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Indonesia shows its ugly side with regressive executions


President Joko Widodo speaks with CNN's Christiane AmanpourI am writing this with a heavy heart. I grieve for Andrew Chan, Myuran Sukumaran and their loved ones, and the others executed by firing squad in Indonesia early this morning.

But they are not the only casualties of this bungled, cold-blooded killing. I am also distressed at the serious damage Indonesia is doing to itself and its international good name and, not least, at the damage President Jokowi is inflicting on himself and what he represents for many Indonesians dreaming of the best for their important country.

Indonesia is a country of great promise with a significant, maybe crucial, contribution to make to our troubled world. As a very large, pluralist, Muslim-majority democracy it offers a template for other societies in transition. President SBY was acutely aware of this opportunity and through his democracy forums and other initiatives did much to re-brand Indonesia in this positive light.

All this good work is being undone by the anal, small-town thinking the executions represent. 

The death penalty issue will hobble Indonesia's foreign policy the way the East Timor issue did during the Soeharto years. Executing the many foreign nationals still on death row in Indonesia over the months to come will bracket Indonesia with the out-dated shrinking minority of countries that continue to execute drug traffickers.

Picking fights with more countries and having to invest resources in continually putting out spot fires rather than showcasing its real strengths is not in Indonesia's or the world's best interests.

There is a better way. A moratorium on the death penalty while Indonesia's constitutional court revisits the issue will allow President Jokowi a way out and an opportunity to go on the front foot. He could, for example, convene a conference of nations with citizens on death row, including Australia, to tackle collectively and to everyone's advantage the scourge of drugs that is every parent's nightmare.

I have proposed such an initiative to Indonesia. I felt, however, like I was putting a message in a bottle into a sea of swirling cross currents.

By making the death penalty a signature policy of his presidency, and presiding over the bureaucratic and PR mess it has become, Jokowi has opened a pandora's box. In addition to alienating world opinion, it has again raised doubts about the credibility and independence of Indonesia's justice system.

It has also called into question Jokowi's competence, political judgement and motives. The death penalty was not a live issue during last year's presidential campaign. There is no popular movement in Indonesia to activate the death penalty that is remotely like the staunchly defended anti-corruption campaign, for example. It is an issue of Jokowi's own making.

Many have also been surprised at the president's refusal to respond to the individual merits of clemency appeals. It does not fit his attention-to-detail manner, and seems heartlessly cavalier on the part of a president with a deserved reputation for social sensitivity.

Rightly or wrongly, many conclude that he is playing politics with the issue and risks alienating the civil society activists who contributed to his win last year. Waiting in the wings is Prabowo, arms folded.

The executions and their over-the-top militaristic trappings are regressive. They represent the ugly side of Indonesia that has so often poisoned Australian and international perceptions of Indonesia. Indonesia's history is strewn with corpses. There's been too much killing.

Albeit judicial, this morning's executions are only the latest acts of state-sponsored killing in a long and bloody sequence that include the pogroms of 1965, the rape of East Timor, the war in Aceh and other excesses for which no-one has been held accountable, let alone shot, though post-Soeharto law provides for the death penalty for crimes against humanity.

They are a major setback to years of slog by myself and others to promote positive relations with Indonesia. Jokowi must find another way that will serve him and Indonesia better.

I am impressed by the strength of Australia's response, but also surprised. I suspect Jokowi didn't see it coming either. Why should he have anticipated such an outcry when Canberra has generally been so accommodating of Jakarta's excesses — be it the pogroms of 1965, Timor-Leste and now Papua?

Jokowi is no doubt confounded by the lack of logic in Australia tipping off the Indonesian police about the Bali 9 knowing it might lead to the death penalty then decrying the implementation of that penalty, or the Abbott Government saying more Jakarta less Geneva one day, then reversing it the next.

