Robin Lim: Obsessions of a Hero

Rio Helmi (originally posted on the Huffington Post)

In the first 8 months of 2011 alone, the Bumi Sehat foundation, set up by CNN Hero Robin Lim in Indonesia, has provided compassionate pre and post natal care for 20,500 mothers, as well as delivered 400 babies. Many of these she has either cared for herself or overseen their care, sometimes even by phone to remoter parts of Aceh.

Impressive as that number may seem, midwife Robin Lim reminds us that every 15 minutes around the world, 23 babies die during birth, 28 are stillborn, and 86 infants under 1 month old die of various causes. She also reminds us that there are many mothers who die in childbirth:

"They are dying in the prime of their lives, doing the most natural thing in the world: having babies. Nine hundred and eighty one mothers a day: imagine if two 747's jet planes full of passengers, (832 people,) fell out of the sky every single day. Now wouldn't that be front page news?"

In truth these numbers are conservative owing to a lack of effective data collection around the world. She points out that Indonesia itself has a surprisingly high mortality rate - surprising because the medical community here works hard, but they are up against bad nutrition that leads, for example, to hemorrhaging. Robin admits to being obsessed with the United Nations Millennium Goals of reducing child mortality, improving maternal health and combating aids.

However it's not just the numbers that make Robin passionate. Her obsession with compassionate birthing, done as naturally and lovingly possible, is a very personal one. Twenty one years ago her younger sister died of complications during pregnancy from hypertension related to medical interventions beginning in her youth. This was in the USA, a nation which spends more on pregnancy and birth technology than any country on earth.

It lit a fire under her that was still burning when she first arrived in Bali two years later. Life in the hills around Ubud was basic then, and maternity care in the villages was inadequate, to say the least. Dealing with her own pregnancy and helping other women around her finally drove her to found the Bumi Sehat Foundation in 1995.

Robin not only wanted to provide a natural, healthier and more holistic alternative, but also to provide a service for poor villagers who simply could not afford proper maternity care. She wanted to do it in the villages "with the village people". The results are tremendous, and it does not go unappreciated by the many she cares for. Said one village mother in an interview earlier this year:

"I do not have money, and I tell my friends to also come here. I wish there were more people like her to lift up the suffering of the poor people."

Yet that same fire that drove her initially also singed her relationship with local modern medical practitioners. Despite early advice from a long-term expat working in national health care to "work with existing systems and improve them from within and not do an end run", Robin set out very much on her own track. A number of misunderstandings on both sides of the divide created unpleasant tensions.

It was perhaps the fall out from this period that finally brought her around to reaching out to the Indonesian medical community. But it was also through the agency of an Indonesian doctor, Hariyasa Sanjaya, that Robin's transition to fruitful cooperation with the medical community became more complete.

When Hariyasa came back to Bali in 2006 after a stint in Australia he was struck by the unusually high percentage of cesarean births here: up to 50%. Once a staunch critic of Robin who proclaimed her a crank, on his return Hariyasa had something of an epiphany about "the stiffness and the arrogance" of the medical community whose 'evidence-based' mentality seemed to completely ignore the thousands of years of experience-based lore that existed heretofore. He saw a need for the medical community to give a greater place to the power of nature: "after all, women have been giving birth for thousands of years!".

On the other hand, he admits he felt that Robin's back to nature stance seemed uncompromising to the medical community at large. Her vocal championing of water-birthing, the use of natural herbs and homeopathics, all of these and more seemed outlandish to them. While Hariyasa acknowledges that a doctor does need a certain amount of 'negative thinking', for example anticipating problems in surgery, he now sees a middle way:

"Robin was a somewhat controversial figure when I finally met her, but I saw in her three things - clear understanding, a strong conscience, and courage. Now she has learned to compromise on things which are not essential, not fundamental, in order to achieve a greater good. That's a sign of maturity. She can now take others' viewpoints on board and consider them. It's important to 'go back to nature' but it's also important to ensure the patient's safety."

Robin welcomed Hariyasa's timely positive interest in her methods. Years ago, as she was featured more and more in the media, some of her comments, in particular her criticism of the medical institutions, had irked midwives and doctors in the regency of Gianyar in Bali. They had pushed the health department to look into her practices. Dr Hariyasa's interest drove him to investigate waterbirths. The positive conclusions of his study helped to calm the storm.

Nowadays in Bumi Sehat's project in tsunami-stricken Aceh, traditional midwives in remote areas work in tandem with the medical community, keeping in touch with mobile phones provided with special hand chargers that don't require electricity. Robin herself now readily acknowledges how hard the medical community in these remote areas works, and how important it is to be inclusive. It is becoming a two way street: in Bali, Dr Hariyasa has even referred patients to her from the clinics he works in.

Today Robin has been nominated as one of the CNN heroes who are candidates to become "Hero of the Year", and the voting is soon coming to a close. At stake is a grant that would provide much needed funds to help her rebuild her clinic. Discussing her 'hero' status, Dr Hariyasa sees Robin as "a rock" and yet:

"She has learned through the experience of conflict and adversity. This is extremely important. Every great person must have the courage to acknowledge their limits, then they can go forward."

