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“Of course I’m going to try to save my citizens from execution”

31 March 2015

In Indonesia, executions are less about effective policy and more about feelings of nationalism and sovereignty, writes Ross Tapsell in Jakarta


Does a “strong” leader stick with a decision even if it is misguided? Indonesia’s president Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, after his inauguration last October. ahmad syauki/Flickr

Does a “strong” leader stick with a decision even if it is misguided? Indonesia’s president Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, after his inauguration last October. ahmad syauki/Flickr

“Tell your government to stop intervening,” a senior executive of one of Indonesia’s biggest media companies told me in Jakarta earlier this month. It was the day Australians Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan were moved from Bali to the Javanese island of Nusakambangan, the final destination for prisoners on death row. Governments whose nationals were next in the firing line had been pleading with Indonesia to stop the executions, and the most vocal of all was Australia’s.

The media executive’s response – that these pleas from foreign governments are an unwelcome intervention in Indonesian affairs – matches the line pushed by many Indonesian officials and citizens in recent months. Their sensitivity about national sovereignty originates in the hundreds of years of colonial rule Indonesia experienced, first under the Dutch and then briefly under the Japanese, and in memories of the fight for independence against Dutch and British forces after the second world war. In 1958, as major powers pressured the new country to form cold war allegiances, the Sydney Morning Herald’s James Mossman reported the words of one Indonesian official: “We have suffered too much. All we want is to be left alone, but foreign powers use us as pawns in their game.”

Since January I’ve been spending time in Indonesia’s main newsrooms as part of a larger research project, and my visit happened to coincide with another bad moment for Australia–Indonesia relations. Indonesia’s media is largely very free, and since the country’s transition to democracy began in 1998 journalists have been able to comment on and criticise government policies. Yet there were very few newsroom staff critical of the Indonesian government’s new hardline approach to executing drug traffickers. There was also only mild interest in uncovering stories of the individuals due to be executed, including the Indonesian nationals among them. While Australia’s media saw the looming deaths as a major news story, Indonesian media organisations have generally ranked the story well down on their list of priorities, or treated it as a contest between “national sovereignty” and the calls for the executions to be abandoned.

The issue certainly gained traction once foreign countries publicly opposed the punishment. But the big story was the hyper-nationalist posturing on both sides, and especially any incidents that supported the view that this was yet another Australia–Indonesia flashpoint. Tony Abbott’s unnecessary and unhelpful reminder of Australian aid during the 2004 tsunami played a key role in shifting the conversation away from the death penalty and led to a highly defensive response in Indonesia. His comments were considered emotive and unnecessary – a point made to me by everyone from university professors to ojek (motorcycle taxi) drivers who had never finished high school.

Further fuelled by the social media–driven “Coins for Australia” campaign, Indonesia’s media jumped on Abbott’s comments. There was even a collection box at the entrance to the press room in Indonesia’s parliament. Local media reported that a protest outside the Indonesian consulate in Sydney had “terrorised” its occupants, and asked experts whether Indonesians in Australia were safe. Many Indonesians began defining the campaign against the death penalty as “the Australian position,” rather than more accurately attributing it to the United Nations and many other countries around the world.

While some reports provided information about the individuals on death row, there was little investigation of the effectiveness of the death penalty. The dubious but much-quoted figure of fifty Indonesian drug-related deaths each day (later reduced to thirty-three) was largely unscrutinised. When I asked one television reporter why there was not more discussion about the death penalty policy in the news, she responded, “We are just waiting to see whether Jokowi can really commit to what he said [executing the people on death row].” As Jokowi – as president Joko Widodo is popularly called – knows all too well, a leader who changes his mind about a previously declared policy is considered “weak” (and it is usually his, highlighting the stereotypically masculine content of what is considered “strong leadership”). In the eyes of many, a “strong” leader follows through with his decisions even if they are misguided. Should Jokowi halt the executions, much of the Indonesian media will report: “President backs down due to pressure from other countries.”

