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At the end of February 2016 Wendy and I took a package deal to visit Bali.  These days almost everyone knows that Bali is a smallish island off the east tip of Java in the Southern Indonesian archipelago, just south of the equator.  Longitudinally it's just to the west of Perth, not a huge distance from Darwin.  The whole Island chain is highly actively volcanic with regular eruptions that quite frequently disrupt air traffic. Bali is well watered, volcanic, fertile and very warm year round, with seasons defined by the amount of rain.


Bali Bali2
Bali3 Bali4

Aspects of Bali


I had not been to Bali since 1973 and it has changed remarkably.  Back then Bali was low on the tourist agenda and the only tourists we saw there were fellow travellers from the ship we were on - the P&O steamship Orion, on our way from Sydney to Singapore.  There was no wharf for cruise ships, so we moored in jungle lined harbour where there was a small jetty and used the ships boats to come and go. We were the biggest thing to hit the island for some days or perhaps weeks.  A collection of motorbikes with side cars and what are today generically called tuk-tuks met each boat arrival and took us off to see temples and to Ubud and Denpasar where chooks (chickens) ran in the street and colonial buildings decayed. 

The main local tourist oriented enterprise, apart from the motorbike guys, were perfume sellers who each had several litres of each popular scent on a little wagon that they decanted into smaller bottles when a selection was made: 100 ml of Chanel No5 - that will be $5.  At Ubud we bought a primitive carving of a fertility god that was given the name Ubud and went the rounds of friends who thought it might help in their quest to fall pregnant.  Like a borrowed book, eventually Ubud was no longer returned but is out there still, either gathering dust or having his/her belly stroked by another generation.

Suddenly here, the culture was Hindu blended with pre-Hindu animist religion.  There was also a smattering of Muslim Indonesian officials and a few European expats to make things a bit more complicated.  We didn't know much about anything. We took some photos that I can no longer find of tablecloth clad statues.  But my memory of a rainforest interspersed with rice paddies serviced by narrow roads and inhabited by charming small dusky people who seemed to have a great deal of time on their hands for what seemed to be endless religious parades, festivals and observances.   Back in 1973 the total population was less than half that of that today and to naive travellers like us it was an apparent paradise.  Yet appearances are often deceptive, as you will read later.  Less than a decade earlier those same rainforests ran with blood of one of the greatest mass murders of the century and in 1963 the screams of those killed by volcanic pyroclastic flow, similar to that which destroyed Pompeii, echoed down these valleys. 





Before tourism Bali was agrarian with the main crop being rice, although Dutch introduced cash crops, like coffee and cocoa, and spices, like cinnamon and cloves, grow well. 

In the 1930's Bali enjoyed brief fame as an exotic and beautiful location and in 1949 a song Bali Hai figured in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific, that was made into a popular film in 1958.  The song was subsequently covered by the likes of: Bing Crosby; Peggy Lee; Frank Sinatra; and Andy Williams.  The musical makes it plain that the island referred to is not Bali at all but Ambae island in Vanuatu, where author James Michener was stationed in World War II.  Nevertheless it was named for Bali, that henceforth became a mythic place.

In 1975 the actual Bali was promoted in the French softcore erotica movie Emmanuelle 2, staring Silvia Crystal, that, in the days before the X rating, was as about as raunchy a movie as one could see on general release.  There was a series of these films, that while not exactly Star Wars, spoke to the zeitgeist of their time and did very well at the box-office.  I remember seeing the first one, that opened to packed cinemas, in London.  Bali looked very inviting during an English winter.  The movies are still regularly repeated on World Movies (on cable).  

Tourism began to takeoff after the completion of an international passenger terminal in 1978, fuelled by the advent of inexpensive air travel.  Back in 1973 Bali received just over a thousand tourists, like us, a week.  It now receives, on average, eight times that number every day.  This vast influx of tourists is now by far the island's largest industry, accounting for around 80% of the local economy.  There has been an obvious flow-on to the economy in general so during this time the population has more than doubled, to nearly four and a half million today. But the fastest growing sector of the population has been the urban middle class that has grown many times over.

Of course in 1973 accommodation for a thousand or so tourists was mainly in guest houses and mountain lodges.  Most tourists came by ship and stayed on board so there were no multi-storey first class hotels or resorts with palatial grounds, and four or five swimming pools, like the The Haven Bali Seminyak, nor did it occur to the average tourist to spend their day on a beach.  That was left to a few die-hard 1960's surfers, backpacking the world in search of the perfect wave. 

