Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Indonesian Foreign Policy: Blind Spots, Stress Points and Potential Pitfalls

 Jarryd de Haan
Key Points
  • Indonesia has been ignoring its leadership role in ASEAN, even though that organisation has the potential to be a valuable tool for extending Indonesian influence.
  • Indonesia’s reputation as a moderate Islamic country has been tarnished from within, potentially jeopardising its long-standing position as a beacon of Muslim democracy.
  • The increasing appeal of populism to Indonesian politicians could influence foreign policy decision-making in the future.
  • Phantom threats such as “proxy wars”, which are being fed by the suspicions of high-ranking Indonesian officials, are encouraging a protectionist stance in foreign affairs.
  • Indonesia will need to reduce its economic dependence on China to avoid future conflict between its economic interests and its political and security concerns.

Indonesia is growing. Strong economic growth and a swelling middle class have even seen some analysts predict that Indonesia will become a global economic powerhouse behind China, India and the United States. As it moves along that path, Indonesia will continue to
re-shape its strategic outlook and overcome numerous challenges as it seeks further influence in its region and beyond. This paper will examine some of those challenges in the context of foreign policy, specifically, the leadership role that Indonesia needs to fulfil through ASEAN, its position as a Muslim beacon of democracy and the need to reduce its dependence on China by broadening its economic relationships with other countries. Additionally, the appeal of populist policies and phantom threats that are distracting officials from addressing such foreign policy challenges will also be looked at.


ASEAN Needs a Leader

As has been noted in the Strategic Weekly Analysis, the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) will be facing its first real challenges within the next fifty years and will need strong leadership to survive. Currently, that leadership does not exist. While Indonesia is generally accepted as the de-facto leader of ASEAN regardless of where the chairmanship may lie, Indonesia has yet to completely embrace that role, and instead attempts to delegate the responsibility to “collective leadership”. The ideals of collective leadership are closely entwined with the values of the “ASEAN way” – a founding principle of ASEAN that values sovereignty and non-interference in the domestic issues of other states. The “ASEAN way” has unfortunately become an excuse for inaction in the face of pressing regional issues such as the Rohingya refugee crisis. While Malaysia has broken from that tradition and heavily criticised the Myanmar Government for its handling of the issue while providing aid (although perhaps more out of political ambitionthan for genuine concern), ASEAN as a whole has yet to co-ordinate a response to the crisis which has been playing out for more than two years.
ASEAN’s failure to act for fear of offending one of its members is a significant roadblock to the organisation’s future. Without strong leadership, ASEAN could very well dissolve in the face of brewing geo-strategic conflicts such as that between China and the United States. Stronger leadership is needed to encourage responses to regional issues and to pave the way for ASEAN integration.[1] Such an approach will need to be carefully managed, however, as divisive leadership will only serve to destabilise the organisation. Regardless, it will be a foreign policy failure on the part of Indonesia to brush aside its de-facto leadership role, as ASEAN has the potential to be an essential part of Indonesian foreign policy and a valuable tool for exerting influence and maintaining stability in the region.
Moderate Islam under Threat
Since the days of Sukarno, the role of Islam in Indonesian foreign policy has been mostly limited to legitimising policy objectives. Past situations in which Islam has played a minor role in dictating where Indonesian sympathies would be directed include the Israel-Palestine conflict, the Bosnian War and clashes between India and Pakistan. The dynamic of Islam in Indonesian foreign policy, however, has changed radically following reformasiand the post-Suharto era which led to the democratisation of Indonesia.[2] The reformasiprocess established Indonesia as the world’s largest Muslim democracy, leading the government to project itself as both a bridge between the Muslim and Western worlds and as a role model for other Muslim countries. The attacks of 11 September 2001 and the Bali Bombings of 2002 also led the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to shift focus to “Moderate Islam” as the identity of Indonesian Islam, wherein Indonesia’s Islam is moderate, tolerant and compatible with democracy.[3]
From within, however, Indonesia’s moderate Muslim image has been tarnished. Canings for adultery under sharia law, police raids on gay spas and a Christian governor jailed for blasphemy have all hit Australian news headlines this year. Whether or not Indonesian Islam is moving away from its moderate past, the Australian media is certainly portraying that to be the case. The hardline Islamic Defenders Front group has also gained momentum despite government efforts to crack down on such groups that have been deemed to be “anti-Pancasila”. In light of that, the Indonesian Government may wish to be more wary of Wahhabi influences emanating from Saudi Arabia. A previous Strategic Analysis Paper highlighted the potential that Saudi-funded madrasas (Islamic day schools) could have in fuelling an apparent trend of “Arabisation” among Indonesian Muslims. That influence, however, could be subject to change given recent sentiments from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) to restore Saudi Islam back to its more moderate roots and to turn away from current radical leanings. Time will tell whether or not MbS is genuine in his pursuits and if that will sway hardline Muslim groups in Indonesia.
It is important at this point to distinguish the difference between Islam as a political ideology and Islam in the public sphere. Islam as a political ideology will remain moderate and tolerant, and will continue to operate in the sphere of foreign policy within the bounds set by the principles of Pancasila. Islamic groups within the public sphere, on the other hand (with the more radical groups tending to be the loudest), will continue to influence foreign policy by pressuring the government on issues related to Muslim causes.[4] In this light, the tarnishing of Indonesia’s position as a moderate Islamic voice could affect its relations with Australia and perhaps the wider Western world, especially if the government becomes more concerned with winning votes at home rather than strengthening relationships abroad. That kind of populist decision-making would be detrimental to Indonesian foreign policy.
Rise of Populism

