economics, environment, geography, Health, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, travel

Tackling the smoke #haze problem with alternative sustainable #peatland production

In 2015 I was forced to leave Singapore when the smoke haze, mainly from fires burning on Sumatran peatlands, became so heavy it was unhealthy for me to remain. My exit was easy but the people in Sumatra and Kalimantan, particularly Central Kalimantan, were not so fortunate.  All of those in affected areas were living in far higher levels of smoke, without my means to escape.

Understanding the gravity of the problem I began blogging about it.  Shortly after this I met Tan Yi Han Co-Founder at People’s Movement to Stop Haze (PM.Haze). Yi Han’s clarity, patience and commitment to educate people about this problem was inspiring.

Founded, in 2014, by a group of Singaporeans who believe that everyone can play a part in bringing an end to trans-boundary haze in Southeast Asia, PM.Haze aims to empower people with the knowledge, values and skills needed to build a broad social movement to stop the haze and ensure clean air for present and future generations.

Exacerbated by the El Nino conditions of 2015 the smoke haze problem was grave. Harvard researchers and their colleagues estimated that the smoke caused more than 100,000 deaths across Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. Most directly affected were infants and those with pre-existing cardio-pulmonary conditions. Beyond this the impact on global warming was already well established.

Click here for the latest El Nino watch updates

Should El Nino take off in 2017 further smoke haze can be expected, despite the moratorium on further peatland plantation development.   The Australian Bureau of Meteorology on 23 May, 2017, reported that,”The El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) remains neutral. With the tropical Pacific Ocean warmer than average, and around half the international climate models reaching El Niño levels later in the year, development of El Niño in 2017 cannot be ruled out. The Bureau’s ENSO Outlook remains at El Niño WATCH, meaning there is around a 50% chance—double the normal likelihood—of El Niño developing in 2017.”

Peoples’ Expedition to Experience Peat (PEEP)

It was with great interest that I joined members PM.Haze on the Peoples’ Expedition to Experience Peat (PEEP) 0n Thursday 18 May. Until this point most of what I knew about peat was theoretical.  I had played on the margins of a small peatland swamp as a child, walked through a peatland forest in East Kalimantan back in 1988 and recently took a helicopter flight over peatlands in Riau Province with a PM.Haze. This was my first opportunity to have a close-up view.

Tan Yi Han (right) co-founder of PM.Haze with Taufik Rahman from WALHI Riau


Ng Iris and Zhang Wen, Executive Director PM.Haze, travelling to Sungai Tohor


PEEP participants, media teams and community members from Tebing Tinggi Timur, Sungai Tohor.

The Program

Our journey took us to the Sungai Tohor area on Tebing Tinggi island, Riau Province.


Tebing Tinggi is a peat island formed by slow accumulation over the past 8000 years, since the end of the Pleistocene Ice Age. This process has been part of the coastal stabilisation of Riau province.

Beginning in 2007 two companies began cutting canals through the island and draining the peatland for plantations of sago palm and pulpwood for paper production.

This resulted in land, comprising the concessions issued to the companies, being taken from the local community. Now as the peatland dried out, there was not only subsidence of the land but it also became more vulnerable to fire. In 2014, fires burned across the island.

These coconut palms show the effects of land subsidence.
Peatland where fires raged in 2014, now covered with secondary re-growth, a climax community of ferns and small trees.

After the fires the community invited Indonesian president Joko Widodo (Jokowi) to visit the island.  Villagers presented him with an alternative peat management plan leading to the revocation of one company’s license. The land was returned to the community for sustainable management. We visited this land which is now being rehydrated through the building of canal blocks. PM.Haze members and those joining PEEP helped build the latest canal block.

Canal block under construction. Peat filled bags give it strength.
Zhang Wen digging peat to fill bags used in the canal block
Low Ying Hui filling bags with peat soil
Ng Iris, tying up a peat soil bag.
L to R  – Darlene Kasten, Aurélie Charmeau, Ng Iris and Tan Yi Han who is explaining the canal blocking process

Future plans

Attempting to develop self-sufficiency based on the cultivation of sago palms is a major objective of the village.  At present raw sago starch is sent to Malaysia for further processing. Current plans are to explore ways of value adding, perhaps expanding the existing cottage industry that is already producing sago noodles and sago snacks.  The community hopes to increase its income by adding value to sago production.

