The sometimes strained bonds between Indonesia and its southern neighbor have been relaxed since the election of new President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo. He’s visited Australia, met Prime Minister Tony Abbott – who also attended the Presidential inauguration - and seems to have been well received.
The last major dispute followed the 2013 revelation that Australian spies had bugged the phones of former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his wife Ani. Indonesia’s ambassador in Canberra was recalled and it took almost a year to get back to normal.
However all could turn turtle if Indonesia puts two Australian drug traffickers before a firing squad this year – as promised.
The men are little known in Indonesia, but big news in Australia. Andrew Chan, 30, and Myuran Sukumaran, 33, alleged ringleaders of the Bali Nine drug syndicate, were caught in 2005 and sentenced in 2006. Last year they appealed to former President Yudhoyono. He stayed silent.
Last month (December) President Jokowi proclaimed his abhorrence of drug traffickers and determination not to interfere in court decisions, saying: “I guarantee that there will be no clemency for convicts who commit narcotics-related crimes.”
This week he kept his word as six criminals, five of them foreigners, met their maker. Reaction was swift with the Netherlands and Brazil recalling their ambassadors
Indonesians may be applauding a president with resolve, but the Republic is marching on the wrong side of history. More than half the world’s nations have abolished capital punishment, accepting the philosophy that it’s a cruel penalty, has no deterrent effect and the risks of wrong convictions are too great.
Mr Abbott has already told the Australian media that he hopes Chan and Sukumaran’s executions will not go ahead.
"We oppose the death penalty for Australians at home and abroad,” he said. “We obviously respect the legal systems of other countries but where there is an attempt to impose the death penalty on an Australian we make the strongest possible diplomatic representations.”
The PM’s comments spotlight the verbal acrobatics politicians perform on this emotional issue. Mr Abbott says he respects Indonesia’s legal system – but then condemns its application. To be consistent abolitionists should express the same dismay whatever the nationality of the condemned.
When Indonesia puts criminals before a dozen M16s, appeals to other nations to spare the lives of the Republic’s citizens abroad carry little weight. Indonesia has more than four million workers overseas, with 280 reportedly on death rows in countries like Saudi Arabia where the legal systems are not known for being open, fair and just.
Although Mr Abbott has said the executions will not affect international relationships – meaning he’ll speak strongly but won’t carry a big stick - that hasn’t been the case in the past
In 1986 Malaysia ignored Australian government appeals and dropped two Australian drug runners, Kevin Barlow and Brian Chambers, through a prison trapdoor. The then Australian PM Bob Hawke described the hangings as “barbaric”. His comment inflamed Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohamad and set back relations between the two nations for several years.
In 2005 Singapore executed Australian student Van Tuong Nguyen, 25, for drug trafficking rejecting Australian government pleas to stay the noose. Mr Abbott, who was then Health Minister, said Singapore’s determination was wrong and that the punishment "certainly did not fit the crime.” There were allegations of retaliatory business sanctions, but these were denied and unproven.
Even if Mr Abbott is right about no official impact, the legal procedures and manner of the men’s deaths will color public perceptions. Greg Craven, vice chancellor of the Australian Catholic University, is already predicting “a wave of revulsion” if the executions proceed.
Professor Craven heads the Mercy Campaign to try and stop the shootings. As a lawyer he measures his words. However inflammatory comments by less cautious abolitionists could arouse the anger of Indonesian nationalists and further damage links.
The other problem is that news featuring Chan and Sukumaran will swamp the Australian media, drowning positive stories about the people next door. This is already happening. On Monday (19 Jan) all major news services ran heavily on the upcoming executions, some focusing on Sukumaran’s maturing artistic abilities and rehabilitation. Editorials have all condemned the death penalty.
Despite Professor Craven’s predictions there will be limited applause for President Jokowi’s determination from a few Australian hardline anti-drugs campaigners. This will get highlighted by sections of the Indonesian media to prove dissent Down Under.
The truth is that public support for capital punishment in Australia is low, though it rises after particularly savage crimes like the Bali bombings of 2002 that killed 202 – including 88 Australians. Recent polls show only around 23 per cent want the death penalty reinstated. The last judicial killing was in 1967.
So far Chan and Sukumaran, both alleged to be professional drug traders, have not aroused the same level of public sympathy shown towards blue-eyed beautician Schapelle Corby. The so-called ‘Ganja Queen’ was jailed in 2005 for 20 years for smuggling 4.2 kilos of marihuana into Bali.
Her story became a media staple, spawning books and documentaries. A determined support network was set up and backed even by those who doubted her innocence because the sentence was considered excessively harsh.
Corby, 37, was paroled last year by President Yudhoyono, a gesture that improved Indonesia’s standing in Australia but damaged the President’s credibility in his homeland.
Other international bonds will be tested when Indonesia’s firing squads get to work on British grandma Lindsay Sandiford, 58, convicted last year for carrying cocaine into Bali. Like Australia, the UK has scrapped the death penalty.
More recently New Zealander Antony de Malmanche, 53, was caught at Ngurah Rai allegedly with 1.7 kilos of methamphetamine. He too could be shot if convicted. NZ’s last hangman hung up his rope in 1957.
What Mr Abbott calls “a strong and constructive relationship” with Indonesia is best built on positive projects like academic and journalistic exchange programs, aid and financial investments, skill sharing and security cooperation.
Capital punishment destroys more than lives. It demeans the state, wounds international friendships and damages respect. Life imprisonment does not.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 21 January 2015)