Bali Isn't Just A Place For Your Boozed Up Beach Holiday
This time of year is typically a low season in Bali, but with school holidays and cheap flight deals, Australians looking for a beautiful beachside holiday flock anyway.
But beyond the main streets of Denpasar a political fight is brewing which has the power to change the country -- and your holiday.
Last week, thousands of university students took to the streets to protest law reforms and poor governance before being tear-gassed and beaten back by police and security forces. I travelled between Jakarta and Canberra as Indonesia was engulfed in the largest student-led protests since demonstrations in 1998 brought down dictator Suharto -- and I was staggered by the lack of interest here at home.
A series of extraordinarily controversial law changes and additions have been rammed through parliament. These include the crippling of the Corruption Eradication Commission and an overhaul of the Criminal Code, which would see the criminalisation of ‘insulting’ heads of state and curb sexual and reproductive health freedoms.
These changes have spurred mass action by university and high school students across the country. Jakarta is seeing the largest demonstrations, but there are flare-ups across the whole nation, including in Kendari, where two students have been killed.
Protests in Bali have been less confrontational than in neighbouring islands, but the demands of hundreds of students based in the province are the same.
Visitors to Indonesia, most concentrated around Bali, will not be exempt from these law changes. The so-called ‘bonk ban’, a complicated bill to outlaw sex outside of marriage, has been widely covered by foreign media and pointed to as the major motivation for the protests. The Australian government has issued a travel advice caution due to the changes, which have been temporarily halted following the protests, while the Bali provincial government is promising tourists they’ll be safe.
Bali has been a favourite holiday destination for Australians for generations, which has entrenched the view of Bali as a holiday locale rather than a home.
Enjoying a holiday isn’t inherently wrong, but it has to be done sustainably and responsibly with at least an idea that when it’s time for the return flight people will still live there.
Particularly so for Australians visiting Bali, where decades of exploitation and rapid development has squeezed the environment and local communities.
Responsible tourism means cutting down on plastic use and being respectful of local communities, but it should also mean an awareness of what’s happening around us. The average Australian taking their annual leave to enjoy a Bintang beachside shouldn’t be expected to know the ins and outs of complicated legal revisions, and a holiday is certainly not the time to start.
Rather, it’s time to demand better coverage of Indonesia for Australian audiences.
In defence of our media, covering Indonesia is difficult. The country is enormous with more than a quarter billion people spread across an estimated 17,000 islands. Worldwide, the media industry is running on fumes and often the first casualty of tightening budgets is foreign bureaus -- and Indonesia correspondents have become Southeast Asia correspondents.
This forces blunt judgement calls on what is most relevant to Australian readers. A feedback loop has been created out of this in which regional coverage -- and from Indonesia in particular -- is largely Australia-focused because that is what readers are most interested in, while readers are in turn not given an opportunity to develop a demand for deeper focus.
Little room is left for the middle ground between 'Bali tourists gone wild' stories beloved by tabloids and the in-depth analysis which presumes a working knowledge of the Indonesian political context produced by think-tanks and academics.
The sprouts of robust Indonesia coverage are evident. Australian coverage of natural disasters, like last year’s earthquake and tsunami in Palu, and the impact of social media on elections and terror attacks are all proof of the calibre of our media representatives in the country.
Elsewhere, many of the world’s most prominent media organisations, from the Washington Post to the BBC, are recognising the talent of young, bilingual Indonesians, promoting homegrown journalists as the best placed to tell the country’s stories.
We just need to click on it more, skim a little further while waiting in line at Denpasar immigration. Then we can enjoy our margaritas and gado-gado with a little bit more self-awareness.
Don’t stop going to Bali. There’s a reason it has a reputation as the Island of the Gods. But be aware that it’s a home, that it’s part of a country undergoing a dramatic transformation. Bali does not exist to service the tourism industry, the industry exists because of the island’s people.