Guarding culture and community

Keeping an eye: Wayan (right) and his crew watching out for motorists not wearing their masks in Denpasar. — The Straits Times/ANN

Bounding from the back of a patrol truck on the streets of the colonial quarter of Denpasar with two deputies in tow, it was not long before Wayan Karda, 59, found a Covid-19 scofflaw.

“Please put on your mask, Pak,” Wayan told a man just as he was mounting his scooter.

Just minutes after the incident, he gently chided a shopkeeper, setting up mannequins outside his fabric shop, for the same offence. Ditto for a pair of young men wearing their masks around their chins.

“I always try to be polite,” said Wayan, clasping his hands in front of himself for emphasis, as The Straits Times accompanied him on one of his three daily patrols to enforce mask wearing, business closures and social distancing.

“We are keeping the community safe from Covid-19,” he said.

The highly infectious Delta variant of the coronavirus is raging across South-East Asia, but in Bali, the authorities say they can turn to the Hindu-majority island’s 44,000 pecalang (cultural guardians) for help.

Clad in black and white chequered sarong, vests sporting official name tags and the destar headgear common on the resort island, pecalang have emerged since the end of the Suharto era as guardians of Balinese culture.

Foreign visitors would recognise them as the legions of – at times gruff – men who close down streets for ceremonies, and strictly enforce temple dress codes and Bali’s Nyepi day of silence.

But since the onset of the pandemic, the men – and they are all men – have seen their role expand.

The ceremonial militia stems from Bali’s peculiar set-up that hands jurisdiction for culture and religion to a customary village head and everything else to conventional local administration.

Bali has more than 1,480 customary villages and about half as many of the administrative kind.

The village heads and pecalang say they are closely tapped into their neighbourhoods in ways the police are not.

“We can go to the smallest corner. We know what’s happening on the ground,” Wayan said before heading out on patrol.

Authorisation for the patrols came from Bali’s government early in the pandemic which filtered down from the governor through the customary village heads, like Ngurah Rai Sudarma, the head of the largest customary village in Denpasar, the capital.

Ngurah said that he provided a letter to Wayan and his crew at the start of the pandemic as proof that the patrols had official sanction.

“The pecalang can stop the virus from spreading because they know who is sick and they can be sure patients are quarantined,” he said.

To be sure, there are limits. Pecalang may only “remind the community of the rules,” Wayan said. They have no power to levy fines or make arrests.

But the boundaries between the police and pecalang can be blurry.

Wayan, himself a retired police officer, said that he and his crew can be the first to be called to the scene of a crime, adding that they would be the ones calling the police.

Where pecalang were once strictly volunteers, as a show of dedication to their community, some, like Wayan and his crew of 25 who man the posts 24 hours a day in eight-hour shifts, have been getting a monthly stipend of 510,000 rupiah (RM148) for about two years.

They also get the use of a truck with a covered flatbed, which is not typical.

Experts like Prof Lee Wilson, a research fellow at University of Queensland who has researched pecalang, note that the men have grown in stature as the island struggles to manage mass tourism, environmental degradation like plastic cluttering its beaches and religious extremism, including instances that culminated in the bombings in 2002 and 2005 which killed 225 people.

“Pecalang are a symptom of a society that sees itself under threat,” Prof Wilson said.

Wayan, no doubt agrees, saying that he is focused on keeping the community safe as Covid-19 cases break new records daily on the island of 4.4 million people.

“We are securing Bali,” he said. “We are the culture police.” — The Straits Times/ANN

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