Robin herself says she has stopped tilting at windmills:

"I guess I got older and maybe a little wiser. I figured out I could stop offending people. By liking myself enough I could speak with real love in my heart to people, not just with saccharine words".

Perhaps this is the real mark of a hero: the ability to acknowledge one's limits and shortcomings, and then strive to go far beyond them.

Anna Hazare, Savior or Destroyer of Democracy

My article in the Huffington Post


Several months ago the world looked on in dismay and horror as their tv and computer screens filled with images of self-styled ‘true’ Muslim villagers and students from nearby pesantrens in Cikeusik attacking members of the controversial Ahmadiyah sect, eventually beating and hacking three of them to death. Once again Indonesia was in the limelight for all the wrong reasons, and once again the Ahmadis had little recourse to justice or the constitutional religious freedom that they are entitled to as citizens of the Republic of Indonesia, despite the fact that their organization here has been recognized as a legal body since 1953.

What was especially chilling at the time was that although at first glance seemingly a spontaneous mob lynching, strong indications of premeditation and complicity came to light soon thereafter. For example all the attackers wore blue ribbons on their arms to distinguish them from from their victims. Ahmadis also reported that two truckloads and a minivan full of police not only did hardly anything to stop the mayhem, but they actually left the scene when things got out of hand (though local police denied this, nonetheless the Banten police chief was relieved of his duty over his handling of the massacre).

Despite these and many other facts, including a video recording that it is so damning that the cameraman who shot and uploaded it received death threats, district prosecutors only demanded seven month prison sentences. To put this into perspective: according to Indonesian law the crime they were accused of, inciting hatred and mob violence, is punishable by a maximum sentence of seven years. Yet here was a case not only of inciting hatred and mob violence but a barbaric lynching to boot. Once again Banten province was showing off its bigotry.

True to form, the subsequent district court proceedings in the capital of Banten, Serang, were a cruel travesty. Defendants openly joked with supporters during the trial, contrition far from their hearts. Then came the verdicts. The accused were merely found guilty of ‘participation in a violent attack that resulted in casualties’. One 17 year old, caught on camera bashing one the victims on the head with a large rock, got three months. The heaviest sentence was six months. The court glossed the evidence of premeditation and the horrific deaths. Once again the world watched in disbelief.

Once again the Indonesian judiciary system representatives in Banten have sent a clear message to the mob: “if you kill the ‘right people’, we will find a way to get you off the hook, no matter how outrageous the case, as long as it is in the name of Islam”. If this ruling is not reviewed, the message will spread across the country, and the constitution will be even less relevant than it is now. In plain talk, we will become completely lawless.

Rio Helmi, 29th July, 2011


Rio Helmi / Bali

The head of the Bali chapter of the Indonesian business association APINDO, Panundiana Khun, apparently said to reporters back in February that land in Bali was no longer economically suitable for agrarian use, it should rather be used for the tourist industry, and that Balinese farmers were better off transmigrating. The subsequent uproar had him scrambling to ‘clarify’ his position a few days later, claiming it to be a mis-quote. Whatever the case, he had hit a deep nerve in the Balinese community.

True, the carrying capacity of the island has hit critical mass. Not only in terms of ecological burden, but also in terms of cultural lebensraum. Ecologically, every high school kid in Bali knows tensions over water shortage (e.g. huge amounts of water are piped down to Nusa Dua from fertile rice growing regions to fulfill the needs of 5 star hotels, in which each room consumes around five times a Balinese family’s average of 200 liters), disappearing agricultural land (the last few years more than 1000 hectares have been ‘converted’ or urbanised annually) and a booming population (3.9 million today vs 2.4 in 1978) means tough times ahead.

But what caused the uproar in Khun’s apparent gaffe has more to do with a long smoldering resentment amongst many elements of the Balinese community towards the excesses of the tourist industry and foreign investment, especially ever since government approval for BNR (Bakrie Nirwana Resort) on land considered within the spiritual buffer zone of Tanah Lot was rammed through despite huge island wide protests. All acknowledge wealth has been generated by tourism, but many point out the imbalance in the distribution thereof, and the ecologically disastrous nature of many projects. Back in the 1990s a high ranking (non-Balinese) official in the national government commented during a conversation that “Bali doesn’t belong to the Balinese or to you who live here, it belongs to everybody”.

But more pointed is the discussion of identity and cultural rights. A good deal of a Balinese’s spiritual life centers around his or her ancestors: what he or she inherits from them in terms of tradition (material and spirit being tightly interwoven), and what to leave for the next generation. Once principally an agrarian society, the emotional bond to inherited land is linked not only to personal but also to communal spiritual well being. For example, most homes in a village are the birth-right of the families that inhabits it, but unlike farmland, the land actually belongs to the community and is known as “karang desa” and cannot be sold. It is to help ensure all members of the community are provided for, but also to maintain the integrity and cohesion of the society. Farm land and such that is actually inherited can be sold but represents a deep link to the ancestors, who are worshipped everyday in the family temple. Then there is what is considered sacred property of temples, “laban pura”, not only seen as a temple’s “profit center” but also its spiritual buffer. Temples, the related ceremonies and ‘tithes’ all are part of the glue that holds Balinese society together. The most bitter feuds in Bali revolve around land and the right to use cremation grounds.