But not all Indonesian media outlets would take this line. Executives from Indonesia’s most widely circulated newspaper, Kompas, have been lobbying the government to hold off on the second round of executions. “It’s not related to sovereignty, it’s about humanity,” Kompas chief editor Rikard Bagun told me. The widely respected writer Goenawan Mohamad told Jokowi during a private meeting that he is against the death penalty. In 1946, when Goenawan was only six years old, his father was taken from his home by the Dutch and shot as a suspected member of the guerilla movement. “It leaves a trauma that only those who have had that experience know,” says Goenawan. “You are edgy, particularly about guns, blood and violence.”

Rikard Bagun and many others have little faith in the Indonesian legal system. “If we execute we cannot correct errors,” he says. “We are trying to oppose this [the death penalty]. We give a space for criticism, but we don’t want to exploit the victims.” Goenawan says it is understandable that many news organisations don’t cover the issue at any great length, and that many Indonesians don’t oppose the death penalty. “We see so many deaths in our lives,” he says. “Disease. Famine. Natural disasters. Terrorism. Even death by traffic accidents is very common here. Death is nothing unusual here, nor is violence. When the police shoot a terrorist suspect without a trial there is usually applauding, even in the media. In contrast, Australia is less exposed to death.”

A select few Indonesian scholars, journalists and activists advance other reasons for Indonesia to rethink the policy of the death penalty. Shouldn’t those who have reformed while on death row be granted clemency? Is there really a drug “emergency”? Even if there is, does executing mules solve the problem? All deserve more weight in the mainstream media in Indonesia. But media coverage, particularly content encouraging interaction via social media, is often based on what will raise emotions. And national pride is at heart, irrational: as George Bernard Shaw once said, it is fundamentally “a conviction that a particular country is the best in the world because you were born in it.”

In the Australian media, the story largely revolved around the circumstances of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran – their lives in the prison system, their stories of reform and what they and their families were going through. Few Australians would have been left unsure about the transformation these two individuals had undergone. (One documentary was entitled “The Painter and the Pastor.”) In Indonesia, meanwhile, Chan and Sukumaran were often described as “kingpins,” “masterminds” and “ringleaders.”

In the contemporary news media, events are subject to instantaneous, rolling coverage, and Australians have certainly been avid viewers and readers of the unfolding courtroom dramas of Schapelle Corby, Michelle Leslie and the Bali Nine. If news is supposed to be the “what, why, where, when and how,” the salient feature of the rolling coverage of Chan and Sukumaran has been the “when.” When are they on the list for executions? When would they be transferred from Bali? When would they be given seventy-two hours’ notice? When are they likely to be shot? Others on death row in Indonesia, particularly the African nationals, have not had their story told. Was this another form of nationalist posturing through the media, with only Australian lives seen to matter?

In the eyes of many Indonesians, yes. “You have your hypocrisy,” Goenawan says. “When the Bali bombers were on death row many Australian people wanted them to be executed.” But the views of other non-Australian journalists varied. While many commented that the Australian media was reporting only on Chan and Sukumaran, they also pointed out that the Australian journalists’ job is “to report what’s valuable to your local audience, and you can’t fault them for that.” While the Australian coverage of the death penalty may have assisted in turning the story into a bilateral relations rift, it also seems to have encouraged more coverage of the issue in the newsrooms of Indonesia.

While nothing compares precisely to the extremity and finality of state-sanctioned murder, Australian governments have not been above introducing extreme laws to counter what is presented in the media or by politicians as “extreme” problems: terrorism, metadata and bikie laws, for example, or offshore detention camps. Indonesians are not as hyper-sensitive about drugs as Australians are about irregular migration, but many support the death penalty, partly because information about its effectiveness tends to be one-sided. In fact, a fair number of Indonesians see the death penalty, as punishment and deterrent, as a possible solution to rampant corruption.