For decades, experts often agreed that the Indonesian public plays little to no role in the foreign policy decisions made by the government. Recently, however, the public has become more informed about, and interested in, international affairs. The public primarily influences foreign policy through voting and public opinion. Indonesia’s rapidly growing middle class also adds weight to public opinion within the country. The problems associated with foreign policy informed by populism can be seen in the case of US President Donald Trump. Under Trump, relations with Mexico, Cuba and a number of Muslim-majority countries have significantly deteriorated as a result of a protectionist foreign policy focussed on putting “America First”.
In the case of Indonesia, a populist president would likely be affiliated with conservative Muslim groups and would give a stronger voice to groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam, or FPI). FPI leader and founder Rizieq Shihab is a popular (albeit controversial) figure in Indonesia, with a recent survey [in Bahasa Indonesia], released in October 2017 listing him as the third most popular Indonesian scholar. The same group is also known for spreading fear that Islam in Indonesia is under attack by forces such as communism, and promoting hatred towards such so-called opponents of Islam. The following address by the now General Chairman of FPI, Sobri Lubis, adds the Indonesian Ahmadiyyah Muslim community to the list of those forces:

We call on the Muslim community. Let us go to war with Ahmadiyyah! Kill Ahmadiyyah wherever they are! God is great! God is great! Kill! Kill! Kill! If we do not kill Ahmadiyyah they will destroy our faith.… The blood of Ahmadiyyah is halal (permissible).… If they want to know who is responsible for killing Ahmadiyyah, it is I.… Say that Sobri Lubis ordered it, that Habib Rizieq and FPI ordered it![5]

Any influence that groups such as the FPI may hold on foreign policy decisions made by the government will be opposed to the notion of democracy, damaging to Indonesia’s relations with the West and detrimental to its position as a beacon of Muslim democracy and a moderate voice in international conflicts. Their influence within the Indonesian community, therefore, should also be seen as a concern which could have broad implications in the Indonesian political sphere.
Distractions and Phantom Threats
Indonesian officials and groups often stoke the flames of phantom threats, with one of the more common threats being communism. In September 2017, hundreds of protestors besieged the headquarters of the Indonesian Legal Aid Institute Foundation (Yayasan Lembaga Bantuan Hukum Indonesia: YLBHI) for days after a small group of scholars, lawyers and victims of the 1965 Communist Purge attempted to hold a discussion on the killings that took place between 1956 and 1966. The protestors gathered after rumours spread that those participating in the meeting were trying to revive the Indonesian Communist Party (Partai Komunis Indonesia: PKI). Eventually, the police were called to break up the meeting as protesters shouted ‘Eliminate the PKI!’ Further protests took place the following day, with a number of conservative groups becoming involved, including the FPI, and pushing the number of protesters up towards one thousand and subsequently turning the protests violent. Shortly after the incident, several thousand protesters gathered in Jakarta to rally against a “growing threat” from communism. Professor Tim Lindsay, Director of the Centre for Indonesian Law, Islam and Society at the Melbourne University Law School, said the following in response to the incident:

The idea that communism might be resurgent is ridiculous in a country that doesn’t even have a leftist political party. Although the PKI was violently obliterated in the mid-sixties, and communism is a dead letter globally which has no popular support in Indonesia, it is alive and well as Indonesia’s No. 1 bogeyman.