Maybe there are times when this mythic wave appears at Kuta or Seminyak but in February 2016 it seemed very elusive.  I've seen bigger waves at Balmoral in Sydney Harbour when the swell is up.  And the sand is a lot cleaner at Balmoral.  


Seminyak beach1 Seminyak beach
Seminyak beach Seminyak beach

Seminyak beach


Nevertheless, I'm assured that from time to time the beaches are worth a visit, even for a Sydneysider.  Apparently regular travellers recommend taking your own boogie-board, although that has become less lucrative since Indonesian customs officials began noticing unusual weight or sponginess in the bag, even when the owners were apparently oblivious to the unusual shape or weight that their bag had acquired.

There is a special hotel on the island that provided long term accommodation for such oblivious travellers.


Long term accommodation for the oblivious


Nowadays there is a tourist strip from Seminyak to Kuta and of course Denpasar, the capital.   There is another Tourist hot spot around Ubud and lesser but perhaps more up-market places around the coast, away from the decidedly down-market Kuta. 

Other tourist attractions range from the hedonistic to the bizarre, like coffee that has been through the gut of a civet.  This is not an industry native to Bali but has been introduced from Sumatra as a tourist attraction and there are many well trodden sites that extract payment for 'free' samples if tourists fail to buy coffee, spices or some knickknack in their retail outlet. 

One can only imagine who was the first person to think of grinding up civet-poo for use as a beverage.  It is said to have happened after the Dutch introduced coffee growing to Sumatra and planters prevented the local labourers from taking the berries.  But these were eaten by the Asian Palm Civet, native to Sumatra, and the beans were defecated, allowing the workers to gather the poo and make their own brew.   Soon their brew became so sought after that the civet was introduced to other coffee plantations like those in Bali, Java and Sulawesi.  In Bali the coffee sells for around ten times that of normal coffee a kilogram but this price goes up fourfold in gourmet shops in the US and Europe.  This is a good thing as the ordinary coffee we tasted at these places was both more expensive than the Arabica available in Sydney and not as good.


Coffee Cherries Civets
Unhappy Civet Civet Poo
Roasting coffee Putting Tourists to work

Kopi Luwak Coffee - Civet Pooed Coffee beans
This is a tourist showcase.  The actual commercial production is intensive agriculture, like caged chickens, and is controversial.
The kittens can be stroked but the adults become wild and the civet, centre left, was cowering from me.
The elderly lady is roasting coffee the traditional way.  Wendy helped.


With rampant tourism has come economic progress and a big end of town with up-market retail together with many less innocent charms; sex tourism among them like the 'Kuta Cowboys', local gigolos servicing foreign female tourists, in addition to the usual female prostitutes, who abound.  There are of course numerous bars selling the local and imported beers in addition to cocktails, particularly during happy hour, that in the sign below you may read extends from 4 til 7, when drinks are two for one. 

Food is relatively inexpensive but you get what you pay for.  Balinese food features pork obviously not common elsewhere in predominantly Muslim Indonesia but not beef, although beefburgers are available in tourist areas. Chicken, fish and rice are universal. Fruit juices are popular and very good when supplemented with 'special water'.  The local beer is fine and almost essential to replace the litres of sweat that I tend to exude in this sort of climate.  There is also a passable local wine but imported wines are very expensive.  Breakfast in the hotel was excellent but the best local restaurant out of the many we tried was Greek.  Lunch in the countryside was pleasant in places that are particularly set up to cater to tourists being driven around, albeit with a premium service charge and hidden commissions to the drivers.  But as I'm never tired of explaining, I have trouble with chilli, so maybe I didn't get to try the so-called 'best'. 


Seminyak Hotels Seminyak beach

Countryside Restaurant and Seminyak Hotels


In place of a decaying colonial town of 1973, Denpasar is now a high-rise city with a conventional suburban area extending for miles. Likewise the small village of Ubud has grown to a substantial town where dozens of hotels jostle for space and the markets have grown tenfold. 


Ubud1 Ubud
Ubud Ubud
Ubud Ubud

Almost every stall in Ubud and in other markets, even at temples, sells wooden penises.
Who is buying them?


While the local people are still predominantly engaged in agriculture, most of the entrepreneurial growth had been by foreign investors and immigrants so that when local parades are held and women place offerings in little square handmade baskets around the streets they seem to be more tolerated by the merchants and street touts than encouraged.  Unlike India, the streets are relatively clean, except for little offerings on top of anything that doesn't move; the streams are unpolluted by garbage; and there are no assertive cows wandering around claiming ownership.

