Thu, 27 Apr 2000

Politics affect art and tourism sectors in Bali

By Degung Santikarma

DENPASAR, Bali (JP): In the tiny village of Peliatan, south of Ubud, Bali, a small artshop has recently been renovated. The gaudy paint and shiny ceramic tiles have been replaced with natural stone and mud-plastered walls in subdued colors.

The wood carvings and canvases offered for sale are no longer stacked in a jumbled mess but have been transformed into an elegant, eye-catching arrangement.

The brochures have been redesigned, and a website is in the works. The employees have been trained to offer their customers genuine Balinese smiles, and to speak appreciatively about the authentic Balinese culture they are selling. Even the sign outside beckoning buyers to enter has been changed. It no longer reads "artshop" and "made to order," but now advertises, in classic calligraphic lettering, "gallery."

But this artshop, like its neighbors, is doing little business.

Despite its strategic location on a main road, the few tour buses speeding past barely slow down for the swarm of small stores that have crowded this stretch of avenue. And even though Wayan Karda, the shop's owner, has invested large sums of money in renovating not only his store but himself, taking lessons in "time management," "positive thinking," and "SWOT" analysis -- the new key words of the Balinese middle class - he has yet to reap the rewards of his efforts.

The new fax machine is standing idle, the new e-mail box is always empty, and the new handphone rings not to announce orders, but to try and collect on his -- by now substantial -- debts.

On this particularly slow morning, Wayan Karda is sitting in front of his store, drinking coffee and chain-smoking in the company of several of his colleagues whose neighboring shops are equally deserted. His face is folded in a frown as he scans the headlines of the local newspaper. Printed on the front page are photographs of students demonstrating against the soaring price of oil, teachers demonstrating against their low wages, and conservatives demonstrating their fear that the Indonesian Communist Party might somehow rise from the dead.

Throwing the newspaper to the ground, he exclaims in disgust, "Politics! It's all politics!"

Seeming to speak more to himself than to the other men gathered around him, he explains that it's politics that is ruining his business. Tourists are afraid to come to Bali now, he says.

"They don't want to see conflict, they want to see a culture that is happy and peaceful," he explains. Gesturing with contempt at the newsprint lying crumpled at his feet, he asks, with a note of hopelessness creeping into his voice, "Aren't they finished yet? There's already a new president and ministers. Megawati has already become Vice President. Gus Dur has already said he's sorry about 1965, and Soeharto has been put under city arrest. When are they going to stop with the politics?"

And Wayan Karda is not alone. All across Bali, especially in those regions where livelihoods have become increasingly dependent upon the tourist dollar, such sentiments are being echoed more and more openly in the streets.

Even those Balinese who once considered themselves die-hard supporters of Megawati and sociopolitical reform, are now frequently heard musing that things seemed better when Soeharto's Golkar party was in power.

According to people like Wayan Karda, "politics" is not about struggling to create a more just and open society. For him and his peers, "politics" is identical to chaos, confusion, disorder, violence, burning buildings, sharp weapons, and a kick in the side from a booted foot.

And because Bali is a tourist destination and the Balinese themselves have become tourist dependent, "politics" in Bali has become synonymous with diminishing cash flow, falling occupancy rates, desperate street vendors, depressed craftsmen, striking hotel workers, family conflicts and postponed rituals.

But if people like Wayan Karda are becoming increasingly anti- political, their position is far from politically neutral. Searching for a space free of politics, they are in fact reproducing strategies of social containment and control perfected by the previous Indonesian state regime.

Seeking to ensure its power, the New Order redefined "politics" as something inherently negative and anti-national, the source of social disruption and communal disintegration. The state attempted to define itself not as a political institution, but as the protector of the people against politics, and the chaos and confusion that allegedly accompanied it.

Even the official state party, Golkar, was termed a "golongan karya," or "functional group," not a "partai politik," or political party, the name reserved for the officially permitted opposition groups. And the New Order backed up this ideology not only with rhetorical redefinitions, but with constant references to the moment of its birth: in 1965, when hundreds of thousands were killed following an alleged Communist coup attempt.

Death and destruction, the state warned, were sure to follow if people were to engage in politics again.

And in Bali, these social sanctions against "politics" have remained in place, even in the post-New Order era. Over the past three decades, Bali has become the nation's most famous tourist destination, a showcase for calm and tranquility. As the one place in Indonesia that has been most welcoming to the West, Bali needed to project a positive image, an image that was both exotic and safe. Art and peace and smiles and sunsets were what would brought foreign exchange, not demonstrations or campaigns or social critiques.

People like Wayan Karda, seeking to make a living in an increasingly difficult world, were given a new modern mantra by Balinese officials: act like you're happy, and happiness will surely follow. "Positive thinking" became official policy.

This redefinition of politics in Bali required, however, that the island's history be selectively rewritten to stress safety, harmony and tranquility. As a new "traditional Balinese culture" was created and marketed by cultural tourism promoters, Bali's past needed to be cleansed of its more troublesome aspects, including its violent history of warring kingdoms and colonialism, and its conflicts between castes and classes.

Even the traditional stories from the Ramayana and Mahabrata needed to be revised, the battle scenes cut and the love scenes lengthened for the tourist stage. And ironically, in order to attract tourism, Bali has also needed to distance itself from its history as part of the Indonesian nation. Despite the fact that contemporary "Balinese culture" is very much a product of the past thirty-five years of state policy, many Balinese have felt that in order to continue to attract foreign funds they must convince Westerners that the troubles brewing in places like Jakarta, Ambon or Aceh have nothing to do with them.

The tourists come with desires of their own -- to escape the problems in their lives.

And so Wayan Karda sits and smokes, waiting for the tour buses to stop, waiting for an end to politics. Or, perhaps, for politics to be remade into a part of everyday life and struggle, a way out of silence... a way to work for a better future.