Armed forces chief General Gatot Nurmantyo and Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu are two officials known for spreading fear over non-existent threats such as communism. Nurmantyo is known for speaking out about “proxy wars” in Indonesia, whether in the form of drugs weakening the youth, communist ideas brainwashing the public or terrorism funded by countries such as Australia [text in Bahasa Indonesia]. It is widely believed in the Australian media that Nurmantyo is using this rhetoric as a means to whip up public support for a possible attempt at the presidency in the next election. Ryacudu, who soon jumped on the “proxy war” bandwagon, has his own ambition to strengthening the influence of the military in domestic affairs.

The majority of these “proxy wars” arise from the idea that Indonesia’s sovereignty and the values enshrined under Pancasila are constantly under threat from external and foreign forces. A recent example on the impact that this stance can have is the partial suspension of military ties with Australia in January 2017. The suspension was instated by Nurmantyo (without consulting President Jokowi) following his visit to a Perth army base where he alleged the Indonesian ideology of Pancasila was insulted and that Indonesian forces were exposed to propaganda material about  Papua. Additionally, instead of focussing on real issues, such as how the military can protect Indonesian maritime assets in the future, Indonesian defence officials are getting caught up in how to combat non-existent or exaggerated threats. The result is that Indonesians are looking inwards for signs of Chinese communist propaganda while China encroaches on Indonesian interests in the South China Sea.

China: Economics Mixed With Politics
Indonesia’s economy benefits heavily from trade, investment and tourism coming from China. Beijing is Jakarta’s largest export market, receiving $22.2 billion worth of exported goods from Indonesia in 2016. While that is at similar levels to the United States ($21.3 billion) and Japan ($21.3 billion), exports to China since 2000 have grown at significantly higher levels, as seen in Figure 1, below.
China is also the third-largest source of direct investment for Indonesia, just behind Japan and Singapore. Indonesia’s tourism sector, which generated revenue of $16.3 billion in 2016 (almost double that of the largest export, petroleum gas), is also led by China. Singapore is the only other country with a significant presence in all three sectors. Looking towards the next decade, China will likely remain in the top two markets for exports, the top three investors for Indonesia and will continue to dominate the tourism industry in Indonesia.

The issue with having a strong economic relationship with China is that economics are often mixed with politics. The overarching Chinese economic policy, the “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI), is focussed on developing infrastructure and increasing connectivity throughout Eurasia to support a China-centred trade network. That economic goal, however, is closely linked with political ambition. Peter Cair, a non-resident fellow at the Lowy Institute, notes that, ‘the overarching objective of the [Belt and Road] initiative is helping China to achieve geopolitical goals by economically binding China’s neighbouring countries more closely to Beijing’. Through closer economic ties with Indonesia, China will have greater push and pull when it comes to political or diplomatic affairs. From China’s perspective, closer relations with the de-facto leader of ASEAN and the largest economy in South-East Asia serves a number of geo-political interests. Regardless of whether or not China’s increasing interest in South-East Asia is benign or malignant, Indonesia should avoid putting itself in a position where, without China, its economy is vulnerable. Being in such a position could blind Indonesian leaders to the political ambitions of China, which may come at the expense of Indonesia’s own national interests.


The points presented in this paper are only some of the foreign policy challenges that Indonesia will face on its path towards becoming a true regional, if not global, power. In light of the challenges mentioned above, Indonesia will be remiss if it does not solidify its role as leader in the region through ASEAN. The inner workings of hardline Islam, the draw of populism and the use of phantom threats, on the other hand, are much more intricate issues with few immediate solutions. Diversifying economic relations with countries other than China should not be difficult from Indonesia’s perspective, as it is generally in a favourable position to negotiate trade agreements and investment opportunities with a number of major economies due to its market size and economic strength. If it can do that, it will help to avoid economic dependency on China and any political ramifications that come with that.


