Diplomacy Needed in Indonesia — Not Military Might

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Fulbright program important way to counterbalance extremism

The Arizona Republic — August 1, 2017

DENPASAR, Indonesia – The world’s most-populous nation with a Muslim majority doesn’t typically garner much attention in the United States, other than when there’s a tsunami or terrorist attack.

But it should.

This country of more than 260 million people in Southeast Asia is vitally important to American strategic interests as it decides what type of country it wants to be in the coming decades.

Fulbright Indonesia

Lecturing as a Fulbright Specialist about America’s media system at a university in Surabaya, Indonesia

Even though Indonesia has a relatively secular constitution, there are hardline Islamic elements who are pushing the country toward Sharia law.  Already, a province called Aceh on the northern tip of Sumatra Island has formally adopted Sharia law.  In Aceh, “offenses” such as homosexuality, adultery and selling alcohol are now punishable by public whipping.

In May, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a Christian with Chinese ancestry who was the former governor of Jakarta, was sentenced to two years in prison.  His crime?  “Blasphemy against Islam” for allegedly referencing a verse from the Quran in a heated political battle with a Muslim opponent.

Indonesia is at a crossroads and sits precariously on a line between religious extremism and a tolerant, inclusive and democratic society.  The battle for the hearts and minds of Indonesians will likely be determined more by the power of persuasion than military might.

Enter the foresight of Sen. J. William Fulbright, a forward-thinking American statesman who realized the importance of diplomacy. In 1946, Sen. Fulbright created the landmark program that still bears his name.  Passed unanimously by the Senate and funded by the State Department, the Fulbright program sponsors Americans and foreigners for exchanges in endeavors such as the sciences, business, academia, government and the arts.

Since the first Fulbrighters went abroad in 1948, the program has had an extraordinary impact around the world; there have been more than 250,000 Fulbright students, scholars and teachers.  Each, in his or her own way, has led to the overall goal of advancing mutual understanding between the U.S. and other countries.

In my case, I had the privilege of lecturing at six different universities in Indonesia this spring.  At two of the institutions, I was the first American to have lectured in person in the university’s history; both were schools more than 30 years old.

Dan Fellner on Indonesian TV

Appearing as a guest on Indonesian TV

The administration, faculty and students and faculty welcomed me with open arms and were truly interested in hearing my thoughts about our political and media systems.  Most of my talks were standing-room-only; one lecture at a university on the island of Java attracted more than 400 people.  My lectures were widely covered by the Indonesian media.

While questions and comments from the audience indicated Indonesians didn’t always agree with American foreign policy, they did seem overwhelmingly positive toward Americans and receptive to the values I espoused — the importance of a free press and the formal separation of religion and government.  I experienced similar open-mindedness to American ideals in prior Fulbright teaching stints at universities in Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova and Bulgaria.

The Fulbright program has faced potential budget cuts in recent years, which could cripple its ability to preserve and enhance America’s leadership abroad.  This year is no different.  The administration has proposed a 47 percent cut in Fulbright funding.

It’s vital to our country’s national security that Congress supports funding at the continued level of about $235 million, a relative drop-in-the-bucket compared to the money spent on our military.  Indeed, the entire Fulbright budget is approximately the cost of one-third of just one B-2 Stealth Bomber.

In this uncertain world of grave threats from numerous fronts, winning hearts and minds in places where some want to do us harm has never been more important.  In this respect, the Fulbright program is every bit as valuable to our national security as a tank or fighter plane.

© 2017 Dan Fellner

Beautiful and Mystical Bali

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Traditional dance reflects Indonesian island’s unique and devout culture

The Arizona Republic — February 26, 2017

JIMBARAN BAY, Bali – Ask a local here about the island’s population (about 4 million), and they will most likely answer in terms of “souls” rather than people.

Bali Hindu temple

One of the most scenic Hindu temples in Bali, Puri Ulun Danu Bratan is on the shores of Lake Bratan.

It reflects the deep spirituality of Bali, where there are Hindu temples on virtually every street, shrines in most homes and businesses, and where many Balinese present offerings of flowers and candy to the Gods each day before going to work.

Yes, Bali offers beautiful beaches, high-end resorts, world-class surfing and spectacular sunsets that are found on many tropical islands.  But what sets it apart from other warm-weather destinations is the devoutness of its unique culture, which permeates all aspects of Balinese life and envelopes tourists as soon as they arrive.

Appropriately known as “Island of the Gods,” Bali is one of more than 17,000 islands in the Indonesian archipelago and – by far – the country’s most popular tourist destination.  Its 2,200 square miles – full of rice paddies, volcanic mountains and traffic-clogged cities — make it approximately the same size as the state of Delaware.