If Canberra is really serious about the principle at stake it must find ways of advocating for others still on death row in Indonesia. Human rights are universal. Australia's follow-up response to this morning's executions must also be proportionate to its protests if these are not to be dismissed as bluster confected for domestic consumption. The short term recall of Australia's ambassador will not be enough.

Our ultimate objective, however, must be to end the death penalty in Indonesia. It is tragically too late now for the two Australians and the others. But it will add some meaning to their lonely deaths and be in everyone's interest if Australia can help Indonesia's Jokowi rid himself of this bleeding albatross.  

Pat WalshPat Walsh is a human rights activist who was recently profiled in The Jakarta Post

Topic tags: Pat Walsh, Myuran Sukumaran, Andrew Chan, Bali 9, capital publishment, Indonesia, death penalty, Jokowi



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Existing comments

Well said, Pat. Why this hate towards Australia in particular, and what serious steps can we taken to repairing relationships? When the emotion has settled we need to redouble efforts to show RI that we want to be friends (we have to - we're neighbours) but without compromising our values and concern for human rights. A mighty challenge lies ahead.

Duncan Graham | 28 April 2015  

Thanks for this, Pat. It's not a good day to be in Indonesia. Unfortunately, all the hope and positivity that was here when Joko was elected has gone. The weakness that his opponents accused him of has come strongly to the fore: his poor performance with regard to the KPK and the police, his inability to control his ministers, his embarrassing performance (or lack thereof) at his party's recent conference and now this. Depressing given what everyone thought only 8 months ago.

ErikH | 28 April 2015  

Hi Pat a good account of the circumstances surrounding the executions. I am appalled however at the way the way the Australian side has beaten the drum on this matter without having clean hands. A. great deal of damage is unnecessarily being done to the relationship between Indonesia and Australia and I am very concerned about the future of the relationship. But to the immediate matters: 1 For the record I oppose capital punishment full stop.I was the South Australian AG who abolished Capital Punishment in 1975. 2 I could say a lot about the pathetic way the rAbbott Govt has been handling the matter.However the real villain in the piece is the AFP.[Australian Federal Police].They were given a tip off by a lawyer acting on behalf of the father of one of the Bali 9 Scott Rush.The tip was that Scott Rush was on Heroin ,had no visible means of support.yet had had 2 recent trips to Bali and was now off for a third visit.The obvious conclusion was that he was couriering drugs into Australia.The AFP were asked to interview him to scare him off.Instead of doing so the AFP decided to inform the Indonesian Police.This led to the arrest in Indonesia of the Bali 9. 3 The AFP have close relations with the Indonesian Police having amongst other things trained the Indonesian police anti terrorist squad and helped to set up the Indonesian Police telephone tapping facility [Australia is still providing technical advice to this facility and more than likely is obtaining the product therefrom.].The AFP appear to have decided to supply the information about the Bali 9 to the Indonesian Police as an act designed to say in effect to the Indonesian Police look we are doing you this friendly favor and to make the AFP look like they were hot shots.They didn't initially tell the Indonesians that the information came from a tip off but led the Indonesians to believe that the information was as a result of sophisticated police work. 4 This was a tip off about the import of drugs into Australia for distribution on the streets of this country.The AFP should have with held its action and arrested the Bali 9 when they arrived in Australia.The drugs were never intended for use in Indonesia and the comments of the Indonesian President about the damage the drugs were doing to his country were in this particular case mis directed. 5 In addition the AFP knew that the arrest of the Bali 9 in Indonesia was likely to lead to the death penalty and acted contrary to the Australian Government's bi partisan and long standing policy of opposing the death penalty,refusing to assist in cases involving Australians where the outcome might be application of the death penalty,and making representations for clemency against the imposition of capital punishment. 6.The Bali 9 ring leaders Chan and Sukumuran were planning to sell the heroin to a king pin in Sydney who is probably living it up on the proceeds of other drug deals.C and S know who this person is [from earlier successful drug runs] .Why have the AFP not interviewed them recently about this matter. Ever if C and S refused to cooperate earlier in their 10 year incarceration,they are now said to be "reformed" and in this "reformed"state could be expected to cooperate.It is sadly now certainly too late, but even a month ago a request from the AFP to hold the executions on the basis that these two prisoners were needed to give vital evidence against the Mr Big of the whole episode would have provided the Indonesian President with a real reason to suspend the executions,let the hype die down and then maybe expatriate them to Australia.President Jokowi is not a bad man and would probably have welcomed a real excuse to show compassion and mercy.His problem is that for Indonesian domestic political reasons he cannot be seen tobe kowtowing to the [as perceived in Indonesia] bullying from his southern neighbor as you know. 7 All the emotional hype out of Australia over the next period will not change the above.The one good thing that could come out of this terrible tragedy would be legislation in the Australian Parliament making it an offense for any Australian to provide information to a foreign government where the provision of that information could lead to persons being charged with capital crimes in the foreign country. I am only forwarding the above background information [much of which you will possibly be aware] to assist in ensuring that the relationship with Indonesia is damaged as little as possible.I will leave the gnashing of teeth to others.