Splitting lengths of sago palm trunk before extracting the starch.
Feeding lengths of sago palm into the milling machine. The milled sago is then washed to extract starch.


Sago palm bark and fibre residue present both an environmental challenge and a business opportunity.
Sago starch is cooked for processing into sago noodles in a simple cottage industry.
Preparing the starch dough
A noodle cutting tool ready for use.

The challenges confronting the people of Tebing Tinggi can be found throughout the peatland of Indonesia.  One area where people have also confronted the problem of peatland drainage and wild fires producing toxic levels of smoke, is in the Pelangkaraya area of Central Kalimantan.

For more on PEEP visit the PM.Haze Blog

Ranu Welum Foundation

At the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival (UWRF) of 2016 I also met Emmanuela Shinta, a young Dayak leader.  She was instrumental in organising young volunteers to help villagers affected by the smoke, bringing medical services, supplies and health education during the 2015 peatland fires. In May 2016, she and others founded the Ranu Welum Foundation which continues grassroots education on the smoke haze problem

With the help of Emmanuela Shinta I plan to write more on this in the future.

Aboriginal, Asia, Australia, environment, geography, history, indigenous, Indonesia, Malaysia, religion, Singapore, sociology, Thailand, travel, Vietnam

A sampler of ‘Seen and Unseen: a century of stories from #Asia & the #Pacific’

Here is an overview of my book Seen and Unseen: a century of stories from Asia & the Pacific with a selection of images reflecting aspects of the stories that unfold in its pages.

Both paperback and kindle versions of the book are available through Amazon.

Further background on my book is also available on it’s website.

Australia, environment, geography, history, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, religion, sociology, travel

The author on “Seen and Unseen: a century of stories from #Asia and the #Pacific”

Common views of Asia and the Pacific, from the outside, often confer undue prominence to such things as typhoons, tsunami, earthquakes, malaria or even magic. While these can be confronting realities in the Asia-Pacific region beyond such differences even more remains unseen and misunderstood. Frequently unacknowledged are the influences Asian and Pacific cultures exert far beyond their borders.


Seen & Unseen: A Century of Stories from Asia & the Pacific is 29 stories inspired by one family’s experience spanning three generations of change. It blends anthropology, botany, ecology, economics, geography, history, politics and spiritual traditions. While each story is cradled in reality and crafted with a careful eye for historical accuracy, frailty of memory, the natural passing of people and the need to protect others has rendered some fictional even when they are not.

Influencing this work is an acceptance that interactions with people from our own culture are generally tangible and familiar, but when beyond our immediate culture things change. Now meaning and understanding must often be negotiated in intangible, non-rational and unseen ways. Foucault’s notion of the third space has influenced this work. Another influence is the Balinese belief that reality is an interaction of Sekala (The Seen) and Niskala (The Unseen).

Precisely what comprises the unseen realm varies throughout the region. What might be understood as mere micro ecology, in the developed world, can have spiritual explanations in some Asian and Pacific cultures. In rational secular society people commonly eschew magic as mythology or superstition, yet in parts of Asia and the Pacific what might be seen as myths and misconceptions can possess the power of reality.

The stories

I begin this journey in 1914 with Sid Thompson and D Company, a tale inspired by the little known ANMEF sent to capture New Guinea from Germany. While easily defeating the enemy unseen forces took an enormous toll. Sid Thompson also appears in Red Poppies and Janur. Several stories address changing Australian views of Japan through the encounters of ordinary people. Joss Sticks and Cracker Night and An Encounter with White Australia reveal Asian influences in Anglo-Australia of the 1950s. First Landfall and The Sublime to the Horrific chronicle my own first bumbling attempts at being in Asia. Some 15 stories are set over an 18-year period in Indonesia from the comfort of urban to life to that of forest people yet to develop the habit of money. These begin with tales about engaging with manifest cultural differences and lead into matters of more global significance. Campaign and The General Election take two Australians and Indonesian friends through a transition to democracy. An Unusual Kind Of Thunder and In The Charnel House deal directly with the Bali Bombings of 2002 while My Second Meeting With Jonathan unfolds in its aftermath. Singapore 43 years On is about returning to Singapore, a city transformed. Vietnam A War Revisited is a story of the anti-war movement and the draft told retrospectively from Hanoi. Finally, Sid Thompson returns in the more metaphysical tale Headland.

