Tony Abbott, Prime Minister of Australia, with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. Abbott is pushing hard to halt the execution of two Australian men charged with drug smuggling in Indonesia
In April of 2005, nine Australians were arrested in Indonesia on drug smuggling charges, a crime which carries a death sentence in the Southeast Asian country. The group, now commonly known as the “Bali Nine,” had been on their way back to Australia with over $3 million worth of heroin when Indonesian police detained them. While seven of the nine had their sentences reduced upon appeal, the group’s ringleaders, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, had no such luck. The two are currently scheduled to be executed by firing squad later this month.
Understandably, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott is pulling out all the stops in an attempt to halt the execution of the two men for a crime that carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment in Australia. His latest strategy, however, has backfired enormously.
Conjuring up memories of the devastating tsunami that hit Indonesia in 2004, Abbott sought fit to remind the Oceanic nation of the massive aid package Australia provided in its wake: “Australia sent a billion dollars worth of assistance […] I would say to the Indonesian people and the Indonesian government – we in Australia are always there to help you and we hope that you might reciprocate in this way at this time.”
While Abbott’s appeals were made with good intentions, his attempt to cash in on the aid provided by his countrymen a decade ago has incensed Indonesians.
Despite popular opposition in Indonesia against the use of the death penalty on Chan and Sukumaran, Indonesians have rallied against Abbott’s attempts to create debt out of charity and, in doing so, impose outside authority over Indonesian law. Calling Abbott’s comments about the $1 billion in humanitarian aid “ill-judged” and “insulting,” Indonesian citizens have initiated a campaign to repay the ‘debt’ in order to alleviate any upper hand that the eleven-year-old gesture may have provided to Abbott.
Using the hashtag “#KoinUntukAustralia” (or “#CoinsForAustralia”), Indonesians have continued this campaign to reemphasize Indonesia’s legal and financial autonomy on social media. While the movement is largely symbolic, it illustrates the extent to which Abbott has struck a nerve with Indonesians.
Such sentiments were reinforced by statements from Indonesian President Joko Widodo: “I will say this firmly: no one may intervene with the executions because it is our sovereign right to exercise our laws”. Further echoing these thoughts, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said, “When it reaches a point where they offend our dignity as a nation, that is where we must take a firm and dignified stance [against them].”
The indignation of the Indonesian government and its citizens is not unwarranted; as a country with a growing economy and increasing international influence, having its toes stepped on by neighboring Australia is an unwelcome reminder of the power imbalance that still exists between the two countries. And given that Indonesia is hardly the most prominent enforcer of capital punishment, it is understandable that the relatively young nation wants to show the world that it is immune to the effects of foreign influence on its domestic affairs.
But perhaps we are reading too deeply into the international political games being played; perhaps Abbott’s request is merely one for the lives of two of his citizens, rather than a grab at power overseas. And if this is the case, is saving the lives of these men not also a humanitarian issue, as was the aid granted to Indonesia in 2004?
No matter the arguments waged or debts incurred, it seems extremely unlikely that the leaders of the Bali Nine will leave Indonesia with their lives. Having broken its informal moratorium on capital punishment last month, Indonesia’s crackdown on drug crime under President Joko shows no signs of mercy: since he took office in October of 2014, there have been more death row sentences of foreigners than in the previous 16 years combined.
With roughly 11.1 million drug users in the country, (about 4.4% of the total population) most of whom are between the ages of 13 and 25, however, perhaps the Indonesian government has reason to be concerned. Remarking on the issue of domestic narcotics use in the context of the pending Bali Nine executions, Foreign Minister Retno posed a worthwhile question: “has the other angle — the perspective of the victims — been adequately represented? How many millions of Indonesian children have lost their future because of narcotics? How many parents cry every day for these victims? How much do those parents and the government have to spend in order to save Indonesia’s youth?” In the eyes of many, making an example of the Bali Nine is a sad, but necessary measure that needs to be taken in order to show potential future drug smugglers in the country that the government is serious about prosecuting them to the fullest extent of the law.
At the end of the day, Abbott’s intervention of behalf of the Bali Nine, while well intentioned, seems to have set back relations between the two countries quite significantly. While the Bali Nine were attempting to smuggle drugs through Indonesia as opposed to into it, Indonesia’s current status as a trafficking hotspot is reason enough for the Indonesian government and citizens to be concerned. While Australia may challenge Indonesia’s methods, they too are at risk of a rising drug culture, as narcotics smuggled through Indonesia often end up in the hands of Australian citizens.
As the two men are transferred to the prison where they are will likely be executed, we can only hope that this highly publicized and contested example of Indonesia’s uncompromising drug laws will be successful in its goals of dissuading potential traffickers—both for the sakes of affected citizenry and for the lives of the traffickers.
Caroline Jones is a first-year student at Brown University, studying Government, Anthropology, and Environmental Science.
Image Attribution: “Secretary Kerry and Australian Prime Minister Abbott Address Reporters June 2014” by U.S. Department of State, licensed under Public Domain