Tourist visitation is variable with the season, so that in in order to handle the peak there is an oversupply in the rainy season.  In February when we went, much of the top end accommodation is vacant.  Thus a luxury resort hotel for a week with full buffet breakfast, free internet and so on was packaged with airfares, for the cost of a couple of nights in the Canberra Hyatt.  The downside to this was that on two separate days we hired a driver to go into the mountains and on both occasions visibility was poor.  It poured so heavily on one of these days that roads became flooded on our return journey. 


Mountain Rain Mountain Rain
Rain Rain

Rainy Season


When something happens, such as a volcanic eruption or a terrorist night-club bombing, to damage the Tourist trade, the whole Indonesian economy suffers.

Bali has two active volcanoes, Mount Agung and Mount Batur.  In February and March 1963 Mount Agung erupted killing around 1900 villagers in pyroclastic flows (very hot gasses entrained in and rock or ash) and lahars (subsequent mud flows due to rain).  More recently, in 2000, Mount Batur erupted and for a period continued to sustain minor explosions, becoming a tourist attraction.  Although it is now quiet, it was on our schedule but we were unable to see it due to fog and rain. Nevertheless the mountains are an excellent place to escape the oppressive heat of the strip, that combined with the incessant noise of motorbikes weaving between stop start cabs and trucks, make many of the streets in the built-up areas quite unpleasant to walk in. The countryside remains quite beautiful in a rainforest - rice paddy sort of way.  And as it is on the other side of the Wallace Line, distinct in terms of flora from the rainforests of Northern Australia or New Guinea.





Bali is renowned for its unique temples that echo those in Cambodia but are generally on a smaller scale.  The small ones are very numerous.  One of the largest is set in extensive gardens and is adjacent to a royal palace in the Badung Regency.


Pura Taman Ayun Temple - 15 km North of Denpasar


This one was not terribly exciting on the day we visited, the main action being preparing little baskets for offerings, but at Tirta Empul Temple the following day there was a lot more colour and movement.

Tirta Empul Temple (Tirta Empul means Holy Spring in Balinese) is near the town of Tampaksiring. Here Balinese go to for ritual purification. The temple pond is fed by a spring, which delivers holy or amritha water. The occasional enthusiastic westerner gets in and gets purified too, even if they are not Hindu and have no idea what is going on.  It's like a Hindu lining up to receive the Eucharist in a Christian Church.  Some people assume it's OK for a westerner to join in with anything. 

In 1973 Brenda fell foul of the local dress rules one of the temples, despite having earlier returned to the cabin to put on a shirt after her bikini had been judged to be excessively revealing by someone on the boat. This seemed odd when venturing into a climate in which as little as possible seemed to be the most comfortable and sensible mode of dress.  As it turned out the shirt was superfluous and so was the bikini top.  The Balinese culture is accepting of bare breasts.  It's bare thighs that offend, presumably due to their sexual connotations.  Thighs should remain covered in public and particularly in a temple.  This was the first time that either of us had experienced a dramatically different culture or our unwitting propensity to offend. 

But nowadays skimpy beachwear and bare legs are everywhere in the tourist areas, so I suppose the locals have to look the other way.  I certainly found some of the tattoos remarkable.


Tirta Empul Temple (Puru Tirtha Empul) dedicated to Vishnu - pretty wet in or out.
The Villa on the hill overlooking the temple with the cool bridge was built for President Sukarno's visit in 1954
It's currently used as accommodation for important guests of the Government.


As I have said, in 1973 Bali looked like a paradise.  But I have since discovered that there is a royal family, descended from the Majapahit Empire that, despite having no constitutional role in the Indonesian version of democracy, still holds sway.  In 1965 the Hindu caste system was violently reinforced, as described below, so the caste system has continued to keep everyone in their place to this very day.

According to Wikipedia the four castes of Bali are:
  • Shudras – peasants making up more than 90% of Bali's population.
  • Wesias (Vaishyas) – the caste of merchants and administrative officials.
  • Ksatrias (Kshatriyas) – the warrior caste, it also includes some nobility and kings.
  • Brahmins – holy men and priests.





If you have little or no interest in the history of Colonisation you may want to skip the next, more contemporary, section.  There are no pictures in this section but then again, you might find my spin on it interesting.  If you want to object to something I've said, please feel free to make a comment below.


