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24 Apr, 2003

Are Balinese Leaders Smarter Than Indian Leaders?

Bali and India share a common historic Hindu heritage. That, unfortunately, is where the similarity ends. When it comes to tourism and preserving the peace, Indian leaders have much to learn from Balinese leaders.

– From the PATA 2003 annual conference in Bali, Indonesia.


Bali and India have much in common — a rich culture and heritage based on a population comprising of a vast Hindu majority, a large Muslim minority and a smattering of other religions. However, Balinese leaders appear to be more intelligent and wise than their Indian counterparts.

A curious comparison? Not quite.

For years, the Hindus and Muslims of Bali have lived in peace and harmony, free of communal or ethnic clashes, leading to a thriving tourism industry. In India, Hindus and Muslims go through periodic conflicts that leave dozens dead, hundreds homeless and a tourism industry lurching from one crisis to the next. The reason: in India, the world’s largest democracy, elected leaders are notorious for fomenting trouble to gain power. In Bali, communal and village leaders do exactly the opposite in order to stave off trouble and maintain the livelihoods of their people. In two consecutive years, PATA has experienced both sides of that difference.

In February 2002, fierce Hindu-Muslim clashes erupted in the Indian state of Gujarat. Some Indian political leaders are widely reported to have played a major role in stirring them up, leading to heightened tensions between India and Pakistan, and the near-cancellation of the PATA 2002 annual conference in New Delhi in April 2002.

Exactly, 10 months later, on October 12, 2002, a misguided Muslim triggered a bomb-blast in Bali, which could well have ignited further clashes and communal violence. However, by the grace of the many Gods that Hindus worship and the single God that Muslims worship, nothing happened. Both Hindu and Muslim leaders went out of their way to ensure peace. Their success allowed Bali to mount a recovery campaign, and for the PATA annual conference to proceed in April 2003.

Once such leader is I. Ketut Supardi, 42, who is both the head butler at the Nusa Dua Beach Hotel and Spa and the headman of a local village. He has worked at the hotel for 20 years. About 50 of his village people work at the same hotel and several hundred at other properties in the Nusa Dua hotel and leisure complex.

He says that after the bomb blast, he and dozens of village-headmen island-wide moved rapidly to tourniquet the potential of added violence by repeatedly emphasising to their people that the bombing was the work of an individual, not a people nor a religion, and that there should be no revenge attacks or recrimination against people who had nothing to do with it. “In our villages, we have people of all faiths,” he said. “There is no problem among us. We told our people not to create more problems as it will only make things worse.”

Indonesia’s Culture and Tourism Minister I. Gede Ardika, himself a Balinese Hindu, played a major role, leading a number of prayer ceremonies offered by representatives of all the religious faiths represented in Bali. A major cleansing ceremony was held at the blast spot to purify the area of evil spirits. A day after the blasts, President Megawati along with her Cabinet rushed to Bali to inspect the scene and visit hundreds of the injured in the hospital.

Added I. Made Sudjana, director of the Tourism Institute of Bali, “There are no problems with Muslims on Bali. We don’t say Muslims were responsible. We say individuals were.”

This simple theme was even echoed by the Hindu guide on a coach full of PATA delegates taking a pre-conference tour. After explaining Bali’s intricate cultural, social and demographic structure, he said, “My religion is not important because we are all the same. We live peacefully, we don’t go hungry because of you, so thank you very much for coming to Bali.”

Says Feisol Hashim, the Muslim owner of a classy Balinese boutique hotel Alam KulKul, “Everybody lives on tourism. The awareness of tourism is greater in Bali than any other part of the country — from the vegetable seller to the general manager. People can’t afford to create problems because everyone suffers.”

As shocked and saddened as anyone, Muslims ensured that they fulfilled their responsibility in contributing to a recovery. Immediately after the blast, before it was even known who was responsible, Muslims living and working in the vicinity were on the scene, helping to evacuate the dead and the injured. Muslim leaders assisted the investigations and joined in the effort to keep heads cool.

Responding for appeals to help by promoting domestic tourism to Bali, thousands of Muslims from all over Indonesia flocked there during the week of the Eid ul Fitri festival, marking the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, which fell in 2002 at the end of November. Some hotels reported attaining occupancies of 80 percent. Then came Christmas and New Year vacations, and people came from Australia. At the end of the PATA conference 2003, the long Easter weekend saw another rush from Australia, Singapore and other neighbouring countries. When it comes to a good holiday, religion is no barrier.

Indeed, spirituality is playing a role in rebuilding Bali. Says I.Gede Rai, former head of the Bali Tourism Development Corporation, “In line with our cultural thinking — we tried to understand what karmic actions had caused such a disaster to occur — and we sought ways to restore balance to all levels — among humanity, among the spirits — especially for those so abruptly departed, to guide them to the heavenly realm — and among the negative spirits of the underworld, which may have inspired such evil.” The Regent of Badung and the Bali Governor have agreed to build a monument at the blast site.

The significance of the peace that followed has perhaps not yet dawned on the people of Southeast Asia. After the initial ‘shock and awe’ of the blast, the battle for hearts and minds swung quickly into place in order to preserve the peace. In his address to the PATA conference, keynote speaker Tommy Koh, Singapore’s former top diplomat at the United Nations, said it was important for the region to avert the much ballyhoed Clash of Civilizations. If he had done his research, he might have discovered that that is exactly what the Balinese did in the first place.

In fact, it appears that some misguided expatriates either living in or visiting Bali are more agitated than the Balinese about the so-called “Muslim connection.” One website devoted to the bomb blast is peppered with jingoistic abuse hurled at ‘terrorists’ specifically and Muslims generally. Another website of an expatriate-owned tour operator lauds Bali for maintaining its Hindu culture and heritage against the “advance” of Islam, implying that the two cannot co-exist.

Underpinning the peace in Bali required no lofty peace conferences, declarations nor resolutions or well-paid speech-makers. In fact, it was followed by another piece of brilliant peace-making, the significance of which also evaded the people of Asia and much of the media, preoccupied as it was at the time by the sabre-rattling over the war in Iraq.

In January 2003, Thai King Bhumibhol Adulyadej single-handedly stepped in to avert a major clash between the two Buddhist kingdoms of Thailand and Cambodia over the burning and looting of the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh. (A full report appeared in Travel Impact Newswire Edition 5 of 05 February 2003.) The tourist literature proclaims the people of the two countries to be friendly and easy-going; the reality is that they are just as prone to violence as anyone else. It was the king’s wise leadership that helped cool tempers and prevented a deterioration.

Indeed, the restraint exercised by all sides in Bali thwarted what could have been one of the bomber’s key objectives — to inflame a wider religious conflict. That itself was a major defeat for terrorism. It showed Asians can draw upon the wisdom and patience preached in their religions to pursue a common good. That is true crisis management.

Whether the political leaders of India, the original birthplace of Hinduism, can similarly see the light is debatable. If they haven’t, they should visit Churchgate, the primary commuter railway station in Mumbai, India’s commercial capital. There, a sign on one of the platforms says simply: “The people will not fight, if the leaders do not.”

The Balinese and the Thais, at least, followed that dictum. The Sri Lankans and Nepalese are heading in the same direction. Those stories are coming up in future editions of Travel Impact Newswire.

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