The Suicidal Fracture Threatening Bali’s Social Structure

In the early days of our 15-year association with Bali, people would ask us what was the attraction; what kept us coming back as often as possible; and what was the appeal that had us planning to make Bali our home.

Then, we answered with descriptions of a gracious and graceful people with an extraordinarily strong sense of family and community; of a society which managed to balance its overriding commitment to an all-pervading religion and culture with inclusiveness and tolerance; of a place where ethnic pride walked alongside sensitivity, social responsibility and a highly developed sense of justice.

While this idyllic if naive perception is still available to anyone taking a superficial look, and is powerful enough to be perhaps the most influential factor in Bali’s success as an international tourist destination, we soon began to notice cracks in the facade. And some of them run very deep.

Over the years, we have followed regular and violent confrontations between rival taxi companies in which cab drivers have carried and used weapons such as golf clubs. Petty thieves have been hunted down and bashed by vigilante packs that have killed at least one robber, who had entered a neighbour’s home.

Usually from more remote parts of the island, where the philosophy of an eye for an eye runs strong, come frequent reports of tribal-style combat in which property is destroyed and warring villagers are injured and killed.

Understandably, given the increasingly gridlocked state of traffic in the south, road rage is on the rise. Not so comprehensible is vandalism of essential public infrastructure such as traffic lights and road signs.

Around Denpasar and Kuta, especially, there have been spates of violent crime including rapes, bashings and gruesome murders, sometimes as a result of robberies gone wrong and sometimes for revenge.

It is mind-boggling to try to reconcile these two starkly opposite images of the Island of the Gods – peace and tolerance versus death and destruction. It part of the enigma that is Bali today and it is worrying for the island’s future.

It seems that Balinese society possesses fragility – even instability – that manifests itself as a volatility lurking just below the cracked surface. One deepening crack threatening to rupture is the global phenomenon of youth suicide.

In a week marked by Suicide Prevention Day, came news of the suicide by hanging of a young man – he was 23 – apparently upset at being dumped by his girlfriend. The death pushed the number of recorded suicides in Bali this year towards 150; the island is Indonesia’s third most suicide-prone province.

Balinese who recently have taken their own lives include struggling farmers, older people with terminal illnesses, economically challenged young parents and, most tragically of all, more and more young people, including pregnant females but usually males aggrieved in romance.

Our housekeeper arrived late not so long ago, upset and shocked after cleaning up litres of blood spilled by her 15-year-old neighbour who had slit her wrists because of arguments with her mother over her boyfriend and her personal freedom. The victim survived after several days of hospital treatment.

A normally rational friend, 31, and mother of three brandished a kitchen knife at her place of work and threatened to slash her wrists after a disagreement with her husband.

What makes people, especially the young with whole lives ahead of them, snap to the point of wanting to end it all? While the global triggers of depression – lack of self-worth, sense of powerlessness and economic pressure – must play a role, you would hope that the very structure of Balinese society, with its focus on family, its sense of brotherhood and its banjars, its mentors and mangkus, would function to scoop up those in danger of plummeting through the net into suicide.

Clearly, there are some big holes in the net.

Debate has long been open in Bali’s high Hindu circles about the arguably excessive weight placed on the monetary value of offerings to the Gods. Some say it is out of hand, and puts people out of pocket and under financial duress while distracting attention from the core of the religion which revolves around balance and harmony.

Perhaps they have a point. An act of suicide would seem to be the antithesis of harmony and balance.

Another influencing factor, especially for young people, might be found in the plethora of highly dramatic soap operas on Indonesian television. Hey kids, most people don’t really flounce from their sports cars and prance about in their finery throwing tantrums, shedding tears and plotting harm to others and themselves every time they fail to get what they want.

This sort of television, though, is lucrative and is likely to continue assaulting our senses for some time. It’s just one aspect of the modernisation of society which is placing pressure on Bali’s traditional culture and its people.

Suicide does not sit comfortably with Balinese Hinduism. A 2009 Japanese study related lack of religious activity to the increased suicide rate in Bali. Through their culture and religion, Balinese have a chance to ensure support structures are in place and functioning to help redress the problem before it claims more misguided young lives.

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