In the beginning was the word – and the word was UWRF

Nov 1, 2023
Ubud Writers & Readers Festival_Main Program_Alang-Alang Stage_4-c Image: Copyright © Ubud Writers & Readers Festival

Indonesia’s expanding dark side was hardly noticed by festival audiences at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival (UWRF). But for all his domestic popularity, Indonesian President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo is no reformist liberal.

Was this year’s Ubud Writers and Readers Festival worthwhile? My word – the people of the book had a literary communion.

Almost two hundred speakers (gleaned from a list four times longer) handled challenging ideas mainly with aplomb. Not all was fiction – human rights were prominent throughout.

A lively analysis of the Gaza crisis by two articulate writers who knew their stuff – Australian investigative journalist Antony Loewenstein and American ‘private diplomat’ Michael Vatikiotis – gave the audience a nuanced understanding of the tortured region’s complex history.

Goenawan Mohammad, Indonesia’s leading public intellectual told of being ‘betrayed’ by the actions of Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo – a leader he’d once endorsed.

No longer. Days earlier he’d written an ‘open letter’ condemning the president for backing his eldest son Gibran Rakabuming Raka, 36, as a contestant for the vice presidency alongside his former bitter opponent, the cashiered general Prabowo Subianto.

Also striking was Kurdish-Iranian refugee and writer Behrouz Boochani letting loose on his four years on the Australian-run Manus Island detention centre and two more years in Port Moresby. Denied entry to Australia he was eventually accepted in New Zealand where he’s now an academic.

For those from Down Under there was a chance to get close to personalities they only know from TV, like 2021 Australian of the Year, Grace Tame, AI expert Toby Walsh and ABC presenter Leigh Sales who asked why the public is turning away from news.

Maybe because we dish up too much that’s trite – a crime the Festival largely avoided.

UWRF’s four days in October weren’t just back-to-back speakers. On the touchlines were masterclasses, book launches, art exhibitions, dances, films, craft classes and foodie shows – a speciality of the festival founder Janet DeNeefe.

Born in Melbourne, she married Balinese Ketut Suardana and for the past three decades has lived on the island running restaurants. The first festival was staged two years after the 2002 bombings of a Kuta nightclub by Islamic terrorists.

The outrage turned thousands of foreigners away from Bali, emptying hotels and shredding supporting industries. Tens of thousands lost work.

The DeNeefes thought a literary festival might encourage returnees; they were right. Twenty years on their venture has grown into a non-profit drawing international names to Southeast Asia’s biggest literary festival, and a swag of sponsors.

Curiously the US ranks as a higher donor than the Australian Embassy, though the festival is dominated by Aussies paying $495 for a four-day pass. Locals got in for $125, students $50.

The prime language was English and the cosmopolitan young Indonesian wannabe writers and established scribes easily exercised their views. But UWRF is for the well educated and inquisitive.

DeNeefe told this website that readership among Indonesians is far too low, as the education system doesn’t encourage text study. Her views are backed by a UNESCO survey claiming that although the population is almost 100 per cent literate, only one in 1,000 likes to read.

Despite UWRF’s obvious benefits to the economy and literacy, Jakarta threatened the 2015 event. That was when it planned to cover the 50th anniversary of the 1965 genocide of half a million real or imagined Communists.

About 100,000 were slaughtered in Bali. The cascading green terraces ran red; the fear that dare not speak its name lingers still.

The military-organised killings followed a botched coup that installed the 32-year military rule of the despot General Soeharto.

Police threatened to shred the festival permit if discussions on the tragedy went ahead. DeNeefe argued the programme was designed to promote reconciliation, but scrapped the contentious sections to keep the Festival alive.

The publicity made the government look fatuous and the festival famous.

This year’s troubles included Muhammad Quraish Shihab, 79, refusing to appear on the stage with the outspoken Andreas Harsono to discuss Islam. The Harvard-educated human rights activist didn’t make a fuss out of respect for his opponent’s age; that’s another side of Indonesian culture.

The former Minister for Religious Affairs is best known outside Indonesia for declaring it’s OK for Muslims to wish Christians a ‘Happy Christmas’. Such profundities shape Indonesia’s religious debates.

Goenawan Mohammad was publicly asked about his attack on Jokowi by a man clearly not a culture buff, most likely an Intel (intelligence services) operative.

Indonesia’s expanding dark side was hardly noticed by festival audiences enjoying esoteric debates on foreign affairs and thinking they’re in an open democracy. But for all his blandness and domestic popularity Jokowi is no reformist liberal.

As Melbourne University law professor Tim Lindsey has written, Indonesia under Jokowi has suffered ‘increasing democratic regression … inaction on claims of human rights violations, and litigation to silence critics of the government.’ Last century the Republic was an autocracy. Now it’s a ‘flawed democracy’.

UWRF speakers get away with censure of authorities and policies, as does The Jakarta Post. Co-founder Jusuf Wanandi told the festival few police can understand English so miss criticisms.

Although the venue was a delight overlooking tumbling forest it was a disaster for the physically challenged.

Stairs up, stairs down, holey rubble-strewn pavements and hazards everywhere. In much of the West public events must follow health and safety rules and include facilities for the disabled. In Indonesia such laws aren’t in place or don’t apply, though there was a medical team on site.

The aged, overweight and those needing sticks and friends for support made up a goodly proportion of the 1,500-plus participants. Their cerebral pleasures were marred by physical discomfort.

Ubud’s narrow roads are thick with motorbikes, noise and fumes. The fabled rice paddies are vanishing under concrete as the building boom goes on and on. That should also be the future for the festival, but it needs pastures fresh.


Disclosure: The author was a guest of the Festival.

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