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Fall-out from execution of Chan and Sukumaran

The execution of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran has had a riveting, almost cathartic, effect on many Australians, including its political leaders. The overwhelming response has been one of rejection, sadness and, in some cases, anger.
Given that Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said last year that this issue would not be allowed to affect the bilateral relationship, it now clearly has. In part this is because Australia’s appeals have, in effect, been snubbed but, like Indonesia, because this is a domestic political issue for both countries as much as – or more than – a diplomatic one.
Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo came to office last year with a promise to run a tough policy on drugs, given that drug use and related crime has become an increasing problem for Indonesia. In part, too, Widodo is an Indonesian nationalist, and a member of Indonesia’s most nationalist party, the Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P), headed by former President Megawati Sukarnoputri.
Yet Widodo has been traveling poorly as president, being seen as unable to run his own agenda and being belittled at a recent PDI-P congress by Megawati as merely an extension of the party’s political will. Widodo has also faced hostility from Indonesia’s legislature, the DPR, among which are many whose self-professed nationalist far exceed those of Widodo or even Megawati.
Added to this complex political environment, Australia has long been seen by many such Indonesian nationalists as its favourite country to dislike, or at least to which take quick exception. This has reflected a long history of often troubled bilateral relations.
So, Widodo, under domestic pressure to stick to his own policy platform, from his party boss and facing pressure bordering on hostility from the legislature with which he has to work, could not back down. Such a back-down would have been exceptionally difficult. Backing down to Australia would have been political suicide.
For Australians, too, domestic issues are at play. The execution of Chan and Sukumaran has highlighted the negative differences between Australia and Indonesia and for some, perhaps many, Australians this event has reconfirmed Indonesia as a country to be distrusted, perhaps disliked.
The Australian government’s response has at least in part acknowledged this public sentiment. For a government not been doing well in the polls, it probably felt it had little choice but to step up both the rhetoric and, eventually, the action. At least being seen to try to do something to save the lives of two Australians means it cannot be said to have abandoned them, even if it knew privately all along that such appeals were very unlikely to succeed.
Australia’s withdrawal of its ambassador, Paul Grigson, is unprecedented for Australia but is consistent with actions taken by other countries that have had their nationals executed by Indonesia for drug offences. That there will also a break in ministerial visits logically follows this cooling of diplomatic relations.
At a political level, this was probably the least that Australia could do by way of expressing its disapproval. At another level, however, that is also the most it is likely to do. Diplomatic relations will not be broken off and trade, defence training and aid are likely to continue more or less uninterrupted.
Australia’s embassy will continue to function and bureaucratic links between the two countries will continue, if more subdued for some time. At some point, a procedural matter will be escalated up to ministerial level and contact will inevitably resume. Indonesia is too important to Australia – and Australia holds some importance for Indonesia – for this diplomatic gesture to be either indefinite or to be escalated.
It has been noted, over decades, that Australia and Indonesia are two very different countries as neighbors. Since Indonesia’s move towards democratisation, a number of politicians have highlighted the growing similarities, by way of trying to shift somewhat negative public perception.
But the judicial systems of the two countries are very different and not well understood by each other, notions of national identity are often in stark contrast – one being more voluntary and the other being, in some cases, more compelled – and perceptions about the use of violence and human rights concerns remain.
Australia and Indonesia will continue to face challenges as near neighbors. But how both countries learn to better understand each other, how they can better cooperate and where they can maintain a respectful distance over points of disagreement will remain a work in progress. It is a work that the governments of both countries need to commit to.
In the interim, if Australia is genuinely as opposed to the death penalty, as a matter of principle, as it claims to be, perhaps it might join with other like-minded countries to initiative a global covenant to end this practice, not just in Indonesia but also among friends such as the US.