The basic and enduring interplay of the seen and the unseen worlds is of great significance to those of us from the land that’s girt by sea. While we might choose not to see, to look inwards and to rejoice in the notion that our land abounds in nature’s gifts, regional and planetary systems are unfettered by such introspective cultural constructions.


You can purchase the book now from Amazon



environment, geography, history, Indonesia, technology, travel, web2.0

The #Ubud Experience: Returning to the #Village after 8 Years

The Ubud Experience
Ubud Writers’ Feastival is for many the comtemporarty face of Ubud.  In successfully nurturing this event from infancy to it’s present global standing Janet De Neefe has added another layer to way Ubud is understood. In former times Ubud was known as a special place set on a broad ridge above the campuan, confluence, of two rivers the East and the West Wos.  Back in the 10th century the area was known as Ubadi, a special place where many healing herbs grew.  Campuan was also a spiritually important place, one of Bali’s Hindu sages, Rsi Markandeya, travelled up the Wos Valley, some say he  founded  Pura Gunung Lebah.

This temple stands above the confluence and remains important in the affairs of Puri Ubud, Subak in the area and a number of villages to the north, all of which bring their Barongs to the temple during an Odalan. These convergences of barong from surrounding Desa Adat are always a colourful peagent and for me remain one of the great grounding Ubud experiences.

Western Wos River above Campuan. The edge of Ubud is just visible in the distance.

The Dutch Conquest
With the Dutch conquest of Bali in the early 20th century, the island soon developed as an elite tourist destination.  Wealthy visitors disemrbarked from cruise ships at the northern port of Singaraja and motored south to Kintamani, Ubud and Sanur, the only places where accommodation was available.  In his book  Bali Cultural Tourism and Touristic Cultures” Michel Picard says that Bali’s hotel capacity before WWII was 70 double rooms, 48 at the Bali Hotel, 16 at the Satrya Hotel and 6 at the Koninklijke Pakketvaart Maatschappij (KPM) Bungalow Hotel in Kintamani and 32 additional rooms in 8 guesthouses.  In Ubud guests were taken in at Puri Saren Agung, the palace of Tjokorda Gde Agung Sukawati (1910-1978).

As many as 213 visitors a month, in 1924 arrived, expecting to see the last paradise on earth, the island of the gods replete with beautiful  bare breasted women.  The Dutch painter W.O.J Nieuwenkamp was first to chronicle the island visually, at the turn of the century, then the  German photographer Gregor Krause took great care to emphasise the physical beauty of Balinese bodies and in particular, balinese women bathing. This is an enduring theme and I can still recall, one commercial film crew that I worked with in the 1990s being similarly enchanted.

The famous expatriate German painter, Walter Spies and painter, illustrator and self styled anthropoligist Miguel Covarrubias became part of a community of expatriates living in places such as Ubud, Sanur and Kuta who supplemented images of the island paradise through the 1930s. The golden age of elite Balinese tourism ended with the Japanese invasion and occupation.

Rediscovering Bali
The world rediscovered Bali, first in the 1960s when it formed part of the ‘brown rice trail, between Australia and Europe, then in the late 1970s with the emergence of cheap wide bodied jet transport. My earliest encounter with Bali was in 1968. A friend introduced me a record called “Music from the Morning of the World”.  It’s title was drawn from Pandit Nehru’s description of the small island of Bali as, the ‘morning of the world’ and its music was undeniably engaging. Already familiar with the Sitar and the musical form of the Raga, this was raw and energetic but in a way grounded and cooperative. It came from a place called Ubud, somewhere in the mountains of Bali invoking images of sarong clad musicians in a verdant blur of  lush tropical vegetation.

“I’ll go there some day I thought.”

For 18 years, from 1984, Ubud was my second home. For the last 10 of those my company maintained a permanent place of work and residence in the town.  This was also a time of intense learning since, whatever a person’s background, one cannot fail to notice the creativity and devotion inherent in the uniquely Balinese form of Hinduism.  Anyone showing the slightest interest in the underlying meanings is always rewarded with generous explanations and, since Bali’s Hinduism is based on Bhakti, opportunities to observe and be part of countless ceremonies.  As a teacher and manager of an inter-cultural field study project I was received with immense generosity and, over time, offered opportunities for learning and study that the casual visitor seldom encounters.

