Bali’s Hindus Protest Against Cultural Cleansing Agenda in Mass Tourism Project

The battle over a controversial land reclamation project in Bali is reaching crisis point, with tens of thousands of Balinese gathering to protest.  They represent a protest movement on a scale not seen in Bali for decades. The Bali Forum Against Reclamation (ForBali) unites young people, politicians, rock stars, environmentalists, academic and religious institutions. Most of all, the project has set alarm bells ringing for the Hindus of Bali, who form a vast majority on the island, but are just 2% of the overall population of 250 million in Muslim majority Indonesia. 

The developer, Tirta Wahana Bali International (TWBI), plans to build artificial islands that would take up almost half of Benoa Bay in south Bali – an area that had enjoyed conservation status until former president Susilo Bambang Yudhyono issued a decree in 2014 shortly before leaving office, which turned it into a zone for ‘revitalisation.’ TWBI’s idea of revitalisation is a $3 billion luxury resort development across four new islands, including villas and apartments, a retail district, a marina and even a cultural theme park. Yet, Benoa Bay sits in the heart of south Bali, sandwiched between the resort districts of Sanur, Kuta and Nusa Dua, where most of the island’s tourism – and wealth – is already concentrated.

Benoa Bay is home to more than 60 natural sites that are sacred to the island’s predominantly Hindu population, as well as 24 temples, some of them located underwater. This has raised concerns within the islands Hindus, some of whom have even threatened a puputan – committing mass ritual suicide – should the project go ahead. Millions of foreigners visit Bali to experience the unique Hindu culture of Bali. With the Bali Bay Reclamation and commercial exploitation of the Bay, the unique culture will be lost and Bali will lose on the tourism front. So, preserving the Benoa Bay and the Balinese Hindu identity should be a matter of pride for all Indonesians.

Besides the obliteration of Hindu sacred sites and heritage, critics are also calling out TWBI on a range of social and environmental issues. Ketut Sarjana Putra, an environmental activist says the new islands would cause flooding on a massive scale. “We already have issues with flooding – that excess water eventually goes out into Benoa Bay, but what happens if the Bay’s capacity is reduced by 700ha?” he asks. According to CI modelling, the flushing capacity of the bay simply won’t be enough. TWBI also claims that the Nusa Benoa project will create 150,000 jobs, but the unemployment rate in Bali as of January 2015 was just 33,661. Meanwhile, rampant development in Bali’s overcrowded south has already led to an oversupply of hotel rooms.  Also, Benoa Bay is home to a large fishing community that earns its livelihood by fishing in the area. Filling up the area with sand will lead to a geographic disaster, and the fisher-folk will lose their livelihood.

Benoa Bay Reclamation, Bali
An artist’s impression of the Benoa Bay reclamation project. (Photo courtesy of ForBali)

The Government’s doggedness to pursue the project, in spite of the lack of socio-economic benefits, is making many Hindus in Bali suspect there is an ulterior agenda behind it all.

Hindu Roots of Indonesia

Indonesia was once a Dharmic nation, and Bali is credited as the last stronghold to safeguard and preserve the ancient Hindu Javanese civilisation. Hindus fled to Bali after the collapse of the Hindu Majapahit Empire in order to escape the Mataram Sultanate’s Islamic conversion. The influence of Hindu thought can still be seen in Indonesia’s coat of arms ‘Garuda Pancasila’, and national motto ‘Bhinneka Tunggal Ika’ (Unity in Diversity).

However, Hindus in Indonesia face discrimination in matters of citizenship, education, and jobs, apathy in budgetary allocations, and Government inaction in face of attacks by Islamic groups.

Is the Goal to Undermine Bali’s Hindu culture?

Bali is known to be a unique community, primarily composed of Balinese Hindus who have preserved, practiced and propagated a Hindu culture for centuries. By opening up the area to crass commercialization, this socio-cultural status will change. With influx of outsiders in the form of workers and permanent residents from outside Bali, the Balinese people may soon become a minority within their home land. The proposed exclusive enclave, precluding public access, would annihilate the source of income for the locals living in the surrounding areas, whose main livelihood is fishing.

There have been attempts in the past too, of bulldozing Bali’s Hindu heritage in the name of expanding tourism opportunities  –

  • Bali Hindus angered by temple tourism plan  (Oct 2013) – The temple of Besakih is the core soul of Bali. Historical discoveries have recorded that it was from here that Maharsi Markandeya started to propagate Hindu Dharma throughout Bali. Besakih is the mother temple in Bali. It comprises rows of temples where God as NIRGUNA BRAHMAN and SAGUNA BRAHMAN is worshipped. This temple also preserves inscriptions about several Balinese clans. A government decision to include the Besakih temple and the volcano upon which it sits on an official list of sites to be developed for tourism – KSPN – National Tourism Strategic Area – upset Hindus of Bali who feared that making the temple into a tourist destination would disrupt their spiritual lives. They feared that big buildings for accommodation and entertainment will be erected, degrading a place they consider holy.
Besakih Temple, Bali
Besakih Temple, Bali
  •  Bali rejects sharia tourism (Nov, 2015) – Protestors from the Cakrawayu organization have rejected sharia tourism being developed in Bali. Bali Governor Made Mangku Pastika has opposed the idea of developing sharia tourism on the Island of the Gods, saying it had the potential to cause discord on the Hindu-majority province. Pastika said that tourism in Indonesia’s most prominent tourist destination was going well just the way it was.

This letter from a Hindu group ‘Ashram Pancali Indonesia’ makes an ardent appeal to Hindus worldwide –

Hindus of Bali need help from their brethren all over the world, especially from Bharat. Hindu Dharma teaches to view and respect God in every animate and inanimate object, and only when such Hindu culture is preserved, will it be possible to preserve the environment and beauty of the Benoa Bay. Do not let Hindu fade away from this world, because Hindu is Dharma (the principle of cosmic order). Hindu is genuine truth, it is our obligation to uphold the existence of Hindu in this world. We shall stand to the last drop of blood to defend truth, because Hindu is Sanathana Dharma, genuine truth.”