Jarryd de Hann is a Research Analyist with the Perth-based Future Directions Int.

( The title of this paper is based on a session of the Conference on Indonesian Foreign Policy 2017, held in Jakarta on 21 October, hosted by the Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia and attended by the author.

A leap for faith in Indonesia

A high court decision gives state recognition to some 245 traditional faiths, a small but overdue victory for religious freedom


Balinese Hindus pray to celebrate the religious festival Galungan at the Jagat Natha temple in Denpasar on Indonesia's Bali island on November 1, 2017. Balinese Hindu adherents celebrate Galungan Day or the Earth's celebration to thank God for the creation of the Earth and its content. Photo: AFP/Sonny Tumbelaka
Balinese Hindus pray to celebrate the religious festival Galungan at the Jagat Natha temple in Denpasar on Indonesia's Bali island on November 1, 2017. Balinese Hindu adherents celebrate Galungan Day or the Earth's celebration to thank God for the creation of the Earth and its content. Photo: AFP/Sonny Tumbelaka

Why does Indonesia seem to prefer foreign aid from China?

By Pierre van der Eng, ANU
When Australia reduced its foreign aid to Indonesia by 40 per cent in 2015, Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry responded that ‘Indonesia … is no longer a country that needs aid for development’. At face value, this seems to be the case. Data released by the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC) in October 2017 shows that net foreign aid to Indonesia from DAC member countries and from multilateral aid agencies like the World Bank has decreased and even turned negative in some years.
Foreign aid peaked at US$2.5 billion in 2005 after the 2004 Aceh tsunami. Since then, it decreased to negative US$483 million in 2014 and negative US$43 million in 2015. Indonesia continues to receive aid from traditional donors such as the United States, Japan and Australia, but its repayments of concessional loans from DAC countries have started to exceed new aid commitments from these countries.
Foreign aid was a key feature of Indonesia’s economic development during 1967–2003. Together with public revenues from oil and gas exports, it was one of the planks that sustained public expenditure and economic recovery in the face of the woes of the Sukarno regime in the early and mid-1960s.
Indonesia’s parliament passed legislation in 2003 and 2004 that required a reduction in foreign aid to a maximum of 3 per cent of the annual budget. Its purpose was to limit both dependence on foreign aid and the influence of foreign aid donors on Indonesia’s development policies. In 2007 the Indonesian government ended the Consultative Group on Indonesia, which was the international group of aid donors that had previously coordinated foreign aid to the country.
Increasing aid-related debt repayments meant that Indonesia’s concessionary interest rate debt decreased from US$62 billion in December 2011 to US$48 billion in June 2014, according to Bank Indonesia. Yet by September 2017, foreign debt has increased again to US$51 billion. What happened?
The answer is that Indonesia has accepted increasing amounts of foreign aid from non-DAC countries. In order for the Indonesian government to take advantage of non-DAC foreign aid (especially from China) while staying within the legal 3 per cent maximum contribution of foreign aid to Indonesia’s public budget, foreign aid from DAC countries apparently had to decrease to less than Indonesia’s repayments to DAC countries.
It has long remained unclear how much aid Indonesia received from China. China is not a DAC member and does not report to the DAC. Nor does it report on the foreign aid that it as grants or concessional loans. In October 2017, AidData, an institution associated with College of William and Mary in the United States, published a new database on China’s foreign aid 2000–14. It is based on public information, such as project announcements, press releases and press reports.
The definition of aid projects and programs in this database includes grants and concessional loans with low interest, long grace periods until first repayments are due and/or long repayment terms. Most arrive in recipient countries as concessional loans provided by China’s state-owned banks such as the Exim Bank of China, not as government-to-government grants.
Indonesia is not the largest recipient of Chinese aid. It received just 2.4 per cent of total Chinese aid during 2000–14. Still, this amounted to US$17 billion for 86 projects, or an average of US$2.5 billion in aid per year. This was about half of the total turnover generated by Chinese firms from completed contracted projects in Indonesia in 2015, according to the Statistical Yearbook of China.
China’s concessional loans help to explain why Indonesia’s foreign debt increased during 2015 and 2016, despite the government’s intention to reduce its dependence on foreign aid. What makes China’s foreign aid preferable to foreign aid from DAC countries?
At first glance, China’s aid to Indonesia does not seem very different from bilateral DAC aid and multilateral aid, which also largely consists of concessional loans. Where Chinese foreign aid differs is in its overwhelming direction towards infrastructure development projects. By contrast, DAC countries and multilateral agencies also assist Indonesia to achieve its Millennium Development Goals with aid projects ranging from poverty alleviation to education and from capacity building in Indonesia’s public services to strengthening civil society.
This emphasis on infrastructure development is in line with what many consider to be China’s core competencies in aid delivery. In recent decades, Chinese companies have honed their experience through the rapid completion of major infrastructure projects. China’s aid to Indonesia has financed bridges, roads, power plants and a limited number of railway projects — all designed and constructed by Chinese firms. The only exceptions have been a slum project financed through the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the establishment of Confucius Institutes at seven universities in Indonesia as well as scholarships for Indonesian students to study in China.
Alleviating Indonesia’s significant infrastructure deficit is certainly one of Jakarta’s key development priorities. But Indonesia could now face the dilemma of whether it can continue to limit the influence of aid donors on its development policies when the delivery of bilateral foreign aid for infrastructure depends increasingly on a single provider.
Pierre van der Eng is Associate Professor in International Business, The Australian National University.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Will Indonesia’s fugitive Speaker escape again? The elite’s war on the Anti-Corruption Commission continues.