What the passion the current ongoing debate on Bali’s zoning (“RTRW”) stirs up indicates is that this is something of a symbolic last stand for Balinese culture as a living, breathing entity.

As one of my Balinese friends commented the other day when I remarked that the days of the Balinese farmer seem to be over: “No, actually they will remain farmers, but they will be tenant farmers. The Japanese and Taiwanese have been buying up land, not to build villas but as an investment in agriculture”. So as the government at both local and national levels fails its people by not giving enough attention and support to the all important agricultural sector in Bali, foreign investors are injecting capital into it – with the obvious proviso that the Balinese will no longer own their inheritance.

So why has it taken so long for the Balinese community to wake up? There is real concern, but why did it not act before?  Part of the problem is that though there is  tightly woven fabric of Balinese culture, the same weave also keeps the Balinese “in their place”: separated by caste and clan. As one vocal Balinese (high caste) spluttered out to me: “As soon as someone voices an opposing opinion everything breaks down into camps defined by caste and clan. If a person feels attacked because of his policies etc, he maneuvers through the loyalty lines of caste and clan. We don’t have enough free thinking intellectuals on this island! That’s why activism is so poor in Bali. During the BNR controversy, even though most Balinese were angry about it, it took non-Balinese activists to actually mobilise us”.

For sure Balinese culture will continue to be featured in presentations and museums, and the Disneyland effect will continue to find its market. Last month in the so-called cultural center of Bali, Ubud, there was even a “marketing museum”  opened - much to the bemusement of most locals. The much quoted slogan of Balinese communal philosophy, Tri Hita Karana (which refers to the threefold relationship between man and god, man and fellow man, man and environment) will continue to be quoted academically, it might end even up as a ‘marketing display” in the museum. But who will be left to live and breathe this philosophy?


Rio Helmi - May 3, 2011

As the flagwavers outside the White House cheered the triumph of the “free world” over evil, they resembled nothing so much as adrenalin-fueled Roman crowds roaring jubilantly at the sight of the spilled blood of a gladiator. How far have we come since Rome? Or more to the point, how far have we come since 9/11?

In the pivotal week after that massive tragedy, ill-advised decisions were made that were to plunge the whole world into a seemingly unending escalation of vile terrorism and draconian security. In the days that immediately followed the attack, sympathy and support for the United States came pouring into the White House from the world over, including many predominantly Muslim countries. It was an opportunity to create a united front, to share resources in an intelligent, long term and effective effort to undermine any support for fundamentalism as a whole across the East/West, North/South, and intra-Abramic religious divides.

Instead George W. Bush, prompted and prodded by his advisors, opted for a “crusade”-like war on the sources of terror in Afghanistan. Though the “crusade” epithet was quickly dropped, the damage was done. The neo-con association with the Christian right, the USA’s on-going blanket support for Israel’s aggressive intrusions into the West Bank and the Gaza, has reinforced a massive line of confrontation between the “West” and an ever-more radicalized, neo-pan-Islamic movement.

In simple terms the result has only been escalation, there has been no “triumph of the free world”. Rather the contrary: as commentator Neil Macdonald points out, many underpinnings of American democracy went out the window: habeas corpus was swept under the carpet, torture sanctioned, Guantanamo became infamous. Even the name of the outrageously undemocratic Patriot Act was symbolic of this loss “free world” reason. On the other side of the fence, radicalization became an everyday occurrence.

With the election of Obama there was hope, light at the end of the tunnel some said. His speech at Al Azhar university in Cairo was deemed historic, though many Arab commentators at the time adopted a “wait and see” stance. Whether this was simply cynicism or an awareness of the immense pressure an American president experiences in office, there does seem to be some indication that they were partially right.

Obama remains likeable as a figure, and for us Indonesians there is something of an emotional investment in his attempt to change the world order, but right now the odds for his success in bringing about change don’t look so good. Whether out of personal conviction or under incredible pressure, Obama’s bid for change is perceived to have been seriously compromised. Obama has pledged to pull the US out of Iraq, but he continues to try and win a military victory in Afghanistan. There is little to indicate that this will succeed, nor will it do much to bring about peace, so it begs the question why a man as intelligent as Obama would take this route which so clearly will lead into a quagmire? Is it political expediency? We expected better from Barrack Obama.

Whatever the case, the impression the world gets is that Obama has let himself be swayed by hawkish elements, and there are poltical gains to be made. It is clear is that this mission to take out Osama was, from the word go, a mission to kill, not to detain. The speed and the manner in which his body was dispatched at sea smacks of conspiracy and insult, and is arousing anger amongst Muslims the world over. Indonesia will not be an exception.