Traffic and Tranquility
Bali’s physical structure has a distinct impact on the way traffic flows.  Radiating valleys form a spoke like array of ridges offering easy access to the island’s interior.  Settlement has developed in a linear form strung out along ridges.  Some broader ridges and the lowland areas have developed more clustered and nucleated patterns.

Ubud, sitting astride a broad ridge has also been a crossing, a place where a vehicular bridge spans the valley of the Wos river.  Since Dutch times, this has allowed the village to develop along an east west axis as well as the north south axis, typical of linear ridge development in southern Bali. Today Ubud is a confluence of traffic  flows.  On second thoughts confluence implies a seamless merging, like the branches of the Wos just above the bridge at Campuan.  In Ubud the merging is often more like a jamming of traffic flows.

Returning to Bali for the first time in eight years I was a little overwhelmed by the sheer volume of traffic on the island these days.  As with most other parts of Asia, motor bikes have been the major contribution to this growth. Seldom does one escape their noisy passing, anywhere near a main road. Just as in Jakarta they appear suddenly and unexpectedly.  Most alarming is the inclination for some motorcyclists to suddenly assume command of footpaths as well. Despite these alarming features in Ubud relative tranquility is often just a few steps away.  A network of village lanes, overshadowed by trees, adorned with beautiful shrubbery and baffled from street noises by the imposing red brick walls of Balinese family compounds, provides an almost instant retreat.  At first I was inclined to stick to the main roads, like all the other visitors, but it didn’t take long before the memory of these shady byways returned.  Memory has been the key to re-experiencing Ubud.  After such a long break I found that some old friends had passed on, one in particular had forgotten me altogether as dementia set in, other were now adults where once they had been school children and most welcomed me enthusiastically. A few are now very rich and a few have lost their wealth victimes of easy credit, the Bali Bombing and tightened economic conditions.

A small lane off Jalan Bisma

Impacts of development
Development in Ubud has been extraordinarily rapid.  People now in their 50s grew up in a village without electricity or sealed roads.  They now manage a globalised village extending its presence into cyberspace, Nis Kala now has a digital mantle.  Internet Cafes are on every block and high quality consumer goods in many shops.

Some things are working very well in Ubud.  Water management is a significant success story.  Signs of litter on the streets and the rice fields are largely absent, regular garbage collection and recycling are long established. Art, Music and Dance are as strong and exuberant as ever.  Tourism and development have permitted embelishment of ceremonial and religious life with cash flows enabling detail and lavishness in the material aspects of Bhakti, never before so extensive and flamboyant. The recent cremation of  Tjokorda Gde Agung Suyasa, of Puri Saren Kauh, was possibly the largest and most elaborate yet.

At a more mundane level, some aspects of life in Ubud are challenged by the rapidity of development. Looking out across the sawah from a beautiful the family hotel, my gaze was drawn immediately to the  black spaghetti tangle of telephone cables that ran beside a line of elegant young coconut palms. Major telecommunications links are below ground but household connections are a little haphazard breaking the extraordinary views of Mt Agung and Batukau with a discordant clutter.

“I want to have them buried”, said the young hotel proprietor as he showed me to my first floor room.

I simply thought, “He’s right, it needs to be done, and no doubt it will be”.

I didn’t say a thing, realising that when I had a house nearby, I was one of the early adopters.  When my phone was connected it ran in front of a nearby losmen.  I was embarassed, but had little control.  When the land owner later removed one of the supporting polls and didn’t replace it, the situations became even uglier.  One unexpected bonus, I later discovered, was that the cables have become tupai super highways.  I was entertained every morning by an aerial show of acrobatics and chasings, that seemed to be part of an elaborate patrolling of tupai territories.  I wasn’t complaining, nor was I in a position to do so, having an Internet Cafe just meters away gave the place great amenity, besides the mountain views are still excellent.

There’s no doubt that in time, despite the rapid development and the discordance that can sometimes stand out to challenge the traditions, change will be tempered and adjusted according to the old Balinese adage “Desa, Kala, Patra”, allowing the strength of the traditions to infuse the new and to tie it back into the principles of balance and harmony that have characterised much of Balinese culture.

I was heartened by Rio Helmi‘s description of his recent late night stroll in Ubud posted on Facebook, he wrote:

“At the open wantilan the gamelan was accompanying dancers training, I recognized a few of them who I have known since they were kids.  A couple of old friends were hanging out.  The best dancers looked great even wearing ordinary clothes. Late in the evening, Ubud can still be a village.”

