The bilateral relationship between Australia and Indonesia is under increasing strain as we await the execution of the Bali Nine duo, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran.
Strident Australian expression of opposition to the planned executions has caused offence in many Indonesian circles, provoking press criticism and rebukes from government officials.
Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs, Tedjo Edhy Purdijatno, said that Australia’s clemency pleas have infringed Indonesian sovereignty and should stop.
Today, April 16, marks the 10th anniversary of the arrest of the Bali Nine, Australians caught as they attempted to smuggle about $4 million worth of heroin to Australia. Appeals for mercy for Chan and Sukumaran have been rejected, provoking intense debate about the penalty and the method – death by firing sentence. Here Paige Pollard examines the possible diplomatic consequences should the executions go ahead. Thea Carley has considered the method and the ethical dilemmas involved.
President Joko Widodo has demonstrated his own displeasure at repeated requests that he reconsider his decisions by ignoring pleas from Tony Abbott for Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran.
Professor Jeffrey Lewis of RMIT University, who specialises in Australia-Indonesia relations, told The Newsroom that the relationship is not in a good place. “The wait for the verdict of the Bali Nine duo has strained our relationship with Indonesia,” he said, “and yes, the strain is continuing.”
Prime Minister Tony Abbott said in a press conference last month, “A good relationship with Indonesia is very important to this country.
“Whatever might happen in the next few days, the relationship with Indonesia must endure.”
Mr Abbott called on the Jakarta government to “pull back from this brink”. He warned Indonesia that it would be betraying its own national interest if it goes through with the executions of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran and that no good could come from their deaths.
Executions will stress relationship
Professor Lewis told the Newsroom that despite the strains caused in recent months, the situation was not beyond repair.
“The two nations have a very strong and dependent relationship with one another. I don’t think the strain will be catastrophic, but it will create significant difficulties if Chan and Sukumaran are executed.
“I think that the turn-back-the-boats policy and actions has been equally, if not more stressful for the relationship, at least from the Indonesians’ perspective.
“The relationship would be vastly improved, if Australian politicians and publics were better educated about Indonesia, and vice-a-versa.
“We have the resources to improve public and government education about Indonesia, to build trust and more effective communication channels. Trust through knowledge and personal exchange is the only way to make things better.”
Professor Lewis does not believe that there will be any huge repercussions if Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran are executed.
“I doubt the executions will have a long-lasting impact. If tourism, for example, is affected, it will only be temporary,” he said.
So is Australia wrong to campaign so vigorously for the men’s lives?
Professor Tim Lindsey, the Director of the Centre for Indonesian Law, Islam and Society at the University of Melbourne, says the Indonesian critics are wrong about the sovereignty issue… sovereignty has nothing to do with the fight for Chan and Sukumaryan’s lives.
Writing in The Age, Professor Lindsey said, “Australia has a perfect right – even an obligation – to use all legal and diplomatic means within its power to win mercy for its citizens on death row anywhere in the world.
“In this case, it has done so with much determination, but always within the parameters of the Indonesian legal system and diplomatic practice,” Professor Lindsey wrote.
“Australia has, in fact, done no more than Indonesia itself routinely does for its own citizens on death row overseas. A well-funded taskforce with precisely this mandate was set up in 2011 and has reportedly been successful in more than 60 cases, with 229 Indonesians still facing execution around the world.”
Mr Tedjo threatened retaliation for Australia’s stand, saying Indonesia could release a “human tsunami” of 10,000 asylum seekers to Australia.
“If Canberra keeps doing things that displease Indonesia, Jakarta will surely let the illegal immigrants go to Australia,” Mr Tedjo said on Metro TV.
However, Professor Lindsey argued that Indonesian government figures often express their personal opinions to media on the run.
“Tedjo is a controversial and erratic figure with a record of inflammatory media commentary, who is often at odds even with members of his own party,” he wrote.
“His comments do, however, reflect the fact that the bilateral relationship is once again, very tense.”
Professor Lindsey thinks there could be greater consequences for Australia than Indonesia from the relationship strain.
“Firstly, if the relationship were severed then we’d have difficulty engaging with the ASEAN nations, who are dominated by Indonesia,” he wrote.
ASEAN, the Association of South-East Asian Nations, is Australia’s second biggest trading partner. In 2013, two-way trade with ASEAN accounted for 14.8% of Australia’s total trade, valued at $88.6 billion.
Australia’s last fallout with Indonesia over the 2011 live cattle export ban indicates just how damaging losing parts of that trade network could be.
The repercussions from the ban cost the Northern Territory beef cattle industry $600 million in losses. Indonesia also encountered problems, specifically finding another supplier.
Nevertheless, an international trade expert, Dr Michael Thorpe, head of economics at Curtin University’s Business School, told the Newsroom that if the Bali duo are executed, it is unlikely that Australia’s agricultural trade with Indonesia will be affected in the long run.
Because of Indonesia’s impact on Australia, it is extremely important how the relationship is managed, presenting a major challenge for the Abbott government.
Professor Lindsey said disputes between neighbouring countries are inevitable. Especially when differences of size, wealth, history, culture and religion are so great.
“The Abbott government needs to rethink about how the relationship is managed, particularly when it comes to serious criminal cases,” he said.
“This is necessary because the inexperienced and inward-looking administration of President Widodo is proving much harder to deal with than the previous government of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, which, for all its flaws, was more professional, competent and internationally-oriented.”
Professor Lindsey said that it is crucial for Australia to maintain a strong relationship with its closest neighbour, in order to keep a balance and make sure this doesn’t happen again.
“If Sukamaran and Chan are killed, Australia must express its sorrow and distress in the strongest of terms, and reiterate its strong opposition to the abhorrent practice of capital punishment.
“It should also, however, be constructive, and call for a new start to developing a comprehensive bilateral criminal law co-operation system that may just prevent this tragedy happening again,” he said. – Paige Pollard
Top graphic by Andrew Leeson.