What happened to the ideals spoken of in Cairo? Osama committed heinous crimes, but is an eye for an eye really the way forward? In a macabre scene again reminiscent of Roman emperors at the arena, Obama followed the whole mission live from A-Z, right up to the moment when a bullet entered Bin Laden’s left eye. When Obama made his speech he emphatically and repeatedly used the word “I” regarding the authorization of the mission. It is clear that Mr President is now fully endorsing military solutions to a problem which he once talked of as one of misperceptions between cultures and creeds.

How this brutal and bloody “success” is supposed to bring peace is a mystery. Even the CIA is predicting more violence, and the rhetoric from the Arab world supports this. Those who stood outside the white house and cheered are surely fools. Americans the world over will be reviled anew, senseless violence will continue to escalate. As Mahatma Gandhi once said: “An eye for an eye will make the world blind”.


Rio Helmi

The democratic election of Lobsang Sangay by the Tibetan people-in-exile as their prime minister and political leader, whose temporal authority now replaces that of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, is a major step forward not just for the Tibetan people but for democracy worldwide.

Throughout the 30 odd years of my association with the Tibetan people and His Holiness, I have always been made aware that the institution of true democracy has been an urgent ongoing project, much frustrated and  delayed more by the reluctance of the Tibetan people and differences of perceptions within their own community rather than anything else. HH the Dalai Lama had the vision to see that democracy is the only way forward for the Tibetans, yet had to work a very sensitive balance in nurturing this political development.

This is indeed refreshing and inspirational at this point in global political history. We see scenes of despots desperately trying to stave off the Arab spring, while a superpower flounders as it panders to the latest occupant of the oil fields of northern Africa and the shorelines of the Gulf. We see one Arab leader prancing about in a myriad outlandish costumes pronouncing the love of his people for his own glorious self (in between shelling the living daylights out of them); or another, backed by his giant neighbour, sending killer squads into hospitals to take out doctors and patients - whilst above mentioned superpower frets more about naval access to the region than the murders of entire families downtown. Yes, it is refreshing to see someone - who truly is worshipped by his people - so intent on divesting his power to them.

The previous Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso, tried valiantly to bring his people forward into the 20th Century, realising early on that Tibet would be a pawn to be sacrificed in the great game that soon was to involve the clash of global political ideologies – rampant feudalism, capitalism, communism all posed threats to the survival of a people and their culture. Clearly old Tibet was not idyllic, it had its fair share of issues. It had to reform. Yet the Thirteenth was to be disappointed by the apathy of the ruling class, the reluctance of Tibetans to open their eyes and see the new world. For all intents and purposes, his current successor, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso, politically tempered at an early age by dire circumstance, was better positioned to shift these perceptions, albeit at the bitter cost of losing sovereignity in his own land.

It is undoubtedly this loss, and the fragile balance of life for the Tibetan nation-in-exile, that has contributed greatly to this shift. But it has taken patience and perseverance to introduce direct elections into the community. Powerful leadership can be a double edged sword: on the one hand it can provide decisive action when needed, on the other it can easily lead to dependence and the inability of the populace to develop a clear sense of responsibility, civic and otherwise. With today’s record population numbers and cultural clashes, the development of strong, trans-cultural civic societies is more urgent than ever. Without transparent democracy’s checks and balances this is impossible to achieve.

This year the People’s Republic of China celebrates 60 years of the “liberation of Tibet”. But we all know that the PRC is haunted by fears of a homegrown “Jasmine Revolution” even back in the pre-dominantly Han populated provinces, let alone Tibet proper. Its insecurity is reflected in an unwritten disposition that no overseas Tibetans, especially Lamas, are allowed to visit Tibet for the next several months. That kind of fear is a clear indication of political dysfunction.

Ironically there is much more liberation going on in exile than within the borders of one of the world’s superpowers. Whilst the Chinese Nobel peace laureate languishes in jail, and the Arab spring continues to be bloody, Lobsang Sangay’s peaceful election indicates a blossoming of new hope for  the younger generation.


Senja di persimpangan bundaran jalan arterial kawasan Kuta itu sedemikian ruwet sehingga mudah memahami kenapa julukan “Simpang-Siur” sudah lengket dari tahun ke tahun. Disini hampir setiap saat rame, dan sinar lampu stop-an merah berarti ‘jalan’ bagi anak-anak yg berbaju lusuh. Mereka menyusuri mobil-mobil mewah dengan tangan terulur, menunggu uluran kembali dari penumpang-penumpang yang berdiam diri dibelakang kaca jendela. Anak yang lahir di desa tandus di balik gunung nun jauh ke timur, bumi yang tidak punya kasih, dipaksa bercekeran di aspal. Mereka  memahami kota dari perspektif yang tak ternyana oleh para perencana tata kota.

Bandar yang turun tengah malam untuk mengumpul duit mereka pun tidak terlalu repot berkasih sayang. Jujur kata, dari sekian ribu pengemudi dan penumpang pun yang berhenti di lampu stop-an itu, sedikit  yang benar-benar memperhatikan anak-anak itu, apalagi memikirkan nasib mereka, dan mungkin lebih sedikit lagi yang bertanya “Bagaimana ini bisa terjadi?”. Toh anak-anak itu adalah rang terendah pada tangga urban baru di Bali yang semakin sesak diinjak-injak, perkotaan yang semakin mendesak manusianya untuk membela kepentingannya masing-masing.

