Monday, October 1, 2012

Bali ten years on: How safe is it now?

One thousand West Australians fly to Bali every day, yet as we prepare to commemorate

the 2002 Bali bombing, a question remains..

Bali ten years on: How safe is it now?

On the 12th October Australia will stop to remember an event that shook our country to its core, and devastated the lives of many Australian and Indonesia families.

The Bali bombing took the lives of 202 people including 88 Australians and 38 Indonesians. It also injured a further 240.

For an island known as a ‘gentle paradise’ and our favourite playground, the bombing was the deadliest terrorist attack on Indonesian soil in history. Not only would it wreak the lives of so many Australians and Indonesian families, it would also wreak havoc upon the Balinese economy.

As our state’s Regional Director to Indonesia at the time, I walked the streets of Kuta and Legian ten days after the bombings occurred. It was eerily quiet, and I recall walking along the main tourist street of Bali, Jalan Legian. There were no tourists and only two or three cars passing by. Shop owners sat ashen-faced outside their stores, looking at the empty streets whilst pondering if they had any future at all.

Tourism to Bali had collapsed.

Thousands of hospitality staff lost their jobs and many more that remained at work were forced to take 80% salary cuts as there were simply no tourists to provide tips-an essential part of a staff member’s income.

At the time I was staying at the 300-room Bali Intan Hotel, which is now the location for the giant ‘W’ Hotel in Seminyak. The Bali Intan was a popular spot for Australians yet on this day they had only four guests: A businessman, two backpackers from France and myself.

It was the first time I had actually felt ‘lonely’ whilst staying at a large hotel.

Ten years on, the scars remain but with the rise and rise of the Australian dollar combined with the introduction of low-cost airlines throughout the world, Bali is a very different place to 2002.

Australians visiting Bali now exceeds 850,000 arrivals a year. Young people-who were pre-schoolers in 2002- now flock to Bali on holidays, FIFO workers use Bali as their home whilst working in Australia’s resource-rich towns only ninety minutes away, and Perth families use Bali as a long weekend escape; jumping on a plane late Friday night and returning Monday evening.

Bali is fun, it’s cheap, it has brilliant food and the people are as friendly as ever.

But is it safe?

In the past few years Bali’s major ‘safety’ issue has been more about drunken Aussies falling off motor bikes, fighting each other in night clubs or diving into shallow swimming pools.

 The good news is that thanks to the effective work by the Australian Federal Police and Indonesia’s National Police, the perpetrators of this horrific crime have been virtually destroyed. The terrorist group behind the 2002 bombings, Jemaah Islamiyah, is today only a shadow of former self. Its ringleaders including the infamous cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, are either in jail or - like the three Bali bombers including Imam Samudra - are dead after facing an Indonesian firing squad in 2008.

Sidney Jones from the International Crisis Group points out that JI probably no longer have the interest or capacity to undertake a major terror attack.

Now for the not-so-good news: Jones also makes the point that as JI has weakened, other smaller and more decentralised groups, some of them involving former JI members, have arisen, making them harder to trace and monitor.

In the past two years we have seen a marked increase in incidents where smaller militant cells have launched attacks with the objective of de-stabilising Indonesia’s semi-secular government and introducing an Islamic state. In March of this year Indonesian police killed members of a terror cell who were planning an attack in Bali.

There are hundreds of these, mostly inept, groups now operating within Indonesia and despite the best efforts of police and security agencies it is possible that one of these groups could detonate a bomb anywhere in Indonesia, including Bali. It would be unlikely to be as large as those that exploded in 2002 and 2005, but any such attack could cause significant injury and loss of life.

It is for these reason, our Department of Foreign Affairs maintains an advice for travellers to exercise caution when travelling to Bali. It is sensible advice.

By avoiding rowdy nightclubs, high-profile ‘decadent’ bars and acting respectfully by not being drunk and loud on the streets at night, you can probably have a safe and more enjoyable holiday.

The Balinese have all their economic eggs in one tourism basket these days so an island that is safe and relaxed is critical to their future prosperity.

Central to that goal is the principle, held closely by both Indonesia and Australia, that a secular state that allows freedom of expression, cultural acceptance and respect for our way of life is a fundamental principle for us all.

Sadly, not everyone shares that view.

Ross Taylor is the Chairman of the Indonesia Institute (Inc)
October 2012

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