Australia’s “stop the boats” policy and Indonesia’s executions are similar because they are unilateral, tough-yet-effective answers to a problem (asylum seeker deaths at sea, or deaths caused by drugs), even if they ignore larger, longer-term regional and humanitarian issues and are criticised by the United Nations and neighbouring countries. In “stopping the boats” or executing drug mules, politicians tap into nationalist rhetoric and fears about a loss of “sovereignty.” The Australian government made this abundantly clear by naming the policy Operation Sovereign Borders. Abbott’s recent declaration that Australians “are sick of being lectured to by the UN” echoed exactly how many Indonesian politicians feel about foreign “interventions” regarding the death penalty. It would not have been surprising to hear Indonesian officials, adapting former prime minister John Howard’s infamous line, declaring, “We will decide who is executed in this country, and the circumstances in which this is done.”

That Indonesia has prioritised the execution of foreigners (fourteen among the sixteen prisoners already executed or due to be executed) while lobbying for its own citizens on death row in other countries shows just how nationalistic this policy has become. In an interview with Al Jazeera, Jokowi said he didn’t see the two parts of the policy as contradictory: “As a head of state, of course I’m going to try to save my citizens from execution. What kind of system have we invented, where national leaders (not only Indonesia) feel it perfectly natural to execute citizens in their country while trying to save their own nationals from a similar fate overseas?

The hardline approach to executions is a victory for nationalist chest-beating over human compassion. The proposed executions will understandably leave many disappointed with the Indonesian government, and unlikely to seek out information about the country’s culture and politics. In Australia in particular, surveys show a poor understanding of Indonesia and its democracy. Former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was right when he told the Australian parliament in 2010, “There are Australians who still see Indonesia as an authoritarian country or a military dictatorship or as a hotbed of Islamic extremism, or even as an expansionist power.” The disagreement over the death penalty will reinforce the stereotypes.

Indonesia’s military-style transfer of Chan and Sukumaran to Nusakambangan made a bad situation worse. When the Indonesian police chief was revealed to have taken a photo of Chan with a planeload full of commandos, it didn’t take long for racism and bigotry in Australia to spread online and via social media. In the short term at least, while Australians are unlikely to “boycott” cheap holidays to Bali, it will certainly be harder to convince parents in Australia that their children should learn Indonesian or convince principals that their school should undertake a study tour of Indonesia. The stereotypes will persist.

Jokowi’s victory last year was reported by many as a dramatic vanquishing of former general Prabowo Subianto, who had used his campaign speeches to whip up the crowd with ultra-nationalist lines such as “Indonesia cannot be bought!” and “Beware all you foreign stooges!” Jokowi’s campaign was supported by Indonesian human rights activists, idealistic young volunteers and hip musical groups. In these early days of his presidency, he’s already losing supporters domestically, largely because of his inability to pull the police force into line in its battle with the anti-corruption commission. In just a few short months, many of the same human rights activists, musicians and volunteers have jumped ship.

In his political career to date, Jokowi seemed to represent what foreigners who have spent time in Indonesia recognise as its most endearing traits – openness, warmth, humour, humility and placidity. These traits could have opened a window for outsiders into these aspects of Indonesian culture and society. But as Jakarta Post editor Endy Bayuni writes:

Gone is the humble, all-ears and soft-spoken Javanese man who captured the imagination of voters at last year’s elections. In his place, we have a president who is projecting a tough and uncompromising image, and one that has little or no compassion so that he readily signs the death warrants of dozens of people on death row, without looking at their individual cases.

Should the executions go ahead, the death penalty will create negative headlines about Indonesia, overshadowing the vibrancy and warmth that the country offers Australians and others around the world. Disappointingly, judging by comments reported in the media, many Indonesian government officials seem to prefer insularity. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s foreign policy of “1000 friends, 0 enemies” seems a distant memory. Once again, it will be left to Indonesia’s civil society to represent optimism and change in this magnificent, diverse and resilient archipelago. Otherwise, Mossman’s official will just get his wish, and Indonesia will be increasingly “left alone.” •

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