Memang selama tiga dasawarsa terakhir Bali menjadi rebutan, antara orang Bali, antara pendatang dari pulau lainnya di Nusantara, antara para expat yang menikmati “Paradise”. Ironisnya lama-lama bukan “paradise” yang menonjol tapi “parasite”. Saya yakin bahwa pernyataan ini akan tidak enak didengar, terutama oleh penduduk yang mencintai pulau ini. Namun kalau kita telaah kata ‘parasit’ ia adalah bentuk kehidupan yang tidak mengenal “co-dependency” tapi hanya “dependency”. Bentuk kehidupan ini akan hinggap dimana ia bisa menghisap  zat-zat yang dibutuhkannya, tapi tidak membalas budi alam bentuk signifikan. Dalam bentuk ekstrimnya, ‘tuan rumah’nya sang parasit bahkan bisa terhisap kering habis, mati tercekik.

Pola pemikiran parasit tidak melihat langkah lebih jauh dari sekedar kebutuhan hari ini. Ketidakmampuan memandang ke depan serta tidak memahami kepentingan bersama berakibat fatal, dan sesungguhnya adalah pola biadab. Anak-anak yang dikorbankan demi keuntungan orang tua adalah gejala infeksi parasit yang paling parah. Ada juga perilaku kita yang tidak senyata itu tapi tetap juga tindakan yang saling merugikan – contoh sederhana menyerobot antre, tidak bisa mengalah sejenak di perempatan lalulintas, dan sebagainya yang akhirnya membuat kesemrawutan. Daerah urban seolah menjadi tambang emas liar.

Saya ragu mengatakan bahwa ini adalah sifat hakiki manusia Indonesia moderen, saya lebih cenderung berpikir ini terjadi karena kita telah mengabaikan langkah penting dalam perkembangan urban dan masih bisa dikoreksi. Dalam desakan luar biasa yang terjadi kini di Bali (menurut sensus 2010, ada wilayah di Denpasar yang kepadatan penduduknya melebihi sembilan ribu lima ratus jiwa per kilometer persegi) banyak yang tidak sengaja bahkan tidak sadar menjadi parasit. Pola-pola kemasyarakatan lama terbengkelai, pola baru tidak terbentuk. Inilah keluhan yang terdengar saat diskusi tentang urbanisasi Bali baru-baru ini yang diselenggarakan sehari setelah pembukaan pameran foto ‘Urbanities’ .

Dalam diskusi tersebut dua tokoh ‘opinion-maker’ Bali, yaitu wartawan kawakan Bali Wayan Juniartha (“Jun”) dan penulis kolom Obrolan Bale Banjar di harian Bali Post, Made Sudira (“Aridus”), menunjuk hilangnya tokoh-tokoh panutan lama, baik Hindu Bali, Muslim maupun yang lainnya, sebagai faktor yang turut memperparah ketegangan antar kelompok masyarakat yang kini terjadi.

Menurut Jun, dengan adanya perubahan tatanan sosial (kelas menengah baru dsb) serta masuknya elemen jurus agama  didikan luar (bagi Hindu dari India, bagi Muslim dari Pakistan dst) generasi muda telah melupakan kode-kode interaksi antar golongan, antar etnis, antar agama. Terlupakan sudah bagaimana kerajaan-kerajaan Bali mempunyai hubungan khusus dengan kaum pendatang. Di Karangasem, misalnya, kampung-kampung Muslim justru membentengi puri. Mereka bahkan ikut mengamankan dan menjaga kebersihan lingkungan pura tempat sembahyang orang Bali. Sebaliknya ongkos naik haji mereka ditanggung oleh raja. Di Denpasar kaum Bugis pun dulu punya perjanjian khusus dengan Puri Pemecutan.

Sudira menekankan kurangnya komunikasi dan pengertian tentang kepentingan antar masing-masing kelompok. Dulu pada zaman ORLA dia turut membentuk organisasi informal terdiri dari pemuda-pemuda dari berbagai golongan etnis maupun agama untuk membentengi ekses-ekses kekerasan yang terjadi pada pertengahan tahun 60an.

Sudira menunjuk bahwa kini situasi sudah beda, identitas orang Bali yang masih sangat  berakar pada pelaksanaan adat yang sangat memakan waktu hingga parameter kegiatan mereka sulit dicocokan dengan kondisi moderen. Kepentingan bersama semakin sulit ditemukan – namun ironisnya kebanyakan pihak pendatang baru berada di Bali justru karena bagi mereka kebudayaan setempat melahirkan suasana ekonomis yang menjadi ‘gula’ untuk ‘semut’.

Senada dengan itu seorang Ibu asli Bali yang lama merantau ke Jakarta, mengaku shock saat kembali bermukim disini, “semua sudah demikian garang, perilaku bahkan menjadi lebih keras ketimbang Jakarta, dan Bali seolah tinggal komoditas untuk dijual”. Bahkan Pino Confessa, seorang seniman teater kelahiran Itali  yang sudah puluhan tahun bermukim di Bali dan sekarang menjabat sebagai konsul Itali disini, berpendapat bahwa ini semua akibat mitos-mitos komersil dan TV yang telah menggantikan mitos-mitos lama “Masyarakat sekarang bengong dengan sinetron..”.

