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Click for larger view.While in Bali a couple months ago, I was reminded how dramatically the political climate there has changed since my first visit in 1988.

Indonesia has had more than its fair share of political drama and trauma over the years. Within the last half century alone, Indonesia was colonized by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British. And, during World War II, it was occupied by Japan.

Finally, in 1945, Indonesia gained independence. But, that wasn't the end of the country's political turmoil, which came to a head in the late 1960s with the death of 500,000 Indonesians and a power grab by Suharto and his repressive military regime. Suharto was finally forced out in 1998, after 32 years in power.

During my early trips to Bali, it was impossible to get anyone to talk about anything even vaguely related to the government. An innocent question about schools in Bali would be answered cautiously, for fear that it might be interpreted as being critical of the school system - which is a government entity.

In the west, we're so used to expressing opinions about politics that we don't even think twice about it. But, during that period, if a visitor dared to make a passing comment about politics - even about politics in America or Europe - the locals would visibly freeze. Their discomfort with the subject was palpable.

Two generations of Indonesians grew up in a state of constant wariness. So, for the past 10 years it has been fascinating to watch the evolution of the local people, as they've come to the realization they're entitled to have opinions, that they can express those opinions without fear, and that they have the ability to vote those opinions.

I was in Bali during the first political campaign following Suharto's ouster. Megawati, who eventually became president of Indonesia for a short time, was a favorite in Bali, due to her family's ties to the island. Nearly everyone in Bali wore Megawati t-shirts and waved her party's banners from their cars. A Balinese friend, who didn't support Megawati, told me that he flew her banner anyway when he went to certain parts of the island, simply to avoid confrontation with her supporters.

On my most recent trip to Bali, the campaign season was in full swing. Indonesia's parliamentary system has spawned numerous political parties and the island was inundated with posters for individual candidates, as well as colored banners that represent the various parties. In the cities and along the highways, all sorts of party banners flew, while in some of the smaller villages only one color flew, making it was apparent that a certain party was preferred there.

During religious celebrations, Bali is decorated with penjors - bamboo poles from which colorful banners hang. Nowadays, penjors have been joined by another kind of banner; one that profoundly celebrates a new Indonesia.

Diane Embree
March 8, 2009

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