Back together – but no mention of the Bali 9?

  • 02/19/2019

It was, of course, only a matter of time.


Truth be told, the parlous relationship between Jakarta and Canberra probably healed long before Foreign Minister Julie Bishop met in Kuala Lumpur with her Indonesian counterpart, Retno Marsudi, after which the two women gave every indication publicly that all is forgiven.

But perhaps the revitalised relationship can be used this time around to achieve some good – abolishing the death penalty in Indonesia, for starters. 

It’s hard to argue that Canberra and Jakarta being good friends is not a good thing, for trade and general co-operation. But both countries have had a lot to grumble about in recent years.   

Jakarta was miffed that in 2009 the Australian Signals Directorate had bugged the telephones of the Indonesian leadership, including the President himself and his wife. That probably caused Jakarta more upset than the Abbott government’s commitment to turn back boats bearing asylum seekers making their way from Indonesian ports to Australia: a policy that is all upside for Canberra and all downside for Jakarta.

As Jakarta suspended co-operation on people smuggling, as well as military and intelligence co-operation, it looked like a very low point had been hit. 

But Indonesia’s decision to execute two seemingly reformed Australian drug smugglers – Andrew Chan, a Christian pastor and the artist Myuran Sukumaran – earlier this year, lowered the bar even more and left both nations feeling embittered.

The Indonesians felt affronted when Prime Minister Abbott suggested Indonesia should let the men live because it owed Australia a favour, given how much we’d contributed to its post-tsunami recovery.

Australia felt affronted Indonesia ignored the deep feeling here that Sukumaran and Chan’s reformation could have been acknowledged and the men granted a reprieve.

When at midnight on April 29th, they were taken out in to a field on Nusakambangan Island and shot alongside other felons, its not gilding the lily to say Australia’s heart broke. Canberra responded by temporarily withdrawing our Ambassador from Jakarta. 

No politician fought harder to keep the two alive than Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.  There were written representations and direct pleas. There was even an offer made to swap Indonesian nationals jailed in Australia for Sukumaran and Chan. All of it fell on deaf ears. 

Just before the executions went ahead, the Foreign Minister said that she’d spoken with two European foreign ministers with citizens who had either been executed by Indonesia or were on death row, and they’d agreed the issue of the death penalty was a priority. It was doing little to nothing to curb drug trafficking in and out of Asia. All were committed to stopping Indonesia’s use of the death penalty and perhaps none more so than Australia, Indonesia’s closest western neighbour. At least it has some leverage.

As Julie Bishop told the parliament on February 12th this year: 

“Australia and Indonesia work in partnership to address drug-related crime at all levels. No country has done as much as Australia to support Indonesia in this area. Not only is there co-operation between our police and law enforcement authorities, but Australia also supports drug rehabilitation and harm reduction programs in Indonesia. These programs have saved Indonesian lives,” she said. 

Now, with relations soothed after the executions, there is an opportunity for the Australian government to take its commitment to help Indonesia fight its drug problem a step further. It would be a double whammy win because it would prove the Abbott government is committed to the global abolition of a barbaric practice. 

As Dr Andrew Carr of the Strategic and Defence Studies Unit at ANU has argued, Australia has a long history of being able to influence the policies of our Asian neighbours. All it has ever needed is an argument, a platform and a strategy. Julie Bishop now has two out of three.

There is to date no evidence to support the oft cited claim that the death penalty acts as a deterrence to drug smuggling. Amnesty International examined 26 countries where the death penalty applies for drug crimes and found that in those which have actually carried out executions, it is not aware of any evidence of a “decline in trafficking which could be clearly attributed to the threat or use of the death penalty.”

There is no evidence it works in Iran or China or Malaysia, the most enthusiastic users of execution for drug crimes.

Armed with that kind of empirical evidence, perhaps Jakarta will be open to a little quiet whispering, out of the spotlight of imminent executions, from the Foreign minister of a valued neighbour about how best to tackle the drug problem and enhance your international reputation.

Julie Bishop too has the chance to show how well developed her diplomatic muscle is. She has a good argument to put and with relations now mended, a platform in which to put them. 

Now for a strategy.

Monica Attard is a Sydney based freelance journalist and former ABC foreign correspondent and senior broadcaster.  


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