Rio also wrote an interesting piece on his Blog entitled Piece of Mind: Conde Nast Names Ubud Top Asian City.

geography, history, Indonesia, Personal comment, travel

My First Visit to #Bali Since the October 2002 #Bombing

A Prologue
Violence and extremism are no more a recent phenomenon in Indonesia than in countries like the UK and the USA.  Both Indonesia and the USA fought wars of national liberation against colonial powers.  Both have constitutions and a sense of nationhood, grounded in such violent struggles. Many countries have their own uniquely violent histories and their own particular forms of extremism.  Attempting to make some historical sense of violence, extremism and associated acts of war and terror, requires some consideration of their context.  This is often a useful exercise because it helps to resolve a sense of perspective and scale.

The Bali Bombing was an horrific event that touched me personally, yet for me it’s difficult to distinguish between the madness of the suicide bomber and the madness that suffuses the actions of a nation state that, while understanding the imprecision of its technology, still persists with actions that euphemistically result in collateral damage, the death of innocents and destruction of their homes and infrastructure.  When I see images of white phosphorous raining down as people scatter in terror, I’m reminded that we live in a world where love for our fellow humans is held in scant regard by many.

Writing about the Bali Bombing of 12 October 2002 is a theme that recurs for me, but I’ve published only a small part of what I could say on this tragic event. Some of my work is far too graphic for accessible online publication, such material best lends itself to the print medium not the openness of the Internet. More is yet to be written but I’ve waited for a greater maturity of insight, which I hope might come, before writing further on this subject.  Part of the process has been a re-visiting of the places where I lived and worked before and during those tragic days.

The Journey Back
Australians often regard Indonesia as a dangerous and unstable place where violence is common and where, since it’s the world’s largest Islamic country, terroristic groups abound.  Still others have a sense that Indonesia is a threat to our national security, such people are fundamentally wrong. Despite events like Moslem Christian conflict in Maluku leading to the massacre of Christians by the Javanese Laskar Jihad; the beheading of Madurese Muslim transmigrants in West Kalimantan; the destruction of churches; and, the bombing of Borobudur in 1985,  tolerance has deep foundations in Indonesia.  My journey was coloured by countless reminders of this.

On my last visit to Bali Saturday 12 October, the day before my planned departure for Australia, was a relaxing day spent with an old friend exploring some of the eastern coastline. Driving back to Ubud we fell into a discussion about capital punishment.  Nita and I never avoid the controversial.  If we disagreed, we agreed to disagree, this is the nature of our discourses.  The one thing we offer one another is a thorough hearing, although perhaps sometimes I interrupt too much. On this day we simply agreed to disagree, having no sense that within a very short while we’d be overtaken by an act of mass murder and find ourselves working in the macabre setting of the morgue at Sanglah Hospital, Denpasar.  Here my role was the inexact task of identification of the dead using ante mortem materials and hers was one of interpreting and translating communications, ultimately  between Interpol and the Indonesian and Australian forensic police teams that eventually snapped into action.

Preparing to re-visit Denpasar’s Sanglah Hospital and making a first visit to Kuta’s former Sari Club was a challenge. Feelings of matters unfinished, of being wrenched away from a place where much healing was still to be done, of the separation from Indonesian friends who shared this uniquely disturbing journey, still haunted me.  I also felt a particular need to pray for the souls of those who met such an untimely end in this act of mass murder, yet I wasn’t ready to jump on a plane and immediately confront the places where I’d worked eight years earlier.  Travelling along an indirect path via Jakarta, Solo and Ubud was the best way for me to approach this challenge.  Apart from anything else it was necessary to acclimatise and to begin to resonate more sympathetically with Indonesian cultures before I confronted the central purpose of my visit.  Much was to happen on the way that helped my preparation for this final encounter, none the least of which were my planned visits to two Orthodox Christian communities.

Gus Dur’s Departure
Gus Dur’s passing was a surprise.  I knew he’d been ailing and was recently discharged from hospital.  His passing when it came was yet another opportunity to reflect on what he brought to Indonesia.  I was reminded that he was a man of the centre, a man of tolerance imbued with rich Javanese syncretism, tempered by his years as a student in Cairo and matured through his long years in opposition to Suharto’s New Order regime and his exposure to the world.  He was a quiet man of action.  I wrote about him and I thought about him a lot on my journey.  Everywhere I went I met inclusive tolerant Indonesians acting in his tradition and grieved by his passing.