Di pihak lain, seorang pelukis pendatang dari Jawa yang tinggal di Kuta, Pandji, merasa bahwa sah-sah saja kalau pendatang yang sudah punya ‘watak urban’ dapat meraih kesempatan-kesempatan yang dilalailkan oleh penduduk setempat. Ia malah bertanya, kenapa para pendatang kelas ekonomi rendah yang bekerja keras mendukung ekonomi harus selalu dihasut, contohnya penggerebekan tengah malam yang dilakukan oleh pecalang dan sebagainya. Dengan membagi pengalaman-pengalaman langsung, masing-masing kelompok sempat saling membuka mata akan kegentingan situasi masing-masing.

Tentunya saat diskusi ada pertanyaan mengenai pembangunan fisik – seorang mahasiswi planologi berkomentar tentang daerah yang menjadi langganan banjir setelah pembangunan, ada juga yang menunjuk kurangnya lahan sebagai pemicu – observasi yang valid, namun tetap terjadi suatu konsensus bahwa interaksi sosial berbagai unsur masyarakat tak bisa diabaikan sebagai faktor penentu dalam perencanaan kota,  dan interaksi inilah yang paling menentukan masa depan daerah urban Bali. Keadaan Bali tidak bisa disamakan dengan perkembangan daerah atau negara lain dimana kesepakatan lebih mudah tercapai. Di Bali revolusi agragris, industrial, ekonomis dan teknologi terjadi serempak – tidak heran kalau terjadi pergesekan yg merugikan. Konsensus dari diskusi itu juga mempertegas bahwa tidak bisa mengharapkan pemecahan dari pemerintah, dari aturan baru, dari lembaga-lembaga.

Yang dapat saya simpulkan dari acara tukar-pikiran ini adalah bahwa masyarakat madani sekarang harus lahir dari diri kita sendiri, melihat bahwa tokoh-tokoh panutan yang kuat kini absen. Kini kita yang harus bisa mengolah jiwa dan raga menjadi jaringan komunikatif yang saling mendukung, yang saling membantu mencari jalan menghindari pola parasit – membentuk pola masyarakat madani bersama yang lintas etnis, agama, dan kelompok lainnya  tanpa mengancam identitas masing-masing.

Kini pola demikian tidak semata harapan abstrak. Kita memiliki berbagai kondisi yang mendukung, solusi yang positif semakin mudah di akses dan dibagi dengan bahasa yang lebih universal, apalagi dengan media internet. Sebagai contoh, baru-baru ini di India masyarakat madani berhasil memaksa reformasi pemerintah terhadap korupsi dalam tempo 4 hari. Bagi penduduk Bali, menjadi masyarakat madani adalah sesuatu yang dapat tercapai. Tinggal kemauan dan kecerdasan yang lahir dari ‘sharing’.

Rio Helmi / Bali 19 April 2011


We walk through garish corridors haphazardly hung with children’s paintings. By local standards it’s a big house with a big kitchen, and although it’s on the edge of whatever is left of Denpasar’s ricefields, there is no garden. Ibu Putu Etiartini introduces me to ‘her’ children.

One of the young girls has a freshly bandaged foot and is on crutches.Buoyed by the friendly atmosphere, I blurt out “Hey what happened to you?” - only to realize that her right foot is missing. In the matter of fact, practical way that Balinese can sometimes assume, Ibu Putu glosses over what I hope is my concealed mortification, explaining that the girl had to have her foot amputated. Apparently her foot, twisted at birth, had developed a infection from a cut she got as she hobbled through the streets of Kuta begging barefoot.  Gangrenous, it was left unattended.

In truth, all of these kids have been left unattended. On the streets in the urban sprawl that now engulfs Denpasar, Kuta, and Sanur, their Fagin-like minders appear a couple of times a night on shiny new motor bikes to collect the money from their grubby young charges. Parents get some of the cut but often stay out of the way, at home on the other side of the island. The children are left to their own devices. This smiling young girl who now has no right foot and has had several operations (and more to go) is one of the lucky ones – Ibu Putu found her and brought her under the care of the YKPA foundation which she founded for street children in 2005.

Ironically, despite the fact that the parents of these children so blatantly allow their children to be exploited, YKPA legally still has to convince them to give permission to the foundation so their children can get the care and education they never would receive otherwise. Even more ironic are the cases of two of their recent charges, who, because of having been taken off the street no longer provided an income for their unemployed parents – and as a result the parents revoked their permission to have them kept at YKPA.

Part of the issue is desperate poverty brought on by the aridity of the northeastern tip of the island. Another part is the cold-hearted mafia that has developed the system that takes advantage of the lack of education and effective government welfare nets – from the point of view of the parents it can look like the simplest solution. But overwhelmingly it is the willingness of the majority, perhaps too busy with dreams of new motorcycles or even perfect holidays, to simply ignore what is going on around them.

