Surfers have always gone to Bali looking for sparkling barrels, but pull back the curtain and you’ll find a much darker past.
When I first came to Bali more than 40 years ago, we surfers padding around the dusty laneways of Kuta looking for chicks and drugs, and catching bemos out to the deserted Bukit, were blissed out by the Balinese, believing them to be the friendliest, most affectionate and peaceable people we had ever encountered. They had nothing, but they were content. They were what we aspired to.
We had no idea that a handful of years earlier death squads had roamed from village to village slaughtering people with guns and machetes, or marching them to cliffs and ravines and beheading them before pushing the bodies over. The blood in the squares of Denpasar, Tabanan and Klungkung had barely dried when we got there, but we never knew.
The bloodbath that began in October 1965, known variously as the 30 September Movement, GESTAPU and the year of living dangerously, resulted in a million deaths along the Indonesian archipelago, almost 100,000 in Bali alone. But with a population of less than three million, the impact of this genocide on Bali was dreadful. Every family knew other families whose members had been disappeared by the death squads.
The extended clip below opens with the tragedies of the Bali bombings, but eventually delves into the attrocities committted under the Suharto regime in the 1960s.
My friend Dick Lewis was a child growing up in Klungkung where his missionary parents gave shelter to people being hunted by the death squads. He vividly recalls the stench of fear on one man who staggered into their home one morning. By afternoon he was dead.
GESTAPU was basically a killing spree of retribution that ushered in the Suharto era. Suharto was the one key general who escaped assassination on Java on the night of 30 September, and on his way to the presidency, he engineered the stamping out of communist (PKI) sympathisers and cronies who were held responsible for the assassinations. But the violence quickly escalated, and within weeks all manner of old scores – about land, women, water, football matches, gambling debts, anything – were settled without consequence by claiming that the victim was a communist.
When the international airport opened in 1969, and the surf tourists began to arrive in small groups, and soon in droves, virtually no Balinese family had been untouched by these shocking events, they were brutal and vivid recent memories, but they were never spoken of. Half a century on, only the village elders remember what really happened, but GESTAPU is still never spoken of, nor is it taught as history in schools.
At the 2015 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival about half a dozen talk and film sessions were de- voted to the 50th anniversary of this hidden slice of Indonesian history, but at the last minute the supposedly progressive Jokowi government gave the organisers an ultimatum – drop the sessions or lose your event permit. Faced with financial ruin if the festival failed to proceed, founder Janet De Neefe had to submit to this outrageous censorship.
But GESTAPU was discussed, of course, as was the rationale behind the censorship. Why is Indonesia’s power elite so frightened of the realities of history? Some said that the decision was made by local flunkies on Bali, without reference to Jakarta, but what you hear a lot these days on Bali is that people are so disappointed with the lacklustre leadership of Jokowi that they long for a return to the Suharto era. They can’t really mean that, of course – Suharto’s departure at the height of the Asian financial crisis of 1998 coincided with financial ruin for many Balinese – but certainly Suharto would not have allowed any kind of remembrance of the 1965 bloodbath.
So what does all of this have to do with surfing? In a sense, nothing. In another sense, everything. In Bali, I spend time with silver surfer buddies who are totally attuned to movements of swell, wind and tide, and rarely miss an epic session, but who lead other lives involved in human rights issues and conflict resolution. In Indonesia, practically everywhere we surf, the issues of 1965 continue. There are human rights violations every day, from sex trafficking to simple domestic violence.
There are no easy answers here, but those of us who came here to surf and learned to love this place, do what we can, as often as we can.