As I travelled I became more focused on that deep root of tolerance that has grown along the archipelago, a foundation of respect for the religion of others, enduring years of assault from the extremist fringes of Indonesian society and continuing to flourish.  Shortly after Gus Dur’s death a chance encounter with a  young man working at Kopi Tiam Oey, a coffee shop on Jl Agus Salim, re-affirmed the power of this syncretistic tolerance.  Chatting about recent developments in Indonesia and the purpose of my visit he expressed interest in my journey.  When I explained my intention to visit the Holy Trinity Orthodox church in Solo for the Feast of the Nativity, his response was typically Javanese.

“That’s really interesting. I’d love to come as well. When do you leave?”

It was clear from the beginning that he couldn’t come, as he was far too busy in Jakarta, but this way of expressing interest and approval is commonly encountered in Indonesia.  This was such a refreshing break from the stereotypical representations of Indonesians, too commonly portrayed in the Australian press. In reality the core of Javanese culture, in particular, is kejawen a syncretistic merging of Hinduism, Buddhism and Sufism. A visit to the Sultan’s Palace in Yogyakarta reveals this blending in decorative symbolic form.

Everywhere I went I continued to encounter deep respect for Gus Dur.

“Dia Bapak Negara”, said one old friend, a Balinese Hindu.

Another wrote to me of Gus Dur facing down mobs in Bekasi who were opposed to churches operating there.

The City of Surakarta – Solo
Arriving in Solo, the tolerance was still most pronounced.  This is a city of great religious diversity.  Initially staying at the imposing Sunan Hotel, I again fell into conversations with Javanese syncretists.  Such is Solo’s tolerance that even Abu Bakar Bashir and his Pesantren al-Mukmin of Ngruki are to be found here.

The Feast of the Nativity when it came was a Blessed event.  About 50 worshippers including representatives of the Protestant, Hindu and Buddhist communities attended the Liturgy.  A Nativity feast in the nearby church hall saw the invitation of a children’s choir from the Pantasuhan Wisma Kasih Kudus – the Holy Gift Orphanage.  These children weren’t Orthodox, yet they were welcomed and enthusiastically participated in the festivities. Their common bond is that almost all lost parents in the inter-religious violence that ripped through Maluku in 1997, in the dying days of the New Order regime. In all there are 71 children in the Protestant orphanage and a further 26 have moved on the tertiary education in various parts of Indonesia. The children radiated a natural beauty, in the festive moment,, apparently unencumbered by the tragedies that had overtaken their families.  Their presence was a true reminder of the gift of Christmas, the gift of a clear path to the development of goodwill and love amongst all humans.

Finally in Bali
Moving on to Bali, I started to feel apprehensive about visiting Sanglah Hospital and the site of the bombing in Kuta.  A fall into a deep drain one dark night slowed me down and gave me pause for thought. Finally it was time to visit Sanglah and Kuta.

Sanglah seemed almost as crowded as 13 October, 2002, but this was merely ramai, as the Indonesians say.  An orderly buzz made all the more interesting by the many people in traditional Balinese dress.  I approached the reception desk.  The last time it was staffed by a volunteer from Perth, now two traditionally clad Balinese women happily answered my questions.

“We don’t have a church where you can pray.  We have a Musollah or a Pura.”  I thought for a moment.

“I’d like to pray in the Pura if I may, but it seems as though you’re having a traditional ceremony.”

“No it’s fine”, said the elegant young woman. ” Just follow me, I’ll take you to the Pura.”

A persistent droning background resolved  into prayers chanted in the ancient language of Kawi as I approached the temple. Inside it was very busy.  Musicians sat together in a pavilion, the faithful sat praying before the shrines for the Tri Merthi and the Padma Sana.  I was led off to the side. A Pemangku approached me.

“Excuse me Bapak Pemangku do you speak Indonesian.”

Almost as soon as I’d said this I regretted it, but I was thinking of the village Priests I knew from Ubud and Penestanan where priestly fluency in Indonesian was not to be taken for granted.  He looked at me sincerely without the slightest sense of surprise.

“Yes, I do”, he answered.

“I’m a Christian, but with your permission I’d like to pray here.”

