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Heads Up, Tourist Extortion in Bali Still Business as Usual

The island’s image as an attractive holiday destination may be marred by a tradition of local authorities taking cash off unwitting tourists.  

Bali is known as a resort paradise with friendly locals, so it never crossed Mark Ipaviz’s mind that his stag party would turn ugly. Ipaviz, a former Australian model, was enjoying his last night as a single man in Bali this February, when a squad of armed police stormed in. Reports later revealed police beat attendees with their handguns. Some party-goers were electrocuted with a taser. Members of the group were also forced to pay a US$25,000 bribe to avoid imprisonment beyond the 24 hours they would later spend in jail. Officers allegedly threatened the 16 Australians with 10 years in prison for violating Indonesian laws on decency.

Beckhams on Sand | Courtesy of Riza Nugraha

Following the incident, questions were raised as to why Bali authorities raided the party in the first place. Some speculated it was due to the presence of a stripper. Others believed rumours of controlled substance abuse were circulating. In the end, however, it seems the police were hungry for cash.

Ipaviz’s case is one of many police extortion scandals that have taken place in the archipelago in recent years. Critics say tourist destinations like Bali are particularly prone to extortion by cops who see unwitting foreigners as ripe sources of supplementary income.

Kuta Police Chief Deddy Januartha, along with seven other police officers, were named as suspects after the Australian media reported the case in June. The attention prompted Bali authorities to open an official investigation of their own. Police spokesman, Hery Wiyanto informed reporters the arresting officers were suspended until hearings concluded. Earlier this month, reports said the officers who admitted to raiding Ipaviz’s bachelor party and escorting several attendees to ATM machines were made to simply “stand in the sun for hours” as punishment.

Despite local authorities claiming to take the issue seriously, tourist extortion seems to remain a rite of passage for Bali police officers. In a petty but equally embarrassing incident caught on film in recent years, a local traffic cop demanded Rp.200,000 (US$14) from Kees van der Spek, a Dutch journalist who rode a motorbike in Kuta without wearing a helmet.

Van der Spek’s ride was intercepted by an officer named Komang Sarjana, who asked him to come to a nearby police post. The officer explained van der Spek violated the law and therefore had to fork over cash on the spot to avoid a court hearing.

It’s no secret that transactions like this are daily occurrences in the archipelago. Anyone who’s spent time in Indonesia has likely experienced petty corruption and payoffs in one form or another — business as usual, some would say. Unluckily for Sarjana, however, van der Spek secretly filmed the encounter that day and the video went viral on YouTube in a matter of hours.

What is more embarrassing in the video, the officer immediately proceeds to spend the bribe money on beer and drink it with van der Spek while on the job. In the video, Sarjana says, “Okay, one hundred [thousand rupiah] for the beer, one hundred [thousand rupiah] for my government.” Witnesses watched the officer buy beers then call another officer to join the drinking session. In addition to web ridicule, Sarjana was punished with a 21-day jail sentence. Chief brigadier Ketut Indra Jaya, his participating colleague, was sentenced to 14 days.

Because amounts are often small, most cases like this go unreported in Bali, but they’re not necessarily limited to police encounters. Ahmad Bajeba, a 28-year-old Yemeni, maintains he was extorted in the amount of Rp.500,000 (US$35) by immigrations officers. Bajeba claims he was asked to hand over cash directly to the immigration desk at Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta airport. “[It was] because the stamp date on my passport showed I overstayed,” says Bajeba.

“My mistake was that I didn’t check the stamp upon arrival in Bali. It unfortunately showed the wrong month,” he explains. Bajeba entered Indonesia via Bali and exited through Jakarta. He spent a total of five days in the country and was on his way to Riyadh. The immigration official, however, told Bajeba he stayed longer than the 30 days his visa permitted. While it’s impossible to prove malice, Bajeba alleges immigration officers in Bali deliberately put the wrong month in his passport in an effort to take money off him later.

“I actually showed them the other stamps from Riyadh, Dubai, and Guangzhou, all of which showed my travel date sequence. But the officers in Jakarta told me it was these three immigration offices that made the mistake,” he explains.

In the grand scheme of things, it’s often easier for foreign extortion victims to simply hand over the cash and mumble curse words under their breath than it is to actually look for the proper course of action. Indonesian Police Watch (IPW) head Neta Pane says there is no official data as to how many of such incidents occur in Indonesia per year. He’s confident there are hundreds of similar cases across the nation. More likely, there are thousands.

Courtesy of Aiko Konishi

“We don’t have reliable data on this because not every extorted tourist would report his experience,” he tells Indonesia Expat. Instead, foreign tourists tend to spread messages via word of mouth to warn their friends and relatives, Pane adds.

Pane says tourist extortion tarnishes Indonesia’s image around the world as an attractive vacation destination. He also claims to have called for a swift move by the Indonesian National Police to resolve the issue. He suggests that officers found extorting foreigners should be punished more harshly. He also says proceedings should be made public and open to media scrutiny. This could serve as an incentive for officers and court officials to dole out appropriate and consistent verdicts.

Police should also ensure local travel agents make their foreign customers aware of local laws, values, and overall etiquette, Pane adds.

As for tourists, he asks foreigners to contact their travel agent’s local office for a consultation before they arrive. “These police officers are clearly doing the wrong things,” Pane admits. “So it would be to the benefit of both the foreigners and Indonesian [police] that the foreigners, too, avoid making unlawful moves that could lead to such incidents.”

Earlier this month, Indonesia announced it will allow entry without visas to 47 more countries in a bid to make its tourism sector competitive with Thailand and other nations in Southeast Asia. Tourism Minister Arief Yahya says the Government is hoping for 10 million foreign tourists to spend at least US$1 billion this year. Stakeholders hope the majority of Bali’s tourist income will be channelled appropriately, and not end up padding authorities’ wallets. However, unless there is some kind of formulaic stand on tourist extortion in Bali, it’s likely the island will simply see more business as usual.

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