In the dreamtime, for thousands of years before the Europeans took an interest, people in South East Asia got on with their lives in much the same way as Australian Aborigines and New Guinea highlanders did until recently: enjoying nice days and huddling against those less pleasant; hunting and gathering and sowing and reaping; and dancing; and having sex and babies; and making weapons and fighting neighbouring tribes as a kind of sport to relieve boredom or as an opportunity to dress-up or to seize food or shelter or in satisfaction of some slight or sexual dalliance.  Spirits imbued the land and rocks and trees and animals with mystical properties and those of dead ancestors still inhabited the dark places, sometimes bringing disease or natural disasters. 

The equatorial regions were rich in a vast array of unusual plants, insects and animals. Among these were plants that had evolved a range of strategies to protect themselves from predators or to exploit them to breed.  And some of these turned out to have interesting flavours and aromas; the ability to extend the life of food; to treat fabrics; or to have interesting medicinal properties.

Europeans first heard of Indonesia as a mythical place, even before Magellan, when Arab traders first came to Java in search of spices. At that time several of these spices were worth much more than their weight in gold in Europe. For example, pepper was relatively inexpensive, by weight, compared to say cinnamon or nutmeg, a reputed aphrodisiac.  In 1500 you could buy about 1.6 grams of pepper for a ducat.  A ducat contained 3.545g of pure gold, thus pepper was worth twice its weight in gold, making a shipload of pepper twice as valuable to a trader as a shipload of gold bullion.  Several other spices were even more valuable.

In 1494, the Spanish Pope Pope, Alexander VI, divided the trading and colonizing rights for all newly discovered lands of the World, between Portugal and Castile (later applied between the Spanish Crown and Portugal) to the exclusion of other European nations. 

Initially this Treaty of Tordesillas favoured Spain but the next Pope Pope, Julius II, was Portuguese so in 1506 God changed his mind and moved this line of possession 1907 km west, enabling Portugal to claim the coast of Brazil and ultimately the whole modern country.

Meanwhile, the other demarcation line crossed unknown territories on the opposite side of the world and remained shadowy as there were few reliable maps available to Rome. So, in 1529, the Treaty of Zaragoza arbitrarily drew the other line through almost unknown territory.  It happens to pass through Eastern Russia, right through Japan and New Guinea and across Eastern Australia.  This gave Portugal the rights to the strategic straights of Malacca and Maluku Islands or the Moluccas, that came to be known as the Spice Islands, situated north of Timor and west of New Guinea.  The Spanish got most of the new world gold but given the relative price of gold and spices the Portuguese got the better deal.  As a result the agreement was reneged upon by Spain when it sized the Philippines (that were indisputably in the Portuguese zone).  Hostilities broke out for a period but these were resolved by further Divine intervention and a Royal marriage, so Spain got to hold on to the territory. 

The Treaty of Tordesillas says that henceforth all these heathen lands are 'owned' by either Portugal or Spain. So you might ask, what does 'owned' mean?  A papal bull, Romanus Pontifex, written by Pope Nicholas V to King Afonso V of Portugal in 1454 had already made this clear. 

The Pope instructed King Alfonso to: invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to apply and appropriate to himself and his successors the kingdoms, dukedoms, counties, principalities, dominions, possessions, and goods, and to convert them to his and their use and profit -- by having secured the said faculty, the said King Alfonso, or, by his authority, the aforesaid infante, justly and lawfully has acquired and possessed, and doth possess, these islands, lands, harbours, and seas, and they do of right belong and pertain to the said King Alfonso and his successors.


Usurpation and conversion would go hand-in-hand.  And the slave trade would become a world-wide industry.  Rather annoyingly for those seeking profit before souls, Catholic missionaries followed quickly on the heels of the conquerors and soon local people found that they could give themselves some protection against arbitrary murder and slavery by accepting Jesus as their saviour.

That there were pre-existing Empires in these regions was neither here nor there, the Portuguese and Spanish had the ships and guns and decades of experience fighting Saracens (Muslims) at home, the pre-existing empires would pose little resistance. 

Needless to say the Treaties and the authority they purported to endow on the two Catholic Powers were soon to be repudiated by England; France; Germany; and after its liberation from Spain, the Dutch. These predominantly Protestant countries, and later the United States, set about taking the territories thus granted by Rome away from Spain and Portugal; generally by force of arms.  The Spice Islands, in particular, became a battleground between the Portuguese and the Dutch and later the British.  A bit later still the Philippines became a battleground between Spain and the USA, along with a number of other Spanish possessions. 

