John MacDougall, an American Academic in Indonesia, has Passed Away
A brave and intelligent man, and scholar of all things Balinese
by Luke Hunt
John MacDougall, a cultural anthropologist from Princeton University in the United States who dedicated his life to Indonesia and all things Balinese, died on December 30 after a long suffering illness, a sad finale for 2023. He was 52.
Over a career that spanned almost 30 years, McDougall’s writings and influence would reach the highest ranks of governments struggling to cope with Islamic terrorism across Southeast Asia which was borne out of 9/11 and the murkyties between al-Qaeda and its regional affiliates.
He arrived in Indonesia in 1988 and quickly became a recognized specialist, universally known as Johnny. He spoke the many and varied dialects of Balinese and married locally before settling into an idyllic lifestyle raising two children and rollicking in the surf when time allowed.
A decade later, he gained international attention through his work a writer and as an advisor in East Timor during the convulsions of independence.
In 2002, he also acted as my translator after our good friend and colleague Dan Boylan
, then a Fulbright scholar, invited me into a guest lecture series hosted for Balinese journalists when we specialized in war reporting and Islamic militancy.
We had spent a day in maddening big big surf at Legian when the tide was receding but the waves grew taller and steeper.A gnarly rip had sucked us out to sea and I’ll always remember watching as Johnny caught and carved perhaps the biggest wave of the day into the safety of the shoreline.
The same wave pummeled me to the ocean floor but we surfed our way out, held a lecture about potential terrorist attacks that proved telling and then retired to the Sari Club on the Kuta Strip for my 40th birthday, where Johnny knew all the staff and spoke their language.
They turned on a fantastic evening. In the same club, a couple of months later, Johnny was a first responder looking for survivors; picking through the bones and flesh of the people he knew and had died in the first of the Bali Bombings.
He once recalled upon hearing the blasts he raced to the scene and then being “up to his armpits” in body parts. He was in a trance-like state. Time and dangers were forgotten. He just kept digging.
At about 5am he was exhausted and on the verge of breaking down when he felt a tap on his right shoulder from behind and he heard a voice, with a thick Australian accent, that said: "G’day, can I lend a hand, mate." A full contingent of rescue personnel had arrived from Darwin.
He never forgot that accent, would always hold a deep affection for Australians.and on rare occasions when he spoke about that dreadful night on October 12 that left 202 people dead, he would shed a tear.
The bombings also left Johnny with an equally dreadful case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – a term which is bandied about all too easily these days. He took the carnage personally, as he should have, and with Boylan and myself was determined to help in finding those responsible.
At times the three of us would work together, from behind closed doors, focussing on Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and its latter-day off shoot Jemaah Anshorut Tauhid (JAT) as the authorities scored some success. Steadily, one-by-one, the militants were arrested.
Johnny worked for the Carter Center, International Crisis Group, World Bank, and Menko Pokhkam, an abbreviation for Indonesia’s coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs. He was also trusted advisor among the region’s security services.
Many of his written works can be found on the Princeton alumnus site
In 2010, he returned to the United States with his then wife and two children, where he lectured at Princeton University but struggled with PTSD and was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, a disease that took a great toll on his family life.
John MacDougall was an unsung hero from those dark days of Islamic militancy. As Dan Boylan wrote me: “My God, the surf of Bali almost took us all more than 20 years ago. Now our hearts are filled with sorrow, but minds calm with relief that Johnny’s suffering has finally ended.
“Johnny was a great and true friend and a fighter for what was right.”