By Prof. Tim Lindsey

 Indonesians have been riveted for the last two weeks by a bizarre series of events that finally led to the arrest late last week of Setya Novanto, the speaker of the DPR, Indonesia’s national legislature.  
The saga began on the evening of 16 November when Novanto was booked into Jakarta’s Medika Permata Hijau hospital, claimed to be suffering concussion and vertigo after crashing his car into a utility pole.
Questions were raised when it emerged that Novanto had been named a fugitive by the national Anti-Corruption Commission (Komisi Pemberantas Korupsi, KPK). It soon became clear that there was little damage to the car or the pole, and even less evidence that Novanto had suffered any injury at all.
The episode was made all the more galling by the fact that it had happened before. About two months earlier, the Speaker repeatedly ignored KPK summons for questioning, claiming that been hospitalised for illness.
But he became a social media laughing stock when photos released to prove his dire medical condition showed he was connected to medical equipment that was not even plugged in. Novanto has since reported dozens of social media users to the police, and it seems likely they will face prosecution for memes of Novanto malingering that quickly went viral.
Netizens seem unfazed by this, however, and some were even inspired anew by Novanto’s recent car crash to pump out still more memes. Most are grouped under the hashtag #savetianglistrik (“#save the electricity pole”), and depict the pole being rushed to emergency or recovering in hospital. One social media user with too much time on his or her hands even created a smartphone game, the goal of which was to “collide with electricity poles to be admitted to the emergency department”.
The KPK finally said what most Indonesians already thought was the case: that Novanto had, in fact, staged the whole episode to avoid arrest for his alleged role in causing state losses of $225 million linked to a national electronic identity card scheme. This is a major national corruption scandal that has implicated at least 37 DPR legislators in addition to Novanto.
Novanto’s failure to answer a KPK summons for questioning about the ID card case on 15 November was at least the 11th time he had been a no-show and it was this that finally triggered the issue of a warrant for his arrest. Novanto obviously knew this was coming, because hours before the warrant was actually issued, he lodged a pre-trial application with the notorious South Jakarta District Court, challenging the KPK’s designation of him as a suspect.
Later that day, the KPK arrived at Novanto’s home to arrest him., but he was nowhere to be found. They declared him a fugitive the next day and Vice President Jusuf Kalla publicly called for Novanto to turn himself in. It was later that evening that Novanto’s car gently bumped into the utility pole (leaving a small fender dent, without the airbags inflating or the headlights cracking), and his driver took him to the hospital.
By 17 November, Novanto had been moved to another hospital, RS Cipto Mangkusomo, where he underwent tests. By 18 November, however, the game was up, with the medical director announcing that Novanto did not require hospitalisation. The KPK finally hauled him off to its cells in Jakarta’s Cipinang Prison.
But this may not be the end of the famously slippery Novanto, a powerful politician who as well as being Speaker is also chair of Golkar, the political party originally established by President Soeharto, and now the second largest party in the country.
For years, Novanto has repeatedly beaten allegations of criminal behaviour, with seemingly few scruples about how he does it. The pre-trial application he lodged before his car hit the pole may be his way out of this particular mess. Certainly it is a method he has used before.
In late September this year, the South Jakarta District Court upheld an earlier pre-trial application by Novanto, striking down the first declaration by the KPK that he was a suspect in the ID card case. This decision was highly controversial at the time and many suspected that Novanto had somehow been able to influence the court.
Pre-trial hearings were originally intended only to allow the validity of arrest or detention before trial. In 2015, however, the courts re-interpreted the law to allow pre-trial hearings to also decide whether a person had been validly designated a suspect. Since then, they have become an effective way for corruption suspects like Novanto to stymie investigations at an early stage.
That is not enough to stop the KPK, however. Supreme Court and Constitutional Court rulings allow it to re-designate a person a suspect if sufficient evidence exists, and this is what the KPK has now done.
Novanto will obviously be hoping for another decision in his favour when his latest pre-trial application is heard on 30 November. But to do that, he has to prevent his trial for corruption actually beginning by then, because once that happens, the pre-trial process falls away. This may be why he is reportedly delaying KPK investigators by repeatedly “falling asleep” during questioning, making it very difficult for them to get answers from him.
And just as insurance, he has also reported the head of the KPK to the police for forgery and filed a challenge with the Constitutional Court calling on it to strike out the statute establishing the KPK.
This absurd chain of events should be pure comedy, but unfortunately it has a very dark side. It is just the latest skirmish in the long war between Indonesia’s political elite and the skilful and courageous investigators linked to the KPK.
One of the few things most of Indonesia’s divided and fractious politicians and senior public servants agree on is that they loathe and fear the KPK. They have made repeated efforts to pass laws to close it down or strip it of its powers, and are often effective in using legal mechanisms and pliant judges to halt investigations. Senior staff have been framed with corruption charges and one investigator was even partially blinded in an acid attack.
In fact, the only thing standing between the KPK and oblivion is its huge public popularity. With Indonesia’s deeply institutionalised corruption a daily problem for ordinary citizens, and an election pending in 2019, President Joko Widodo and his advisors know that his support would be badly eroded if the KPK went under on his watch.
But that is not something that bothers Indonesia’s Houdini, Setya Novanto, one little bit.
Professor Tim Lindsey is director of the Centre for Indonesian Law, Islam and Society at the University of Melbourne.  
(This article was originally published by John Menadue on 28th November 2017)