Although Protestant missionaries were just as fervent as their Catholic forbears the moneymaking was now privatised.  British, French, Dutch and German trading companies brought technology and raised local armies and negotiated trade deals in the interest of their shareholders.  Unlike Spain and Portugal they had no constitutional commitment to converting the heathen and were quite happy to deal with and support a local Prince no matter what his religion. Thus the pre-existing religions prevailed in their colonies, whereas in Timor and the Philippines, in particular, Roman Catholicism was forcibly imposed at the point of a gun. In Java, Malaysia and much of Indonesia, Islam was not only tolerated but was strengthened by the various trade deals and even military support to ruling families. Elsewhere, as in India, the Hindu religion benefited, while Buddhism was supported in much of Indochina.  Of course if any of these rulers who benefited from the trade deals stepped out of line they got slapped-down very quickly.

So what has this to do with Bali? 

Much pre-European history in South East Asia has been the stuff of myth and legend.  But now archaeologists and anthropologists are recovering lost or distorted stories handed down by epic poem or word of mouth.  The pre-existing indigenous populations had long been dominated and exploited by an upper-class of kings and princes that has variously originated from the North: from China; India and Arabia, in much the same way as was Britain after the, almost contemporary, Norman Conquest. 

There is evidence that the Hindu religion was present in Java from around 200 BCE and there was a Tamil presence in Malaya.  The advent of the Mughal empire in India caused a new wave of migration of Hindus to Sumatra and by the 13th century the kingdom of Java was Hindu.   That these early conquerors came from India to rule Java is supported by both cultural and DNA analysis in Bali. 

In 2005 a group of scientists from the University of Arizona led by Tatiana M. Karafet traced the Y-chromosomes of 551 Balinese men to assess the genetic contributions of Pre-Neolithic Hunter- Gatherers, Austronesian Farmers, and Indian Traders to the Balinese population.  They pointed out that the island of Bali has served as a stepping-stone for early migrations of hunter-gatherers to Melanesia and Australia and for the more recent migrations of Austronesian farmers from mainland Southeast Asia to the Pacific.  During the last ice age sea levels were much lower and a determined traveller could have walked here from England. I've discussed these Neolithic and pre-modern hominid migrations elsewhere on this website: When did people arrive in Australia? 

Bali is the only Indonesian island with a population that currently practices the Hindu religion and preserves various other Indian cultural, linguistic, and artistic traditions and this had led to the hypothesis of recent paternal gene flow from the Indian subcontinent. The researcher's set out to test this theory.  The ancestry of these Balinese men was compared with a much larger Y-chromosome dataset from the region.  It was found that three waves of migration of Austronesian speakers account for nearly 83.7% of the population while approximately 12% originate in India and 2.2% of contemporary Balinese Y chromosomes may represent the pre-Neolithic component of the Indonesian paternal gene pool (ie related to Australian Aborigines and New Guinea Highlanders on their migration South).

We could guess that the Y-chromosome lineages correspond roughly to the Hindu caste system in which the Sanskrit using upper class correspond to the remnants of the Hindu Majapahit Empire and the 83% correspond to the current Shudras - peasants - who today make up more than 90% of Bali's native population. 

Who were these Majapahits? 

Reasonably reliable Chinese sources record that  in 1293 a fleet of a thousand ships was sent by the Yuan Dynasty Emperor Kublai Khan to punish King Kertanegara of Java for failure to pay tribute to China.   It is interesting that one website represents this as a Muslim Mongol attack, yet the court of Kublai Khan was polytheistic and favoured Buddhism.  By various complex means, too detailed to relate here, this superior force was foiled by the Hindu kingdom (see Wikipedia) and Java then embarked on a period of conquest, briefly controlling as far north as modern day Malaysia and Singapore.

Thus between the 13th to the 16th centuries the Hindu Majapahit Empire dominated much of what is to day modern Indonesia, before a series of defeats forced them to shrink back to Java.  Bali was the first kingdom conquered by the Majapahits and the longest lasting. 

Final defeat of the Majapahits came at the hands of the Sultanate of Demak that had been set up by Arab Traders in Java.  Following an ill advised Majapahit request for Portuguese assistance against Demak interests in 1498, a large number of courtiers, artisans, priests, and members of the Hindu royal family fled from Java to Bali.  With the consequent fall of Majapahit on Java the remaining Hindu populations moved either to Bali or to the Tengger mountains in East Java.

