‘Bali Two’ executions could set back Australia-Indonesia relations

Protests in Australia over the potential execution of Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan will gain little traction in Indonesia. AAP/Mick Tsikas

It now seems almost inevitable that two Australians, drug smugglers Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, will soon be executed in Indonesia. If this does happen, there will be public protests in Australia. Some of these protests will be directed against the death penalty as a concept; others will be directed at Indonesia’s use of that penalty in these two cases.

The Australian government will also protest. Canberra might even withdraw Paul Grigson, Australia’s newly appointed Ambassador to Indonesia – assuming Grigson has actually arrived in Jakarta when the executions take place. This would follow the lead of the Dutch and Brazilian governments, which both recalled their ambassadors to Indonesia after two of their citizens were executed last month.

But such protests will have little traction in Indonesia, either with the government or the Indonesian public.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo has shown that he has no sympathy for drug smugglers, whether they are Australian, Indonesian or any other nationality. He does not have the same warmth towards Australia exhibited by his predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. He has worked hard to project a tough image in his foreign policy to counteract his opponents portraying him as soft and inexperienced in international affairs.

What evidence we have shows that Indonesian public opinion supports the death penalty. Even in Australia, a recent poll found that a majority of respondents supported the death penalty in these two cases.

Eddy Bayuni, senior editor of the Jakarta Post, wrote recently:

The foreign leaders’ interventions … may even have done a disservice to the abolitionists’ cause. The executions have now been turned into a question of Indonesia’s national pride with accusations flying about the West imposing its human rights values on us. But, as the saying goes, the harder they push, the stronger Indonesia pushes back.

Recent tensions

The potential execution of two Australian citizens is only the most recent – albeit the most tragic – instance of recent tension in the Australia-Indonesia relationship. There have been two others.

In November 2014, Australia’s then-immigration minister, Scott Morrison, announced that any asylum seekers registering with the United Nations in Indonesia after June 2014 would not be considered for resettlement in Australia. Morrison asserted that this move “should reduce the movement of asylum seekers to Indonesia”, thus implying benefit for Indonesia as well as for Australia. He also said that the Indonesian government had been briefed on the policy change, though not whether Jakarta supported it.

However, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi was more forthright. She expressed regret at what she described as a “unilateral” policy decision, taking into account only Australia’s interests in the issue. She also called in Australia’s then-ambassador, Greg Moriarty, for a ritual dressing-down.

This development did not attract much public attention in Indonesia at the time. But it was nonetheless important for confirming that the new Indonesian government was not prepared – at least publicly – to accept what it saw as off-handed treatment by Australia.

A second current issue in the relationship dates back to early November 2014. The Indonesian government announced that visa-free entry to Indonesia would be granted to nationals of five countries, including Australia. The move was aimed at increasing the number of tourists visiting Indonesia and thus boosting the Indonesian economy.

In late January, the Indonesian government reversed part of that decision: Australians would now not be getting visa-free entry. The reasons for this change were not made clear.

Statements from two Indonesian ministers hinted that the reversal was made because Australia was not prepared to reciprocate with visa-free entry for Indonesians. But there should never have been any expectation of such reciprocity: Australia requires visas of all international visitors except New Zealanders. Deviating from this policy for Indonesians would have been politically impossible, even if there had been a governmental desire to do so.

More likely is the explanation given by a “high-ranking ministry official”, who indicated that “political reasons” were behind the decision. The likely political reasons? Morrison’s announcement on asylum seekers and Australian reactions to the death penalties for Chan and Sukumaran.

Asylum seekers registered with the UN in Indonesia are no longer eligible for resettlement in Australia. EPA/Hotli Simanjuntak

How might the executions impact relations?

Do these developments indicate we are in for another dive in Australia-Indonesia relations?

The visa issue is symbolic but of little real importance. The asylum seeker issue remains a difficult one, but Morrison’s announcement did not represent a new approach to the issue. He simply confirmed to Indonesians that the Australian government is unhelpfully fixated on the matter.

But there is something different and important about the Chan and Sukumaran cases, which has been absent in all other recent controversies in the bilateral relationship: that two Australians’ lives are at stake. On Australia Day, prominent lawyer Greg Barns wrote:

If Australia’s relationship with Indonesia suffers because we want our neighbour to end state-sanctioned murder in the form of the death penalty, then so be it.

As an opponent of the death penalty, I agree with Barnes. This issue demands to be addressed frankly and will be more of a challenge than any other in the recent history of the relationship. But the impact will probably be short-term, rather than long.

At the popular level, for a while fewer Australians might holiday in Bali. The government-to-government relationship might be shaken but – again – this would only be a short-term development. There will be some political jostling, but with no major or lasting impact.

After all, regrettably, such events have occurred before in Southeast Asia, most recently with the 2005 hanging of Nguyen Tuong Van in Singapore. And they are likely to happen again.

We must, however, be consistent. China and the United States both apply the death penalty, and thus should also be the subject of protests from those Australians – particularly politicians – who are abolitionists. That no Australians are on death row in China or the US makes no difference: Chinese and American lives are as valuable as Australian ones.

Aren’t they?