Sad Echoes of an Unnecessary Divide

It’s an extremely uncomfortable sensation to be in an ethnic minority in a community that harbours a historical grudge against your nation, race or colour. The Playmate and I lived for a few years in such an environment, in the early 80s in newly independent Papua New Guinea, where resentment against the nation’s former Australian administrators ran deep.

Even well into independence, there was little genuine social interaction between Papua New Guineans and their country’s predominantly white expatriates, who mostly confined their socialising to member-only clubs where  the only locals present pulled beers at the bar.

As the fledgling nation battled to cope with a plethora of issues including endemic corruption and sprawling ghettos fuelled by economically expectant but unskilled villagers flooding into its towns and cities, the grudge evolved into a seething resentment against the “haves” by the “have-nots.”

While we had jobs and the use of a house, we didn’t think that we “had” terribly much at all and were frequently wounded by verbal abuse and acts, or crime, perpetrated just because we were different.

We understood what was happening, but it wasn’t justified. We weren’t in the least supremacist. We opened our home and hospitality to our local friends and colleagues and used our media positions to fight for their rights.

But the growing prejudice, increasingly expressed in violent attacks against foreigners, made us uneasy. It was comforting to know we would return to Australia, our country, where we would slot back into to our own ethnic majority.

The PNG experience had elevated respect and appreciation for freedom from prejudice. It also stimulated a thought process in which the mind mulled the circumstances of the Australian Aborigine, and other minority ethnic groups in their home countries, and concluded that few things could be more frustrating and soul-destroying than to be regarded on racial grounds as inferior in your own land.

Here in Bali we are the bule (foreigner) targets of economic opportunists and desperadoes, the odd religious fanatic and the occasional hardcore nationalist. We understand some of that, too, which doesn’t make it any less taxing, sometimes enraging and even terrifying.

About 10 years ago, on holiday in Bali, we arranged for a young man we’d met at Nusa Dua’s Geger Beach to hire a car and drive us to his village on the Buleleng coast in North Bali. We would stay at the area’s only tourist accommodation, a German-owned and -run bungalow-style resort.

When we arrived, the property’s dogs ignored us and harassed Nyoman, trying to prevent him from entering the building. “I am not welcome here,” he told us. “For years I have been bringing guests here, and not once has the owner spoken to me.”

Why, Nyoman? “Because I am Balinese, of course.”

We insisted the staff call off the dogs, ushered Nyoman inside and asked for menus. Only two were delivered to our table of three. Nyoman’s presence with us on this occasion would be tolerated, but he would not be served. Nor could he collect us from our bungalow after dinner, to take us to his village, because he would not be admitted to the property.

We met him outside and discussed this outrageous discrimination late into the night, drinking arak with the villagers at a dusty roadside shack. It’s your island, Nyoman. This is your country. “I know, but what can I do?”

Recently, a visiting Swiss professional told how a star-rated Nusa Dua resort a few years ago refused to allow him to dine in its restaurant with his Balinese friend. The hotel lost the dinner booking and the visitor’s ongoing business. He now visits at least twice a year for up to three weeks at a time and stays with his Balinese friend’s young family, in their home.

Some things aren’t changing in Bali. For Nusa Dua beachfront resorts to adopt and enforce a policy which prohibits anyone other than tourists or foreigners from walking or jogging on their ocean-side paths is contemptible. For them to employ Balinese security to staff to tell Balinese, many of whom may be more educated and affluent than you or me, that they may not use this facility because they are “local” is offensive.

For these same resorts to use their Balinese security staff to prevent Balinese people from walking on the beaches in front of their properties is shameful and shocking. The island’s beaches are public places.

To try to dictate otherwise to local people is despicable, arrogant and unethical. While some guests may crave isolation from local colour and culture, there are sufficient contrived spaces within enough properties to satisfy these pretentious demands for segregation.

There are many beautiful tropical islands in the world. Bali owes its tourism success to its people and their culture. To try to remove them from the picture is the height of idiocy and, in this case, possibly in contravention of national laws and certainly contrary to basic human rights.

The Balinese belong here. The rest of us are privileged guests and should never forget it.

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