As Clash over Executions Continues, Gulf Widens Between Australia and Indonesia

Australia's Prime Minister Tony Abbott (L) and Indonesian President Joko Widodo (R) at the G20 Leaders' Summit in Brisbane, Australia, November 15, 2014. (William West/AFP/Getty Images))

Located just off the coast of Java, the tiny island of Nusa Kambangan is temporarily home to a group of 10 prisoners whose scheduled execution for drug-related crimes is eliciting heavy criticism of Indonesia from a range of individuals, organizations, and foreign governments. While citizens of countries such as Nigeria, France, and the Philippines are also among the prisoners, the affair has been particularly damaging to Indonesian relations with Australia, which has two nationals scheduled to face the firing squad and long ago abolished the death penalty. Indonesia this week agreed to postpone the executions to hear last-minute legal appeals, but this is only likely to delay the inevitable. The affair will continue to add to an often fractious history of the two neighboring countries and comes at a time when they could be enhancing cooperation in response to a range of challenges and opportunities, such as the shift of economic and political power to the Asia-Pacific region and the international fight against Islamist terrorism.

The Australians on Nusa Kambangan are Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, the ringleaders of the so-called “Bali Nine”, whose 2005 arrest for heroin trafficking and subsequent trial, convictions, and appeals have long commanded attention in their home country, as well as in Indonesia. This interest has been compounded by the role of the Australian Federal Police (AFP) in sealing the fate of the traffickers, the remainder of whom are serving sentences ranging from 20 years to life. Rather than wait for the group to return home, the AFP passed on intelligence to Indonesian authorities and allowed them to make the arrests, knowing the likely severity of punishments that awaited. The AFP continues to deny responsibility to this day, claiming it was only following established procedure. The lawyer who now regrets tipping them off to the crimes says the police were attempting to curry favor with Indonesian authorities, though to what end remains unclear.

The central moral debate over justification of the death penalty has intensified with the news that the Indonesian government has spared the lives of three murderers at the same time as rejecting appeals to pardon the drug smugglers. In maintaining its plans to put the traffickers to death, the government says it is responding to a “national drugs emergency,” with more than four million addicts requiring rehabilitation. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime does not dispute the number of Indonesian drug users, but says the majority of these consume marijuana rather than harder narcotics, which may support the view that recently elected Indonesian President Joko Widodo has overstated the need for rehabilitation for political reasons. Real or imagined, there has certainly been a spike in executions related to the drugs threat. Indonesia did not commit any executions in 2014, but has already put six people to death in 2015, all of which related to drug charges. According to the latest Amnesty International figures, Indonesia was the 12th most frequent user of the death penalty in 2013, when it executed five prisoners following a four-year period of abstinence.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has made many unsuccessful appeals for clemency for Chan and Sukumaran, but has been rebuffed by Widodo, who denied similar appeals from Brazil and the Netherlands to halt the execution of their citizens earlier this year, leading to the recall of consular staff. Abbott’s entreaties seem only to have hardened the opinion of Widodo, who has warned Australia and other countries about meddling in his country’s internal affairs. The matter has occasionally descended into farce, such as when Abbott implied Indonesia owed his country a favor for the significant financial support Australians gave to help it recover from the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, which prompted a small group of Indonesians to launch the “coins for Abbott” campaign, in a joking attempt to pay back the supposed debt in piecemeal fashion.

There have also been more serious repercussions, including Australia being left off a new list of 30 countries whose citizens can travel to Indonesia without a visa. A senior Indonesian government minister has also threatened to unleash a “human tsunami” of 10,000 refugees on its southern neighbor if it does not cease its criticism of his country’s policies. This strikes at one of the many contentious areas of relations between the two countries: Australia, which was recently admonished by the United Nations for its treatment of regional asylum seekers, has often sought to transfer the burden to nearby countries, including Indonesia. The two countries have also clashed over issues such as the latter’s support for the ultimately successful independence movement in East Timor, and the regional response to Islamist terrorism. More recently, Indonesia was angered by Australia’s attempts to monitor the communications of former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and other senior figures, as part of its participation in the “Five Eyes” intelligence network with other major English-speaking countries.

In adding to this history, the capital punishment controversy has dashed hopes that Australia and Indonesia might have been able to reset relations following last year’s election of Widodo. This hope stemmed from the fact that the new leader, who grew up poor and managed a furniture-making business before entering politics, represented a break from the typically military-connected elites who had long dominated Indonesian politics. His supporters in Indonesia, and Australians distrustful of the archipelago’s previous authoritarian leaders, were subsequently disappointed by a series of Widodo’s political missteps, which were mainly concerned with the appointments of corrupt or hardline figures to senior posts such as defense minister and national police chief. The approach of Abbott, which favors maintaining and strengthening links with traditional Australian allies such as the United States and the United Kingdom—going so far as to bestow a knighthood on the latter country’s Prince Philip—over the Asia-embracing direction of predecessors Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, hasn’t helped matters.

The timing of the controversy couldn’t be worse, with Australia and Indonesia otherwise well-positioned to collaborate on responding to the major transformations within their wider region. Both are key allies of the US at a time when that country is attempting to shift its political and military focus to the Asia-Pacific, to counter the rise of China. They also have similar and largely complementary foreign policy intentions, as outlined in Widodo’s election platform, of increasing their global roles through “middle power diplomacy” and expanding engagement with the Indo-Pacific region.

There are likewise significant opportunities for Australia and Indonesia to work together on countering the threat of Islamist terrorism in their own neighborhood and more globally. Since the 2002 Bali bombings—which claimed a disproportionate 88 Australians among a total of 202 victims—Indonesia, as the world’s largest Muslim nation, has proven remarkably resilient to this threat domestically. There has, however, been a noticeable rise in the number of Indonesians allying with foreign jihadist movements, as the recent detention of 32 of its citizens seeking to join the so-called Islamic State can attest. Australia has also seen many of its own population travel in the same direction and remains susceptible to “lone wolf” attacks domestically, as shown by last year’s siege of a Sydney café.

Indonesia has taken far longer than expected to follow through on the executions of Chan, Sukumaran, and the other prisoners on Nusa Kambangan. Nonetheless, Widodo continues to claim public support for his stance and there remains little chance that Australia’s hopes of saving its citizens will be realized. The likely effect of the eventual executions will be a further worsening of relations between the two countries at a time when cooperation should be highest. Still, Australia and Indonesia have managed to overcome their troubled history on many past occasions, as in the cases of regional rebuilding from the 2004 tsunami and working to bring the perpetrators of the Bali bombings to justice. There remains hope that they can also overcome the current impasse, though it will likely be a temporary recovery if more Australian citizens face the Indonesian firing squad at some point in the future.

James Bowen is the Assistant Editor of the Global Observatory.