After the Dutch and British defeated the Portuguese during the Spice Wars.  The Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 ceded Malacca to the British and British interests in Java to the Dutch.

Fast forward to the Second World War. 

After Pearl Harbour bombing in 1942 the Japanese declared war and allied themselves with the Axis powers. They very quickly overran Malaya, Singapore the Philippines and the Dutch East Indies where there was a young firebrand architect called Sukarno who was bitterly opposed to Dutch colonialism and who, like Ghandi in India, decided that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.  The British were able to lock Ghandi up for the duration and similarly the Dutch were holding Sukarno and his family on a remote island in exile.  The Japanese promptly released him.  Although the Dutch held out for some time they were in no position to resist both the Japanese and an internal rebellion and the Japanese soon controlled most of Indonesia.  When you visit the allied graveyards on the Burma Railway in Thailand you will find that the Dutch graves are among the most numerous. 

Australia seemed to be the next likely port of call for the Japanese.  But first they had to complete their defeat of the US Navy and to win the land battle in New Guinea, where the natives were on our side. They managed to do neither, in the second case due to the efforts of men like Wendy's father who's wartime memoir A Digger’s Tale is on this website.





For much of my childhood Sukarno was seldom out of the news.  His mother was Balinese and The Sukarno Center in Bali that is perhaps the most interesting thing to see there, unless you are excited by temples and people engaged in impenetrable religious rituals; or perhaps being pampered by masseurs, pedicurists or prostitutes; or pondering the human condition while perspiring in primitive bars; or purchasing wooden penises; or persuing a perfect wave.


The Sukarno Center The Sukarno Center

The Sukarno Center


Sukarno was caught between two religions.  His mother was Hindu but his first wife had some ridiculous idea that one should be monogamous so he divorced her and took another eight, in addition to sowing a few wild oats.  He seems to have become a devout Muslim.  His non-Muslim wives, who included a Japanese, were required to convert and he attended the Hajj.


Sukarno's Nine Wives
Sukarno's Nine Wives


During the war he was allied to the Japanese for whom he organised local labour and food and he was accepted as the de-facto leader of Indonesia.  Indonesian independence was promised but before this could be made law the American A-Bombs secured Japan's unconditional surrender in August 1945.  Sukarno was immediately pressed by more radical elements to declare independence, which he did two days after the Japanese surrender on 17 August.

But the Dutch had local supporters among Europeans, Chinese, Christians and the native aristocracy and there was a wartime Dutch East Indies government-in-exile in Brisbane.  Civil war broke out during which large numbers of those opposed to independence were slaughtered by mobs who had obtained weapons from the defeated Japanese.  At the same time the United States, under General MacArthur, passed responsibility for Indonesia to the British, under Lord Mountbatten of Burma (Prince Charles's great uncle). 

Mountbatten began to facilitate the return of the Dutch including released POW's and elements of the Dutch army.  This was fiercely resisted by the Indonesian Republicans.  Together, British, Dutch and Australian troops restored order and in 1946 150,000 Dutch forces replaced the British and Australian troops. The Dutch administration then brokered agreements with the Republicans for a future union under the Dutch Queen but this was anathema to a number of the parties on both sides and the troubles continued, resulting in an attempt by the Dutch to eliminate areas of Republican resistance that resulted in several costly battles with many lives lost. 


Thwarting Dutch plans for a separate state in East Java
Thwarting Dutch plans for a separate state in East Java

Sukarno thwarting Dutch plans for a separate state in East Java in 1949 - the troubles continued


Despite US and United Nations attempts to broker a peace a further Dutch push in 1949 designed to finally crush the Republic resulted in the US threatening to withhold Marshall Plan Aid from Holland.  Thus in December 1949 the Dutch threw in the towel and withdrew from Indonesia.  Sukarno became the first President of the new Republic.  Quite a few Dutch people then departed for Australia, including the parents of one of my friends at school.

But it was not clear sailing.  No sooner than the Dutch were vanquished than the previous allies against them began to fall out.  The Islamists were opposed by the Communists; Javanese by non-Javanese and so on.  Meanwhile Dutch companies, like Shell Oil, and ethnic Chinese businesses still dominated the economy.  To restore order Sukarno moved to impose what he called 'guided democracy' (autocracy).  In March 1957 he declared martial law and in December he nationalised 246 Dutch companies and expelled 40,000 Dutch citizens.  At the same time Chinese farmers were relocated and around 100,000 native born Indonesian-Chinese 'volunteered' to resettle in China.  The military was expanded and equipped and he set about ridding Indonesia of regional pockets of rebellion and dissent against the Republic - a bit like the Empire in Star Wars.

