Faiza Mardzoeki

Censorship in Paradise

There is no doubt that Bali is a beautiful place. Lush green rice terraces, created through the hard work of Balinese farmers, bordered by dense coconut palms and frangipani trees.

Along the coast, this is supplemented by wonderful beaches and vast stretches of turquoise seas. Adding to the beauty, lays what Westerners see as a colorful and exotic religious and artistic life.

This has been the foundation for that which defines Bali today: It has become a place where millions of people from outside Bali, mostly from Australia and other like-minded countries, take their vacations.

Millions of holidaymakers go to Bali for leisure and relaxation, for minimal prices, much less than they would pay if they were to travel in their own country.

It is this context that defines much of what happens in Bali, especially happenings that involve foreign holidaymakers — including the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival.

The festival was initiated following the first Bali bomb in order to help revive tourism in Bali. And the initiative has, thus far, worked brilliantly, attracting hundreds of people from outside Indonesia every year to Ubud, helping raise the town’s profile internationally.

I have twice been invited to speak in Ubud, both to present the filmed version of my play They Call Me Nyai Ontosoroh and to address a panel discussing women in literature. It was a very ambiguous experience.

My partner and I were accommodated in luxury hotels, surrounded by the stunning beauty of those rice fields created by thousands of impoverished farmers.

In and around the festival venues are scores of cafes and restaurants serving delicious Indonesian and international food.

Cafes are designed to capture and perpetuate the ambience of Ubud, with beautiful views where possible.

As a holiday experience, it is pleasant. In addition to the food and the views, you can wander from one discussion to another, sometimes these events host famous and interesting writers.

Talks can be on light and diverting topics or serious and intense ones. If one has heard too much, there is opportunity to disappear to an alternative cafe to sit and chat with others who are also taking a break from event activities.

Over the last 10 years, festival organizers have succeeded in attracting high-profile writers, each presenting differences in political opinion, as well as non-political writers, to what has now transformed into an internationally famous festival.

Thus, it was very good news when the festival made the decision to host several sessions as a platform for discussing the controversial events that occurred between Sept. 30 and Oct. 1, 1965 and the subsequential mass killings of alleged leftists.

In 2014, in Jakarta, I had presented Nyanyi Sunyi Kembang Genjer (The Silent Song of The Genjer Flowers) a play I had written about the sufferings and struggle of women who had been imprisoned, tortured and abused as part of that purge of the Left.

Promoting a humane public discussion of these events was very important to me. Indeed, many groups, individuals, lawyers, artists and activists have become increasingly active around these issues over the last few years, including survivors themselves.

This was due to climax this year, the 50th anniversary.

Lawyers and activists will also launch the International Peoples Tribunal in The Hague, the Netherlands, in November.

Both part of the official program as well as at fringe events, the issue had also recently been taken up by the organizers of Frankfurt Book Fair, where Indonesia had been the featured country. A number of other events are planned.

To have the issue highlighted at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival would have been another positive development.

However, the program got caught in the contradictions of Bali’s tourism existence and the ambiguities of the government’s passivity.

Local police in Gianjar regency applied pressure on organizers to drop the sessions, placing the whole festival under threat of being banned, this year and in the future.

[…] there is also a responsibility, despite tourism, to take up issues of national and local importance.

Organizers caved in and withdrew all sessions with “65” in its title or blurb.

Such pressure should not have been a surprise as harassment of activities connected to discussion of 1965 had been regular over the past several years.

While the President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo government has not initiated any tightening of censorship, it has not sent any signals that it has approved a relaxation of censorship.

Subsequently, local authorities feel free to act in a repressive manner, especially when there is some local support for such repression.

Among the many people, including myself, who have worked hard to raise the issue of the mass killings and repression, there has been great disappointment at the festival’s easy surrender on the issue.

Of course, we can understand one aspect of this failure to stand strong. Essentially, the festival is an event providing an interesting and relaxing leisure activity for holidaymakers — it was not designed to promote any specific political or cultural issue. It is defined by the holidaying character that has been developed in Ubud, one that can tempt us all.

That there might be productive discussions on serious issues is a positive side-effect. Even with the cancellation of the sessions, there were discussions of “65”.

Activists held side events in defiance of the police.

However, the repression and mass killings of 1965 remains the biggest issue of humanitarian
concern and justice in Indonesian history.

Winning an open discussion of those events, especially in the face of the official state version of
events that has been upheld to this day and in the face of hostility from some more conservative elements of state and society, has been, and still is, a matter that requires real campaigning and a very serious commitment.

When the festival decided to hold and promote sessions on 1965, they were duty bound to also adopt that seriousness and campaigning stance.

Yes, such a commitment would be in contradiction to the tourism context of the festival — but surely the organizers realized that from the outset? The tourism context has always been a source of tension. It has meant that the language of the festival has always been English, with the result that sessions on Indonesian literature in the local language are inevitably side-lined, despite efforts to achieve a better balance.

This tension seemed to be manifested again in the decision to cancel a discussion on the controversy surrounding the construction of a luxury villa complex, on reclaimed land, on the Bali coast.

No doubt the festival pumps money into the local economy and provides some livelihood but, as an intellectual and cultural event, there is also a responsibility, despite tourism, to take up issues of national and local importance.

This is part of contributing to local progress, even when this means seriously confronting censorship.

Source: The Jakarta Post.