Poverty has also taken its toll in the villages in the Batur caldera. Pande Putu Setiawan has been exposed to the harsh realities of life here since his youth, through the work of his father, a paramedic who devoted nearly his entire life to providing basic health care to the impoverished villages in the Kintamani region. Prompted by his father’s example, Pande decided to set up the Komunitas Anak Alam.

With a primary focus on providing education to the children of these villages, the group of young volunteers Pande leads are dedicated to providing the kinds of opportunities that many of the children, especially girls, would never have even dreamed of. These volunteers, students and young budding professionals,  often dig deeply into their own pockets and happily sacrifice their own time. Though Kintamani is a major tourist destination promoted by, amongst others, the government, little evidence of the dividends filters into the villages of Songan and beyond.

Yet this is not all simply a case of a lack of modern sense of civic responsibility. Nor is it just the abject failure of the social services department to do something more meaningful than promise paltry sums which often enough don’t even get disbursed (the average sum per child per day promised to various orphanages is about Rp 3000, or 30 US cents). There is a collective shrug when the subject of the poverty-stricken in these areas is discussed – “these people have been begging for centuries, it’s their way” says popular local wisdom

Harsher still are the effects of personal shame. Social stigmatization, once set in, is a difficult stain to erase in a deeply conformist and communal society. Once one falls into the margin, it takes a lot to stand up and be counted amongst the smiling.

This is not something new which has sprouted within the ranks of the new arriviste bourgeoisie. Along with the many great qualities that have dazzled visitors to the island since the 18th century, there has always been something of a dark, fatalistic side to traditional Balinese culture. One brutal example of this deep sense of stigma is that which attaches itself to any family with handicapped children. Until as recently as a decade ago many of the island’s handicapped simply never left their compounds - perhaps loved at home, but hidden away from the public eye.

When the late President Gus Dur held a meeting of the handicapped ten years ago at the Grand Bali Beach, many who attended at his insistence had never left their homes before. Not a few had no formal schooling. “I was stunned and excited to meet so many others in a similar situation. A year later, missing them terribly, I decided to get in touch with them all.” says Putu  Suriati - a victim of polio who got her first wheelchair as an adult from American Judy Slatum.

That started the ball rolling. Soon, with the aid of an Australian confined to a wheelchair, Vern Cork, the group turned into a collective, and eventually they formed a legal foundation, Yayasan Senang Hati. Education and empowerment feature large on their agenda. Supported by donations and some of their own efforts at sales of arts and crafts, and a variety of activities, what really shines through is the sense of pulling themselves up by the bootstraps.. “Several of our graduates are now working in hotels on the islands” the organizers told me proudly.

Despite the evident good that YKPA, Kommunitas Anak Alam and YSH have done and are doing, even today government and Balinese society support for these two desperately needed programs remain sporadic at best. They mainly survive on donations from individuals.

Yet they remain inspired to keep at it. These stories have come out of the dark closet of society’s denial. Street children, impoverished villagers and the handicapped, denied of education in their own homes, have responded to schooling, education, special courses, and come out shining.  Behind each one of these stories is a fierce sense of personal dedication, a defiance of the so called “natural order of things”, and the awareness that there is nothing that can stop you if you have the will.

The real stigma lies with a society and a political system that cares little for its needy, with a government which pours its attention into an industry of luxury and leisure whilst ignoring the dirt poor and the unfortunate. As elements of our society, at least we can change that. As individuals we can be aware and can care. Helping those who already want to help themselves is the least we can do.

When People Turn a Blind Eye and Leaders Go Deaf

Rio Helmi, 10 February 2011

Democracy is a term whose precise meaning is elusive, especially so in developing nations. For leaders more worried about superficial legitimacy than actually taking on the task of improving the lot of their people, ‘democracy’ revolves around elections and how to get through them intact. It has become something of an industry standard; when others dispute results and methods, one can always refute these protests simply with “Hey, we held free elections”. Somehow human rights end up secondary on the display shelf.

Naturally, not only do elections supposedly legitimize regimes in their own countries, but they also legitimize other more powerful democracies (the “West”) dealing with these regimes towards their own ends. These are marriages of convenience between parties that come to an understanding mostly without really understanding the other party, something of an agreement between thieves. Human rights issues are just minor thorns, burrs caught on the trousers of powerful men striding across new fields to be plowed.

One may claim that 20th and 21st Century intelligence gathering serves to properly brief their respective governments, but intel blunders amongst super powers are legendary, whether as a result of compromise or incompetence (Think “weapons of mass destruction” farce). It is rare that actual members of foreign administrations venture deep into the psyche’s of their counterparts, it’s an area left to academics and eccentric expats from whom only sound bites are heard.

It is politically incorrect for well educated people to have biases against race and religion, but many still carry the coding of centuries of such bias in their cultural DNA. There is scarcely a ‘modern’ western nation now where one does not find sizeable and growing neo-fascist movements, and concern about migrants..