At the same time Sukarno proved to be a consummate international diplomat, doing the rounds of world leaders and being feted in each capital, where each leader tried to outbid the others in offers of support to the new Republic.  From Communist China Sukarno made his way to the USA and then to the USSR.  With the new decade Sukarno made fence-sitting a new art-form when he formed the so called non-aligned alliance with President Nasser of Egypt; President Tito of Yugoslavia; Prime Minister Nehru of India; and President Nkrumah of Ghana. 


Non-aligned Sukarno, Nehru and Nasser
Non-aligned: Sukarno, Nehru and Nasser


This delivered even more potential to trade one major power block off against the other. He became good mates, in quick succession, with Mao Zedong (China); John F Kennedy (USA) flirting with Marilyn Munro; Nikita Khrushchev (USSR); and Fidel Castro (Cuba).


With Mao Zedong
with Mao Zedong (China)

with Nikita Khrushchev (USSR)

Mountain Rain
with John F Kennedy (USA)

Mountain Rain
with Marilyn Munro (Kennedy mistress)

with Fidel Castro (Cuba) 

with Mao (again) in Tiananmen Square

Bung Karno had lots of friends in the 1960's


His new status as one who must be sucked-up-to allowed him to invade Dutch West New Guinea.  And when the Dutch attempted to prevent this Robert Kennedy threatened them yet again with US intervention.  The Dutch withdrew entirely from the region and let Sukarno take it.  Australia was not happy.  His next move was against the new, previously British, state of Malaysia (and Singapore) where Indonesian supported terrorists began a bombing campaign and an insurgency.  This time British and Australian troops successfully opposed his 'Confrontation' and the US, having finally learnt their lesson, ceased their support for him.

Now that he met with unified resistance Sukarno nationalised British interests and began an anti-American campaign. Western popular music and media was banned or suppressed.  By now Sukarno had become very reliant on the powerful Indonesian Communist Party, the PKI, that had around three million members.  Alliances with China and Russia were renewed and strengthened.  A new alliance was made with North Vietnam. 

When I was in the University of New South Wales Regiment we had no doubt about who we were likely to be fighting, apart of course from beginning to get embroiled in the rather more distant war in Vietnam. Indonesia posed a real and immediate threat and formed part of the justification for Australia opposing Communist 'insurgency' in Vietnam.

TEWT's (Tactical Exercises Without Troops) usually imagined them (unnamed) coming over, or in position on, the hill: "Now what are you going to do?  If you decide on calling in an air or artillery strike and then charging their position don't try to do it across that gully. Your men will go to ground.  Do it from the gully or choose another route. And what are you going to do after you take their position - sit there and get mortared?  Tactics and strategy. Remember Gallipoli. We took their positions in the first attack then squandered it." 

As it turned out we needn't have worried.  With the nationalisations and heavy military expenditure, the Indonesian economy soon collapsed and hyper-inflation set in.  Sukarno survived various assignation attempts, including one involving a fighter aircraft.  Then, on my 20th birthday, came an incompetent attempted coup, which is now thought to have been a set-up by Major General Suharto as an excuse to act. It was alleged that this was an attempted Communist overthrow of the government.  It gave Suharto the opportunity to purge the PKI and anyone else with apparent leftist leanings.  This became a bloodbath and one of the largest mass slaughters of the twentieth century when at least half a million were killed and a further 1.5 million were jailed.  

In Bali the Communists had supported attempts to rid the island of the Hindu caste system that held around 83% of the population in the lowest caste as peasant labourers.  The purge gave some among the upper castes an opportunity to get rid of anyone opposed to the traditional caste system.  

Sukarno remained President but his powerbase was destroyed.  Two years later in 1967 Suharto seized complete power and was installed as President, a position he held until 1998.  His anti-Communist credentials earned him strong Western support and Indonesia's economy recovered, at least for a time.  Suharto launched a program of de-Sukarno-isation and de-communisation.  Australians breathed a sigh of relief.  I resigned from the Regiment.  But in some ways Indonesia went from the frying pan to the fire.

Sukarno had been an idealist, from a patrician background, like Ghandi.  Suharto had risen from a peasant background and could afford no such ideals. He was an opportunist. He became renowned for massive corruption, including favouring his own family, several of whom have been arrested since. According to Transparency International Suharto is the most corrupt leader in modem history, having embezzled an alleged $15-35 billion during his rule. The Asian Financial Crisis eventually forced his resignation.

