What’s really fuelling Australian outrage

Many Australians view Indonesia as a potentially hostile country.

A single flower and quote attributed to Nelson Mandela is tied to the front fence of Indonesia''s Consulate in Sydney, Australia [REUTERS]
A flower and quote attributed to Nelson Mandela is tied to the front fence of Indonesia's consulate in Sydney, Australia [Reuters]

Indonesia’s execution of two Australians triggered an outpouring of patriotic sentiment but it was the diplomatic reaction that followed, that has revealed a much uglier conflict between the two nations.

Australia waged a protracted diplomatic battle to save the two Australians, but the campaign failed and there is a sense that a punishment now needs to be imposed. As an immediate reaction, it was announced that Australia’s ambassador to Indonesia would be recalled, a move without precedent in a death penalty case involving drug trafficking and a step that seemed unlikely even weeks earlier.

In previous weeks, polling has shown that the majority of Australians were opposed to the executions and, in recent days, this concern has been amplified by the imminent deaths of the two young men.

Australia urges Indonesia to save its citizens on death row

Social media exploded with pleas for mercy and the calls to candlelit vigils. Adding to the perceived insult, the 72-hour death notice was issued on ANZAC Day, Australia’s most sacred national holiday, a point not missed by the media or by Australians at large.

Hostile country

Australia and Indonesia rarely see eye to eye. Many Australians view Indonesia as a potentially hostile country that harbours the threat of “Islamic terror”, a country from where unwanted migrants set sail to Australia while Jakarta shows scant regard for Australia’s sovereignty.

Indonesia, for their part, distrusts Australia’s need, as a developed country, to lecture their fast-developing neighbour on a range issues, including law and order. They fail to understand why they are made responsible for Australia’s migrant problem, a situation that they see as a larger international issue and not of their making. Australia’s admission that they had breached Indonesian territorial waters several times to deter migrant boats, further strained relations between the two countries.  

Recent revelations that Australia tried to spy on senior Indonesian politicians including then President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, his wife and senior aides caused further anger and resentment in Indonesia. As for the current president of Indonesia, Joko Widodo, he remains caught in the perilous position of declining popularity and the need to pander to his own political reality in a country where the death penalty, as a punishment for local and foreign drug traffickers, is a generally popular policy.

Indonesians … distrust Australia’s need, as a developed country, to lecture its fast-developing neighbour on a range of issues, including law and order.


But Australia will respond. In recent days, the prime minister, Tony Abbott, and Julie Bishop, the Australian foreign minister, have refused to be drawn on the details. But at any given time, there are limited tools in the diplomatic arsenal. Add to this the hostile relationship of two co-dependent neighbours, and those tools need to be dulled and not sharpened, as the potential for escalation is high.

Diplomatic chess

Australia will recall its ambassador for an unspecified amount of time, but this is likely to be weeks and not months. Meanwhile, the Australian embassy in Jakarta will continue to operate as normal. This is not a move that Australia has taken lightly.

Australia did not withdraw its ambassador to Malaysia in 1986 or 1993 when Australians were executed nor did they withdraw their high commissioner to Singapore when Van Tuong Nguyen was killed in 2005.

In the world of diplomatic chess, where every word or action is scrutinised for implied meaning, Indonesia will expect a certain level of reaction from Australia.

In the aftermath of the executions, cooperation between the two countries on a range of issues will be strained for some time. Ministerial cooperation is likely to be frozen and a myriad of regional meetings in the area of law, defence and education are also likely to stall. What Australia must avoid is the provocation of a counter-reaction from Indonesia.

Australian diplomats must be aware that there are many more battles ahead and each individual case will now expect the same high-level diplomatic ministering. There are many more Australians in Southeast Asia facing drug charges, many in countries that have the death penalty. And it is here that the larger problem lies.

Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia all have the death penalty for drug trafficking, More than 900 Malaysians are currently on death row, many for drug trafficking. While nobody expects Australia to advocate for every prisoner on death row, their protest will increasingly ring hollow without a broader appeal to the abolition of capital punishment in the region. 

People hold candles to pray for death-row prisoners in Cilacap, Indonesia [AP]
People hold candles to pray for death-row prisoners in Cilacap, Indonesia [AP]

Troubled history

Alongside this is the stark reality that this region has a long and troubled history with drugs. Both the heroin trafficking region emanating from the Golden Triangle and the ever-increasing prevalence of synthetic methamphetamine means that the narcotics trade is an ever-increasing problem and the political Achilles heel of many Southeast Asian political leaders.

Australia’s diplomatic response should seek to reinvigorate the debate over the death penalty in Southeast Asia and, as such, focus on moral opposition to capital punishment. Indonesia could be part of the solution rather than the heart of the problem.

Lobbying Indonesia to reimpose a moratorium on executions would likely see many other countries in the region follow suit. This should be the legacy of the needless deaths of Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan rather than the further dissolution of the already difficult Australia-Indonesia relationship.

Anneliese Mcauliffe is a journalist who has worked across Asia and the Middle East for the past two decades for the BBC, Al Jazeera, ABC and the Associated Press. She has worked extensively in both Indonesia and Australia.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.