the control derived from foreign capital and the capital’s political hegemony, but against the migrants, Javanese people and Muslims, attracted to Bali by its job opportunities. This tension increased after the downfall of President Suharto in 1998, with Islamic radicalism emerging in Bali, along with the politicisation of Islam in Indonesia and the reactions to the Balinese marginalisation of Muslim minorities by the Balinese community.

8Under these conditions, the explosion of inter-religious conflicts following the attack could have been feared, when it was clear that its perpetrators claimed to represent Islam. If this did not happen, it is because of the vigilance shown by the regional authorities, which were quick in stifling any want of revenge from the Balinese people against foreigners. However, behind maintaining a straight face, the politicisation of the Balinese identity became strongly pronounced, while expressing itself more in ethnic terms than religious. The reasons for this are complex. Unable to go into the developments that would stray me away from the subject, I will settle for remembering that if the Balinese declare themselves today as “Hindus” and are recognised as such by the Indonesian Muslims, it has not always been like that.

9Before their island became part of the East Indies, at the beginning of the 20th century, the Balinese did not have a word for “religion”. Unlike a specific domain, their rituals did not function like an identity marker for the Balinese, who were unaware that they were forming an ethnic group. Their collective identity began to come together when they wanted to define themselves as being distinct from both foreign colonisers and other populations in the island. In so doing, the Balinese identified themselves as being a religious minority, the ultimate stronghold of Hinduism that was being threatened by the aggressive expansion of Islam and Christianity, and at the same time, as an ethnic group, characterised by their own traditions.

10After Bali’s integration into independent Indonesia in 1945, their situation became critical, to the point that the Ministry of Religion, controlled by the Muslims, obliged the Indonesian citizens to belong to a religion and to hold a strictly monotheist concept of the divine that was not limited to a particular ethnic group. Consequently, if the Balinese wanted to avoid converting themselves to Islam or Christianity, they had to make changes within their religion in order to be identified officially. For this purpose, the Balinese reformers turned to India, while reintegrating their Indo-Javanese heritage with reference to the dogma and the way in which Islam and Christianity were organised. Their efforts were paid off in 1958, when the “Hindu-Balinese” religion was recognised by the Ministry of Religions.

11By distinguishing themselves from other populations of the archipelago, and from Muslims and Christians in particular, the Balinese have thus defined their ethnic identity under the Balinese version of Hinduism. However, it would not be long before this identification between ethnicity and religion was to be hindered by a double factor. On the one hand, the affiliation of other Indonesian ethnic groups to Hinduism was to dissociate it from the Balinese ethnic identity, and on the other hand, the circulation of diverse devotional movements in the island, inspired by the neo-Hinduism of Indian allegiance, was to provoke a division in the Balinese religious identity.

12Since that which defines them officially as a religious minority does not belong to them anymore by rights, and as their religious identity has become problematic, it is understandable that the reactions of the Balinese people to the Kuta attack be expressed in ethnic terms (Balinese versus Javanese) rather than religious (Hindus versus Muslims). Moreover, the fact that the inter-ethnic conflicts have until now remained stifled in the island is undoubtedly due to the importance of tourism for the wealth of Bali.


Centre national de la recherche scientifique

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