Mt Agung eruption: Deeper significance for Balinese.

By Graeme MacRae

According to international media coverage, the main problem with Gunung Agung’s eruption  is that the airport is closed and tourists cannot get in or out.
The people of East Bali are largely invisible in these reports, but they too are worried about getting home. While they are well aware of the physical danger, for them, the mountain also represents spiritual elevation and power. It embodies a god and its rumbles are a sign of the god’s displeasure.
While Balinese are nominally Hindu, their most immediate spiritual relationships are with their ancestors and a host of other invisible beings related to the landscape and forces of nature.

Moving out of harm’s way

A month ago, people close to Mt Agung were told to evacuate, but they gradually drifted back to their homes and livelihoods. Now, they can see the glow of lava reflected in the night sky and local rivers running grey with cold lahar – all signs reminiscent of the last eruption in 1963.
The alert has been raised back to the highest level of 4 and a 10km evacuation zone has been re-established around the crater, affecting about 150,000 people.
Nobody wants to evacuate. It means abandoning homes, crops, animals and livelihoods, for an unknown time and an uncertain future. But people are doing it not just because the government is telling them to, but also because of what happened last time.
The volcano and the god it embodies feature in most stories about the origins of Balinese culture, religion and political order. While not many people remember Mt Agung’s last eruption, there are stories and physical traces in the form of deep lava fields and the fertility of soils that have maintained some of the most productive rice fields in the world for at least a millennium.

