Friday, 6 March 2015

The Bali two: politics, not culture, divides us



by Professor Jeff Lewis  and Dr Belinda Lewis

There are many public officials and citizens in Indonesia who support the capital punishment of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. Most commonly, this support reflects doubts about the character of the two convicted drug smugglers, as well as deeper anxious about law and the contamination of Indonesian culture and sovereign integrity.

We first met Chan and Sukumaran in 2005 while conducting research into the role of terrorist organisations in the South East Asian narcotics trade. The trail of these studies led us to Bali and Kerobokan Prison. At the time of the Bali Nine’s arrest and incarceration, we were conducting interviews with wardens, inmates and their families.

Far from a clutch of hardened criminals, the Bali Nine appeared blundering and bewildered. Even Chan and Sukumaran , the nominal ring-leaders, were foppish. They were more like tragic fools than the gangster fantasies which had nettled them into a dark world they had barely penetrated let alone understood.

Of course many Indonesians—and Australians for that matter—reject the idea that the narcotics trade is better treated as a matter of social health and personal vulnerability, rather than criminal disposition. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, they believe in the inherent value of draconian legalism and punishment as the answer to the rising problem of drug use, particularly among youth.

And while we have personally witnessed the recovery and redemption of Chan and Sukumaran during our work in Kerobokan over the past 10 years, many people remain convinced that their punishment fits the crime. They believe that a merciless and rational state represents the most powerful bulwark and deterrent to drugs-related crime.

The argument, which is being made in the face of increasing pleas and protests from Australia, is that law is sacrosanct and that Australia needs to respect the sovereignty and cultural integrity of Indonesia.

And yet these laws are themselves an effect of complex and often inconsistent political and legal processes. In fact, the harsh penalties for drug crimes were introduced by former dictator Suharto in the early 1990s, largely as a means of appeasing religious conservatives and shoring up his own presidency.

The current president, Joko Widodo, remains captive to the same forces and political intrigue. Widodo’s resistance to clemency is as much a symptom of these precarious political conditions, as they reflect the new president’s inexperience in international relations.

Moreover, and as most visitors to Indonesia appreciate, law enforcement, the judiciary and rule-of-law more generally are being exercised through uneven and sometimes corrupt processes. While Indonesian democracy is making enormous strides forward, it remains uneven and far from universally rational or just.

To some extent, members of the Bali Nine are victims of this uneven delivery of justice, a point being made through the final appeals of Sukumaran and Chan’s legal team.

In this context, there can be no justification for the execution of the two Bali Nine inmates on the basis of cultural integrity or difference.

Indonesia is a complex and extremely diverse cultural assemblage in which the majority of citizens continue to struggle for economic survival and development. It is, in fact, primarily the wealthier middle classes and political élite who are genuinely engaged in the fate of these two young Australians.

And in this class of people, there are increasing numbers who oppose the death penalty and who recognise that drugs are indeed a matter of social health and management. These modern, liberal thinkers are themselves engaged in a political struggle against the religious conservatives, who are so deeply suspicious of western modernism, its pleasures and fallibilities.

Thus, the more belligerent pleas and exhortations of the Australian government are not only fatuous, they are actually counter-productive. No-one likes a nosey neighbour, particularly one that has unilaterally pursued antagonistic policies like ‘turn-back-the-boats’—policies which convert a common problem into Indonesia’s problem.

As much as Chan and Sukumaran were nettled into the international drugs trade, they have now also been tragically ensnared into these complex political issues. They do not deserve this fate. And we would add our plea to the many voices who are calling for clemency. We call on friendship and a common humanity, on the kindness and warmth we have personally experienced in our many years of living and working in Indonesia. We now call on that love and beg for mercy.

Professor Jeff Lewis is co-director of Human Security and Disasters Research Program at RMIT University. Dr Belinda Lewis is a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Health at
Monash University.



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