“Of course”, he said, encouraging me to step towards the place where others were praying.

“Would you like incense”.

“No thanks, it won’t be necessary. I’d like to stand and pray if I may”.

“You may”, he said.

So I stood before the Padma Sana, the Seat of the Supreme God and I prayed with the priest standing next to me.  First I read the standard opening to an Orthodox Christian passage of prayer, finishing with the Lord’s Prayer then I read the Prayers for the Dead.  When I’d finished the priest reached out and held my arm.

“That’s all I said. Thank you for letting me read Christian prayers”.

“As long as you prayed for world peace it’s fine”

“In particular I prayed for the souls of the dead”, I said somewhat apprehensively.  “I know this isn’t the Pura Dalem, but it’s the only one.”

“That’s fine”, he said, “They’re the purified holy spirits.”

I left feeling overwhelmed by the priests acceptance of my need to pray, there was no sense of any barrier merely inclusiveness.

Moving on to the site of the Sari Club in Kuta, I was struck by the size of Kuta’s new developments.  I still remembered much of it as ladang, as open spaces with small huts, coconut palms, grassy fields with Banteng cattle and water buffalo grazing. Landmarks were difficult to spot. The road was overshadowed by multistorey buildings now. Finally the unmistakable monument to the victims of the bombing.

Ignoring the sign that said entry forbidden, I walked up to the stones panels displaying all the victims’ names.  I read the Indonesian names, moving on to the Australian names then systematically all the other names.  Once completed I came back and read some of the names that were of particular importance to me.

Joshua Kevin Deegan son of the Magistrate from South Australia, Brian Deegan

Jonathon Ellwood who’s body I helped identify from his hotel room key

Kathy Sarvatori nee Hackett who’s father Noel coached me in Rugby on Coogee oval, many years ago.

Dimitra and Elizabeth Kotronakis, the friends of a colleague

I read the same prayers then stood in contemplation, stepping back so that I could view the monument from the opposite corner.  I was in a state of walking meditation.

“Transport, transport, boss?”

The silence was broken.  It was time to go and have breakfast.

Indonesia, Personal comment, travel

Pancasila and Religious Tolerance in Contemporary #Indonesia

Today is the Feast of the Nativity in the old Orthodox Christian calendar and last night I attended an Orthodox Liturgy celebrating Christmas at the Holy Trinity Orthodox church in Solo, Central Java.  For me this has been a very special journey because I’ve returned to Indonesia, for the first time since the Bali Bombings of October 2002. This time I’ve come to celebrate with Indonesian brothers and sisters in Christ.

So far this hasn’t been a difficult journey for me, far from it.  I’m already accustomed to the sensational black and white representations of Indonesia in the mass media, particularly in Australia.  Now I have a much deeper sense of the true character of this country and it’s people. Although a country with the world’s largest Islamic population, Indonesia shares little with the versions of Islam so frequently represented in the Western media.

The nature of the contemporary nation state, Indonesia, seeking to assert its statehood in an archipelagic setting, draws from both geographic and cultural influences. It has developed a diverse and syncretic set of cultural practices. The porosity of its borders has allowed frequent influences from abroad beginning with the earliest Melanesian settlement of Nusantara, at the dawn of human civilisation , and has continued until the present era of globalization and the emergence of rapid economic growth and development in the Asia Pacific region.

Modern Indonesia was born on 17 August 1945 after more than 350 years of Dutch colonialism. Early on it’s essentially syncretic nature encouraged the assumption of a set of principles known as the Pacasila, as the basis for the Indonesian Constitution. These can be translated accordingly

Ketuhanan Yang Maha Esa
Belief in the one and only God

Kemanusiaan Yang Adil dan Beradab
Just and civilized humanity

Persatuan Indonesia
The unity of Indonesia

Kerakyatan Yang Dipimpin oleh Hikmat  Kebijaksanaan, Dalam Permusyawaratan Perwakilan
Democracy guided by the inner wisdom in the unanimity arising out of deliberations amongst representatives

Keadilan Sosial bagi seluruh Rakyat Indonesia
Social justice for the whole of the people of Indonesia

Such a set of guiding principles are both a secular recognition and an expression of Indonesia’s long history of syncretism and tolerance.  For the most part, bearing in mind that Indonesia’s population is more than 230 million spread through at least 900 are permanently inhabited islands, divided into 33 Provinces and Special Regions with hundreds of regional languages Indonesia’s ethos is one to inclusiveness and cooperation.  Perhaps nowhere is this better expressed than in the tradition of Gotong Royong, the notion of a society based on mutual cooperation.  Certainly, despite the existence of corruption, collusion and nepotism, processes that are widely critiqued in modern Indonesia, it’s a remarkably harmonious society, given it’s diversity.

