Suharto-era response to 'gigolo' film has Bali reeling

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 May, 2010, 12:00am

Something is wrong on the Island of the Gods.

The popular resort destination of Bali should be abuzz with optimism as it heads into its annual peak season with expectations to set a new record for tourist arrivals.

But the island's collective attention has been diverted by two vastly different police investigations that have people up in arms and are causing unwanted media attention. The first involves the continuing search for a suspect in a series of rapes of young Balinese girls in recent months. Police have arrested two other suspects, and the case has not had any affect on the tourism industry, both foreign and domestic.

The other police investigation, however, might very well give Bali's image a black eye. The island scarcely needs that, given how two terrorist attacks in 2002 and 2005 ravaged its tourism industry, forcing it to claw all the way back to achieve a record 2.1 million visitors last year.

Last month, a documentary by Singapore-based writer and director Amit Virmani called Cowboys in Paradise premiered at a film festival in South Korea, and its trailer was uploaded onto YouTube. The file profiles tanned, muscular Balinese surfer boys who speak candidly about their escapades with foreign women, made possible by their charming demeanour and pick-up lines in multiple foreign languages.

Media reports then began describing them using the 'G' word - gigolo - sending the Bali Governor's Office and the provincial police into a rage. They launched a full-scale criminal investigation against Virmani using a film law from the authoritarian regime of the late dictator Suharto, and last week were seeing if Interpol would help to extradite Virmani to Indonesia to stand trial.

Whether the Bali police were trying to protect the island's image or just trying to save face, they have now come under increasing fire from Balinese community leaders for allegedly giving the documentary a higher priority than the child rapist still on the run. They have also taken a hit in domestic and international newspaper commentaries about their reaction to Cowboys in Paradise, which is the last thing they should want.

'I think it's an overreaction on the part of the police,' said T. Mulya Lubis, a prominent lawyer and chairman of Transparency International Indonesia. 'I don't think the film would affect Bali's economy, or tourism. Bali is Bali. It's too big to fail.'

Indeed, the fact that young Balinese men have flings with foreign tourists, and sometimes get gifts in return, is one of the island's worst kept secrets. But because of their rabid - and silly - reaction to Cowboys in Paradise, including rounding up some of the men interviewed in the film for questioning and setting loose citizen mobs to comb tourist beaches for 'gigolos', the governor's office and police have only drawn focus on the issue.

'If the director at the centre of the storm did not have the necessary permits to shoot his documentary, then perhaps he should be banned from making any more movies in Indonesia. But arresting young men on the beach and issuing an arrest warrant for the director sends all the wrong signals,' an editorial last week in the Jakarta Globe, Indonesia's main English-language daily, said.

'It would have sufficed for the authorities to issue a strongly worded statement that the documentary offers a very narrow view of Bali and its tourism industry, and then to have moved on,' it said. 'Most people who love the island would not even have noticed, and would have simply gone on enjoying Bali's beauty.'

But, as usual, the knee-jerk reaction to quash criticism by Indonesian officials who were indoctrinated under Suharto's authoritarian regime has only brought negative publicity and spotlighted some of the other unsavoury aspects of Bali.

One of the most shocking in recent years was the murder of journalist Anak Agung Narendra Prabangsa last year. Prabangsa was beaten to death with clubs and then dumped into the ocean over a series of articles he had written for Radar Bali that painted a picture of widespread corruption in local government projects.

The convicted mastermind of the murder, Nyoman Susrama, is the brother of a Balinese district government chief and is now serving a life sentence. Separately, two Japanese tourists were murdered on Bali in the last few months of last year.

In all fairness, Bali is a safe place to visit. Violence against foreign tourists is extremely rare but, that said, they are most certainly not shielded from another island scourge: corrupt police officers. A simple internet search reveals websites dedicated to stories by foreign tourists and expatriates being extorted by Balinese police officers, including claims that they plant drugs on tourists and threaten them with decades behind bars in an Indonesian prison.

Lubis said Bali's police ranked about the middle of Indonesia's 33 provinces in terms of corruption. That might explain why, despite their anger over the allegation of gigolos mingling with tourists on famous Kuta Beach, the police turn a blind eye to a well-known prostitution area near Sanur, on the eastern side of Bali, that caters to construction workers.

There is an old saying that there's no such thing as bad publicity, but Bali in the wake of Cowboys in Paradise is proving to be an exception.