Peter Duncan | 28 April 2015  

A couple of things occur to me. While the executions are absurd and horrible, let us not forget that the Americans also execute their prisoners, yet we hear precious little about that (because they are white, first world, and therefore not 'barbarians'?). Secondly, I am disturbed by the constant demands made for clemency on the basis that the two Australians had been thoroughly rehabilitated and were doing active good in the jail community. This may be true, but we should not pick and choose who among those on death row should live and who should die based on their behaviour in prison. That is truly "playing God", is it not? Some of those put to death last night did not actively involve themselves in "good works" while in jail. Maybe they were too overwhelmed by their own fate, or just not capable of setting up art classes or whatever. Do they deserve to die for that reason? NO-ONE should be killed in cold blood by the state.

Monty Rosenthal | 28 April 2015  

I struggle that 10 years of remorse and turning their lives around rob the world of great examples to inspire others who struggle and may question doing the hard yards being worthwhile in the end.

Narelle Mullins | 28 April 2015  

Thanks Pat, It is with a broken heart and much sadness I respond to the execution of our Australian young men. Firstly I am praying for Andrew and Myuran and their families. The death penalty is against the word of our Lord and when he said 'Thou shalt not kill' there were no exceptions. Indonesia is just one country that is guilty of this horrendous crime, don't forget the U.S.A. and others. Our Australia Federal Police with full knowledge of what could happen, willingly handed over these young men to a country which had the death penalty. This was after one of the fathers came to them to stop this crime. It is my belief, they traded these lives for favour. We have to make a law to forbid this action in the future. I am glad Mr Abbott is recalling our Consul-General, which is the least they can do in protest. Though I would like to see more done. I don't know how I feel about stopping aid. Thinking of the poor and at the same time, not wanting to support Indonesia in any way at this time. I will not travel there now and my family feel the same way. For those who agree with these deaths, and have no forgiveness or compassion, I can only say, they must have troubled and cold hearts.

Cate | 28 April 2015  

This whole sorry affair has revealed interesting aspects about Indonesia in a political sense. In a way the country might be seen as a nominal democracy: the electoral process follows recognised steps, but when someone who is not part to the post-colonial traditional ruling military elite is elected he is ridiculed mercilessly by some who lost power in the last election. The old influence networks established over the generations which saw the gradual unification of the country via the use of military power still exist. Australia's relationship with this country is much more complex that the man-on-the-street realises. To the north of us lies a wide-spread populous country - more than 250 million, culturally different from Australia. Many Australians see it merely as a pleasant holiday destination, but fail to understand how vulnerable we are, living in its shadow. Because of our geographical location we are probably not in the same position as NZ when deciding whether or not to continue our relationship with the United States via ANZUS/AUSMIN. What has occurred in recent months illustrates the different value bases of the two countries: Australia is far from perfect, but the reaction to Indonesia's prolonged imprisonment and eventual execution of two men demonstrates very different attitudes placed on the value of an individual's life, and who has the real power to decide who lives or dies.