One of the clearest expressions of tolerance in Indonesia is in the area of religious tolerance. Belief in the one and only God is widely accepted, although as in any society there are groups that are inclined to reject common wisdom and insist that they worship the one and only true God.  Such groups have long been present in Indonesia and are by no means a new phenomenon. Such unfortunate elements have brought much suffering to Indonesia.

Indonesia is not perfect and just as other countries like the United Kingdom and the USA have suffered from forms of extremism perpetrated by vocal and at times cruel minorities, so Indonesia faces similar challenges, but the core of Indonesian society is pluralistic and accepting of the other.  Seeing the overwhelming scenes of love and compassion that followed the Bali Bombings of October 2002, left me with no doubt about this.

The Origins of Indic Religions in Indonesia
It’s been said that in Indonesia God comes from the mountain and religion comes from the sea.  The primal religions of Indonesia were all well established when those of a more modern form began to percolate through Nusantara.  The Indic religions of Hinduism and Buddhism were the first to win converts and begin developing Empires along the archipelago.  They often existed side by side and sometimes they fought, at times one vanquishing the other.  Finally they reached a reapproachment and this is chronicled in the remarkable work from the 14th century, the Sutasoma.  It is from this work that Indonesia’s national slogan Binneka Tunggal Ika has been taken.  Translated in means the two are one, Shiva and Buddha.  It’s modern translation of Unity in Diversity reapplies the basic principle in the context of the modern nation state.

The Spread of Orthodox Christianity
The following is directly quoted from The Rebirth of Orthodoxy in Indonesia an Orthodox Facebook site.

During the 7th century and during the greater parts of the Sriwijaya-Majapahit periods (9th-14th centuries), Eastern Church of the Assyrian tradition arrived, followed later by the Non-Chalcedonian (Armenian). Christianity was in Indonesia before Islam came to the Archipelago. However, the Christians disappeared from the Indonesian landscape and its historical record.

From that early period until today, not one written record of Christianity survives, yet oral tradition preserved the names of three local bishops: Mar Yaballah, Mar Abdisho and Mar Denha. Most Indonesians do not know of these tenuous but deep Christian roots, and it should be stressed that it was Eastern Christianity that arrived to the island first.

There are now two jurisdictions of Eastern Orthodox in Indonesia, under Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and Moscow Patriarchate.

It’s not surprising that Orthodoxy leaves no written record.  These early forms of Orthodox Christianity were introduced by Monks and were not spread, as Islam later was, in the context of trade. There is scant record of the Sriwijaya empire either.  For a long time it was almost completely forgotten, and was only brought to light in 1918 by Çoedès.

Much has been written about the manner in which Islam, frequently from the Sufi tradition, subsequently entered Indonesia. It’s spread was largely through ports and initially quite separate from the established Hindu-Buddhist traditions.  Often it’s spread was under the patronage of a Shah Bandar, rather than the patronage of traditional rulers.

In Indonesia the earliest historical periods are more difficult to study.  The historian Hasanuddin cites white ants and water as one of the historian’s greatest enemies in attempting to unravel the history of the archipelago.

Today Orthodoxy is again becoming more prominent in Indonesia.

Last night I attended the Feast of the Nativity at the Holy Trinity Orthodox church, here in Solo. It was a wonderful event, much singing and rejoicing and of great pleasure was the participation of people from other Christian communities as well as members of the Buddhist and Hindus communities. All attended both the liturgy and the feast that followed.

One thing that really impressed me was the presence of the Choir from the Pantasuhan Wisma Kasih Kudus – the Holy Gift Orphanage. These children weren’t Orthodox, yet they were welcomed and happily participated in the festivities. There common bond is that almost all lost parents in the sectional violence that ripped through Maluku in 1997 in the dying days of the New Order regime. There are 71 children in the Protestant orphanage and a further 26 have moved on the tertiary education in various parts of Indonesia. Their presence was a true reminder of the gift of Christmas, the gift of a clear path to the development of goodwill and love amongst all humans.