Australian-Indonesian Relations After The Execution Of Chan And Sukumaran

At 12.35 am local time (3:25 am Australian Eastern Standard Time) on Wednesday 29 May, Australians Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran were executed by an Indonesian firing squad on Nusakambangan Island, along with six other death row inmates.

The pair had been convicted in 2005 of being the ringleaders of the “Bali 9” plot to smuggle heroin out of Indonesia.

In the months leading up to their execution, their plight saw one of Australia’s most concerted diplomatic campaign in recent memory to save Chan and Sukumuran from the gallows. Their situation attracted considerable attention not only from government figures, but also celebrities, media and the general public.

As Australians woke up to the reality that inspite of all of their strenuous efforts, two of their fellow citizens had been executed, after the initial reactions of moral outrage and sadness, thoughts turned to “what now for Australia-Indonesia relations”?

We didn’t have to wait long for the first fallout from the executions to take place: just four hours after the executions, Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop announced the recall of our ambassador to Indonesia, Australia’s first-ever recall over the execution of our citizens abroad.

Many Australians were quick to offer their own suggestions as to how to punish Indonesia over its refusal to grant clemency to Chan and Sukumaran. There have been many calls to boycott travel to Bali, a popular tourist destination for Australians. The Facebook page “Boycott Bali for The Boys” has now attracted close to 15, 000 likes. Whether these calls actually will materialise in a tangible dip in tourist numbers is not at all inevitable however. Qantas and Webjet say travellers show no signs of boycotting tourist destinations in Indonesia like Bali; quite to the contrary, they continue to fly to Bali in record numbers.

In the hours leading up to Chan and Sukumaran’s executions, Geoffrey Robertson QC, prominent human rights barrister, proposed that Australian aid dollars be redirected away from Indonesia. Australia is the second largest donor to Indonesia behind Japan, with the 2014/15 budget estimate putting our aid at $605.3 million. The call to cut aid to Indonesia would likely receive strong support. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is understood to have received over 1000 communications from members of the Australian public calling for aid to be reduced. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has said the government has not ruled out the possibility of cutting Australia’s aid to Indonesia.

There are many other options that the Australian government has already commenced exploring: ministerial visits, which were already suspended because of the executions, will not resume for months – potentially not until the end of this year. Australian and Indonesian government officials have been forging steadily closer ties in recent years, with meetings at many levels, from the annual leaders’ meeting to the regular two-plus-two gatherings of defence and foreign ministers to many routine meetings on issues such as defence, law and education. If the Australian government was so inclined, it could also seek to block Indonesian-backed initiatives at international regional forums.

It is important to note that there are also courses of action that the Australian government are likely not to contemplate: anything that hurts our bilateral trading relationship, or engage in economic sanctions. Australia’s two-way trade with Indonesia was worth $14.9 billion in 2013, making Indonesia our 12th-largest trade partner. With rising Indonesian demand for consumer goods and services, there is considerable potential for Australia to expand its relationship with Indonesia in the future not only in trade, but also investment and economic cooperation.

It is also important to remember that any retaliatory action by Australia is unlikely to take place in a vacuum; already, the social media campaign to “Boycott Bali” has been met with welcome by some Indonesian social media users, pointing to the perception of many Australian tourists as drunk, users of recreational drugs and disrespectful to indigenous citizens.

The Australia-Indonesia relationship is an important one, and while emotions run high on both sides, we must remember to make decisions in a calm and careful manner. Decisions made out of anger or for immediate political expediency can have repercussions for many years. If the Australian government is truly committed to protecting its citizens abroad, then we need to persuade our neighbours that we can have rule of law, effective legal deterrence and protection of victims of crime without having to employ the death penalty. To achieve this, we can only persuade our neighbours as friends, not antagonists.