The execution of Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan is now confirmed for as early as tonight, and with this announcement will come the greatest test for Indonesia-Australia relations since the East Timor crisis in 1999.
The execution of the Bali Nine duo will come at a time when a relatively new government in Indonesia is facing an enormous backlash from around-the-world, including Australia, over its decision to proceed with the execution those who traffic drugs.
Following the executions, there is the likelihood that Australia will recall our recently appointed ambassador to Indonesia, Paul Grigson, and there will be calls for Australia to impose trade and tourism sanctions, withdraw aid-funding and government-to-government co-operation.
The announcement of the intent to kill these two men has resulted in the cancelation of the visit to Perth today by Indonesia’s former, and respected president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) to address the In-the-Zone conference at UWA this week. The announcement was also made on Anzac Day; Australia's most sacred day.
Australia’s reaction to the deaths of these two men will need to be considered very carefully however, in the current volatile environment. Our PM can no longer simply pick-up the phone and talk to ‘Australia’s friend’ SBY as president, and whilst our foreign minister Julie Bishop can still text her former counter-part, Dr Marty Natalegawa, the new foreign minister, Retno Marsudi is reluctant to take any calls.
Mr Abbott and Ms Bishop will also be aware that currently, Indonesian democracy and stability under president Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo’s seven month-old administration is in a very fragile condition as they show all the signs of inexperience, naivety and considerable dysfunction. Add to this a wave of nationalism engulfing our northern neighbour and we have a ‘perfect storm’ for the bi-lateral relationship.
In attacking Indonesia for what is being seen by many Australians as a barbaric act, we need to remember that as a young nation we embraced capital punishment for 84 years, until we finally removed the death sentence from the statute in 1985. It took generations and years of community debate to demonstrate to the Australian people that a ‘civil society’ should not legally kill anyone. Indonesia is only 67 years old as an independent nation, and democracy – where the people and civil society campaigners can speak openly about the need for social change – is only in its 17th year.
In Australia, we now embrace the notion that smoking, for example, is terrible and we have laws and community support to ensure our population avoids this lethal drug. In Indonesia young people are subjected to vast tobacco advertising and availability, and community attitudes are still divided as to whether smoking is dangerous; even though over 400,000 Indonesians die each year from lung cancer.
Indonesia is learning that to significantly reduce the number of people who smoke, needs community support and understanding, and from the Australian experience, it will take several generations to get the total community awareness to allow for that change. Capital punishment is no different.
For the past ten years there has been an ongoing debate amongst civil society advocates within Indonesia about the need to stop the legalised killing of people for serious crimes. But it needs an extensive community and national discussion and awareness campaign. It will happen, but they need more than 17 years.
Meanwhile, the entire handling of the planned execution of Sukumaran and Chan by Indonesian officials has been a debacle and is quite rightly being seen internationally as cruel and insensitive. Australia has every right to express its disappointment and objection given that Indonesia will proceed with these executions as early as this week.
As this terrible story unfolds, the question needs to be asked: How bad can things get between our two countries? Sadly, there is the very real potential for things to get a lot worse as even the Indonesian president himself faces a threat to his political survival, whilst the ‘spill-over’ affect of domestic instability within Indonesia will leave Australian diplomats very worried indeed.
The implications of what is now playing out are significant. Only last month the highly respect defence expert, Professor Alan Dupont, urged Australia and Indonesia to ‘foster closer strategic partnerships in defence’. As we witness the rise-and-rise of China in the region and the US response to that expansion, Professor Dupont is right to highlight the critical joint role for Indonesia and Australia in keeping our region secure, but how do we achieve that objective when our two leaders don’t even talk to each other?
People smuggling, anti-terrorism, business and trade opportunities are further reasons that demand close relations between Indonesia and Australia.
Therefore, here in Australia, a far more measured response to the execution of Chan and Sukumaran is critical to avoid ‘feeding’ the now very strong nationalistic furore engulfing our northern neighbour amidst chaotic events domestically over a wide range of issues including the appointment of the national chief-of-police and the attack on the Anti-Corruption Commission.
President Widodo can still turn his political fortunes around; but it won’t be easy, as no one is really sure where the turmoil engulfing his new administration will lead, but what we do know is that as the executions of these two Australians take place, we must tread with great care.
So as these two men die, so will a part of Indonesia's humanity, but for now much is at stake; and much more than just our precious Bali holidays.