Patricia Byers | 28 April 2015  

Earlier today I went into the website of the Indonesian Embassy in Canberra, only to find they have blocked their email address. They would be only too aware of the hostile reaction to the executions here, but like so many others I believe the AFP needs to come out and explain their actions better than they have so far. I am also conscious of the way the Australian media have built up Chan and Sukamaran into near-celebrities quite recently, having largely ignored them for the last ten years. Meanwhile others were executed with them - and who knows how many people have been executed in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and several other countries in the last week or so. We need to think of all these, even without knowing their names or circumstances. The death penalty is wrong for everyone, not just people who have changed their ways of life as admirably as C&S have obviously done.

Rodney Wetherell | 28 April 2015  


Felicity | 29 April 2015  

It is ironic that most Australians hoped Widodo would win the recent Indonesian Presidential elections, because he seemed a sign of growing maturity in Indonesia's leadership. How wrong we were. Instead Widodo has decided his presidency is to be marked by a deathfest of politically-motivated judicial murders, the first ones last year, with eight more today, and another fifty or so still to come. But all he has actually done is to expose the endemic corruption of the Indonesian justice system, where a fair trial and "justice" seem to be the exception rather than the rule, especially if you do not have the money to bribe everyone in sight. Wasn't Widodo elected at least partly on the platform of fighting corruption, not rewarding it? That this national government still has the death penalty is a sign of its immaturity. That Indonesia mandates the death penalty for relatively trivial crimes is uncivilised (especially given its ambivalence towards terrorism and murder). That, in doing all this, it has also created such a carnival of mismanagement, cruelty and indifference to the suffering of both its victims and - far more unjustly - their families is little short of barbaric. And it has been particularly revolting how the Indonesian police have clearly so relished their task. But today's victims all chose to face their firing squads without hoods, looking their executioners straight in the eye. It certainly would not have been as easy as shooting at people whose eyes you could not see. Perhaps these accusing stares will mark a turning point? The Governor of Kerobokan Prison and his guards argued that clemency be shown because Chan and Sukumaran had so dramatically turned their lives around, and were doing such positive work for the benefit of others. It is to be hoped that their work will be carried on by others, and that their legacy and names will be remembered with gratitude long after politicians like Widodo and his rather lawless Attorney-General, are long forgotten.

PaulM | 29 April 2015  

Well said but... Jokowi seems to be a prisoner of his Party and Megawati in particular. He has lost authority. And Indonesia is not impressed by our boat turnimg and prosecuting young fishermen. A tangled web.

eric snowball | 29 April 2015  

Exactly Pat. Thanks for your plain speaking and sensible commentary on this important issue! I thought the new President was going to be a breath of fresh air for Indonesia! Let's hope change comes quickly and that Australia can contribute in some way to that change.

Annie Runnalls | 29 April 2015  

No justice without life No mercy without love

Olga Corbafo | 29 April 2015  

We are sorry the execution for many peoples, who sell drugs and kill many more Indonesian peoples by drugs. If whoever want to appreciate the human right please let us arrange ourselves justice. Thanks

Mr. Servatius Rinja | 29 April 2015  

Well said Pat, your article gives a concise summary to a series of negative human rights acts leading up to and including this most recent execution. While many Australian's are possibly seeing a more simplistic view. This being the execution of 2 Australian nationals, the real context in my opinion, is the value placed on human life in and around Indonesia. The past issues in Timor Leste have now moved on to West Papua. I can but hope that this execution will rally support for a strong stance against executions in any guise. Well done for your words and I hope you remain well. Dave F

david fisher | 30 April 2015  

Fantastic piece from someone who really knows what thry are talking about & comes from the right place. Thanks for publishing.

Eliza | 30 April 2015  

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