BLASTING RELATIONSHIPS © Duncan Graham 2006
There was a solemn commemoration by Australians in Bali this week to recall the 20 victims of last year’s terrorist bombs. And next week there’ll be a TV documentary to remember the 2002 bomb.
Few Indonesians seem to understand how seriously the Bali bombs have lacerated the Australian psyche.
It’s not just the anguish suffered by the victims and their families. Nor the damage to international relationships. The hurt goes far deeper and the wound remains raw.
For 12 October 2002 was Australia’s 9/11.
Before Islamic terrorists blasted away the lives of 202 people in and around a Kuta nightclub and terribly injuring hundreds more, Bali wasn’t just another good value tropical getaway for people down-under.
It was Australia’s backyard playground, and like most homely surrounds a place where you could take it easy, be yourself, let your hair down. Above all feel safe with your mates. And many of those ‘mates’ were Indonesians.
The booze-soaked Ugly Okker is a Kuta standard. But across the island are scores of small and seldom-sung humanitarian aid projects. These are funded by Australians and others who’ve visited Bali, seen the poverty and hardships, and formed constructive relationships with the locals.
One of the most outstanding is the John Fawcett Foundation which has repaired thousands of cataracts for free, done corrective surgery and is now working on tuberculosis. The money comes from Australian well-wishers, mainly in Rotary Clubs, and who have been seduced by the island.
To Australia’s great credit the response to the 2002 bomb outrage was not George Bush-style revenge, but compassion. Many injured Indonesians were treated by Australian doctors, or in Australian hospitals.
The bomb, which killed 88 Australians, was seen as a huge betrayal of trust. The outpouring of grief was nationwide and prolonged. It was reinforced last year by the three suicide bombers. It just won’t go away.
Proof of the long-term damage can be seen in the Indonesian economy: Tourist numbers down 15 per cent nation-wide this August compared with 2005 – down 25 per cent in Bali, according to official Indonesian figures.
Then there are the results of a poll run by the Lowy Institute for International Relations, a foreign policy think-tank. This found a majority of Australians distrustful of their neighbor, fearful of its military ambitions and ignorant of this nation’s politics.
How could this be when before the bombs 300,000 Australians visited Bali every year, meaning most families had a relative, neighbor or friend who’d been to the island at some time?
A well-worn joke in Australia has tourists angrily rejecting suggestions that they’d visit Indonesia, though happily admitting to regular trips to Bali.
Just a minority move off the island during their stay, and usually to Lombok. Only the dedicated hikers and culture buffs go west into Java to scramble through volcanic scree, or meditate in kratons.
The good news from the Lowy report is that most Indonesians and Australians surveyed say they want to develop closer relationships. How? That’s not identified, but here are two suggestions: Tourism in Java and student exchange.
In an archipelago of more than 13,000 islands (17,000 if you count those which vanish at high tide), around 250 different ethnic groups and a similar number of languages, defining the typical Indonesian isn’t easy.
But statistically that person has to be Javanese and Muslim. Hindu Bali doesn’t represent mainstream Indonesia.
It’s the Javanese Muslims that Australians have to meet and know if there’s to be any blunting of edginess. That requires a huge rethink about the way tourism is managed and promoted. Facilities, infrastructure, training and presentation need a massive overhaul to lift Java into the league of Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand – countries that really welcome visitors, make stays memorable and understand the benefits to the economy.
Spin masters like to remind that around 40,000 Indonesians are being educated in Australia – and each one is a potential goodwill ambassador once they return home.
The flaw here is that according to Australian statistics 80 per cent are Christian, inferring they are probably Chinese fee-paying students, and certainly not Ms or Mr Average Indonesian as defined above.
And how many Australians are studying in Indonesia? Few indeed. Australian University enrolments in Indonesian studies and language are at a record low. Before the bombs some Australian schools had exchange programs with schools in Bali, but travel warnings have shut many ventures.
Although 38 Indonesians died in the 2002 bomb, this country seems to have moved on. Indonesians have had far bigger tragedies to contend with in Aceh and Yogya, but these have been natural disasters eclipsing the bombs.
Australia hasn’t let go – and this Thursday (12 Oct) the world will be reminded yet again with a recreation of the outrage on TV.
For the past 18 months an Australian crew working for a British documentary company has been shooting interviews with survivors in Australia, Indonesia, the US and Europe.
Bom Bali will be telecast worldwide on the Discovery Channel network, and on free-to-air TV in Australia, Britain and elsewhere.
Fortunately the 90-minute film also shows the sufferings of ordinary Indonesians, reminding Australians that they aren’t the only people who grieve. It’s just that the mourning has gone on so long.
With no disrespect to the families whose lives have been ripped apart by religious bigots, maybe it’s time to consider closure. Most of the criminals have been captured and sentenced, so can we please start again so terrorism doesn’t triumph?
May the dead rest in peace, so we who are left in Indonesia and Australia may find peace together instead of maintaining mutual suspicion.
(The Lowy report can be found on www.lowyinstitute.org )
(First published in The Jakarta Post 12 October 2006)