The wrath of the great mountain

Gunung Agung means “great mountain”. It is the tallest of a cluster of volcanoes across the island, part of a much longer chain that extends through Java to the west and Lombok to the east. Thousands of people live on its slopes, tens of thousands around the foot of it and hundreds of thousands within the zone of previous lava flows and ash falls.
Lahar from Mount Agung flowing down the Yeh Sah River. AAP Image/NEWZULU/Muhammad Fauzy Chaniago, CC BY-ND
Mount Agung is what geologists call a stratovolcano. They do not erupt often but when they do it is usually in violent explosions. They often create lethal combinations: rains of heated rock and ash, poisonous gases, and massive, fast moving flows of lava supercharged with gases and other materials (known as pyroclastic flows).
These kill, destroy and bury. Vesuvius in Italy (79 AD and 1631), Tambora (1815) and Krakatoa (1883) in Indonesia and Mt Tarawera in New Zealand (1886) are famous examples. Pinatubo in the Philippines (1991) was the biggest of the 20th century but Agung’s 1963 explosion was not far behind. It killed many more people.
The official Agung death toll in 1963 was around 1500, but the reality was more like 2000. Most were killed by pyroclastic flows, which buried whole valleys and villages. Some people fled but others saw the eruption as the work of the gods and stayed and prayed as the lava advanced. Some survived, most did not.
Anna Mathew’s little known book The Night of Purnama, observed and written from a village high on the slopes, tells of a build-up eerily similar to what is happening now, culminating in a series of massive eruptions with a catastrophic aftermath. The falling ash destroyed crops across the eastern half of the island. Widespread hunger and dislocation followed. People ate the trunks of banana trees to survive and young men took to the roads in search of work and food.

Mt Agung’s last eruption

Indonesia in 1963 was not a happy place. After 16 years of independence, it had serious economic problems, fragile food security and growing political instability. Sukarno, the first president, retained a fragile grip on power, but was threatened by the growing strength of a huge communist party, asserting the rights of landless farmers and sharecroppers.
The previous year a plague of rats had decimated the rice crop, proving that the gods were offended and more disasters would follow. Religious leaders and scholars debated whether the time had come for the Eka Dasa Rudra, the greatest island-wide ritual of purification and re-establishment of order. It is normally held at the turn of a (Balinese) century but may also be held in times of crisis to avert greater disasters.
Meanwhile Sukarno was casting around for sources of foreign exchange, and eyeing the lucrative growth of tourism in countries such as Thailand. He decided to promote tourism, with the dazzling religious and artistic culture of Bali as its centrepiece. He invited the Pacific Asia Travel Association to hold their convention in Bali and timed it to coincide with the Eka Dasa Rudra.
The ceremony is held at Besakih, a major temple of island-wide significance perched high on the southern slope of Gunung Agung. During the preparations the mountain began doing what it is doing now. The previous eruption had been 120 years earlier, so there were no living memories to go by. Balinese leaders interpreted this as a warning from the gods that something was wrong. They called for postponement, but were overruled.
The ceremony began amid smoke and falling ash. As it proceeded, the real eruption began, blasting molten rock high into the air and pouring lava down its sides. Besakih survived, but the ceremonial gateway built to honour Sukarno was the first casualty of the gods’ displeasure. The catastrophic outcome and aftermath were seen as clear evidence of Sukarno’s loss of favour with the gods. He was deposed two years later.
Mount Agung spewing hot volcanic ash as high as three kilometers into the atmosphere. EPA/MADE NAGI, CC BY-ND

Ritual response

Since 1963, population and density in Indonesia have more than doubled. More people live on the slopes of the mountain and higher up. On the other hand, most people are less dependent on local subsistence crops and infrastructure for delivery of food relief. Escape has also improved enormously. Likewise the evacuations should reduce the immediate impact on life and health.
If this eruption continues to follow the pattern of 1963, the consequences for tourism, agriculture and livelihoods in general are likely to be greater than those of the terrorist bombs in 2002 and 2005. Most Balinese will agree that it is the doing of the gods, but there will be different interpretations of their reasons, ranging from violations of the sacred mountain by tourists and sand mining, to broader reflections on the direction of development and its social and environmental consequences.
But the solution will be the same as after the bombs - ritual, bigger and better than ever, which will address the supernatural causes and attract the tourists back at the same time.
If the big eruption doesn’t happen, the ash clouds will drift away, the planes will fly again, everyone will return to business as usual. It will all be forgotten, along with the evacuees, until next time.

This article originally appeared in The Conversation on 30 November 2017