On the other side of the moat things are hardly better. The first encounters between most countries with western powers were filled with attitudes of vast superiority, suspicion, miscommunication, betrayal, and often widespread blood shed. So no matter how absurd it might seem to us, it is not too difficult to stir up suspicion and hatred again – terms like Great Satan sounds ridiculously tinny to many of us, but to embittered, disempowered people it resonates.

I’m sure this all sounds simplistic, but it is a 1-100,000 scale map of the heart of an old world that is gradually dying: a product of centuries of violence and invasions (e.g. Alexander the Great, Jingghis Khan, Chinese imperial despotism, the Turks beating on the gateways of Bavaria, the Inquisition, the persecution of Jews and Moors in Europe, European colonialism, slavery, the two World Wars, Stalin, Vietnam – in no way an exhaustive list).

Some how the anachronistic zeitgeist of the first seven decades of the 20th Century is still lurking in the hallways of power of even the most ‘advanced’ nations, despite decades of political evolution since the 70s when Kissinger embarked on his détente with the USSR and Nixon landed in Peking. It took decades before the world media could even bring itself to write the name properly as Beijing. Some even created a myth that the PRC had changed the name in the 80s, when all they were doing was correcting the Latin script spelling. A small but telling example. But look at it from the other end: imagine if Egyptians or Indonesians would refer to Obama’s birthplace as the “Isles of Sandwich”?

To segue Obama into all this, his current stilted position on Mubarak, his VP’s dealing with Egyptian VP Suleiman, a known military iron fist, the US administrations reiterated praise for the “restraint of the Egyptian military” whilst Egyptian military police continue to ‘disappear’ protestors – all of this is a sign that traces of this outdated, poisonous zeitgeist is still flowing through the ventilation shafts of Washington DC.

Even the fact that that the verb ‘to disappear’ has become transitive in colloquial language is a sad indication of language reflecting the non evolution of US power policy, arrested by 9/11. Somehow the increased mobility and tech connectivity we have seen in the last decades hasn’t led to more understanding, it is simply translated as  more opportunity for the materially and politically ambitious. Obama, I was happy when you were elected, and the speech in Cairo was great. But you are seriously losing traction on ‘change’ here.

What we are seeing in Tunisia and Egypt is beginning of a movement that may still be brutally suppressed but not stopped. It is the new world that is coming. Islamic fundamentalism grew out of colonial meddling. But now many Islamists are getting a sense of something new in the offing. The Muslim Brotherhood is not Hezbollah, far from it. The Tunisian Islamists want to work with others, they are not the Somali fanatics that Ayaan Hisri Ali ran from. And the intellectuals are cautiously engaging with them. They all know that they could be rewriting the ground rules.

This is a civil movement started by a new, younger generation: intellectuals, professionals, and now older workers. They are inspiring others to join. And many of the older generation are galvanized by them. This was especially the case when an emotional TV interview with an Egyptian Google executive, Wael Ghonim whose was released after 12 days of captivity, was broadcast, blindsiding Mubarak’s administration.

In Indonesia a similar thing happened 13 years ago – it was the students who took the initiative, we all followed. But the reform on the government’s side has stagnated. Yet the civil movement is evolving as we speak, perhaps not in an organized formal manner, but people are more informed and engaged. If the older leaders can’t open their hearts then they shouldn’t lead. To lead is to inspire, to inspire your people to work their hearts out for their country and for the world. Leaders that think of their people as cattle to use an electric prod on belong in Gulags.

In relation to Egypt, here in Indonesia we have something of a different but related situation. The anachronistic zeitgeist here is the wisps of a mindset that has its roots back in the first decades days of the Republic, during which several attempts to create Islamic states failed – but it has been cunningly reinfused as movement against immorality.

This is what fuels the fundamentalist mobs  such as FPI who have brutally harassed bars, attacked “non-believers”, burned churches, even killed Ahmadis on camera. And of course there are the more infamous bombers, whose spiritual leader, linked to Al Qaeda, is set for trial next week – Abu Bakar Ba’asyir calmly told reporters Thursday that “The Prophet was like me”. If he wasn’t such an old fox one would suspect he was delusional. But he is definitely holding on firmly to another world vision for which it is clear that there is detailed game plan. A clear and present plan.

Our President has dragged his heels for years. It is clear that these mobs have transgressed the constitution. He has finally decided to be more firm with the mobs (so far mostly in  words). Their answer: “We will ‘Ben Ali’ you SBY”. Yet these thugs, who dote on all things Arabic, have no clue that Tunisia was not an Islamist movement, nor that things are changing drastically. They too are stuck in a defunct time zone. Many of us have turned a blind eye to the outrages they have perpetrated. And our leaders have become so deaf, engrossed in their own political survival that it has taken a long-growing clamor for them to finally hear. But whether they will respond adequately is not yet clear. If they don’t, we will all suffer.

What we all, whether super-power or just a power in our own backyard, need to remember is that the world situation is constantly evolving, we are constantly creating it. Others react to what we do, as a result opinions and attitudes are formed much, much faster now. Time to be brave: embrace the future.

Major Sale at Rio Helmi Gallery (Bali)

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