Bali dancing

A traditional Balinese dance performance in the courtyard of a Hindu temple at the Four Seasons Resort

While Indonesia’s population has a Muslem majority, Bali is a pocket of Hinduism; more than 80 percent of the island’s population identify as Hindus.  The Balinese speak their own language, although most also are fluent in Indonesian.  English isn’t widely spoken beyond tourist areas.

Regardless of the occasional difficulty in communicating, I found the Balinese to be welcoming, quick with a smile, and rightfully proud to show off their island.  Even mispronouncing the Balinese word for thank you – suksma – which I did repeatedly, would bring a cheerful grin (it’s pronounced sook-sum-uh).

I was especially fascinated by the beauty and elegance of traditional Balinese dancing, which isn’t only considered an art form, but an inseparable part of the Hindu faith.

My first exposure to local dancers came at an interactive class at the Ganesha Cultural Center in Jimbaran Bay in the southern part of Bali. Located inside the grounds of the posh Four Seasons Resort, Ganesha (named after a Hindu god) also is open to visitors not staying at the hotel. It was inaugurated last summer to showcase the work of local hand-picked artists and preserve Balinese culture.

Bali dancer

A Balinese teenager demonstrates the finger contortions and intense facial expressions of traditional Balinese dancing

At the Ganesha dance class, two 15-year-old girls from the local village demonstrated some of the techniques that make Balinese dancing so compelling – intense facial expressions, rhythmic head-bobbing and fluid hand movements.  There are other traditional dances around the world – the Ukrainian hopak comes to mind – that may be more acrobatic, but few are as pleasingly graceful and exquisite.

That’s not to say, though, that being agile and dexterous isn’t an asset.  In addition to mastering some pretty tricky head and foot movements, Balinese dancers can contort their fingers in a way that makes Mr. Spock’s Vulcan salute seem pedestrian.

“It’s all about practice,” said Ni Luh Gede Suryatini, assistant manager of the Ganesha Cultural Center.  “You need to start learning from a very young age.”

Some Balinese dances are like watching a play with a plotline.  When the plot calls for it, facial expressions can involve eye-bulging and scary snarls.  Other dances – based on humorous stories — can veer toward slapstick.

Balinese priest flooding

A Balinese priest presents an offering to Hindu Gods in a ceremony at the Hindu temple at the Four Seasons Jimbaran Bay

“We have dances about war, we have dances about love, we have dances about how to welcome our guests,” said Suryatini.  “That determines the expressions of our dancers.”

That evening, I was treated to a dance performance in the courtyard of the Four Seasons’ onsite Hindu temple, which has its own resident pemangku, a Balinese priest who blesses visitors and demonstrates Hindu rituals.

Backed by an eight-piece, percussion-heavy band playing traditional Balinese instruments, a group called Teba Banjar from Jimbaran village performed five classical dances in brightly-colored costumes and intricate gold headdresses (see video shot by the author at Four Seasons Jimbaran Bay: Balinese dancing at Jimbaran Bay).

The Ganesha Cultural Center offers classes in other traditional Balinese art forms, including woodcarving, ceramic painting and hand-weaving.  There’s also a class on how to make a canang, a small palm-leaf basket used by Balinese to present daily offerings – such as candy, coins and flowers — to the gods.  The Four Seasons donates all proceeds from the cultural center back to the local artists.

I also took a daytrip to Ubud, a town in central Bali that is considered the spiritual and cultural center of the island.  Full of art galleries, spiritual healers and meditation centers, it’s vibe is somewhat evocative of Sedona. There’s even a popular spa in Ubud named Sedona.  A portion of the 2010 movie “Eat Pray Love,” which chronicled writer Elizabeth Gilbert’s quest for inner peace and starred Julia Roberts, was filmed in Ubud.

There are no direct flights to Bali from the United States, but there are easy connections from major Asian hubs like Hong Kong, Tokyo and Singapore into Denpasar, Bali’s largest city.  Balinese food is flavorful, spicy and reasonably priced.  Unlike in India, which practices a different strain of Hinduism, beef is on the menu in many Bali restaurants.

Bali sunset

Sunset over Jimbaran Bay in southern Bali

When Bali first began attracting significant numbers of tourists in the 1930s, Indonesia was a Dutch colony.  Many visitors came to experience a culture with a diverse mixture of Chinese, Polynesian, Indian and European roots that was unlike any other in the world.

Nearly a century later, more than 3 million tourists visit Bali each year.  The hotels now are far ritzier and the traffic is in a seemingly perpetual state of gridlock.  But the tourists still come for the same reasons.  That’s why Suryatini said it’s vital that the culture is preserved through dance and art.

“We know the tourists are coming to Bali because of its culture” says Suryatini.  “If we don’t save this culture from now on, who will do it?”

© 2017 Dan Fellner