It's interesting to note that it was with Suharto taking over in 1967 that US President Barak Obama's American mother, Ann Dunham, moved to Jakarta to join his Indonesian step-father who was a geographer working for the Indonesian Government.  As a result there has been considerable speculation in social media about his possible Muslim sympathies.  Ann Dunham was an anthropologist and hence a secular humanist with sensible religious views, reportedly regarding religion as a man's attempt to deal with the unknowable.  Barak Obama senior was a Kenyan who had once converted to Islam but was described as a confirmed atheist by the time he met Ann.  Ann fell pregnant to him accidently and divorced him after three years, marrying baby Barak's step-father Lolo Soetoro a year later, so it's unlikely that Barak senior had much religious influence over his son. Barak lived in Indonesia until he was ten, attending a Catholic and an elite Government school, after which he attended school in Hawaii. 

Lolo, who was obviously much more influential, was nominally Suni Muslim but he is said to have had little use for religion.  His declared religion was probably career related.  Being Muslim was a good choice.  In Indonesia everyone has an identity card and at that time had to select from among the six approved religions (Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism).  It was, and still is, illegal to be an atheist in Indonesia. But now, if you have no concern for your future prospects, you can leave that entry blank on your card.  Most do not.  No one is going to die in a ditch for the principle of not believing something.

Similarly it's now impossible for a US President to be an unbeliever, even thought most of the founding fathers were Unitarians or secular humanists.  In God We Trust replaced e pluribus unum as the official motto of the United States in 1956, in blatant violation of the First Amendment (that prohibits the making of any law respecting the establishment of religion). Yet the US Supreme Court has steadfastly refused to repudiate it.  What was once the most secular is now the most religious of all advanced countries.  Barak junior describes himself as a devout Protestant Christian, at various times a Baptist or an Episcopalian (Anglican), so who knows?  Thus some Christian fundamentalists think he's a secret Muslim.

Since Suharto, Indonesia has moved to become more like the democratic country Sukarno once envisaged as a radical young architect, before absolute power corrupted him absolutely.  As with Ghandi, he is returning to popularity as evinced by the The Sukarno Center, that stands as a kind of shrine to his memory. As further evidence of his return to popularity, Sukarno's daughter Megawati Sukarnoputri was elected President of the Republic of Indonesia in 2001, serving until 2004. 

As I wandered around The Sukarno Center I felt a touch of nostalgia for these, sometimes scary, characters from the past who populated the news bulletins of my childhood and youth, now all, except for somewhat beloved Fidel, long gone to dust.  Memories of Nikita banging the desk with his shoe at the UN; of Kennedy's inspirational speeches; of Marilyn's Happy Birthday Mr President; of the Bay of Pigs and Che Guevara and the Cuban Missile Crisis; and of Mao bobbing along in the Yangtze; came to mind. 

The Sukarno Center remains, for me, a highlight of our trip.




More photos of Bali








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Bridge over the River Kwai



In 1957-58 the film ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai‘ was ground breaking.  It was remarkable for being mainly shot on location (in Ceylon not Thailand) rather than in a studio and for involving the construction and demolition of a real, fully functioning rail bridge.   It's still regarded by many as one of the finest movies ever made. 

One of the things a tourist to Bangkok is encouraged to do is to take a day trip to the actual bridge.

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Fiction, Recollections & News

Electricity Shocks




I've always thought that would be a good headline. 

Now that I have your attention I have to report that Emily McKie, my daughter, is the author of a new e-book on Smart Grid technology in her sustainable cities series.




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Opinions and Philosophy

Science, Magic and Religion


(UCLA History 2D Lectures 1 & 2)


Professor Courtenay Raia lectures on science and religion as historical phenomena that have evolved over time; starting in pre-history. She goes on to examine the pre-1700 mind-set when science encompassed elements of magic; how Western cosmologies became 'disenchanted'; and how magical traditions have been transformed into modern mysticisms.

The lectures raise a lot of interesting issues.  For example in Lecture 1, dealing with pre-history, it is convincingly argued that 'The Secret', promoted by Oprah, is not a secret at all, but is the natural primitive human belief position: that it is fundamentally an appeal to magic; the primitive 'default' position. 

But magic is suppressed by both religion and science.  So in our modern secular culture traditional magic has itself been transmogrified, magically transformed, into mysticism.

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